Foxen 7200 or “The Shack” – Santa Barbara County, CA

The Shack – the name alone holds some intrigue. This Foxen Vineyard tasting room was recommended to us by another winery. Several questions immediately came to mind – is it really a shack, what does that look like, how is the wine? My significant other and I decided we had to know the answers and we headed for the Shack.

Foxen Vineyards was founded by long-time friends Bill Wathen and Dick Doré in 1985. The Shack, a blacksmith shop built in the 1860’s, was Foxen’s original tasting room (they opened a large solar-powered tasting room in 2009). The Shack features Bordeaux and Italian-style wines whereas the newer tasting room has more of a Pinot Noir and Rhone-style focus.

Yes, the Shack is a shack (see photos below). It has a roof and is mostly enclosed but one side is open leading out to tables on a patio where the mountain view is beautiful. The wine was great; poured by knowledgeable Foxen staff who bolstered a friendly atmosphere. We particularly liked the Cabernet Sauvignon from Happy Canyon (part of Santa Barbara County).

I didn’t miss any amenities or opulence of a fancier building. In fact, the tasting room atmosphere with its laid-back and comfortable vibe fostered warm interactions among the customers. Perhaps due to the simplicity of the setting (in addition to the friendliness of the staff and the tastiness of the wine), everyone turned to each other to chat.

We spoke with two brothers, one of whom had recently lost a close friend. We listened to the story of his friend, who sounded like an amazing person, and raised a glass in his honor.

This winery experience had rustic charm, good wine, and new friends.


Zaca Mesa Winery & Vineyards – Santa Barbara County, CA

It is not so easy for a vegetarian (or at least this vegetarian) to really love Syrah. This Rhône varietal typically has a bouquet that is meaty or gamey, and the aroma can be very strong. So when Zaca Mesa was recommended to us as a stop on our wine tour of Santa Barbara County because they make great Syrah, I was hesitant. But there are Syrahs that I quite like and I am always willing to try good wine, so my significant other and I headed for their tasting room.

Zaca Mesa, the third winery established in Santa Barbara County, is a family-owned business. They offer two flights in their tasting room – a mixed flight and a reserve red flight. We selected the reserve red since it showcased three Syrahs. We were helped by two different staff members, both friendly and knowledgeable.

I was enjoying their Syrahs when I noticed on their complete wine list that they make a Grenache, a Rhône varietal I particularly like. I asked if we could try the Grenache but the staff member helping us at the time said there was no open bottle so we could not try that wine.

The other staff member came by at the end of the tasting and asked us if we wanted to revisit any of the wines on the list (always a nice customer service move). We declined and mentioned that we had hoped to try the Grenache but understood there was not one open. This staff member immediately grabbed a bottle and one of those wine-preserving systems in which wine can be drawn from the bottle without pulling the cork. And with that we had a taste of the Grenache.

We are always on the lookout for a wine club to join but we are very selective about this (we only ever joined two). We really liked Zaca Mesa’s wines but we had mostly tasted Syrah to that point and we were not sure if we wanted to join. Until we tasted the delightful Grenache. Pouring this wine made the decision clear and we do plan to join their wine club.

You never know when taking just one extra step for a customer will lead in the end to a big sale.




Kastania Vineyards – Sonoma County

The moment you walk into Kastania, you feel like you are visiting an old friend. My significant other and I were instantly and warmly greeted by Hoot Smith, who introduced himself and his wife Linda. They are the owners and winemakers of this small lot establishment in the Petaluma Gap, a small winemaking area of southern Sonoma county that is currently part of the Sonoma Coast AVA but has petitioned to become its own AVA.

Hoot explained that at age six he was nicknamed after Hoot Gibson, the rodeo champion and actor (we never did find out the reason for the nickname). It seems Hoot and Linda were destined to be together, as she loves owls – there is an owl on their wine labels – but this is unrelated to her husband’s nickname (it’s apparently a common misconception that her affinity for owls has to do with her husband’s nickname – that question was asked by almost everyone who entered the winery while we were there).

The tasting room was small but the presence of Hoot and Linda made it special. In addition, although we didn’t get a good look on this cold and rainy day, the patio outside seemed as though it would be very inviting. As we tasted the wines, six pinot noirs (some named after their grandchildren – very endearing) plus one cabernet franc/cabernet sauvignon blend, Hoot regaled us with stories.

We learned that Hoot really wanted this wine business to be a joint venture with Linda, so he signed them both up for wine classes. He said that Linda was reluctant at first but then fell in love with it. Hoot noted that he has sold his grapes to wineries such as Landmark in Sonoma, who used those grapes in a wine served to a US president.

The Kastania wines were very enjoyable. It was a good education in pinot noir – how different clones and different vintages of the same grape can lead to very different wines. On our wine tasting trips, there is often one bottle of wine that we wish we had bought. Kastania was an early stop on our trip and we hadn’t yet decided if we were taking wine home with us (carrying liquids on planes being complicated, expensive, and all) so after a few moments of indecision we didn’t purchase a bottle. Kastania’s pinot noir became that one bottle we wish we had bought.

Interestingly, my significant other noted that if the tasting fee had been refunded with purchase (as some wineries do), his indecision was more likely to end up in favor of purchasing a bottle. To be fair, we didn’t ask if the tasting fee would be refunded with purchase (since usually a refund is advertised). So in that moment, we didn’t buy a bottle of wine.

But since there was good wine and good conversation, we’ll probably stop by on our next trip to pick one up – preferably on a warm and sunny day when we can enjoy their beautiful surroundings.  I would certainly be happy to see Hoot and Linda again.

Lake County, CA

“It never snows in Lake County.” That’s what we were told by the person working at a Lake County winery. We had come to Napa/Sonoma for an escape from the NJ winter and, given our enjoyment of an off-the-beaten path winery experience, we had planned a day trip to Lake County, north of Napa County.

We called a random winery in Lake County after seeing a winter storm warning noted for the towns in Lake County on my weather app. The description referred to various elevations so my significant other thought it referred to snow in the mountains but then I couldn’t understand why all of the towns had warnings. After hearing from the winery representative that we needn’t worry about snow and the drive over from Napa would be simple, we planned to proceed the next day.

But I had some cognitive dissonance – the tension that arises from two conflicting beliefs. I have a very reliable weather app but two locals assured us that the weather would be fine (someone at a Sonoma winery confirmed this as well). I wasn’t sure how to resolve this dissonance so I opted for the belief that I liked better – the one that allowed us to keep our travel plans to Lake County. I rationalized that perhaps I suddenly couldn’t interpret the weather app correctly or I don’t understand how the weather works in northern California.

So the next day we headed out on the windy country road, which was wet but not snowy or icy. We came to a T in the road at one point with a flashing sign that said ‘Snow on Mt. St. Helena.’ My significant other naively (or hopefully) stated, “Maybe we aren’t going up Mt. St. Helena” but of course we were. In fact, we went up and over Mt. St. Helena with its twisty, windy roads. There was snow but fortunately it wasn’t actively snowing.

Once we got to the bottom of the mountain and into the southernmost town in Lake County, the blizzard started. The white flakes streamed down and visibility was limited. My significant other (stealing my “I told you so” moment) said, “I guess you were right about this one.” But being from NJ and accustomed to driving in snow we proceeded into Lake County in search of their wineries, and it turned out that we were glad we did.

Our first Lake County winery stop was Gregory Graham Winery. A lovely vineyard landscape; on this day lightly blanketed by snow. We entered the small but warm tasting room and were greeted by a friendly person with a thorough knowledge of the area. We enjoyed an informative tasting and learned that the winemaker, schooled at UC-Davis, was quite talented. We debated between three wines as to which one to purchase and ultimately went with the fruity Zinfandel.

Vineyards at Gregory Graham Winery

From there we proceeded to Lajour Estate Winery, owned by David and Cheryl Lucido. Cheryl is the winemaker; she used to be in mortgages until she decided to move to Lake County and own a vineyard. The property had been for sale by a woman who had since moved to Texas and Cheryl said the woman kept declining offers, perhaps because they were below market value, until Cheryl sent her a letter with an offer that was a fair market price and the woman sold.

The light-filled tasting room has a large window overlooking a beautiful landscape. The two photos below from this vineyard show you how wacky the weather was that day – the first one is from before the tasting and the second is from after (which only lasted about a half hour). We had a very enjoyable conversation with Ms. and Mr. Lucido and purchased an interesting white wine.

Moving on to Boatique Winery, we had a brief tasting in a lovely tasting room and then enjoyed the owner’s collection of wooden boats on display in the next room. Certainly a unique winery feature.

Lastly we went to Fore Family Vineyards, a storefront property on Main Street in Kelseyville. The town itself is quaint and hosts four wineries. The tasting at Fore Family was poured by the owners’ son, who is studying winemaking to become the family winemaker.

I would say friendly, helpful, knowledgeable, and supportive of their up-and-coming wine area sums up the Lake County winery experience. And, just to note, it can snow there.


Pride Mountain Vineyards

By the last day of our trip to Napa, my significant other and I were certainly used to windy mountain roads.  Just glad there was no snow (see the story about our trip to Lake County).  We circled our way up Spring Mountain to Pride Mountain Vineyards.

We were immediately struck by the beauty of the hilly vineyards (see photo below) and the welcoming building.  We were greeted by the friendly employee who led our tour, Nikki.  We quickly learned Nikki was also from NJ and a fellow Rutgers University alum.  She even briefly broke out into our alma mater’s fight song (impressive that she remembered it).

View from the winery

From just that glimpse into her personality, we could tell this was going to be a great tour and we were not disappointed.  Our tour consisted of a group of eight people (including us).  Nikki wished us all happy International Women’s Day (this was March 7th) and stated that the Pride winemaker is a woman, which she noted is significant because only about 20% of the winemakers in the area are women.

Nikki hopes to add herself to that list one day, making wine under the label of her own name.  She quickly poured everyone a taste of Chardonnay and as we sipped, she shared the history of the winery.  She instructed us to take our glasses as we moved along on the tour.  We walked outside and stood by a brick lined, well, line (see photo below).  These vineyards span both Sonoma and Napa counties and the line divides the vineyard into the two counties.

Sonoma/Napa line


We then walked into their caves where a station of wine awaited us.  We tasted the merlot and then moved on to a Cabernet Sauvignon straight from the barrel.  We then tasted and contrasted another Cabernet that spent more time on the skins (greater maceration time).  Nikki then suggested we blend the two Cabernets together to give us a small sense of what the winemaker does.

I really liked our “blend” but for sure the winemaker’s blend – the finished product of Cab – was the best taste.  Tasting and contrasting some of the components as well as a blend before tasting the final product was truly educational.

We went outside next to take in the view and Nikki offered to take photos for the couples.  The last stop before returning to the main winery building was at the tank room, where we tasted some Cabernet Franc right from the tank.

Finally, back at the winery, we sampled a dessert wine and paid for the tour/tasting.  A steal for $20 per person.  We were informed of picnic tables up on the hill and headed there to enjoy our lunch.  See the view in the photo below.  I often have a suggestion for how tours/tastings could be done differently but this one struck just the right note.

View from the picnic table

Principles of social proof and liking are at play here. We are more likely to make purchases from others who are likeable, polite, kind, and knowledgeable, and with whom we have some commonality. Nikki evidenced all of those things right down to our shared alma mater. I’ll be happy to look for her wine in a few years…