On the Road In Search of a California Wine Gem

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Nick Antonaccio
Nick Antonaccio

There is a disconnect that marks the state of retail wine sales in the United States today. The quality of wines being produced domestically has been on the upswing every year over the past quarter century. It seems each year that the industry overcomes the obstacles Mother Nature imposes. Quantity may be affected, but not quality. This bodes well for consumers seeking quality at reasonable prices.

On the other hand, it has become increasingly difficult to discover new wines. The overwhelming quantity of wine in the retail marketplace is produced by a small group of mega corporations and distributed by an even smaller number of national distributors.

The smaller, artisanal wineries and winemakers are easily lost in the barrage of labels of the industry corporate leaders. The typical production of these smaller producers is less than 5,000 cases, rarely sufficient to sustain the appetite of large distributors bent on repeat sales and sustained retail shelf space.

I’ve undertaken a personal quest to ferret out exceptional domestic wines that rarely occupy retail shelves. There are several wine shop owners who share my passion and goal. They seek out small distributors and are willing to offer selections with limited availability. Their customers understand the pitfall of finding a unique wine, becoming enamored with its bouquet or flavor profile and then rarely, if ever, seeing the wine again. In my opinion it is a fleeting love affair worth enduring.

But what of the artisanal wines that never land on a Westchester wine shelf? Are they doomed to tasting room sales, struggling in relative obscurity? The solution to this consumer dilemma is becoming increasingly clear to me. If limited production winemakers find it difficult to reach out to a consumer base, then it behooves consumers to seek out these wineries.

Last year, and again this year, my wife and I embarked on pilgrimages to find the hidden gems of California wine country.

The strategies we employed on our travels through Napa Valley and Sonoma County were presented in last week’s column.

This week, I share several of these adventures up and down wine country highways and byways.

We began our journey on the northern trails of Napa in the town of Calistoga. Our goal was to find a headquarters from which to travel the lesser-known side roads of the Silverado Trail. We found this at the Calistoga Ranch Resort. The rooms were built into the sides of the eastern ridge above the valley, with vistas across most of the valley floor. In near proximity were several wineries we had discovered on the Internet and from sommeliers at local restaurants. But the greatest insights were in front of us each day as we checked in with the front desk and concierge at the ranch. We were in pursuit of winemakers who were “living the dream,” making cult-like wines in arguably the most prestigious – and expensive – vineyards in the world.

We engaged our enthusiastic staff at the ranch each day for their insights. Little did we realize that the front desk was a venue for local winemakers to engage staff in conversation and invite them to sample their wines. The staff was living the dream of personalized tours and tastings of wines they otherwise would not encounter. They unselfishly shared the names and arranged several exclusive appointments.

We were now living the dream ourselves. Electronic gates swinging open at a hidden driveway at the mention of Shannon, our enthusiastic oenophile at the ranch; following “Waze”-challenged directions to the home of a virtual winemaker; and squeezing in a lunch break at a local farm-to-table restaurant.

Each winery was unique. From touring the modern facility at AonAir Wine to sitting at the dining room table of the owners of WaterMark Wine, we shared the dream with the winemakers, bonding with nature and becoming mail-order fans of our newly discovered favorite wines.

Coming in a future column, the behind-the-scenes story of select wineries as entrepreneurs’ dreams materialize into success.

Nick Antonaccio is a 40-year Pleasantville resident. For over 20 years he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member of the Wine Media Guild of wine writers. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at or on Twitter @sharingwine.



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