A visit to Judd’s Hill Winery, Napa Valley

View from Judd's Hill Winery

Entrance to the tasting room

Todd shows us bottles from their MicroCrush clients

In Judd's Hill's barrel room

Barrels for Judd's Hill's MicroCrush clients

Tail end of the harvest

Ready for the bottle blending

Hard at work

About to bottle my blend

Attaching the all important warning label

My Cuvée

I’ve never really thought deeply about percentages but I can tell you they take on a whole new meaning when you have the chance to blend your own wine.  Being a fan of Bordeaux wines, an opportunity to make my own blend was right up my alley.  Last week I visited Judd’s Hill Winery to try out their Bottle Blending Camp.  (As recently seen in the San Francisco Chronicle.)

As I arrived at Judd’s Hill, on the south end of Napa’s Silverado Trail, I knew I was in for something special.  This is a small appointment only winery so you won’t find a flurry of visitors, nor will you find crowds at the tasting room counter – because there isn’t one.

Wine educator, Todd Rickhoff greeted me and took me under his wing, along with another lovely couple for a morning of education, tasting, and hands on activity.  I really felt like our small group had the whole winery to ourselves.

In my mind, red Bordeaux blends top the list, so on this day I felt like a kid in a candy store.  On the table sat four bottles; two Cabernets, a Merlot and Cabernet Franc, all 2011 barrel samples freshly pulled from the cellar.  Along with the bottles, our table looked more like a science experiment to be, with beakers, large test tubes and all the tools we needed to mix and match our own perfect recipe.  We first tasted each of the wines individually, and all were excellent on their own.

“Get the waiter to bring out the ice bucket for your red wines if they are any warmer than this.”  Todd said as we started our first blend.  He let us touch the cool bottle of Cab.  The proper serving temperature for all wines is 56-58 degrees he stressed.

He also explained that Judd’s Hill does not grow their own grapes.  Instead, they have long-term contracts (normally 5-10 years) with grape growers around Napa and Sonoma.   Contrary to my belief, these are actually high quality grapes as growers want to keep their contracts with the winery. Grapes are constantly monitored by their winemaker to ensure they are picked at the perfect time.

For Judd’s Hill, it all started with Arthur Finkelstein, an architect and painter in LA, who came to Napa to get into the wine industry.  Finkelstein went on to build and design Whitehall Lane Winery in Napa.  After building a successful business at Whitehall, he sold it and built Judd’s Hill Winery on Howell Mountain in 1989 (named after his son Judd).  At the time, Judd was still in school, but ended up leaving a career in the entertainment industry to join his father’s business and the winery moved to its current location, conveniently located on the southern end of the Silverado Trail.

Although Judd’s Hill produces their own wines, much of their business is through their MicroCrush program.   From small beginnings in 1991, the program has evolved organically and today they work with hundreds of clients to custom make blends to individual specifications.  It is on a grander scale of course than we were making on this day, but well worth it for anyone who has always dreamed of making their own premium Napa Valley cuvée, but doesn’t have the expertise, equipment or time to do it themselves.

Todd encouraged us to really smell and taste the wines on their own in order to discover what we liked, and didn’t.  I’ve done this many times before but when you’re really making your own bottles, you pay extra special attention.  The key question for me was, do I want to store these wines or drink them right away?  Cabernet dominant wines tend to age better, but being the every day drinker that I am, I opted for something heavier on the Merlot.

After making three small blends in my beakers I found my favorite and was ready to custom make three bottles.  Even Todd said he enjoyed my blend, but he may say that to everyone.  I was thrilled with my wine and happy to let you know “Château Mindy” is made from 65% Merlot, 30% Cabernet and 5% Cabernet Franc.

Expert winemaker Kenn Vigota was standing at the ready as Todd showed me how to bottle and cork my wine.  Then we were off to get our own personal labels.  “Château Mindy” will be a memory of this great morning for years to come.

Expert tip:

  • If three or six bottles aren’t enough and you want more, just call Judd’s Hill. The winery keeps your personal blending recipe on file for future orders.
  • Through their MicroCrush program, Judd’s Hill can also custom produce your own wine to your specifications.  This includes selection of fruit, winemaking,  bottling and labeling.   For around $4,000, plus fruit and labels, you can produce your own barrel, or 24 cases of your very own wine.  If you want to spring for the best of the best you can have your own Napa Valley Cabernet for about $25 a bottle.

WineryCritic Ratings

8/10 Overall visitor experience

9/10 Knowledge of guide

9/10 Location

7/10 Architecture and design, landscaping

8/10 Other experiences: Bottle Blending Camp

9/10 Knowledge of tasting room staff

9/10 Friendliness of staff

8/10 Signage & ease of access

8/10 Quality of the wines poured

Appointment required:  Yes

Address:  

2332 Silverado Trail, Napa, CA 94558

www.juddshill.com

Tasting room hours: 

  • Monday – Friday: 10am to 4pm by advance appointment
  • Saturdays and Sundays during the summer months: 10am to 5pm

Tasting fees & experiences:

  • $15 per person: Tasting fee
  • $225 Bottle Blending Camp:  Make 3 finished bottles of wine (maximum of 4 participants)
  • $395 Bottle Blending Camp: Make 6 finished bottles (maximum of 6 participants)
  • $775 Bottle Blending Camp: Make 12 finished bottles (maximum of 8 participants)

Good for:  Small groups, Bordeaux wine enthusiasts, premium wine lovers

Wines produced:  Chardonnay, Rosé, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Petit Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Meritage, Roussanne

What’s nearby:  Andretti Winery, Del Dotto Winery, William Hill Winery, Oxbow Market

District/Appellation: Napa Valley

Contact for appointments:  707-255-2332 or online via CellarPass

Date of visit: October 21, 2013

E-mail: mindy@winerycritic.com