Close to St. Helena, but off the beaten path on the side of Howell Mountain, you can find the quintessential Napa Valley winery experience at Burgess Cellars. This family-owned gem offers generous hospitality, exceptional and highly-rated wines, and sweeping views that span from the city of Napa all the way up to Calistoga.
Always enamored by the beauty of Napa Valley, pilot Tom Burgess came to the region in the 1970s to explore the vineyards for sale. He selected the most interesting of the six available: a hillside vineyard on Howell Mountain planted in the 1880s by Swiss-Italian immigrants. In 1972, this purchase was far ahead of the curve of development in the Napa Valley; at the time there were only 20 other wineries and California had not yet gained its acceptance onto the world stage for wine. Tom didn’t come to Napa Valley because it was famous, he was one of the pioneers who made it famous.
This history is still lauded by the winery, and Tom’s son Steven Burgess now holds the reins. From the pen and ink label depicting the vineyard in 1972 to the winery’s logo being a copy of Tom’s father’s signature, you can find family dedication in all aspects of the winery. They continue the tradition of only making wines from hillside fruit from the original 1880 Estate Vineyard and their Haymaker Vineyard on the Eastern side of Howell Mountain, as well as a chardonnay from the second-generation, family-owned Burnside Road Vineyard in Sonoma County (also located on a hillside, naturally). The 1880 Estate Vineyard is planted with cabernet, cabernet franc, and zinfandel — a recent addition harkening back to the vineyard’s original plantings — while the Haymaker vineyard boasts cabernet, syrah, petite sirah, petit verdot, and malbec.
The dedication to hillside fruit isn’t just to pay homage to Burgess Cellars’ history, but to also showcase the unique terroir of Howell Mountain — an area that looms above the fog line with many unique microclimates that contribute to cooler days and warmer evenings instead of the more exaggerated heat spikes common to the valley floor. The result is consistently rich, ripe fruit with bold structure, elegant tannins, and concentrated flavor. Though the appellation sees more rainfall than those on the valley floor, the soil is rocky and drains well, meaning it retains less moisture, resulting in smaller berries and more concentrated flavor. This also affects the barrel selection winemaker Kelly Woods uses on these wines. Because the wine is already so structured from the mountain tannins, she opts instead for mostly neutral barrels, only using 20% new oak barrels to elevate aromas.
Kelly started at Burgess Cellars with the 2013 vintage, bringing her expertise in both vineyard and winemaking processes. She sees herself as a steward of the land and the wines, allowing the terroir and vineyard to shine instead of manipulating the winemaking. She makes decisions of when to pick the fruit row by row instead of large blocks at a time and keeps every lot separate until the wine is ready to be blended for bottling. This allows Kelly to fine-tune the process, understanding that every vine develops and expresses itself differently. The goal is to make the wine in the vineyard, meaning every decision in the vineyard is made to protect the integrity of the final wine. This also leads to incredibly age-worthy wines, as evidenced by their extensive library collection.
The winery holds back a few hundred cases of wine each vintage for its library, not to be released until at least 10 years have passed. If you have a special date you’re looking for, the winery has mostly everything from 1980 to their current release available for purchase. If you are wanting to try the current 10-year library wine and current release Reserve Cabernet (the 2009 and 2013, respectively, at the time of this writing), treat yourself to the by-appointment-only Mountainside Tasting experience, a semi-private, seated 90-minute wine exploration. During this tasting, you’ll learn about the history of Burgess Cellars and Howell Mountain and discuss the nuances of the winemaking, all while taking in the panoramic vista to better understand what makes mountainside wines so special.
You’ll start your tasting with a sip of rosé from the view deck, allowing for an opportunity to savor the views before heading to the cellar for the 2016 Chardonnay. From the mountainside tasting room, you’ll enjoy the current release small production and reserve wines, such as their richly complex Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon — a quintessential expression of the Howell Mountain appellation — or the elegant Estate Mountaineer Blend, a reserve that is made looking at the vineyards as a whole. Completing the tasting is a sample of the 2009 library wine, the perfect way to experience the evolution of wine. As you contemplate the nuances of your perfectly-aged glass, take a moment to enjoy the sweeping views. The room is set right into the vineyard and has a magical view of the Napa Valley from north to south, providing amazing context of the geography of the region and the unique position of Burgess Cellars.
Burgess Cellars’ library program is not only a fun new way to discover wine, it’s a true rarity in the Napa Valley. Each wine tells a different chapter in the history of Napa Valley, so if there’s a particular vintage not included in the tasting that piques your interest, you can purchase a bottle to explore as part of the tasting. Just because the wine is bottled doesn’t mean its evolution and development is complete, which gives you reason to revisit these library wines time and time again and always find something new to enjoy.
To experience the classic barrel room at Burgess Cellars, be sure to make a reservation for the 60-minute Tasting in the Cellar. This tasting allows you to enjoy Burgess Cellars’ wines in the active barrel cellar surrounded by their display of vintage bottles and a museum wall that shows the history of Burgess Cellars and the Howell Mountain vineyards. During the tasting, your host will guide you through the history of the winery and innovations in winemaking. You’ll listen and sip on a selection of delightful wines, such as their Rosé of Syrah from the Haymaker Vineyard and current release Hillside Cabernet Sauvignon, a blend of grapes from the 1880 Estate Vineyard and Haymaker that perfectly encapsulates what makes this mountain appellation so special. Single vineyard bottlings are often included in this tasting, made only when Kelly feels the wine deserves to be on its own stage.
No matter which tasting experience you reserve, the team at Burgess Cellars is sure to make you feel welcome to their mountainside oasis. The views cannot be beat and the wines showcase the mountain distinction of this Howell Mountain gem. Tom Burgess was often quoted as saying, “better lucky than good,” and while he may have been lucky to find this jewel on Howell Mountain, everything about Burgess Cellars — from the people to the views, and of course, the wine — is not just good, it’s exceptional.
1108 Deer Park Road, Deer Park, CA 94576, (707) 963-4766
Images Courtesy of Burgess Cellars