Just back from wine country, we’re still giddy and breathless with the memory of great wines, delicious meals, and landscapes that make us sigh with happiness. In fact, we’re using the utmost restraint not to begin spewing excited gibberish right now in an effort to tell you everything at once. Instead, we’re exhaling a long, deep breath so we can start from the beginning. We’ll be posting reports from this trip for quite a while.
Huge thanks for all the wonderful suggestions that poured in from all of you during the trip. Several times, we received a note or tweet from one of you and literally headed straight to the winery suggested. This is what we call MAGIC! And we couldn’t have done it without you!
Now, kids, let’s sit back and enjoy our first story from the Land of Oz, The Thirsty Kitten’s favorite mecca of enchantment— Northern California’s wine country.
Judd’s Hill winery is a welcoming island of friendly, personal attention in the Napa Valley. Located on the southern end of the Silverado Trail, just north of the town of Napa, Judd’s Hill is refreshing and fun, standing apart from the many Napa tasting rooms that feel more like a big business. In contrast, walking in the door of Judd’s Hill, you feel almost immediately that you’ve been invited into the family.
We discovered Judd’s Hill as we researched options for bottling a customized wine of our own. This has been a dream of ours for a while, not because we hope to become the next big thing in wine, but because wine is our passion and we look at this as a great way to continue to learn (as well as to stock our cellar). While custom crush services are not abundant in number, there are more choices than you might imagine. Judd’s Hill, the first to pioneer the custom crush concept, rose quickly to the top of our list for so many reasons it’s hard to count them all.
Owned by the Finkelstein family— Art and Bunnie, with son Judd and his wife Holly— the Judd’s Hill team has an impressive track record. Art began as a garage winemaker in the 1970s, winning many awards from the start. He founded the Whitehall Lane Winery in 1980 and built it to over 30,000 cases a year by the time he sold it in 1988. Why did he sell such a successful operation? Well, Art and Bunnie believe that “smaller is better” so they founded Judd’s Hill with the intent of keeping case production low, giving Art more time to focus on what he loves best, making wine. Judd, who studied winemaking at UC Davis and Napa Valley College, makes wine alongside his dad. In addition, Kenn Vigoda, longtime winemaker at Raymond Cellars, joined Judd’s Hill in 2008, rounding out the talent there.
Winemakers who know how to make great wines will always earn our respect. But those who do so while maintaining an upbeat sense of fun and a down-to-earth sense of humility will earn our undying loyalty, as well. From everything we know of the crew at Judd’s Hill so far, they clearly seem to fit this niche.
A report by the Weather Channel’s Jim Cantore shows what printed words alone cannot— a sense of the personalities at Judd’s Hill. Plus you get to see Judd playing ukulele in the vineyard! There’s little that steals my heart as quickly as a ukulele (for more on this passion, see the ukulele story at my Studio-Lu world).
As the video shows, visitors to Judd’s Hill can taste the many wines the winery makes, just like at a typical tasting room. In addition, there’s also an option to learn about wine blending through Judd’s Bottle Blending Day Camp, or even explore custom crushing a barrel of your own, as we are doing.
At our visit, we were graciously hosted by Susie Dineen, head of the MicroCrush program, who gave us a behind the scenes tour, introduced us to winemaker Kenn Vigoda, and treated us to a lovely tasting on the patio. Both Susie and Kenn made us feel right at home and took great care to answer any and every question we had. After sampling wines at a number of wineries along the Silverado Trail that morning, we were very impressed with everything at Judd’s Hill. Best tasting of the day, by far. From their Sauvignon Blanc and Rose, to their Napa Cabernet, Petite Syrah, and Old Vine Zinfandel, the consistent theme amongst their wines was finesse and balance in the flavors and a true showing of each varietal’s character.
We finished off our day tasting wines in the barrel available for custom bottling. After one sip of a 2011 Syrah sourced from the Sierra Foothills, we were especially charmed. After two sips, our wheels began turning. Yes, this is the juice we selected to carry The Thirsty Kitten name for our first effort at our own wine. Next summer, when it’s ready to bottle, we’ll rely on Kenn’s good advice about how and whether to blend with any other grapes. We’ll be his eager students in learning how the process works.
So this week, we toast to giddy excitement and breathless wonder, to pursuing dreams, and having fun along the way. And to all of you for helping with suggestions and encouragement in all of the above. Cheers!