Dec. 7 2011 12:00 AM

A Napa Valley trip leads to delectable discoveries at Burgess Cellars


As we turned east off of Napa Valley’s Silverado Trail
and started the winding trek up Howell Mountain, a brisk brilliant
blue-sky day welcomed us to Napa Valley’s famed and historic Burgess
Cellars. In an era in which so many Napa Valley wineries are small cogs
in sprawling corporate wine conglomerate empires, the perpetuation of a
multi-generation family owned winery is a refreshing change of pace.   

Napa Valley’s emergence as one of the centers of the American wine world is actually a development of recent decades.  Yet
the Burgess winery was originally homesteaded in the late 1800s by an
immigrant winemaker, morphed into a chicken ranch during Prohibition
and later became a home to Souverain Cellars.  Wine has been made on this site for nearly a century and a half.

Proprietor Tom Burgess — a former Air
Force and corporate pilot — and winemaker Bill Sorenson have been a
team since Burgess acquired the winery in 1972.  There
is no doubt that they know how to coax the best out of the terroir of
their three distinct vineyard sites, focusing on Cabernet Sauvignon and
Cabernet Franc from the estate vineyard; Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah,
Petite Sirah, Malbec and Petit Verdot from the Ink Grade Road estate
vineyard on the eastern side of Howell Mountain; and Merlot, plus five
other varieties, from the valley-floor Triere vineyard, near
Yountville. Mountain-sited vineyards, perhaps counter-intuitively,
benefit from stressful conditions of water scarcity and rocky, volcanic
soils that force the grapes to struggle for survival, while at the same
time benefiting from full sun in a location above the fog line.  The result?  Small berries packed with intense juice and great acidity.

Now back to our journey. About halfway between the valley
floor and the “dry” Adventist community of Angwin, an unimposing sign
announces it is time to turn left into Burgess.  This
is not an ostentatious, bells-and-whistles tour-bus-ready winery, but a
small, appointment-only facility ready to provide personalized
attention. The narrow, one-lane winding trail to the winery is carved
into the mountainside and features a steep drop off the left side.  Caution is the watchword.

Eyes are first drawn to the historic stone buildings,
then to the vineyards below and finally to the sprawling Bell Canyon
Reservoir, with the Mayacamas Mountains in the distance. We are greeted
by a tall, affable plaid-shirted man: Steve Burgess, one of the next
generation who will lead the winery. He has a degree in agricultural
systems management and a minor in agricultural business.  

Standing in the working tasting room,
surrounded by barrels of maturing wine, Burgess eagerly begins the
tasting. This is a red wine house, which gives the juice plenty of oak
aging before releasing the wines for sale — there was no easing into a
flavor rush.  The year 2007
was a fabulous vintage in Napa. The full bodied 2007 Merlot, composed
primarily of fruit from the estate’s Triere Vineyard, is full of cherry
and dark berry fruit, a touch of vanilla oak and modest tannin. It’s
ready to go.

The 2007 Syrah is meaty, balanced and
concentrated, with a smooth mouthfeel and nice acid backbone. Ten
percent Grenache in the blend adds red berry fruit and contributes to
the Rhone-like character of this wine.

Petite Sirah, from the 2008 vintage,
shows the deep, saturated color typical of this grape variety,
blackberry and chocolate overtones, full flavor and structure.

The 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon is a
Meritage-style Bordeaux blend, complemented with Cabernet Franc, Petite
Verdot, Malbec and Merlot.  The
complexity shows in the bouquet and the palate, while the French oak
aging is evident in the vanilla aromas and well-integrated tannins.  A long lingering finish promises great drinking into future years.

Speaking of which, Burgess has a rather
unique marketing approach that includes always offering “library wines”
that have been resting in ideal storage conditions for years.
Consecutive vintages of Cabernet Sauvignon dating back to 1979 are
offered for sale through the winery.  We
sampled 1998 Cabernet Sauvignon, a cooler year on the valley floor, but
a year in which Burgess was pleased with the maturity of its grapes.
The 1998 was much more evolved than the younger Cabernet, losing a bit
of the intense fruit of a young wine, but showing the elegance, cedar
and tobacco overtones typical of maturing Bordeaux-style wines.

Finally, we were treated to precious
sips of 2007 Estate Vineyard Reserve, a wine showing beautiful balance,
a full dollop of sweet French oak, big concentration, cascading fruit
and an oh-so-long finish.

With more than 400 wineries populating
Napa Valley, Burgess Cellars distinguishes itself through good
old-fashioned hard work and family dedication, combined with superior
fruits of their labor. For more information about Burgess wines, visit
the website at, or its Facebook page at The wines are available locally; check
with your favorite wine retailer. 

In vino veritas.