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