2812 St. Helena Highway
St. Helena, Calif. 94574
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Daily
Tasting Fees: Heritage Tasting $20
Wines Offered: 2016 Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc, 2016 Napa Valley Chardonnay, 2014 Napa Valley Merlot, 2014 Napa Valley Cellar 1879 Blend, 2013 Estate Grown Napa Valley Cabernet
Reservations: Required for groups of 6 or more
Pets: No (services dogs welcome)
Did You Know? Markham Vineyards focused on Cabernet Sauvignon in the early days and introduced the Markham Merlot with the 1980 vintage. The winery was one of the first producers of Merlot as a stand-alone wine, and celebrated 35 years of bottling Napa Valley Merlot on May 31 this year. Though the winery produces a collection of varietals and red blends, it’s still mostly known for its Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The winery will be crushing their 40th vintage of Cabernet this harvest season.
Located along St. Helena Highway, Markham Vineyards is one of the oldest wineries in Napa Valley, established by Jean Laurent, an immigrant from Bordeaux, France. Laurent came to California seeking gold during the rush, but instead found his way into the winemaking business.
Laurent built his first winery in 1874, a modest wooden structure and one of the first wineries in the valley. Business was thriving, and in 1879 he built the stone cellar that still stands today as the heart of Markham. Laurent went on to become one of the few producers during the California wine boom in the 1880s. In 1889, his winery produced 20,000 cases of wine. “It was probably shipped by train to the east coast,” says Winemaker Kimberlee Nicholls.
After Laurent’s death in 1890, the winery continued, but a framed sketch of Laurent still hangs on a wall at the winery. “Jean Laurent was a private person, and didn’t like to have his picture taken,” says Nicholls. “We believe the sketch was done posthumously.”
Over the years, the winery continued to operate under a succession of owners. Then, nearly 100 years after Laurent’s death, Bruce Markham purchased the winery as well as vineyards in Yountville, Oak Knoll and Calistoga. In 1978, Markham hired Bryan Del Bondio, his first employee, who later became president of Markham Vineyards. In 1988, the winery was sold to Mercian Corporation, and the company began a multi-million dollar renovation and vineyard-replanting program. Del Bondio is still on staff, serving as the winery’s senior advisor.
Today, Markham appears to be a modern new winery with a koi pond at the entrance. Step inside the tasting room and you’ll find paintings on the walls from local artists in bright, saturated colors available for sale. Though the tasting room has the feel of a modern gallery, Markham is, in fact, rich in Napa Valley history.
When it comes to winemaking, Nicholls has a practical philosophy and produces wine that pairs well with food. “We believe food and wine should go together,” says Nicholls who’s worked at the winery for 25 years and arrives ready for harvest season in jeans, a T-shirt and boots slightly dusted with soil from the vineyards. “And while we are serious about making good wine, we have fun doing it,” she says, flashing a smile.
We begin with the 2016 Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc, which offers a lush, smooth honeyed taste with notes of grapefruit, melon and lime zest and a refreshing finish. “I wanted to create a Sauvignon Blanc that was food friendly,” says Nicholls. What’s fun about wine tasting at Markham is they help lead the way with wine-food pairing. The tasting menu recommends, for example, pairing the Sauvignon Blanc with grilled garlic shrimp, black beans and rice.
Next, we try the 2016 Napa Valley Chardonnay, which Nicholls prefers serving slightly warm (58 to 60 degrees). If you don’t have a wine thermometer, no problem. She likes to let a bottle set at room temperature for 20 minutes before serving it. If you can’t wait, pour a glass and cradle the base with your hands a few moments before sipping. This Chardonnay is creamy and buttery. “If you serve it slightly warm, you can taste the nuances,” she says.
We move to the reds and try the 2014 Napa Valley Merlot. While Merlot often gets a bad rap since the release of “Sideways” more than a decade ago, Markham has embraced this varietal since 1980 and it remains their largest production wine. “It’s all in how you grow it,” says Nicholls. “You have to do the best you can in the field.” Markham sources their grapes from Hopper Creek and Yountville. And while most good-quality Merlots are noted for their plummy, dark chocolate flavors, this Merlot has a lovely sweet cherry taste. “I want people who taste Markham Merlots to get the components of cherry pie coming out of the oven and the buttery toast crust of the barrel. This is not Miles’ Merlot from ‘Sideways,’” she says with a laugh. “Merlot is very drinkable and goes with a lot of food.” The tasting menu suggests pairing it with something beautifully simple—even a burger will do.
Next, we try the 2014 Napa Valley Cellar 1879 Blend, a wine Nicholls found challenging to make. As a winemaker, the goal is to make wines that focus on a single varietal such as a Cabernet or Merlot, she says. “This took a long time to make. If I could smell the varietal, it wasn’t good enough.” Big, lush and full of cheek, you’ll find it’s worth the wait. This blend explodes with jammy black fruit with a touch of sassafras, bourbon and toasted aromas. “I created this in homage to Jean Laurent, the man who built the cellar,” she says.
Finally, we sample the 2013 Estate Grown Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, a vintage Markham recommends cellaring for special occasions. This Cab offers a velvety richness with a striking dark berry flavor, vanilla, dark chocolate and star anise aromas.
For Nicholls, enjoying a glass of vino is never about the wine itself. It’s about gathering at the table with family to share a bottle of wine with good food and enjoying the magic of the moment. “It’s about slowing down, enjoying food and wine together and the comradery. That’s what you remember.”
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