I like a winery that delivers on a promise: the first thing you see through the doorway of the Huge Bear Wines tasting room in downtown Calistoga is, indeed, a bear of fair size—or a carved wooden ursine facsimile. But still. Folks take notice.
"The bear is a draw," says Debi Cali Leal, general manager at Huge Bear. People want to see the bear, people want to Instagram their picture with the bear. People want to know, why a bear? It all started back in 2006, when the new owners of the Knights Bridge vineyard in Knights Valley, realizing that "Rich guy buys vineyard" isn't exactly headline news in these parts, went casting about in the history of the area for a story worth telling. They found it in 19th-century archives of the Weekly Calistogan: "Huge Bear Visits Knights Valley." Now that's a headline.
There was a time when Knights Valley was slated to become a tourist destination, connecting with Napa via railroad. Entrepreneurs laid out a town, expecting great things. Instead, the big news was that a large grizzly bear was reported raiding the house of the local justice of the peace.
The errant bear was never caught, which is why they decided against installing a taxidermied bear in the tasting room, according to Leal. "The bear got away, that's part of the story," she says. And Knights Valley escaped development, returning big plans to dust in due time.
Huge Bear occupies a handsomely remodeled space that formerly housed a shoe shop but was originally built as a bank with a license to print money. That's exactly what some might call a Napa Valley winery, but most wines on offer—like the orange-peel-spiced, warm and fruity 2014 Pinot Noir ($45); the 2013 Sauvignon Blanc ($25), juicy like honeydew melon with a lime skin finish; and the lush, Petit Verdot–dominated, thyme and chocolate-cherry cordial scented 2012 Ursa Gigantes ($45)—are Sonoma County wines.
The Huge Bear wines, which are labeled with a fun adaptation of an illustration from Lynd Ward's book The Biggest Bear (with grapes substituted for apples in the bear-frightened gentleman's basket), top out at $75 for the herbal, claret-like 2011 Knights Bridge Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. Secreted away in the bank's vault upstairs, $100-plus Knights Bridge Winery Cabs are indeed available for tasting, but only by separate appointment, since Huge Bear and Knights Bridge (not to be confused with the Knights Bridge vineyard, which they share) are not, appearances to the contrary, sister wineries. It bears mentioning.
Huge Bear Wines, 1373 Lincoln Ave., Calistoga. Open daily, 10am–6pm. Tasting fee, $15. 707.341.3414.