Benchmark Wineries

Alexander Valley Vineyards

Founded on the site of the old Cyrus Alexander homestead (and namesake for what would become the Alexander Valley in 1984), Harry and Maggie Wetzel purchased the property in 1962. After years of work, the first vintage was released in 1975, helped the following year by the attention the Paris Tasting brought to California. Years of investment in the vineyard and winery followed, and the third generation of the Wetzel family works at the winery today.


Founded by former Christie’s wine auctioneer Fritz Hatton, his wife Maggy, and fames winemaker John Kongsgaard, Arietta joins their love of fine wine and music. Fritz has long been the auctioneer at the Napa Valley Wine Auction, which has raised over $100 million since its inception in 1981. Andy Erickson has been their winemaker since 2005, when John Kongsgaard was bought out.

Behrens Family

Behrens Family began as Behrens and Hitchcock in 1993. 20 years of winemaking followed with the last release of Behrens and Hitchcock in 2013, though the Hitchcocks retired in 2005. Located on Spring Mountain, they were one of the earliest wineries to explore longer hang times for riper grapes.


Beringer is one of Napa’s most historic wineries, with its first vintage released in 1876, and established the following year in 1877 by Jacob and Frederick Beringer. Interestingly, Beringer has never missed a vintage, even during Prohibition by making sacramental wine, making it the oldest continually operating winery in the valley. Beringer was also the first winery to offer public tours starting in 1934.


Blackbird Vineyards was created by Michael Polenske in 2003, on the site of a former walnut orchard that has been planted over to merlot. Interestingly, merlot takes it name from the French word for Blackbird, “merlau”. Blackbird draws inspiration from merlot-based wines produced on the Right Bank of Bordeaux.


Founded in 1997 by Darioush Khaledi, an Iranian immigrant who earned his fortune in the grocery buisness, his winery is located in the Oak Knoll Distict in southern Napa Valley. He also has vineyards on Mt Veeder, and feels that the cooler climates of these two sites produce superior expressions of cabernet, merlot, and syrah.


Dan and Margaret Duckhorn founded their winery in 1976 with 800 cases of Cabernet, and in 1978 became one of the first purveyors of luxury merlot. Over the following decades Duckhorn would add to their holdings in Napa, with vineyards on Howell Mountain, as well as the Three Palms Vineyard, source of the merlot for their flagship bottling.


Farella was founded in 1977, but would not release its first wine until 1985. It was the first to plant Cabernet Sauvignon in the Coombsville area of Napa, and would also be responsible for petitioning for its eventual elevation to AVA status in 2011. Tom Farella, with the help of his father Frank, focus their energy on Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, and Cabernet.


Foppiano is one of Sonoma’s oldest continually operated family owned wineries. Founded in 1896 by Giovanni Foppiano, they were able to survive Prohibition by selling home winemaking kits, then transitioned from jug wine to varietal bottlings in the 1970s. Today their location in the Russian River Valley allows excellent expression of their estate vineyards.

Frank Family

Former Disney Executive Rich Frank purchased the former Kornell Champagne Cellar property in 1992 with the help of Koerner Rombauer, after falling in love with the Napa Valley. They also own the Winston Hill vineyard in Rutherford which is the source for their many of their red bottlings.

Freemark Abbey

The winery was originally built in 1886 by Josephine Tychson, one of the first women to operate a winery in the state. After passing between several owners, in 1939 three businessmen from Southern California, Albert "Abbey" Ahern, Charles Freeman and Markquand Foster purchased the property, naming it from a portmanteau of their first names. It is now owned by Jackson Family Wines.

Frog's Leap

Bonded by John WIlliams and Larry Turley in 1981, Frog’s Leap takes its name the Frog Farm where he was staying when he first moved to Napa, and Stags Leap Wine Cellars, where he had his first winery job. Frog’s Leap has long been at the forefront of sustainable, dry farming, and organic viticulture, first certified organic in 1989.

Gundlach Bundschu

Jacob Gundlach and his wife Eva emigrated from Germany to Sonoma, producing their first wine in 1861. Following pylloxera, the winery was the first in Sonoma to graft vines onto native rootstock, allowing for continued production. Charles Bundschu married Jacob’s eldest daughter Francisca, joining the families together. Closing after Prohibition, they sold grapes for decades until reopening the family winery in 1973, with their first varietal merlot being made in 1976.


Hourglass winery was founded in 1997 and is based on two vineyards: the Hourglass Estate in St Helena and Blue Line in Calistoga. Owned by Jeff Smith, the name comes from the slight pinch in the valley floor by St Helena, causing an hourglass shape. They produce rich wines of great concentration, with merlot becoming more of a focus. Sadly, the Calistoga winery property was destroyed in the 2020 Glass Fire.


Lou Kapcsandy came to the US from Hungary in 1956, and work for years in chemical engineering in the Bay Area. He and his wife wanted to find a place to retire and produce fine wine, and found a vineyard site in Yountville that had once been a source for Beringer’s Private Reserve cabernet, before being ripped out due to phylloxera. They closed on the property in 2000, and with the help of their son, planted new vineyards focussed on Bordeaux varieties.


Robert Keenan, certain that hillsides could produce excellent wine, purchased 180 acres of an abandoned 19th century winery in 1974. Located on the eastern slope of Spring Mountain. The estate vineyards are planted to chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and merlot. The vines are sustainably farmed, and the winery is solar powered.

La Jota

La Jota was founded in 1898 on Howell Mountain by Frederick Hess, a Swiss immigrant who ran a German language newspaper in San Francisco. After Prohibition, the wnery laid dormant until 1974, when it was acquired by Bill Smith. After reviving the property, it was brought into Jackson Family Wines by Jess Jackson.

Long Meadow Ranch

Long Meadow Ranch is quite a diverse operation, with a working 650 acre ranch, the LMR and Hunt & Harvest wine labels, as well as Farmstead restaurant in St Helena. Their approach to winemaking mirrors their other farming methods: balance and varietal character, using sustainable and organic approaches.


Founded in 1874 as Laurent Winery by Jean Laurent, who moved from Bordeaux to California during the Gold Rush. After passing through several owners, Bruce Markham purchased the property in 1977, releasing his first wine in 1978. It was then sold to the Japanese company that owns Kirin Beer in 1987. Markham is one of the few wineries with still standing winery buildings from the 19th century.

Matanazas Creek

Founded in 1977 in Sonoma’s Bennett Valley, the winery’s focus is on sauvignon blanc and merlot, with limited quantities of other wines as well. The vines are sustainably farmed, and also feature a large lavender plantation. The winery is also a part of Jackson Family Wines.


Matthiasson is run by two farmers, Steve and Jill Matthiasson. Both are specialists in sustainable farming and viticulture, and their vineyard is located in the Oak Knoll District of Southern Napa Valley. They consult on vineyard management while also running their winery, which produces Bordeaux blend red wines, chardonnay, and several Italian varieties as well.


Located on Mt Veeder, the winery was built in 1889, and passed between several owners until Bob Travers purchased the property in 1968. He expanded the facilities, and brought the winery into the modern era. Mayacamas wines, located in the cooler Mt Veeder AVA are known for their acidity and restraint.


Merryvale began its life as Sunnyhill Winery, then Sunny St Helena, one of the first wineries built after prohibition in 1933. Founded by Jack Riorda and partners (including the Mondavi family, before they acquired Charles Krug up the road), the winery passed from owner to owner until Bill Harlan took it over, releasing the first Merryvale wine in 1983. Bob Levy was the original winemaker, who would go on to work with Harlan at Harlan Estate, Bond, Promontory and the Napa Valley Reserve.


Founded in 1998 by Dave and Emily Miner, the winery is located in the Oakville AVA. Dave got his start in wine as president of Oakville Ranch Vineyards. While there, he and Emily decide to start their own label, which is well known for its powerful red wines. 

Mt. Brave

Located on Mt Veeder on a ridgeline in the Mayacamas mountains, Mt Brave is a challenging vineyard site. At 1400 to 1800 feet of elevation, the veins are above the fog line, but soils are thin and the vineyards are dry, which gives small berries resulting in concentrated wines. Chris Carpenter is the winemaker, who also oversees La Jota, Cardinale, and Lokoya. 


Started by Jayson Pahlmeyer, a former trial attorney who switched careers as his wine label became more popular. Their first release was in 1986, and was made at Merryvale winery before eventually building their own facility. The inclusion of the 1991 Pahlmeyer chardonnay in the film Disclosure helped to popularize the label nationwide.


Jim and Barbara Richards purchased their Spring Mountain property in 1983 and planted merlot, which would become their focus in coming years. They sold their fruit at first before making their own wine in 1994. The 2001 Paloma merlot was named Wine of the Year by Wine Spectator in 2003.


Pride Mountain winery is located on Spring Mountain, and actually straddles the Napa / Sonoma county line, with a 40% Napa, 60% Sonoma split. The earliest vineyard plantings date to 1869, with the Prides purchasing the property in 1989. The high elevation vineyard site produce wines or purity and concentration.


Begun in 1999 with Tom Rinaldi, founding winemaker from Duckhorn, Provenance places a great deal of importance on where their grapes are sourced, or their provenance, if you will. Now owned by Treasury Wine Estates, they have many options to choose from.


Founded in 1998 by Dave and Emily Miner, the winery is located in the Oakville AVA. Dave got his start in wine as president of Oakville Ranch Vineyards. While there, he and Emily decide to start their own label, which is well known for its powerful red wines. 

Saint Francis

Located in Sonoma Valley, St Francis was founded in 1971 by Joe Martin originally as vineyards, planting 22 acres of chardonnay and 60 acres of the first merlot in Sonoma, before beginning to make their own wine in 1979. St Francis now farms over 380 acres in Sonoma, all of which have been certified sustainable.


Shafer is a family owned winery, founded in 1978 by John Shafer, who moved to Napa after a career in publishing. Vines had been planted on the property since the 1880s, and their first wine was made from zinfandel vines planted in 1922. While well known for the Hillside Select Cabernet, their merlot is world class. 


Founded by Englishman Peter Newton in 1964, Sterling began with plantings of chardonnay and merlot, at a time when others were mainly focussed on cabernet. Sterling released the first vintage dated merlot in Napa in 1969. Newton sold Sterling to Coca-Cola and went on to found his eponymous winery on Spring Mountain.


Located in Rutherford, Swanson vineyards is a family owned operation established in 1985. While a wide array of wines are made, the winery concentrates on pinot grigio, merlot, and cabernet sauvignon. After founding the winery, Clarke Swanson consulted with the famed Andre Tchelistcheff, and it was he who recommended focussing on merlot as opposed to cabernet.

Switchback Ridge

Eliza and Mads Peterson, (immigrants from Ireland and Denmark, respectively), purchased a property in Dutch Henry Canyon, south of Calistoga in 1914. Though vines and fruit trees were planted, plum trees for prune production helped supplement their income during prohibition. The vineyard is now planted to cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and has a 60+ year old block of petite sirah, and these were used to release their first wine in 1999.


The Duncan Family (of Silver Oak fame) founded Twomey in 1999 to focus on single vineyard expressions of pinot noir, as well as merlot. They source grapes from vineyards in the Russian River, Anderson, and Napa Valleys.


Owned and operated by Kirk Venge, the winery is located just to the south of Calistoga. Kirk’s father is Nils Venge, also an acclaimed winemaker in Napa, who made the first 100 point Napa Cabernet, the 1985 Groth Reserve. Kirk’s wines are normally rich and concentrated, which reflects the warmer temperatures of the Calistoga area. Luckily, the winery was spared during the 2020 Glass Fire.


Founded in 1998 by Jess Jackson (of Jackson Family Wines) and Pierre Seillan, a vigneron from Gascony, to create Bordeaux inspired wines with fruit grown in Sonoma. The approach is to blend the 50 “micro-crus” into wines that showcase the terroir of their vineyard sites. They produce three wines, La Muse, La Joie, and Le Desir, all Bordeaux blends.