The fruit of an untraversed road

One of the many great benefits of being a full-time Napa Valley resident is the frequent invitation to discover some truly special gems. Wineries that are – quite literally – off the beaten path.  The quaint tasting salon perched high atop a mountain, where one hashes out ideas with the winemaker and proprietor. The “undiscovered” operation that no one has heard of, yet when bottles are opened, wine of the most brilliant composition bursts forth. The places where cowboy boots are in abundance because, let’s be honest, at its heart, winemaking and production are about as agricultural as it gets. The venues where dogs run free, conversation is abundant, cell service is long forgotten, and the true joy and focus of the rendezvous is captured in one simple word: wine.

The vines of Fall in full force on Spring Mountain.

On a beautiful, brisk Friday in November, I was invited to join some colleagues at one such location: Relic Wines. United around one unifying cause, the love of music (the proprietor/winemaker, Michael Hirby, is a musician and avid fan of good beats), three of us trekked to the highest echelons of Spring Mountain. Located due west of the town of St. Helena, Spring Mountain is split between Napa and Sonoma Counties (see our previous article on Napa Valley AVAs here). Thin, country lanes wind their way through the eastern slopes of the mountain, carving through intricate trellis systems as they navigate their way to the top. Zipping along these roads, one can almost feel as though they are in a car commercial. In fact, on this particular visit, I became so enamored with taking the corners that I blew past the entrance to Relic…not once, but twice. On try three (yes, three!), I found myself driving down a country lane, peppered with small tasting rooms and gorgeous views.

As a consummate explorer and wine lover, the prospect of discovering such hidden treasures is what keeps me motivated and excited. I find myself attracted to winemakers who capture and expand upon this excitement; the ones who make wine not as a reactionary impulse to solidify the bottom line, but instead those who make it because it is a passion that they just can’t shake. It is part of who they are at their deepest core. Michael Hirby is one such winemaker.

As we pulled into the driveway, evidence surrounded us that we were entering a winery that was in the height of post-harvest wine production. Barrels were being moved every which way; bins were ceremoniously being washed out; tanks were in high use; and every available hand was in high demand. There was no staging going on; this was a full production winery. The motto? You’ve got a pulse? Then come on down and give a hand!

Although Relic is currently constructing a facility closer to the Atlas Peak AVA, they currently co-locate with Behrens Family Winery. The shared location works. The views are breathtaking, the open, outdoor entertainment kitchen and patio look to be photo-shopped from a magazine, and the quaint on-site tasting areas invite comfort and familiarity.

The distinctive label of Relic. Pictured: 2010 Avion Pinot Noir.

Relic specializes in Rhone varietals. With an annual production somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,000 cases, their small but mighty team pays close attention to detail. In every sense of the word, they are artists. Sourcing fruit from Sonoma and Napa Counties, they have five current releases: the Avion Pinot Noir, the Scarpa Syrah, the Old Vines Petite Sirah, the Artefact Cabernet Sauvignon, and the Prior, a Cabernet Franc and Merlot blend.

On this particular day, we had the pleasure of tasting the Avion, the Scarpa and the Old Vines.

The Avion: Made from 100% Pinot Noir, the grapes are sourced from a vineyard on the slopes of southern Sonoma Mountain; this wine is fruit-forward, with a little kick of spice. A truly distinct Pinot Noir. 125 cases made.

The Scarpa: Made from 94% Syrah and 6% Petite Sirah, the grapes are sourced from a steep mountaintop vineyard overlooking Yountville and Oakville; this wine is rich and dark, with a nose of dark fruit and a rich finish. A complex and beautiful Syrah. 270 cases made.

The Old Vines: Made from 100% Petite Sirah, the grapes are sourced from a seven-decade-old vineyard in Calistoga; this wine has dark berries in the nose, abundant floral aromas, and a nice, long finish. A serious Petite Sirah. 147 cases produced.

Michael was an engaging and humble host. He spoke with calm confidence and affection about his wines. His passion was tangible. As a former sommelier, his knowledge of wine is extensive. His first lead winemaking position was at Realm in 2002, but since starting his own label, he now consults on four other labels: D.R. Stephens Estate, Husic Family Vineyards, Sarocka Estate, and Winter Wines. Seated around a wooden table with him, it was impossible to not feel like family: completely comfortable and at ease. The fact that his wines were off-the-charts delicious didn’t hurt matters. Add to that the free swag of branded guitar picks and I became an instant fan.

In a world where large tour buses and limos pack nearly every other Napa Valley tasting room, it does not come as a surprise when people ask the question: Where are the small mom-and-pop wineries? It gives me much pleasure to recommend Relic Wines. Due to their quaint size, call ahead for a tasting (707.967.9380). You won’t be disappointed.

Special Note: Michael and Annette, our gracious hosts, had no idea about this blog during our visit (and they won’t until I email them this article). As such, you can rest assured that this treatment was not a “show.” It was real and authentic. We hope to return in the near future for a more in-depth article on their operation. But for the time being, this first snapshot was enough to satiate our appetite.

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