Ballentine Vineyards Review
Address: 2820 St. Helena Highway North St. Helena,California 94574.
Phone Number: 707-963-7919
Tasting Hours: By appt. 10:00-5:00
Region: Napa Valley AVA, St. Helena AVA, California
Reviewer: Mark and Sonja
Review Date: 7/3/2016
Reviewer: Mark and Sonja
So many of the historic wineries of the Napa Valley exist in stone and splendor, chateaus in name or in appearance, carved into massive hillsides, previously the toys of those wealthy enough to experiment with wine in a place that, at that time, no one was sure could produce it. Their names are famous, as are their structures and their wines Far Niente, Chateau Montelena, and others, and they thrive on reputations as elaborate as their wineries. In their resurrected post-prohibition state, they employ world-class winemakers who make excellent wine and offer tours of their beautiful and elaborate facilities. They are terrific places to visit; they are, for many, the essence of the Napa Valley.
So much of history is what we write down and, of course, who is doing the writing. As a classroom teacher I appreciate this fact and regularly remind my students that there are often multiple sides to the same entity. I urge them to avoid what Nigerian novelist Chimimanda Ngozie Adichie calls the single story about the history of any and all things. While I personally have visited, enjoyed, and even reviewed a number of Napas best known historical properties, I believe too that there is much to be said for the historical vineyards of the area that were never adorned in splendor, never housed in castles, chateaux, or mansions, and yet continue quietly to produce some of the best wines in all of California. There are any number of wineries that opened only in the past few decades, driven to make rocket juice and, along with it, money. But there are also a good number of extraordinary wineries and vineyards that were planted in the prelapsarian, pre-prohibition era of the Napa Valley, and that have somehow managed to survive the trials of time without famous owners or massive stone housings for their winemaking operations. Ballentine Vineyards is one such place.
Sonja and I have a habit (when we do not have scheduled appointments) of choosing our next tasting room visit simply by asking whomever is doing our current tasting where they would go next were they us. It was in this manner that we discovered Ballentine Vineyards, from a helpful tasting room attendant at Freemark Abbey, and we feel very fortunate to have done. A sharp right off of Napas Highway 29, not far at all from Freemark Abbey, Ballentine has a tiny parking lot and an equally diminutive tasting room to match. Pressed to do so, Id guess that the little space could comfortably accommodate eight to ten guests, perhaps a few more, and on my several visits Ive never seen it staffed by more than two people, more typically one behind the little marble bar. In this way, it bucks a familiar trend and offers visitors a more personalized experience than is sometimes the case at larger wineries that see a greater volume of visitors on a day-to-day basis.
Founded by immigrants in 1906, including Irish eponym John Ballentine and his Italian counterpart, Libero Pocai, the property is now in the hands of a third and fourth generation of Ballentine family members. Boutique in every sense of the word, Ballentine is one of the few tiny wineries to predate prohibition that is still in operation by the founding family today. The history of the Napa Valley is something Ive always found intriguing, and supporting a small family operation such as this one simply feels like the right thing to do.
My favorite of their wines is an exquisite Cabernet Franc, though winemaker Bruce Devlin has proven over the years his diverse array of talents, producing marvelous takes on Merlot, Zinfandel, Petit Verdot, and numerous other varietals. On my most recent visit to Ballentine, during which I introduced my friend Zach to this little gem of a winery, I tried a white wine Id never had before, a Malvasia Bianca. It boasted all of the character and complexity of a nice gewürztraminer, and I purchased a bottle of the 2014 to take home to Sonja.
The history of the Napa Valley is a diverse one. Immigrants from all over the world play their part in helping to establish the region first as an agricultural mecca, full of orchards and, of course, vineyards, and later, as the Ballentine family helped to do, as one of the worlds premier winemaking regions. The unimposing, little-known winery just off of the Valleys main artery, Highway 29, may not feature in any motion pictures or wow visitors with stunning architecture, but theres an awful lot of history to be appreciated in the many excellent bottles of wine that they produce.