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Inside Napa Valley wineries: part I

An Indian winemaker gets the best out of California terroir

At the Nicholson Ranch, the entire process from planting the grapes to bottling the wine is done in-house. Photo: Shoba Narayan.<br />
At the Nicholson Ranch, the entire process from planting the grapes to bottling the wine is done in-house. Photo: Shoba Narayan.

Nicholson Ranch was the last stop on Day 1. By then, Platypus Wine Tours had taken a group of us wine tourists to three Napa Valley wineries in California. Buena Vista, because it was the oldest; Robledo, because it was the first to be owned by a migrant Mexican worker; and Peter Cellars, because it was a one-man show by a transplanted Brit.

Everywhere, we paid the $15 (around 1,020) tasting fee to swirl and sip aromatic Merlots, austere Pinot Noirs, buttery Chardonnays and refreshing Pinot Grigios. Most of these wines never make it to the market—they are sold in-house to tourists like us.

Our tour bus reached Nicholson Ranch around 5pm.

“This winemaker is Indian," said our guide, Andy.

Inside the tasting room, several glasses had been laid out. A cheerful young man talked about the winemaking process. Unlike many Napa wineries that buy grapes or subcontract the winemaking process, Nicholson Ranch is an “estate" wine—the entire process from planting the grapes to bottling the wine is done in-house.

The owner, Deepak Gulrajani, graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, and worked in finance before founding the winery along with his ex-wife, whose family owned the land. The vineyards were planted in 1996. Four years later, he had the wine caves dug. Between 2000-03, he took over the entire process from vine to wine. The undulating hills allowed Gulrajani to create a “gravity-flow" winery, built over multiple levels to take advantage of gravity rather than pumps or equipment to get the grapes from the vines to the wine-crush to the barrels in the caves.

Gulrajani’s wines are terrific and I am not just saying that because he is Indian. We carried a glass of his delicately layered Pinot Noir outside. Situated between the Napa and Sonoma valleys, the estate high up on a hill offered sweeping views. The evening sun ricocheted off the yellow mustard plants that alternated with the chocolate-coloured grapevines that were dormant, awaiting the “bud break" that would start the next wine cycle. Songbirds dipped in and out of the flowers; a gentle breeze caused the yellow mustard to sway; the sun warmed our backs. The Pinot Noir was throwing out scents of berries and spices—la dolce vita.

They say Pinot Noirs are the hardest to grow, but really, it could apply to any varietal. Blame it on Sideways. The movie and its famous monologue about this “haunting" and ancient grape caused Merlot sales to drop after its release. Today in California, Sonoma Valley—closer to the water and cooler as a result—grows cool-climate grapes. Napa Valley, between two mountain ridges, is famous for its Cabernet Sauvignon wines, with alcohol levels getting higher and higher.

Worried that I would be sozzled by day’s end, I did the only thing I could over several days of wine tours. I sipped and spat out the wine in the “dump buckets" that were lined atop the counters. The pleasure of wine is through the nose and the mouth, I rationalized; from the aromas it exudes and the mouth-feel. You don’t have to swallow. Katsuyuki Tanaka, one of the world’s most respected wine tasters, is a teetotaller.

Yountville is the prettiest town in Napa. We stayed at Vintage Inn, because it was more reasonably priced than the Calistoga Inn that all our friends recommended.

I asked two of the Platypus guides where to dine in Yountville and both said Bottega, where it’s a little easier to get a reservation than its more famous neighbour, The French Laundry. The restaurant was packed on a weekday night. Unlike many fine-dining restaurants, we didn’t get artfully arranged vegetables that left us hungry. The sommelier, Amgad Wahba (of Egyptian descent), poured us some of the best wines we tasted on the trip—most of them, except a Barolo, from Napa. “Chefs these days balance the dishes so well that the old adages about drinking a muscular wine with a steak and a light wine with a salad don’t necessarily hold true," he said, comforting this vegetarian.

Next to Bottega restaurant is the V Wine Cellar. I walked in and got talking to Bruno, a Frenchman who works there. When asked about the best labels in Napa, he and his colleagues named “Screaming Eagle", which retails for $2,000 a bottle.

Heidi Peterson Barrett, who got this wine its reputation, is a cult figure in Napa. The daughter of a wine pioneer, she created the first Screaming Eagle wine that got 99 points from wine critic Robert Parker. That, coupled with limited production, drove up its prices. V Wine Cellar does wine tastings for $75, where they pour wines from excellent vineyards along with cheeses from Cowgirl Creamery. Those in the mood can top it off with a cigar in their patio.

I tried—unsuccessfully—to get Scott Lewis, the proprietor, to pour me a glass of Screaming Eagle. He shared a wine he was developing for the Indian market. It was infused with peaches, chillies and cloves. I didn’t like it.

This is the first of a two-part series on Napa Valley wines.

Shoba Narayan hopes to meet Heidi Barrett and drink a Screaming Eagle at some point. She tweets at @ShobaNarayan and posts on Instagram as shobanarayan. Write to her at

Also read | Shoba Narayan’s previous Lounge columns.

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