Sacramentans eager to get to the heart of Napa Valley for a day of wine tasting customarily speed by the first winery they encounter along Highway 12 connecting Interstate 80 with the valley's main route, Highway 29.
Tucked into a vineyard high on a hill, it isn't easy to see, for one. Motorists also likely are focused on simply surviving the congestion and the drama of a $115 million widening of Highway 12. The sooner they put that behind them, they well may feel, the better.
So they breeze right through the traffic signal at Kirkland Ranch Road and zip on to Yountville, Rutherford and St. Helena.
The folks of Reata winery, however, are saddled up and ready to rope them into turning right at Kirkland Ranch Road for a bit of western hospitality. "Reata," Spanish for "lariat," is the year-old name for a winery initially called Kirkland Ranch and then, briefly, Valley Gate Vineyards.
A year and a half ago, Madison Vineyard Holdings of Colorado acquired the property, brought in new winemaking personnel, came up with the name Reata to recognize the site's ranching history, and are ready to start grabbing the attention of at least some of the 36,000 motorists who drive Highway 12 daily.
They're doing it in part with a heavily timbered, 57,000-square-foot production facility and hospitality center in the middle of the estate's 300 acres, 100 of which are planted to vineyards, with much of the rest of the property continuing its more traditional role of providing pasture for cattle and sheep.
From the wraparound veranda of the tasting room, visitors get an appreciation of just how close the site is to San Pablo Bay, which helps provide the setting's cool breezes, making it a site especially fitting for chardonnay and pinot noir, the focus of Reata's winemaking goals.
Reata's new winemaker, Nori Nakamura, just wrapped up his first vintage on the estate, though he's an old hand at working with Napa Valley grapes.
His first exposure to wine came in his native Tokyo, where an uncle, an opera singer who performed in both Japan and Italy, had an Italian restaurant, Maria. But while Nakamura was around wine at the restaurant, he didn't give it much heed until he spent a month in Italy with his brother, a furniture designer, in 1993.
On the last night of his stay in Milan, his brother took him to a posh restaurant where they shared a bottle of a 1981 Barbaresco.
"That was my definitive moment. It was exotic, it was sexy," Nakamura recalled of the wine. "I was overwhelmed by the power of that wine, how it could make me so emotional, how it could provide so much joy. I decided then that I wanted to pursue this."
He returned to Tokyo, completed his studies in economics at Keio University, and joined the hotel chain Nikko. After earning a certificate in wine service from the Japan Sommelier Association, he transferred to the Hotel Nikko in San Francisco as catering manager.
That was in 1999. The hotel's wine program was so French-oriented that he didn't visit the Sonoma and Napa wine regions until three months after he'd moved to San Francisco. When he did get there, he was immediately smitten by the scene, the wines and the possibilities. He subsequently spent virtually every weekend touring wineries, 170 the first year alone.
When he found himself wanting to move beyond tasting wine to making it, he began to ask winemakers how they got to where they were.
"Eighty percent of them said they'd gone to UC Davis. I didn't know what that was," Nakamura said.
When he found out, he enrolled and earned a second bachelor's degree, this one in viticulture and enology. Before becoming winemaker at Reata, he worked at several Napa Valley wineries, including Napa Wine Co., Pine Ridge Vineyards and Artesa Winery.
Five years from now, he hopes to be recognized in large part for the balance and length of his wines.
"I don't care for powerful, high-alcohol, heavily extracted wines," Nakamura said. "I don't use much oak. I don't want it to stand out. It should push the fruit, but stay behind it."
Though he didn't make the Reata wines now on the market, they nevertheless provide that sort of model. Made by consulting winemakers David Stevens and Dave Dobson, Reata's first wines include a 2009 Napa Valley viognier whose barrel fermentation was held in check so its bright and refreshing essence of honeysuckle, peach and spice wouldn't be overshadowed by oak; a spirited 2010 Napa Valley chardonnay whose ripe flavors run to the apple, peach and pear end of the fruit spectrum; and a meaty and mineral-y 2010 Napa Valley pinot noir.
Reata also has a second label, Whiplash, under which it has released a pleasant if simple 2010 California chardonnay and a fleshy, fruity and earthy proprietary red blend from the 2009 harvest called Redemption, based largely on syrah but also including substantial portions of barbera and zinfandel.
The most impressive wine in the current lineup, however, is the Reata Estate 2010 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, which seizes the appellation's forthright berry and cherry flavors in a luxurious package that lingers long on the palate with notes of spice, leather, tobacco and truffles. In commercial wine competitions it consistently has won gold and silver medals.
The irony here is that the grapes that yielded the wine were grown in neighboring Sonoma County rather than Napa Valley. For Sacramentans on a wine-tasting holiday, that just means they don't have to drive all the way to the coast to sample the wine.
Reata 2010 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
By the numbers: 14.2 percent alcohol, 6,200 cases, $30
Context: Fish, pork, chicken or beef dishes scented with rosemary or oregano, or pasta tossed with a basil pesto, would be a good fit for the pinot noir, say Reata officials. They also note that it pairs well with cheeses such as Camembert and Brie. (Reata's principal officers are Alyssa O'Hare, who grew up on a raspberry farm in northern Oregon, and Bryan E. Gordon, who grew up in a family that imported specialty cheeses from Europe, including France).
Availability: In Sacramento, look for the pinot noir at BevMo stores. It also can be ordered through the winery's website, www.reatawines.com.
More information: Reata's Western-theme visitors center, which includes a homey tasting room, banquet facilities and an observation area overlooking the working winery, is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. Reata's resident chef, Karen Chiappone, is just launching a wine-and-food program that is to include such dishes as truffled mac 'n' cheese and marinated short ribs paired with Reata wines.