I have a confession to make. After an uncountable amount of visits to Napa, I have actually found a piece of it that (gasp) doesn’t suck!
Sorry Napa folks! Sonoma/Napa rivalry aside, I’ve been hard pressed to find many things on that side of the mountain that stops me in my tracks. In all honesty, I’m not the type of person to talk badly about another place, but I simply like the Sonoma side better. Basically, Napa has a reputation for being, well… I guess that they… eh, I won’t get into it, lets just say that they kind of live up to their reputation. For some perspective, I’ve eaten at restaurants that charge $24 for 8 bites of food, and tasted $200 bottles of wine that are on par with $35 bottles. I’ve walked through tasting rooms that feel like gift shops and parked in front of hospitality centers that belong in 13th Century Italy. The last place I thought I’d find “cool” in Napa would be at a winery that produces around 100,000 cases annually.
As part of a last hurrah in Napa before Amber (my girlfriend) moved to Petaluma, we decided to go out for a couple of wine tastings and finish with dinner reservations. Amber had the hook up at Frogs Leap Winery in Rutherford, so we decided to take advantage and get some VIP treatment.
I had a perception of Frogs Leap as just another large, Napa winery with a sliding scale of overpriced, mediocre wines. As it turned out, Frogs Leap is quite possibly the coolest place in Napa — and actually probably one of the coolest places in all of the North Bay.
Let me set the scene for you (and put yourself in the images) to try to get a handle on just how awesome this place is.
We enter the “Vineyard House,” (their hospitality center) and it’s nothing special at first glance; it looks like just another tasting room for a winery that is trying to impress. We check in for our appointment (tastings are by appointment only) and are within minutes by Amber’s friend, Erin. She shows us to a pub-style table and stools, nestled between a windowpane of crepe myrtles on a veranda that overlooks their gardens. Perfectly shaded from the heat of the day, glasses are lined up in front of us, tasting cards and pencils for taking notes; and the most unexpected thing of all, everything is peaceful. I knew immediately that this was no ordinary Napa tasting room with throngs of people whose volume increases with every sip of wine.
The tasting is set up for table service, so each customer gets the individual attention of a staff member in a comfortable, relaxed, un-pressured atmosphere. Despite having Erin as a host and friend, I feel like we still got the same attention and information as every other guest did during their time there.
We sipped our wines and nibbled on a small cheese plate (with homemade nectarine preserves, by the way…OMG) that was complimentary with the tasting and discussed the wines and the winery’s commitments to being green. Just six years ago, Frogs Leap made the decision to become earth friendly and are now 100% solar-powered, LEED certified, and practice dry farming techniques that save nearly 10 million gallons of water each year.
The winery is tucked off the main highways, situated in Rutherford, which is an ideal growing area for Bordeaux-style wines as well as vegetables. The “Rutherford Dust” adds a definable style and character to the grapes, but the rich soil allows for an idyllic spot for a garden.
We sat on large rocking chairs just below the porch and looked out into the gardens with bees and birds flying by. And did I mention we played beanbag toss with farm hats on? Cause we did! Where else can you sip on wine and throw a bag of beans toward a hole on an inclined box – WHILE wearing an awesome hat? At Frogs Leap Winery, that’s where!
After I easily beat Amber at beanbag toss, Erin was generous enough to walk us around the estate. The property is simply stunning and so inviting; it makes you feel as if you’re in a friend’s backyard for the afternoon. There are several acres of vegetables and fruits and flowers planted on the estate that flows majestically from one area to the next, with the tasting room and an old red barn at the center of it all. Much of their harvest is sold to local restaurants and caterers in the Napa Valley, embracing the slow food, farm to table, small community ideals.
When winemaker John Williams first came to the Napa Valley in 1975, he began making wine at Stag’s Leap. Then, in 1981, made a batch of wine at the “Frog Farm” with “borrowed” grapes from Stag’s Leap, and the rest is history. Frogs Leap now manages 200 acres of organically grown vineyards throughout Rutherford.
Overall the wines were pretty good. I really enjoyed their rosé, aptly named, La Grenouille Rouganté (correct me if I’m wrong Frenchies, “The Reddening Frog”), a zin/valdiguie blend, which was the perfect pour for the hot day — bright aromas of strawberries and blossoms, with a palate full of cranberry, strawberry, and rhubarb. I generally enjoy most of my wine tasting experiences because of the nice people and the tasty wines, but this place was so much more. Maybe the place itself made me enjoy the wine all the more, but visiting Frogs Leap made me want to start a winery of my own and emulate their style; from the tasting format, to the gardens, to the organic and environmental approach to everything. It’s one thing to have a cool winery, it’s another to give back to the community and the environment and play beanbag toss all at the time same.
The experience at Frogs Leap is the antithesis to what tasting wine in Napa is generally about. I say generally because there are rare occasions when I find un-stuffy wineries in Napa, but Frogs Leap felt more like they belonged in Sonoma County – and I wish they were here, because I would be a repeat visitor (mostly for the beanbag toss and rocking chairs).