One thousand feet above the Napa Valley floor, up past a parched landscape where digger pines scrabble for purchase on the crumbling, rocky slopes above Sage Canyon Road, and down a dusty ranch road in Chiles Valley, sits RustRidge Ranch, where horses graze in open pasture alongside the vineyards, now reddening in the autumn light. Inside the tasting room, a hay barn (furnished nicely enough, with rustic artifacts and a slice of tree over old barrels for a bar), a big yellow dog lies long and flat under a table and the air is still while winemaker Susan Meyer pours a taste of 2011 Sauvignon Blanc ($25) and tells her story in a manner some might like to call laconic. The barrel-fermented Blanc is nutty, tingly, and lingers on the tongue for a long time.
Meyer's family came up from the Peninsula in 1972 not principally to plant grapes—although that was something they did early on. As a child, she loved horses, and her mother, a racing enthusiast in the day, wanted to find land where Meyer could ride one. With the winery in 1985 came the idea to revive the ranch's thoroughbred operation, and also came Jim Fresquez to train the horses. Affable, quick with a story, Fresquez has had a career so closely identified with California horseracing that he has personal memorabilia from Seabiscuit—and I'm talking about the horse, not the movie. Have the 2010 "Racehorse White" Chardonnay with a movie and with popcorn, herbed but not buttered, because this lean-finishing wine's got wild, floral, peanut brittle and cream soda notes.
There's something different about Chiles Valley Cab. The 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon ($50) is savory, with something like a Chianti get-up-and-go to it. The 2008 Zinfandel ($35) floats cherries like lazy clouds over a palate of black fruit and red candy—fine drink for a winery that's a slightly remodeled cattle feeding barn, run by just this couple plus an intrepid intern they wrangled all the way from one of the tonier wine bars in Dallas, Texas, all three of them worrying over the press on the day before harvest, followed around the crushpad by two dogs and a cat, as horses look on from their corral.
RustRidge Ranch, 2910 Lower Chiles Valley Road, St., Helena. By appointment, 10am–4pm. Tasting fee, $20. Bed and breakfast stays available in a rambling ranch house with wall-to-wall horse decor. 707.965.9353.