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If I have a “house palate” for any winery, it is Elizabeth Spencer in Rutherford.  Seriously, from the Cabernets, to the Grenache and Pinot Noir, I found myself wowed by every sip among their range of 30 remarkably different wines. The winery produces two labels: E x S (a hearts and swords logo) and Elizabeth Spencer.  Beyond the Cabernets, which are wonderful, they also produce a Chenin Blanc from Mendocino, a Grenache from Sonoma Coast and a Pinot Noir also from Sonoma Coast.

Once an old post office, the historic tasting room dates back to 1872.  It is bursting with character, charm and personality, much like the wines.  What you’ll find here is a boutique winery offering an intimate, personalized experience, which, I imagine for some wine lovers will be a welcome retreat away from the bustling tasting rooms of larger wineries outside on Highway 29.  From the tasting room, guests can meander out to the courtyard and cottage, where there is plenty of seating, perfect for a relaxed tasting.

On today’s visit I was lucky enough to meet winemaker Sarah Vandendriessche.  Sarah is a down-to-earth, hands-on winemaker whose responsibilities go well beyond making wine.  In fact, Sarah told me she spends a lot of time talking with growers and walking the vineyards all over the Napa Valley, Sonoma and Mendocino Counties.

“It’s not just winemaking,” Sarah explained as she described her job.  “What we do is built on trust of the people growing the grapes.  I really believe in relationships.”

What I soon learned is that by not owning vineyards, Elizabeth Spencer relies on a network of growers from which they source their premium grapes. This can mean a very different and more diverse role that you’d expect for a winemaker.

Sarah’s background is equally interesting. From working in restaurants, to operating a gardening service, and most interesting – a formal training in “systems biology”, Sarah has done it all.  It turns out all of it has played a role in shaping her skills as a winemaker.  Prior to Elizabeth Spencer, Sarah spent time at White Rock Vineyards, Stagecoach Vineyards and Krupp Brothers Estates.

Sarah, together with owners Elizabeth Pressler and Spencer Graham, want Elizabeth Spencer to be more than “just a Cabernet house” and have most recently added Grenache and Chenin Blanc to their range. Sarah explained added that their “house style” has no specifics of place, but rather they let the grapes showcase the beauty of a particular vintage.

What I liked about Sarah’s approach is that it is down-to-earth, honest, and she has immense respect for her peers.

“The honor of having the baton passed to me is wonderful,” she said.  “I feel lucky to be here now.  Thirty years ago Napa was a very different place.”

The winery offers five wines for national distribution, the rest you need to pick up direct from the winery.  You’ll be very glad you did.

Expert tips:

  • Consider planning your visit around attending one of their events such as the Rosé Release party or Sauvignon Blanc, Oysters & Paella Party.
  • Time your tasting to stop off at Rutherford Grill across the road for lunch before or after.  Be sure to make a reservation.

WineryCritic Ratings

8/10 Overall visitor experience

9/10 Location

8/10 Architecture and design, landscaping

8/10 Other experiences: a range of tastings

9/10 Friendliness of staff

8/10 Signage & ease of access

9/10 Quality of the wines poured

Appointment required:  No

Address:  1165 Rutherford Road, Rutherford, California, 94573

Tasting fees & experiences:

Tasting hours: 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. daily.

  • $20 per person – Charter Tasting
  • $35 per person – Blind Tasting (11am and 3pm by appointment)
  • $40 per person – Cellar Tasting
  • $50 per person – Cabernet Appellation Tasting (10:30am daily by appointment)
  • $75 per person – Library Appellation Tasting (10:30am daily by appointment)
  • $125 per person – Cottage Lunch with Proprietors (by appointment, 4 guest minimum)

Good for:  Cabernet lovers, French wine lovers, those that have been to Napa before and are looking for something different

Wines produced: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Sirah, Chardonnay, Zinfandel, Riesling, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Rosé of Pinot Noir.

What’s nearby:  Rutherford Grill, Beaulieu Vineyards, Peju, Alpha Omega Winery, Grgich Hills Estate.

District/Appellation: Rutherford, Napa Valley

Contact for appointments:  Visit CellarPass to reserve your tasting or call direct: 707-963-6067

Date of visit: January 22, 2014


Mindy Joyce