About Me:

James Houston spent four years working in the wine industry, working in sales before training as a winemaker in France, New Zealand, South Africa, and New York State. He is now a full-time writer in the Bay Area.

Dutch Henry Winery   0
3.5
6/7/2013

Five seconds after I missed the turn for my intended destination of Rombauer Vineyards, I realized I didn’t really want to go there anyway. So I kept following the Silverado Trail into Calistoga. The afternoon was dwindling, and I wanted to hit at least one more tasting room before--hopefully--beating the Friday traffic back to San Francisco.

A few winery signs passed me by, and I realized that if I didn’t quit being indecisive, I would keep careening northwards and end up on Mendocino Forest back roads with low gas and the sun setting. The sign ... Read full review



Red Wine White Wine Service View/Ambiance
3.5
3.5
3.0
4.0

Hall Winery - St. Helena   0
4.0
4/23/2013

In 2007, I snagged a bottle of Hall Cabernet Sauvignon from an east coast store shelf for less than $25. I can’t remember the vintage but it was probably the first release, and if not it must have been the second, given that the winery crushed its first vintage in 2005.

Today you’re lucky to find a half-bottle of the same wine for that price.

Hall Winery proves that overnight success or something close to it is still possible in Napa if you have the right grapes, the right winemaking brain trust, ... Read full review



Red Wine White Wine Service View/Ambiance
4.5
3.5
5.0
5.0
3.5

Duckhorn Vineyards   0
4.5
2/1/2013

In late 2007 I got a job at a fancy wine retailer in New York City. New hire training included tasting Corton-Charlemagne, Chateau Gruaud-Larose, Domaine Drouhin Pinot Noir, and other wines way above my pay grade.

But then--then!--I learned I was entitled to a not-insubstantial employee discount. That very night, I went home with a bottle of Duckhorn Merlot, it was probably the 2005. I had read that this wine was very good. More specifically, I had read that Duckhorn had been setting the pace for California Merlot since the late 1970’s.

Read full review



Red Wine White Wine Service View/Ambiance
4.5
3.0
4.0
4.5

Merryvale   0
3.5
1/17/2013

"If you make a bad Cabernet in Napa, you’re in the wrong line of work," says Ed Roudebush, the wise man taking the lunchtime shift behind the counter at the Merryvale tasting room. He proceeds to pour me Merryvale’s 2008 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.

Fair enough. You probably would want to start investigating opportunities in the pineapple or fertilizer businesses if you were taking in ultra-premium Napa and Carneros grapes and somehow turning out bottles of plonk.

Especially if you have access to vineyards like Merryvale’s, like the Solstice plot in St. Helena, ... Read full review



Red Wine White Wine Service View/Ambiance
4.0
3.5
4.5
3.5

Robert Mondavi Winery   0
4.0
12/2/2012

With a late lunch winding down at Oakville Grocery, a companion suggests visiting Robert Mondavi before heading back to San Francisco.

I flinch. It’s a beautiful Sunday afternoon, harvest season, and the Valley is swarming with tourists. Every parking lot is a perilous game of Frogger. It took Green Beret-worthy tactical maneuvering for our group to snag this table ahead of ten other parties anxious to inhale their expensive sandwiches. Surely Mondavi, the iconic property that exists in my mind as a sort of wine Disneyland, will be an utter mob scene.

But I ... Read full review



Red Wine White Wine Service View/Ambiance
4.0
3.5
4.0
5.0
5.0

Trefethen Vineyards   0
4.0
11/19/2012

Although Trefethen Family Vineyards is close enough to Route 29 that it could have one of those in-your-face billboards and slam-the-brakes sudden driveways, it opts for a quiet entrance off Oak Knoll Avenue.

The approach trail takes you past well-manicured vineyard blocks, marked with signs that indicate the varieties. Perhaps these help the vineyard crew remember when the Merlot ends and the Malbec begins as they prune and pick (which can be hard when you’ve been out there all day), but they also build the visitor’s anticipation for the wines at the end of the ... Read full review



Red Wine White Wine Service View/Ambiance
4.0
4.0
4.5
4.0

Dove Valley Vineyard & Winery   0
3.0
7/18/2012

If you commute on I-95 in Maryland, I bet the words “Dove Valley Winery” are rattling around in your head somewhere. That’s because two extremely well-placed signs on either side of Exit 93 announce the winery’s existence to more eyeballs every day than any winery Facebook page could ever hope to do.

As a frequent passer of these proto-viral advertisements, I was excited to finally get the chance to pull off the interstate and see if I could find anything great to drink in the murk of the Chesapeake Watershed.

I soon realize I ... Read full review



Red Wine White Wine Service View/Ambiance
3.0
2.5
3.0
3.5

Trump Winery   1
4.5
7/17/2012

Google “Kluge Estate”. What’s the first result?

Until 2011, Kluge Estate was the standard-bearer for Virginia viticulture, known for exquisite sparkling wines that caught critics’ attention and clued fine wine lovers everywhere into the potential of Vitis vinifera in the Old Dominion.

But owner Patricia Kluge, widow of the former richest man in America, was not immune to the tide of bad economic luck that hit us all in 2008, and had to divest many of her assets—including the winery, located in Albemarle County near Charlottesville.

Luckily, a good friend of hers was looking to buy. Donald ... Read full review



Red Wine White Wine Service View/Ambiance
3.0
5.0
5.0
4.5
4.5

Sunset Hills   0
4.5
7/17/2012

A connection to the past is palpable as you enter the cavernous tasting room of Sunset Hills Vineyard. During the Civil War, many barns in Loudoun County were burned to the ground by Union forces. After peace returned, new structures were built as the farming industry recovered. The dairy farm that eventually became Sunset Hills Vineyard was rebuilt in 1870.

But there are also nods to modernity, such as the aerators affixed to every bottle of red wine behind the large tasting counter, or the tech fortune that made the winery possible in the first place. Entrepreneur Mike Canney—whose ... Read full review



Red Wine White Wine Service View/Ambiance
4.0
4.0
4.5
4.5

Loudoun Valley Vineyards   0
3.5
7/17/2012

Lately, my thirtieth birthday has been making all kinds of threats about actually happening soon. So getting carded, which used to be a nerve-wracking experience no matter how good my fake ID was ten years ago, is actually kind of nice these days. And so when the young man behind the counter at Loudoun Valley Vineyards did his duty and requested proof of age, my cloudy Wednesday brightened just a little.

Loudoun Valley Vineyards sits just off Route 9 in a low wooden building with a single-pitch roof. The tasting room interior is intimate, with a small counter positioned ... Read full review



Red Wine White Wine Service View/Ambiance
3.0
3.5
3.5
4.0

Jefferson Vineyards   0
4.5
7/17/2012

While talking to Andy Reagan, Winemaker and General Manager of Jefferson Vineyards, you sense in him an urgency to make wines that are better, stronger and truer than anyone—himself included—has ever made before. It is also an urgency to crush any doubts that remain about whether Virginia can stand with the best wine regions in America.

A former Marine, Reagan trained at wineries in Virginia and one in Florida before taking the reins at Jefferson in 2005. With a cherubic face and ginger beard, he is the sort of guy you’d invite to your Super Bowl party, but then ... Read full review



Red Wine White Wine Service View/Ambiance
4.5
4.5
4.0
3.5

Hillsborough Vineyards   0
4.0
7/17/2012

Hillsborough Vineyards is easy to miss. Not because of a back-road location or any lack of repute, but because the entrance jumps out at you just as you’ve started to speed back up on the westbound Charles Town Pike after exiting the town of Hillsboro’s commercial center.

But as long as you’re anticipating the turn, or can pull a sudden hard right worthy of Starsky & Hutch without spilling your coffee, Hillsborough is an essential stop on the Loudoun County Wine Trail.

It is said that the best grapes are those grown on hillsides, which, if true, bodes ... Read full review



Red Wine White Wine Service View/Ambiance
3.5
4.0
4.0
4.5

First Colony Winery   0
3.5
7/17/2012

There are little places at the end of the road, and then there is First Colony Winery.

Just southwest of where County Road 627 is absorbed by State Route 20 in Albemarle County, an easy-to-miss turn sits, almost secretly, beckoning you down Harris Creek Road. As you slowly pass small, elegant cottages and shacks, the road gets narrower and grittier until you hit a bent white sign declaring: “END STATE MAINTENANCE”.

Wherever your home may be, it’s hard not to feel far from it this far down the trail.

But then you hang a right and ... Read full review



Red Wine White Wine Service View/Ambiance
3.5
3.0
4.5
4.0

Fabbioli Cellars   1
4.0
7/17/2012

“I never planned on building a tasting room,” says Doug Fabbioli. The gregarious owner of Fabbioli Cellars is reminiscing about the origins of his Loudoun County winemaking operation, where he planted the first vines in 2001.

Fortunately, his plans changed. As the reputation of Mr. Fabbioli’s wines grew and demand for them surged, he converted the basement of his expansive Leesburg home into a showroom (and tell-room, and sip-room) for his handcrafted wares.

Today, the way to the tasting counter takes you across a patio dotted with seats surrounding tables and fire pits. The basketball hoop may seem ... Read full review



Red Wine White Wine Service View/Ambiance
4.0
3.5
3.5
3.5

City Winery - New York   0
4.0
7/17/2012

The traffic on New York City’s Vandam Street at 5 P.M. is straight out of a Los Angelino’s worst nightmare. Trucks hauling soiled linen to New Jersey battle with Maseratis for an edge in getting the heck out of Manhattan via the Holland Tunnel.

At the intersections, a chartreuse-clad traffic cop is needed just to get people safely across the street. I take my best shot and eventually make it to the other side of Vandam and Varick to City Winery, the brainchild of hobbyist winemaker Michael Dorf, founder of legendary downtown music spot The Knitting Factory. Barely four ... Read full review



Red Wine White Wine Service View/Ambiance
3.5
4.5
4.5
4.0

Blenheim Vineyards   0
4.0
7/17/2012

Not much sun makes it through the lush, towering trees that line Blenheim Farm Road, ten miles south of Charlottesville. But this changes as you pull into the lot at Blenheim Vineyards and finally behold the open Virginia sky sprawling southwards over gently rolling hills covered in vineyards.

And by covered, I mean covered, extending into the distance until the vineyard posts look like the letter “I” typed in six-point font. It is beautiful.

Blenheim Vineyards is a young operation, founded in 2000 by Dave Matthews—who, in case anyone forgot, started his eponymous band while tending bar ... Read full review



Red Wine White Wine Service View/Ambiance
3.5
4.0
4.0
3.5

Dove Valley Vineyard & Winery   0
3.0

If you commute on I-95 in Maryland, I bet the words “Dove Valley Winery” are rattling around in your head somewhere. That’s because two extremely well-placed signs on either side of Exit 93 announce the winery’s existence to more eyeballs every day than any winery Facebook page could ever hope to do.

As a frequent passer of these proto-viral advertisements, I was excited to finally get the chance to pull off the interstate and see if I could find anything great to drink in the murk of the Chesapeake Watershed.

I soon realize I ... Read full review



Red Wine White Wine Service View/Ambiance
3.0
2.5
3.0
3.5

Blenheim Vineyards   0
4.0

Not much sun makes it through the lush, towering trees that line Blenheim Farm Road, ten miles south of Charlottesville. But this changes as you pull into the lot at Blenheim Vineyards and finally behold the open Virginia sky sprawling southwards over gently rolling hills covered in vineyards.

And by covered, I mean covered, extending into the distance until the vineyard posts look like the letter “I” typed in six-point font. It is beautiful.

Blenheim Vineyards is a young operation, founded in 2000 by Dave Matthews—who, in case anyone forgot, started his eponymous band while tending bar ... Read full review



Red Wine White Wine Service View/Ambiance
3.5
4.0
4.0
3.5

City Winery - New York   0
4.0

The traffic on New York City’s Vandam Street at 5 P.M. is straight out of a Los Angelino’s worst nightmare. Trucks hauling soiled linen to New Jersey battle with Maseratis for an edge in getting the heck out of Manhattan via the Holland Tunnel.

At the intersections, a chartreuse-clad traffic cop is needed just to get people safely across the street. I take my best shot and eventually make it to the other side of Vandam and Varick to City Winery, the brainchild of hobbyist winemaker Michael Dorf, founder of legendary downtown music spot The Knitting Factory. Barely four ... Read full review



Red Wine White Wine Service View/Ambiance
3.5
4.5
4.5
4.0

Fabbioli Cellars   1
4.0

“I never planned on building a tasting room,” says Doug Fabbioli. The gregarious owner of Fabbioli Cellars is reminiscing about the origins of his Loudoun County winemaking operation, where he planted the first vines in 2001.

Fortunately, his plans changed. As the reputation of Mr. Fabbioli’s wines grew and demand for them surged, he converted the basement of his expansive Leesburg home into a showroom (and tell-room, and sip-room) for his handcrafted wares.

Today, the way to the tasting counter takes you across a patio dotted with seats surrounding tables and fire pits. The basketball hoop may seem ... Read full review



Red Wine White Wine Service View/Ambiance
4.0
3.5
3.5
3.5

First Colony Winery   0
3.5

There are little places at the end of the road, and then there is First Colony Winery.

Just southwest of where County Road 627 is absorbed by State Route 20 in Albemarle County, an easy-to-miss turn sits, almost secretly, beckoning you down Harris Creek Road. As you slowly pass small, elegant cottages and shacks, the road gets narrower and grittier until you hit a bent white sign declaring: “END STATE MAINTENANCE”.

Wherever your home may be, it’s hard not to feel far from it this far down the trail.

But then you hang a right and ... Read full review



Red Wine White Wine Service View/Ambiance
3.5
3.0
4.5
4.0

Hillsborough Vineyards   0
4.0

Hillsborough Vineyards is easy to miss. Not because of a back-road location or any lack of repute, but because the entrance jumps out at you just as you’ve started to speed back up on the westbound Charles Town Pike after exiting the town of Hillsboro’s commercial center.

But as long as you’re anticipating the turn, or can pull a sudden hard right worthy of Starsky & Hutch without spilling your coffee, Hillsborough is an essential stop on the Loudoun County Wine Trail.

It is said that the best grapes are those grown on hillsides, which, if true, bodes ... Read full review



Red Wine White Wine Service View/Ambiance
3.5
4.0
4.0
4.5

Jefferson Vineyards   0
4.5

While talking to Andy Reagan, Winemaker and General Manager of Jefferson Vineyards, you sense in him an urgency to make wines that are better, stronger and truer than anyone—himself included—has ever made before. It is also an urgency to crush any doubts that remain about whether Virginia can stand with the best wine regions in America.

A former Marine, Reagan trained at wineries in Virginia and one in Florida before taking the reins at Jefferson in 2005. With a cherubic face and ginger beard, he is the sort of guy you’d invite to your Super Bowl party, but then ... Read full review



Red Wine White Wine Service View/Ambiance
4.5
4.5
4.0
3.5

Loudoun Valley Vineyards   0
3.5

Lately, my thirtieth birthday has been making all kinds of threats about actually happening soon. So getting carded, which used to be a nerve-wracking experience no matter how good my fake ID was ten years ago, is actually kind of nice these days. And so when the young man behind the counter at Loudoun Valley Vineyards did his duty and requested proof of age, my cloudy Wednesday brightened just a little.

Loudoun Valley Vineyards sits just off Route 9 in a low wooden building with a single-pitch roof. The tasting room interior is intimate, with a small counter positioned ... Read full review



Red Wine White Wine Service View/Ambiance
3.0
3.5
3.5
4.0

Sunset Hills   0
4.5

A connection to the past is palpable as you enter the cavernous tasting room of Sunset Hills Vineyard. During the Civil War, many barns in Loudoun County were burned to the ground by Union forces. After peace returned, new structures were built as the farming industry recovered. The dairy farm that eventually became Sunset Hills Vineyard was rebuilt in 1870.

But there are also nods to modernity, such as the aerators affixed to every bottle of red wine behind the large tasting counter, or the tech fortune that made the winery possible in the first place. Entrepreneur Mike Canney—whose ... Read full review



Red Wine White Wine Service View/Ambiance
4.0
4.0
4.5
4.5

Trump Winery   1
4.5

Google “Kluge Estate”. What’s the first result?

Until 2011, Kluge Estate was the standard-bearer for Virginia viticulture, known for exquisite sparkling wines that caught critics’ attention and clued fine wine lovers everywhere into the potential of Vitis vinifera in the Old Dominion.

But owner Patricia Kluge, widow of the former richest man in America, was not immune to the tide of bad economic luck that hit us all in 2008, and had to divest many of her assets—including the winery, located in Albemarle County near Charlottesville.

Luckily, a good friend of hers was looking to buy. Donald ... Read full review



Red Wine White Wine Service View/Ambiance
3.0
5.0
5.0
4.5
4.5

Trefethen Vineyards   0
4.0

Although Trefethen Family Vineyards is close enough to Route 29 that it could have one of those in-your-face billboards and slam-the-brakes sudden driveways, it opts for a quiet entrance off Oak Knoll Avenue.

The approach trail takes you past well-manicured vineyard blocks, marked with signs that indicate the varieties. Perhaps these help the vineyard crew remember when the Merlot ends and the Malbec begins as they prune and pick (which can be hard when you’ve been out there all day), but they also build the visitor’s anticipation for the wines at the end of the ... Read full review



Red Wine White Wine Service View/Ambiance
4.0
4.0
4.5
4.0

Robert Mondavi Winery   0
4.0

With a late lunch winding down at Oakville Grocery, a companion suggests visiting Robert Mondavi before heading back to San Francisco.

I flinch. It’s a beautiful Sunday afternoon, harvest season, and the Valley is swarming with tourists. Every parking lot is a perilous game of Frogger. It took Green Beret-worthy tactical maneuvering for our group to snag this table ahead of ten other parties anxious to inhale their expensive sandwiches. Surely Mondavi, the iconic property that exists in my mind as a sort of wine Disneyland, will be an utter mob scene.

But I ... Read full review



Red Wine White Wine Service View/Ambiance
4.0
3.5
4.0
5.0
5.0

Merryvale   0
3.5

"If you make a bad Cabernet in Napa, you’re in the wrong line of work," says Ed Roudebush, the wise man taking the lunchtime shift behind the counter at the Merryvale tasting room. He proceeds to pour me Merryvale’s 2008 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.

Fair enough. You probably would want to start investigating opportunities in the pineapple or fertilizer businesses if you were taking in ultra-premium Napa and Carneros grapes and somehow turning out bottles of plonk.

Especially if you have access to vineyards like Merryvale’s, like the Solstice plot in St. Helena, ... Read full review



Red Wine White Wine Service View/Ambiance
4.0
3.5
4.5
3.5

Duckhorn Vineyards   0
4.5

In late 2007 I got a job at a fancy wine retailer in New York City. New hire training included tasting Corton-Charlemagne, Chateau Gruaud-Larose, Domaine Drouhin Pinot Noir, and other wines way above my pay grade.

But then--then!--I learned I was entitled to a not-insubstantial employee discount. That very night, I went home with a bottle of Duckhorn Merlot, it was probably the 2005. I had read that this wine was very good. More specifically, I had read that Duckhorn had been setting the pace for California Merlot since the late 1970’s.

Read full review



Red Wine White Wine Service View/Ambiance
4.5
3.0
4.0
4.5

Hall Winery - St. Helena   0
4.0

In 2007, I snagged a bottle of Hall Cabernet Sauvignon from an east coast store shelf for less than $25. I can’t remember the vintage but it was probably the first release, and if not it must have been the second, given that the winery crushed its first vintage in 2005.

Today you’re lucky to find a half-bottle of the same wine for that price.

Hall Winery proves that overnight success or something close to it is still possible in Napa if you have the right grapes, the right winemaking brain trust, ... Read full review



Red Wine White Wine Service View/Ambiance
4.5
3.5
5.0
5.0
3.5

Dutch Henry Winery   0
3.5

Five seconds after I missed the turn for my intended destination of Rombauer Vineyards, I realized I didn’t really want to go there anyway. So I kept following the Silverado Trail into Calistoga. The afternoon was dwindling, and I wanted to hit at least one more tasting room before--hopefully--beating the Friday traffic back to San Francisco.

A few winery signs passed me by, and I realized that if I didn’t quit being indecisive, I would keep careening northwards and end up on Mendocino Forest back roads with low gas and the sun setting. The sign ... Read full review



Red Wine White Wine Service View/Ambiance
3.5
3.5
3.0
4.0