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Madonna Estate

Where 'doing it all wrong' works wonders

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At a recent wine-marketing seminar in Sonoma, the topic of the day was the so-called millennial generation. Who are they, what do they want and how to catch their deficient attention spans? Some very bright young people said some very bright things, but in the end it boiled down to that old bugbear of wine marketers everywhere: you've got to get authentic without been seen trying to be authentic. You can imagine the consternation. It's like attending a singles party, without appearing to be, well, desperately single.

It reminded me of a little winery, just over the hill, that's supposedly doing it all wrong. Their tasting room is no wine lounge experience, and it's filled with the typical tchotchkes. They can't be found on Facebook, their tweet cannot be heard above the roar of traffic on Highway 121. I've passed by countless times without a thought. Yet Madonna Estate is doing a bang-up business, both in wine and tchotchkes. (The "Napa Wine Country" magnets are particularly coveted by the daily stream of young folk pouring out of tour buses, says marketing director Brette Bartolucci.)

Brette and her sister Taylor are the millennial reps of a winery founded upvalley, improbably enough in the Prohibition year 1922, by their grandfather. Known as Mount St. John for many years, the brand returned to the Madonna label well after the Oakville facility was sold in 1970. Now, grapes are organically farmed in the Carneros region, and Madonna Estate is the second-oldest family winery in Napa—depending on how you count.

Director of public relations Taylor Bartolucci is no stranger to the pages of the Bohemian; her theater company, Lucky Penny Productions, recently produced the musical Legally Blonde at Spreckels Performing Arts Center. Their dad is happiest on his tractor. "Our dad is really experimental," says Taylor, of Andrea "Buck" Bartolucci. "I like to call him crazy." Of their 10 varietal wines, nine are from estate vineyards.

The 2010 Pinot Grigio ($28) has a tropical, floral, wisteria aroma; the 2010 Chardonnay ($28) a sort of toasty, confectionary aroma oddly reminiscent of Pepperidge Farm® Chessmen® Cookies; while the dense 2009 Dolcetto ($35), may well rock any meaty pasta dish with its chewy, cherry fruit.

But the standout is a varietal rarely called the next big thing: the 2010 Estate Gewürztraminer ($22) is floral, tropical, thirst-quenching and not so sweet—the kind of cool refresher that you want with your picnic of fruit, cheese and pasta salad on a fine summer noon when the sun is high, the breeze is light and little birds twitter in the trees.

Madonna Estate, 5400 Old Sonoma Road, Napa. Open daily 10am to 5pm; tasting fee, $5–$10. 707.255.8864.

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