Napa Valley’s Hidden Treasure: AuburnJames
Rolling hills, streaming sunshine, and acres upon acres of vineyards. For once, I am not talking about Italy, although the imagery does conjure up Tuscany, doesn’t it? No, today I’m talking about California Wine Country. Napa Valley’s wineries are world-famous and for good reason. Whether you’re a wine connoisseur or you just enjoy wine-tasting because it makes you feel ~fancy~ (I fall into the latter camp), you’ve probably savored a glass of Napa wine at some point.
And while the wine is good, the real reason you go to Napa is for the experience. Just drive down St. Helena Highway (Napa Valley’s main thoroughfare) for ten minutes and you’ll see what I mean. Huge mansions with wrought iron gates and sweeping gardens line the road. Architecturally they run the gamut from literal castle to Tuscan villa to modern minimalist. They’re wineries, every last one of them. And for a small fortune, you can tour their grounds and see the grape vines and sip this or that vintage.
Napa Valley’s Hidden Treasure
Of course, it’s all very grand. Napa Valley’s luxury wine culture at its best.
But before you get caught up in the glamour and glory of it all, I encourage you to take a quick detour with me. Turn off the main drag, over a narrow bridge, onto Silverado Trail. Here is something a little quieter, a little cozier: AuburnJames.
Let’s rewind a little and I’ll tell you how I found out about AuburnJames. After all, tucked away as it is, it’s easy to miss if you’re just passing through. We were only in Napa for the day – my sister, my boyfriend, and I – and we weren’t sure where to go. Last minute, low-budget day-trips and luxury wine-tasting don’t really mesh. We’d just about decided to throw in the towel when a friend hooked us up with a private tasting at AuburnJames (thanks, Hyrum!). So, we finished our lunch and headed out to indulge in several glasses of wine at 2 in the afternoon – like adults.
AuburnJames was not what I expected. It’s adorable. The Tasting Cottage is a literal cottage, complete with shady back patio looking out over a little garden and, beyond that, the vineyards. As soon as we arrived, our hostess Hollie came out to greet us. Between the cozy atmosphere of the cottage and Hollie’s excellent and friendly service, we were immediately relaxed and at ease.
And then she started pouring the wine.
Oh, the wine.
Hollie poured several wines for us and while they were all amazing, I honestly cannot remember every single one. Probably because of all the wine. There were a few standouts, though. One of the first pours was a Rosé, a small crush that yielded an amazing, summery wine. Rosé can be overly sweet but AuburnJames nailed the perfect combination of crisp and fruity. Hollie told us that she actually had a hand in turning out that particular batch. I guess being part of a small operation like AuburnJames means you get to try on many different hats.
Another memorable pour was a bottle from their Artist Series. Each vintage features the work of a contemporary American Impressionist on the label. We sampled a bottle of the 2012 Bordeaux Varietal, featuring Shannon Smith Hughes’s painting “First Date.” The 2012 Artist Series is familiar at first, like an everyday table red – approachable, easy to drink, pairs well with pretty much anything. But it’s more than that. It starts with classic flavors like black cherry and vanilla and then surprises you with notes of anise and cassis. The result is a wine that is robust and complex enough to stand on its own without doing too much. It’s the kind of wine you’d drink on a first date. Or second, or third…
The 2012, like so many of the wines that we tasted that day, reflects the quiet confidence of the vintners at AuburnJames. Their wine doesn’t need to hide behind complicated flavor profiles or hefty price tags. It’s simply good. Their wine is also local, which can’t be said for all of Napa Valley’s wineries. AuburnJames sources all of their fruit from small, independent growers in Napa Valley and North Coast. Once the fruit is harvested and brought to AuburnJames, the whole process happens right there at their St. Helena location. You can literally see the wine-making facility from the Tasting Cottage. Most of it is done by hand and none of it is outsourced. It’s labor intensive and results in smaller batches but higher quality.
I’m not a wine afficionado. I regularly buy – and enjoy – wine from Publix. There are a few Italian wines that I get snobby about (Pugliese Negroamaro is my ride-or-die red wine), but that’s about it. So believe me when I tell you that even an untrained tongue can taste the difference between a bottle from AuburnJames and a mass-produced bottle off the shelf. The love and attention put into their small batch vintage wines is apparent in every glass.
AuburnJames has officially been in business since 2005, when co-owners Matt Ospeck and James Frost made their first Cabernet together. They’ve been all-in, hands-on ever since. After years of proving their wine’s quality, they moved into the current location in St. Helena where they now have 5.7 acres and the facilities for producing around 10,000 cases a year. For the first time, they also have their own vineyard. We had an opportunity to walk through and see some of the vines. The grapes weren’t ripe at the time, of course. It was only July. And Hollie told us that it will be a couple of years still before the vines are bearing fruit that’s mature enough for wine-making. Still, there’s a lot of promise there. Everything that I tasted at AuburnJames was amazing, and that’s what they’re doing with fruit from other vineyards. I am so excited to see what they’ll do with grapes of their own.
I have no doubt that it will be spectacular.
Wine-Tasting at its Finest
So, if you’re in the area and wondering which of Napa Valley’s many, many wineries to hit, add AuburnJames to the list. In addition to great wine and the best hostess, they have a bocce ball court, an olive orchard (Hollie warned us to watch for snakes), and gorgeous gardens. And if you reserve far enough in advance, you can even take a tour of the wine-making facilities.
Full disclosure, though: there’s no infinity pool or medieval-style turrets or graceful modern art installations at AuburnJames. Most of all, though, there’s no pretense. It’s casual elegance and quality with none of the flashy gimmicks. If you want the pomp and circumstance (and price tag) of Napa’s ritzier wineries, go elsewhere. But if you want a warm welcome, a beautiful view, and excellent wine?
Go to AuburnJames.