- Rating: 95 out of 100
- Tasting Fee: $75
- Accepts Reservations: Yes
- Reservation Required: true
Calistoga, CA 94515
Another winery with a storied history longer than most (dating back to the late 1800s) that continues to produce top notch wines is Larkmead. Though unlike many others with the same length of history, Larkmead continues to be a small production winery, choosing to concentrate on quality over quantity as its 2013 The Lark (100pt by Wine Advocate) demonstrates. Its smaller size and simple-but-bright tasting room provides quite the contrast to Frank Family, which is right across the street. Both are located in Calistoga off the main highway, so there’s no reason not to visit either or both.
There’s a reason why both wineries are so close together. Larkmead sold its original winery building to Frank Family back in the day, but kept their vineyards and continued to produce wine, later constructing its new tasting room that I had the pleasure of visiting. It is very refreshing with a white/light theme that is very fashionable but relaxing. There are many reasons why this small family winery produces excellent wines, but I think the level of interaction with their vines is the most important one. They hand prune and hand harvest everything in addition to walking the vineyards every day observing their development and making adjustments as needed. As it was close to harvest time, I got to wander the vineyards with them and tasted some of the grapes - I’ve never tasted a Sauvignon Blanc grape that good before - ripe but with high acid.
Shout-out to Deanna Basham for taking me on a tour of the vineyards, for letting the wine sell itself while demonstrating a vast depth of knowledge, and for off-roading a little bit on the tasting menu - I had a couple more than the published menu. Though, if you also show respect for the great wines they produce, I’m sure they will treat you like family and expand the tasting menu. It’s just too bad that “The Lark” is nearly impossible to get ahold of; they only produce 4-6 barrels of this rockstar each vintage. Below are the wines I was able to sample:
- 2016 Lillie ($75)
- 285 cases made of these 500ml bottles of 100% Sauvignon Blanc. Sur Lie aging, nicely rounded, really nice high acidity, a 3-to-1 ratio of foudre to partially new French oak barrels used for aging, with notes of subdued melon/honeysuckle and jasmine that give it a pretty nose. On the palate, you see similar notes with a creamy feel on the finish thanks to the sur lie aging. So smooth for a Sauv Blanc and not heavy by any means. 14% ABV.
- 2015 Firebelle ($125)
- 71% Old Vine Merlot, 21% Cab Sauv, 8% Petit Verdot, grown in gravel. 14.5% ABV. 18 months in 65% new French Oak barrels. Ripe cherry and rose on the nose. It’s so bright – just smelling the wine is enough to make my mouth water from the acidity. The wine finishes crisp as well with a bunch of tannin (though not mouthfilling). The palate is dusty and very dry (high acid/tannin), with cherry and cocoa powder flavors.
- 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon ($100)
- 14.7% ABV. 18 months in 65% new French Oak. Blend of grapes from gravel, sand, and clay terroirs, making ~2700 cases. 97% Cab Sauv and 3% Cab Franc. Dusty, deeper black fruit with a sweet tinge on the nose. On the palate, the tannins are not overpowering but they are definitely grippy. The body is medium but may get heavier when everything integrates and settles down. It finishes drier because of the tannin and the high acid. Need to lay this down for a few years to melloe the tannins and allow the earthy/savoury character to come out more.
- 2014 Dr. Olmo ($150)
- Not nearly as bright on the nose as the Firebelle or even the Cabernet Sauvignon from above. This bottle of 100% Cabernet Sauvignon is much deeper, brooding even. The black fruit on the nose opens up more over time and does feel a little cooked. Grown in all gravel, the savoury quality is also clearer. This serves as a good contrast to the Cabernet from earlier - this degree of complexity is my style.
- 2015 LMV Salon ($150)
- 60/40 Cabernet Sauvignon and Franc. A little less bright than the 2015 Cabernet, but still has a good intensity of red fruit on the nose. The mouthfeel and body feel a bit more ready for consumption than the 2015 Cabernet as well, but it still finishes with very fine and present tannin. This is a lighter wine in general and is much more primary (fruit) in its aromas and flavors than the others.
- 2014 Proprietary Red Blend ($75)
- A nice, enjoyable wine that is 50/50 Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec. The nose is lighter, like a perfume fragrance that you are trying to suss out. Serve this one a little more chilled than the others, but it’s also very smooth. A light white rock dust on the nose adds to the complexity and the interest.
- 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon
- I don’t know what the price is, but it’s definitely worth at least $100 more than the others. That is what happens when the right wine ages well. The nose is still very nice, fresh, fragrant, and light with a raisin quality that is starting to come out. But the body/mouthfeel/acid/tannin are in perfect balance. I wish I had a mirror to see my reaction when drinking this wine… And it still has a great clean finish with its brick red color. If I were to buy any wine I tasted today, it would be this one - I don’t know if I could wait 10+ years hoping for the other wines to reach this level.
There is definitely balance between the old world style and new world style with these wines as the terroir really comes through along with medium(+) acidity that keeps the wines vibrant while achieving a ripeness found in the best Bordeaux vintages. The price point of these wines might be a little higher than you may be used to, but they also demonstrate the little nuances that distinguish a $150 bottle from a $75 bottle. I also think there is clear personality to the wines which make them seem unique as well. My only concern is that most of these wines require a good amount of decanting if they are to be enjoyed right away. Except that last bottle of course!
Although I did not walk away with any bottles or a membership, I do have a clear picture of where they rank next to other vineyards like Frank Family, Round Pond, and others whose Cabernets have hints of that dusty, Rutherford feel. Even if you do not have the resources to purchase a case of the wine in the event you like it, I still recommend that you visit for a tasting to understand what is waiting for you when you can afford the nicer wines out there. Cheers!!
Rating: 95 out of 100