A Gourmet Wine Picnic Lunch at Swanson Vineyards on a Toasty Day

We scheduled our COVID safe visit to Swanson Vineyards in Napa Valley on a clear sunny day with temperatures hovering around the 100 degree mark. When we booked the Gourmet Picnic wine-tasting experience online, we didn’t know the heat would be so intense, but with the beautiful shade trees casting dappled patterns over the French style garden, complete with pea gravel and padded chairs, it turned out to be a lovely meal.


Whimsical French Garden at Swanson Vineyards in Napa Valley

Friends Rave About Swanson Vineyards

For years I’ve had different sets of friends tell me how wonderful a visit to Swanson is with its delicious Napa wines, French Décor, huge garden and famous red salon. Indeed, Swanson was one of the first wineries in Napa Valley to establish the “sit-down winetasting experience,” which has now been adopted by most every winery in the valley.

Swanson was founded in 1985 by Clarke Swanson, the grandson of the founder of Swanson TV Dinners. Clarke’s wife Elizabeth, who had a great love for France, decided to model the gardens and winery after a Parisian salon of the mid 1800’s. Clarke hired famous consultant, Andre Tchelistceff, to assist with winemaking, and Andre encouraged him to focus on Merlot.

Today, Swanson is still well-known for its excellent Merlot wines that are a great value at only $32 per bottle for the Napa Valley Merlot and $65 for the Salon Merlot. Of course, they also produce high quality cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, sangiovese, rose, pinot grigio, and other varietals. Marco Cappelli, a protégé of Andre, was Swanson’s winemaker for the first 17 years. Today the wines are crafted by Robin Akhurst, who became head winemaker in 2015.

Welcomed to Swanson by Nancy and Sarah

Use GPS to Find Swanson Winery in Napa Valley

I made sure to use my GPS to find Swanson Winery, because even though it is right off Highway 29 in Napa Valley, just after Robert Mondavi Winery and on the same side of the road, there is no sign for Swanson. In this way, they are known as an “under the radar” winery, which you need to “be in the know to find.”

Crossing the railroad track and driving down a narrow paved road with vineyards on both sides, I came to the Swanson entrance and a large sign overlooking a riotous garden of brightly colored flavors. Parking in a shaded parking lot, I donned my COVID mask and approached a welcome table where I was greeted by Nancy Richardson, Salonniere. She said a cheerful hello behind her mask, offered me some hand-sanitizer, and then escorted me to a table in the garden. Charlie arrived a few minutes later, and we sat down to a delightful wine lunch.


The Gardens at Swanson Vineyards

Gourmet Picnic Wine Lunch at Swanson

Since its lovely indoor Salon wine and food pairing was put on hold due to COVID, Swanson cleverly created an outdoor experience in their garden. For $75 per person ($150 per couple), visitors have the option of 5 gourmet menus paired with 4 Swanson wines. Even better, you can customize the wines for your own palate, as they create new printed wine-tasting menus each day. If you’re not that hungry, Swanson offers a tasting of 4 of their wines for only $40, and you can still relax in the whimsical garden patio in one of the many cozy settees or tables, with generous spacing and dream away the afternoon.

Meals are catered by Tre Posti, with the following choices:

  • Wild King Salmon
  • BBQ Spiced Pork Tenderloin
  • Grilled Filet Mignon
  • Poached & Chilled Shrimp
  • Beyond Sausages (only $70 pp)

Charlie and I ordered the Grilled Filet Mignon with salad and roasted vegetables. It was paired with the following wines, and for me this combination worked the best:

Classic Caesar Salad

with chopped baby hearts of romaine, garlic croutons, Parmigiano-Reggiano

Swanson 2019 Pinot Grigio


Simply Roasted Seasonal Vegetables

With sea salt and napa Valley olive oil

Swanson 2017 Pinot Noir


Grilled Filet Mignon

With horseradish cream sauce

Swanson 2016 Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon

Swanson 2015 Petite Sirah

Dessert was a tiny taste of the rare Swanson Angelica wine, which is made from 120 year Mission vines in the Sierra Foothills. It is a sinfully delicious sweet white wine, brimming with apricot and honey notes.  Only made in certain years, anyone who joins the Wine Club is offered a special sample to take home.

During the relaxed 90-minute lunch, Nancy would stop occasionally to describe the wines to us and answer questions. Later Sarah Dennis, Tasting Room Manager, came to greet us, and we felt very spoiled with all of the positive attention. Later they brought us the Swanson Coloring sheet and a box of colored pencils so we could linger longer and relax into an almost meditative state of coloring as we enjoyed our wine and the beautiful garden.

An Alice in Wonderland Afternoon

My experience at Swanson was very relaxing. I felt a little as if I’d wandered into a fairytale setting, because the gardens were filled with towering sunflowers and giant dahlias that made me feel I had shrunk to a miniature size. Then wandering into the red salon room with its magnificent fireplace and inlaid octagon table, as well as the French bistro Sip Shoppe with its stripped walls felt like I had stepped into a Hollywood movie set of Paris. It is not the normal modern tasting room that you usually find in Napa Valley – instead it is a dreamy place, hidden down a side road off Highway 29, that you have to make an effort to find. It is worth the effort.


Taking Photos of Swanson Vineyards Wines

Two New Napa Wineries Created by Same Family – Accendo Cellars and Trois Noix

The name “Araujo” is quite famous in Napa Valley, as Bart and Daphne Araujo ran their namesake winery for 24 years, crafting a string of some of the most highly rated Napa Cabs from the legendary Eisele Vineyard. But with an offer “that came out of the blue” from the Artemis Group to purchase Araujo Estate in 2013, they decided the timing was right to move onto another “project.”

Fast forward to 2020 with a brand new winery at Wheeler Farms, a private custom-crush facility located in St. Helena, where the Araujo’s, along with daughter Jaime, have created two new compelling winery projects – Accendo Cellars and Trois Noix. Today they both have five vintages to their credit, and the wines are showing clear and delicious differences in style and personality.

Jaime Araujo conducting elegant tasting with COVID mask

Arriving at Wheeler Farms to Taste Accendo and Trois Noix Wines

We scheduled an appointment to taste wines from both Accendo Cellars and Trois Noix at 10:30 on a Friday morning as part of our series on safe COVID visits to Napa/Sonoma tasting rooms. After punching in the gate code I received with the email confirmation, I drove into a beautiful garden with flowering shrubs, vegetable boxes and leafy green trees. Rising up behind it all was an impressive two-story brown barn-like structure, which I learned was a state-of-the-art winery. Off to the left was an old historic house that was part of the original Wheeler Farms established in the 1800’s.

Even before I parked my car, two people wearing COVID masks approached to welcome me. One turned out to be the charming, Jaime Araujo, founder of Trois Noix and partner with her parents in establishing Accendo Cellars, and the other was Brand Ambassador, Mathew, who held a tray with a glass of Billecart-Salmon Brut Reserve Champagne. A very nice welcome indeed!

Wheeler Farms Winery and Organic Gardens

A Mini-Tour of the Estate

A few minutes later my friend Charlie arrived, and with his glass of welcome Champagne in hand, Jaime invited us to peak into the winery.  Due to COVID safety regulations, visitors are not allowed to enter a winery, but we could stand at the door and gaze at the equipment. It was mind-boggling – and I have seen many wineries around the world. I told Jaime that this looked like a “Cathedral to Winemaking.” It had specially designed stainless-steel tanks, each with their own pump. There was a huge Bucher press, and an optical sorter – all “toys” that any winemaker would dream to have. Indeed, the winemaking facility attracts a number of highly talented winemakers.

Next Jaime pointed out the organic gardens and described how the fresh produce was incorporated into the food/wine tasting experiences offered at the estate. We walked towards the vineyards surrounding the property, and Jamie explained that they were primarily cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc vines, and that most of the grapes went into the Wheeler Farms wine brand. Currently there are six wineries operating at Wheeler Farms, including Accendo Cellars and Trois Noix.

Wheeler Farms Winemaking Facility

A Tasting of Trois Noix Wines with Founder, Jaime Araujo

After the mini-tour, Jaime led us to a beautiful outdoor patio overlooking the vineyards. Laid out on an elegant table under an awning were two place-settings with six wine glasses and a tempting charcuterie platter with local cheeses, estate-made crackers and fresh peach and basil from the garden. We were enchanted at the delightful setting and welcoming hospitality.

Keeping her mask on during the tasting, Jaime described how she started Trois Noix, with her brother. The name means “Three Nuts” in French, and is in honor of their three kids. After working abroad for nearly 20 years, including as a professional actress in London, three years with LVMH in Paris, and CEO/Founder of Terravina, a wine marketing/strategy firm in France, Jaime was finally lured back home to Napa Valley when her parents asked her to help them launch their new winery, Accendo.

“I was very excited to help them,” she says, “but decided I also wanted my own wine project, especially when I realized there was so much good wine available in Napa Valley. Therefore, I established Trois Noix, which is based on an opportunist approach to winemaking.” She explains that, “together with friends in the community, we sleuth out compelling wines and grapes that might overwise go neglected.”

Once she identifies some high-quality Napa grapes and/or wine, Jaime works with top winemakers to craft wines that are approachable, but also with the structure to last. This makes tasting Trois Noix wines a very exciting adventure, because each year turns up new treasures. Indeed, we were very impressed with the three Trois Noix wines that Jaime shared with us:

  • 2018 Trois Noix Sauvignon Blanc – aromatic nose of jasmine and gooseberry with explosive grapefruit on palate combined with minerality and mouth-watering acidity. Very lively and refreshing. Made in a combination of neutral oak and stainless steel with battonage. 92 points, $40
  • 2018 Trois Noix Chardonnay – classic Napa chardonnay with ripe apple, pear, generous toasty oak and lemon-zest acidity. Delicious and approachable. From Oak Knoll AVA. 90 points, $50
  • 2016 Trois Noix Cabernet Sauvignon – a Napa Cab with lots of personality, this wine wakes up the palate with black cherry, chocolate, pepper and tobacco. Enlivening! 92 points, $100

A Tasting of Accendo Cellars Wines

Accendo Cellars is the new passion child of Bart and Daphne Araujo. After spending over two decades crafting masterpiece wines from the Napa “Grand Cru” vineyard of Eisele, this time they decided to focus on the “art of the blend,” according to Jaime Araujo. “Now, for Accendo, we source grapes from five to six of the top “Grand Cru” vineyard sites in Napa Valley, and create a masterful blend. Not only are we sourcing from specific vineyards – all organic or biodynamically farmed – but we are selecting the best blocks within those great vineyards.  Think ‘Burgundy in Napa Valley.’”

They have also assembled an all-star team to help craft their wines, with Steve Matthiasson as viticulturist and Jeff Dawson as biodynamic consultant. They were also able to convince their former winemaking team at Eisele vineyards to assist, including Nigel Kinsman, Francoise Peschon and consulting winemaker, Michel Rolland.

Accendo Wines. Photo Credit: Accendo Cellars

We tasted three Accendo Cellars wines after tasting the three Trois Noix wines, and there was a clear difference in the expression and style of the two wineries:

  • 2018 Accendo Cellars Sauvignon Blanc – made with all three Bordeaux grapes – Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Musque and Semillon – this wine is the type I’ve been seeking in Napa Valley for a long time. It is so exciting to find such a delicious well-balanced “Bordeaux Blanc” with enticing floral notes of honeysuckle and exotic pineapple and green apple on the palate, with a hint of minerality. Fermented in new and used French oak barrels, concrete eggs and stainless-steel drums, with some sur lie aging. Elegant, balanced and long. 93 points; $65
  • 2015 Accendo Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon – nose of black cherry, earth and cassis, this is a big powerful Napa Cab made in the last year of the drought, and showing massive structured tannins, in the style of St. Estephe. On the palate dark cocoa, cedar, and cranberry. Aged 21 months in French oak, and will continue to evolve in the bottle for many years. 96 points, $360
  • 2016 Accendo Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon – perfumed nose of violets and blackberries, this is a magnificent wine with incredible balance, harmony and length. The palate shows complex spice, cassis, leather and black liquorish with fine-grained velvety tannins. It has both elegance, freshness and strength, and is Napa Valley cab at its best. Wow! 99 points, $360

Accendo wines are limited in production and sold primarily on allocation, though they are available in some fine wine shops.

Observing 6-foot social distancing at Trois Noix Winery, Napa Valley


Hawaii Meets Napa Valley at Tedeschi Winery

I first met Emilio Tedeschi as a wine MBA student in a class I was teaching at Sonoma State University. When he introduced himself, he said he was born in Hawaii, but was planning on taking over the family wine business in Napa Valley called Tedeschi Family Winery. At the time I thought this was rather unusual, until I recently visited Emilio at his boutique 2000-case winery near the town of Calistoga – and learned the rest of the story.

Entrance to Tedeschi Winery in Napa Valley

Arriving at Tedeschi Winery

Since this visit occurred during COVID-19, my friend Charlie and I made an advance appointment, and arrived in separate cars. The entrance to the winery looks like a Hollywood movie set with stone gate pillars and lush palm trees lining a gravel driveway. Once through the gate and around a curve, I saw a verdant green vineyards spreading out in front of me and a small parking lot. Off to the left was a welcoming outdoor patio with tables, chairs, sun umbrellas, and tall bamboo trees growing from wine barrels. Behind this was a small tasteful winery with stainless steel tanks and a wine tasting bar.

Relaxing Wine-Tasting Patio at Tedeschi Winery

Wine Picnic on the Patio

Donning my mask, I entered the patio and was greeted by Emilio with a virtual hug. He invited me to a long picnic table in a back patio where I met his father, Emil, his brother Mario and his aunt, Frances. Charlie had arrived before me, bearing a picnic basket and was laying out a beautiful spread of smoked salmon, green salad, turkey rolls, fresh fruit and appetizers on the long table. Ah, I thought, another wonderful day in California Wine Country – this is why I live here!

Lunch with Charlie (in mask), Emil (center) and Emilio (right)

Tasting of Six Tedeschi Wines

Over the course of our lunch we tried six different delicious Tedeschi Wines available online HERE:

  • 2019 Tedeschi Rosé of Valdiguie – explosive ripe berries, watermelon and crisp refreshing finish.  Made from the rare Valdiguie grape from the south of France.
  • 2018 Tedeschi Sauvignon Blanc – ripe melon and grapefruit with soft rounded palate.
  • 2018 Tedeschi Viognier – classic honey and peach notes with tantalizing fresh acid finish. Aged 8 months on neutral oak. Very well made.
  • 2019 Tedeschi Napa Gamay (Valdiguie) – like sipping on a bowl of fresh mixed berries. Delicious light red summer wine. Can also be served chilled. Also called “Napa Gamay.”
  • 2015 Tedeschi Merlot – classic merlot with red plum, spice and cedar. Well-balanced. It’s hard to find such well-made moderate alcohol merlots like this anymore.
  • 2014 Tedeschi Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc –orange blossom nose with rich honey and peach on palate. Long sweet finish. Perfect dessert wine.

Tasting with Winemaker Emilio Tedeschi at Tedeschi Winery

The Hawaiian Connection – the Rest of the Story

Over lunch I learned the “rest of the story” about the Hawaiian connection. Apparently Emilio’s father, Emil was born in Calistoga and raised in Napa Valley. He was the third generation of an Italian family that had immigrated to the US from Italy in 1919. In the 1950’s Emil’s father purchased the land on which the winery is currently located. Over the years they planted vineyards, fruit trees, vegetables, and built several family homes.

But Emil got itchy feet after high school and decided to travel the world. He became enchanted with Asia, where he met Emilio’s mother, and eventually settled on the Island of Maui in Hawaii. Here, in 1974, he co-founded a new vineyard and winery, Tedeschi Vineyards on the lower hillside of the Haleakalā Volcano. Over the years, it drew thousands of tourists to taste wine made with grapes and pineapples on Maui. However, the lure of Napa Valley and family called Emil back to California. So, he sold his share in the winery (now renamed Maui Wines), and returned to help run the family wine business.

Tedeschi Winery with Bamboo Growing in Wine Barrels

A Hint of Hawaii Lingers

After so many years in Hawaii, it is only natural that a hint of the tropic may still linger in this quiet corner of Napa Valley. I found it in the brightly colored flowers on the property, green palm trees and whispering bamboos planted in wine barrels so their roots do not run wild. It is also in the peaceful setting of the winery surrounded by vineyards where you can relax in a chair, listen to bird song, and sip delicious Napa wine. Since Hawaii and Napa Valley are two of my favorite places on earth, I was quite pleased to see this connection, and enjoy the wines of Tedeschi.

The Tedeschi Family. Photo Credit: Tedeschi Winery

Bubbles, Swords and Potato Chips at Breathless Winery

Do you enjoy sparkling wine? If so, consider scheduling a visit to Breathless Winery in Sonoma County, California. As part of our continuing series on supporting local wineries during COVID by scheduling safe visits to winery tasting rooms, a small group of us ventured to the town of Healdsburg where Breathless is located. There we were greeted with a flutes of delicious bubbly wine, potato chip appetizers and a saboring demonstration with a sword.

Three Sisters and Penny the Wine Maker – Photo Credit: Breathless Wines

Breathless Awarding Winning Wines Famous Even in France

I first heard of Breathless several years ago when the 2012 Breathless Brut won the top Sweepstakes Award in the Sonoma County Harvest Fair as well as several other competitions, where I was doing blind wine judging. This was quite amazing, because the winery had just opened in 2011, and their first vintage was already stealing all of the awards. They have continued this winning streak, winning 13 medals and Best of Show with their most recent releases in 2019.

Even more surprising is when I mentioned Breathless Wines to some winemakers in France, and they said that most of the wine industry in France knew Breathless very well, and were especially impressed with the three sisters, Sharon, Rebecca and Cynthia, who started the winery and their famous winemaker, Penny Gadd-Coster. Penny has long been known as a super star in the California wine industry. With more than 30 years of winemaking experience, including stints at Jordan, J Winery, Forenzo Vineyards, and Rack & Riddle, where Breathless is located, Penny was rightly named “Winemaker of the Year” for Napa, Sonoma, and the greater Bay Area by the North Bay Business Journal.

Not a Chateau – Housed in Industrial Warehouse

Wearing masks, we arrived at Breathless Wines for our 11am appointment, and were greeted by Sharon Cohn, whose business card reads, “Sister 1 of 3.” The winery tasting room is a small cozy building nestled next to a large industrial complex of three huge warehouse buildings that house Rack & Riddle – the famous custom crush business that makes sparkling and still wine for many wineries in Napa and Sonoma. Indeed, all of the Breathless wines are made here as well.

What makes a visit to Breathless so enticing is not only the wine, but the beautiful outdoor garden with shaded tables, beautiful flowering shrubs and tall fir trees that spread out from the tasting room. This is also ideal for COVID outdoor tastings, as the seating areas are more than 6 feet apart.

Wearing a mask, Sharon invited us to take a seat in a large gazebo in the center of the garden. We were pleased to see a small welcome sign for our group, along with crystal Champagne flutes, small bowls of potato chips (one of the best pairings with all types of wine due to the salt and crunch), and a bottle of Breathless Brut chilling in a silver ice bucket.

The Story of Breathless and Its Beautiful “Lady on a Flying Cork” Label

As we sipped the beautiful Brut sparkling wine and nibbled on potato chips, Sharon told us the story of Breathless Winery. She and her other two sisters, Rebecca and Cynthia, decided to start the winery to honor their mother who had passed away from Alpha-1, a disease that makes it hard to breathe. This was also an inspiration for the name “Breathless,” along with its double mean of something so beautiful it leaves you breathless. Today they donate money from wine sales each year to Alpha-1 Foundation, as well as other non-profits.

All three sisters have impressive backgrounds in finance, business strategy, hospitality and wine, so starting the winery was based on passion for wine and family. They decided to focus on sparkling wine, made in the traditional “methode Champenoise,” where secondary fermentation takes place in the bottle, producing delicate bubbles and fresh exciting wines to celebrate life.

Sharon described how they decided to use the “Lady on a Flying Cork” from a 1920’s Champagne poster for their label. “We were working with a graphic designer who told us we should put a picture of our “chateau” on the label, but we laughed because we make our wine in this warehouse.” She gestured to the large aluminum sided building behind her. “However, we found this great old poster of the lady on the flying cork and decided to use this. We pay a royalty to the artist for every bottle sold.” See Breathless Wines Video below portraying “Lady on a Flying Cork.”

A Tasting of 5 Breathless Sparkling Wines with a Sword Demonstration

In total, we tasted five Breathless Sparkling wines, each made in the traditional method with aging 2 to 3 years in bottle as non-vintage wines. They all had very distinctive personalities, and are available for online purchase HERE:

  • Breathless Brut – 60% Chardonnay, 40% Pinot Noir, inviting red cherry notes with lemon zest and tiny bubbles. Received 98 points in the 2019 Harvest Challenge ($27)
  • Breathless Blanc de Blanc – 100% Chardonnay, fresh pear and lemon with hints of toast and minerality; great complexity, with a zippy refreshing finish. ($34)
  • Breathless Rosé – 90% Pinot Noir, 10% Chardonnay, fruit forward and voluptuous with ripe cherry cordial notes, and hint of sweetness on the finish. ($33)
  • Breathless Blanc de Noir – 93% Pinot Noir, 7% Pinot Meunier, sophisticated and complex with toasty brioche and lemon brulee notes – delicious! Sweepstakes Wine at San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. ($32)
  • Breathless Moscato – 98% Muscat Canelli, 2% Chardonnay, perfumed floral nose of honeysuckle with spice and honeydew notes on palate with slightly sweet finish. A perfect brunch or appetizer wine. ($29)

When we arrived at the Blanc de Noirs, Sharon invited one of us to “sabor” the bottle with a sword. This is an ancient tradition from Europe of breaking a Champagne bottle using a saber (sword). It was popularized by Napoleon’s cavalries to celebrate a victory. The French term is “sabrage.” Since I had already done this several times in the past, I encouraged Fiona to try it. Sharon showed her what to do, and after donning gloves and eye glasses for protection, Fiona deftly sabored the bottle and then poured it in our glasses.  She describe the whole exciting experience HERE.

Meeting with the Famous Breathless Winemaker – Penny Gadd-Coster

We were honored when Penny Gadd-Coster, the award winning winemaker of Breathless Wines and Director of Winemaking for Rack & Riddle, stopped by our table to chat with us for a few minutes. Penny explained that they make around 20,000 cases of Breathless sparkling wine each year, and that is it sold and shipped to more than 25 states. She also described the impressive size of Rack & Riddle, which produces around 1.7 million cases of sparking and still wine for many different wineries. With more than 70 employees and two locations, Penny has a huge winemaking empire to oversee. However, her true love is making sparkling wine, and the exquisite taste of Breathless wines is a true tribute to her skill and artistry as a world-class winemaker.

Scheduling a Tasting and/or Sabrage Experience at Breathless Wines

If you are in interested in scheduling a COVID safe visit to Breathless, it is easy to reserve your spot online HERE.  A tasting of four sparkling wines is only $16 per person, and the “Sabrage” sword experience with tasting is $69.

Fiona and I toasting with Breathless Blanc de Noir from Sabor