In his 1883 memoir “The Silverado Squatters,” Robert Louis Stevenson describes traveling through north Napa Valley.
Commenting on Mount Saint Helena, he said, “It looks down on much green, intricate country. It feeds in the spring-time many splashing brooks. Its naked peak stands nearly four thousand five hundred feet above the sea; its sides are fringed with forest; and the soil, where it is bare, glows warm with cinnabar.”
In those days, traveling to desirable Lake County resorts required passage over the mountain via Calistoga and the Old Toll Road operated by businessman John Lawley. Arriving by coach, Stevenson wrote, “We entered the toll road, or to be morelocal, entered on ‘the grade’…”
Stevenson’s book served as the inspiration and motivation for Tom Thornton and Brenda Mixson to purchase an old vineyard along “the grade” in 1997 and re-plant it with fine cabernet sauvignon stock.
Wine is a second career for both Tom and Brenda, who actually met on a blind date. Moving past their expertise in architecture and commercial real estate, they relocated from the East Coast to pursue a passion for cabernet sauvignon.
As newcomers to this prestigious area, Tom and Brenda have managed to attach themselves to a known star: Thomas Rivers Brown, who, after a time at Turley Cellars, worked for Shraeder Cellars, where he developed a reputation for crafting fine cabernet sauvignon. Of note, his initial 2012 vintages of The Grade, “Kingly Project” and “Winfield Estate” cabs received 99-point and 97-point ratings from Robert Parker.
Tom, Brenda and Thomas are surely impassioned about what they are doing and believe they have one of the best vineyards in the region in which to do it.
The 12-acre Winfield Vineyard, using Tom’s middle name and part of a 32-acre ranch site, sits on a shelf above the old toll road leading into Calistoga. It is said to be at the confluence of the volcanic mountain soils and the alluvial valley floor. It is here that the team has created three distinct cabernets and a complex sauvignon blanc, all named from chapters in “Silverado Squatters.”
The tasting room sits among many other businesses on Lincoln Avenue in downtown Calistoga, located in a quaint old, well appointed California cottage; it’s easy to walk by their stylish sign that blends in with many others.
However, there is a unique story at The Grade Cellars, and it’s recommended for those seeking fine small-production cabernet sauvignon from an authentic boutique producer to make a reservation to taste the current releases. The $35 tasting fee includes a cheese pairing; everything is served in The Library, a private space with comfortable chairs.
The Grade Cellars produces about 900 cases per vintage including 215 cases of The Grade 2016 Sea Fog Sauvignon Blanc ($28), the only white varietal. From volcanic soils, the Sea Fog is barrel-fermented in all neutral oak to produce melon, white peach flavors, balanced acidity and a mineral elements through the finish. Give the wine a few minutes in the glass to open up.
The biggest yield at 530 cases is The Grade 2015 Winfield Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($100), aged for 20 months. Perfumed aromas of licorice and baked fruit precede full-bodied, rich and integrated flavors of red fruit, berries and cassis. Again, I found a nice minerality throughout. The 2014 vintage of this wine was named by California Wine and Wineries among the “top five exceptional wines of 2017.”
With floral and chocolate aromas, The Grade 2014 Kingly Project Cabernet Sauvignon ($150) would make a nice Valentine’s Day gift for that special wine connoisseur. I found earthy, slate elements on the nose and palate with red stone fruit flavors, demonstrative and balanced. Additional time in the bottle will soften the tannins and allow these complex flavors to integrate.
The exceptional releases are at a price point that’s not for everyone. However, if you are serious about cabernet sauvignon, you owe it to yourselves to try The Grade wines on your next visit to Calistoga. For the enhanced experience, read “Silverado Squatters” and stop by the Winfield Vineyard along the old toll road before you taste.
Lyle W. Norton is a wine enthusiast and blogger in Santa Rosa who has written a wine column for 15 years. Visit his blog at www.lifebylyle.com or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.