Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Frog's Leap Winery

Frog's Leap Winery is well known as a winery that everybody loves, with their great wines, incredible tours, beautiful setting, fantastic sense of humor and lovely hospitality.  Our expectations were high, and we were not disappointed, but we really did not expect to see frogs literally leaping at Frog's Leap Winery.  But they were!

Red Barn

Frogs were leaping in the lawn at Frog's Leap Winery.  Honestly.  There were hundreds of them.  What else should we have expected at a winery that has "ribbit" printed on their corks and whose motto is:  "Time's fun when you are having flies."  Even the parking sign points to the left for "Work" and the other way for "Play."  (We took a sharp right!)

There is no tasting bar at Frog's Leap.  It is more like an upscale restaurant where you sit at tables on the patio or inside, have a gorgeous view and then receive the ultimate in hospitality.  Whether you go for just a tasting or one of their famous tours, you will need reservations but  you will receive special attention and not have to elbow your way through crowds of tourists disembarking from buses.  It is a very popular place, but the reservations work to your advantage and they can easily be arranged.  Much thanks to Terry Joanis for being so helpful and friendly and arranging our tour.

Vineyard House

But don't just go for the tasting.  Take the tour.  It is an hour and a half long and includes the tasting, all for the same $20 that you would pay for the tasting alone.  It is a bargain either way.  I can't tell you how many wine tours I've been on over the past forty years.  After awhile they all seem pretty much the same, and the level of learning seems minimal.  Hendry Winery and Vineyard is a notable exception and so is Frog's Leap.  It is a great tour, very animated and informative, done with the utmost hospitality and humor to spare.  Seth does an awesome job as a tour host!  Tours just don't get any better than this.  Much thanks to Seth for a fantastic tour and tasting experience.

Seth, our tour guide


But first, some history about Frog's Leap Winery and John Williams, the owner.  There are many stories in Napa Valley and this is one of the famous ones.  It began in the 1970s when John Williams, now owner of Frog's Leap, pitched a tent, unannounced, on Dr. Larry Turley's property, after he was unable to reach him by phone.  His interest had changed from cheese making to vinting and a friend had recommended he talk to Larry Turley.  Larry Turley, finding a stranger in a tent on his property, approached on his motorcycle and began revving the engine until the stranger came out of his tent.  You will learn more details during the tour, but basically the two became friends and John Williams began working at Stag's Leap Wine Cellars.  Eventually in 1981 he and Larry Turley founded the Frog's Leap Winery at a site that use to raise frogs for gourmet  restaurants in San Francisco back in the late 1800's.  It was known as the "Frog Farm" and was in St. Helena next to Mills Creek.  There is also a story about how it got its name from a slip up in words John Williams made in a speech he gave, but I'll leave that and a few other stories. such as the one about their famous label, for the tour guide since he tells them so well.

Tasting table

In 1994 the two decided to go their separate ways because they had such different taste in wines.  Larry Turley opened Turley Wines and John Williams moved Frog's Leap to their current 130 acre site in Rutherford with its historic Red Barn where Adamson Winery had originally been established at the site in 1884.  In 2005 he built the Vineyard House, where you will either experience your tasting or begin your tour.  It is a lovely setting, but I'll let the photos speak for themselves.  I assume there are frogs in the goldfish pond and that is where all the little frogs in the lawn came from. I imagine there is a story about this.  Perhaps John Williams played a flute and lured the frogs away from the previous frog farm.  Or perhaps they fled from nearby vineyards that use pesticides and found a haven at Frog's Leap Winery.  That is where I'd go if I was a frog.


John Williams and Frog's Leap Winery demonstrate the utmost in environmental concern and it is not just "lip service."  In 1988 Frog's Leap became Napa Valley's first officially certified organic winery.  No pesticides or herbicides are used nor any artificial fertilizers.  Vineyard rows are planted  with cover crops that are tilled into the soil, fixating the nitrogen. (Oats, vetch, winter peas and native mustard.) They also have solar panels that provide for 85% of their energy.  The vineyard is entirely dry farmed; they do not irrigate or water the vineyards, saving many thousands of gallons of water for others.  Companion plants are planted all over, encouraging beneficial insects.  They even negotiated with nearby wineries that use pesticides so that minimal spray will drift over.  There is sincere commitment to nature and the environment at this winery.  Current wine production is around 60,000 cases, making this a medium plus size winery for Napa Valley.

 Tasting Deck

While we were sitting comfortably waiting for our tour, they brought us some Sauvignon Blanc and offered us straw hats to wear in the vineyard during the tour.  In their bathrooms they even have sunscreen for you.  Every detail has obviously been thought out to provide visitors with the most enjoyable and informative experience possible.


During the tour we heard many interesting stories and learned some fascinating things about vineyard management, organic farming and wine making.  Seth really knew what he was talking about.  In addition to providing a tour of  the vineyard, showing us  the beneficial insects and plants that supported them, taking us to the goldfish pond and Red Barn, etc., Seth would often pause and produce a bottle of wine for a tasting, making the tasting an integral part of the tour itself.  It made it more difficult to take detailed tasting notes, but was a very enjoyable way to do a tasting.

Goldfish pond

Frog's leap not only has a great tour, but offers some outstanding wines at reasonable prices.  The Frog's Leap 2011 Rutherford Sauvignon Blanc that I mentioned earlier is a mere $20 and is their most popular varietal with a production of 23,400 cases.  It is 100% Sauvignon Blanc and is fermented in stainless steel.  As with all of their wines, it is dry farmed and organically grown.  It was light, sparkling straw in color with fascinating shades of green, making it very pleasant to look at.  I got mostly melon and gooseberry on the nose.  On the palate it was crisp, dry and well balanced with gooseberry, lemon, and white peach with some minerality.  Finish was medium length and very clean.  It is a very nice Sauvignon Blanc and I understand why it is so popular.  This was my favorite of the white wines.  You really should try some.

Grounds and companion plants

Our second pour was the Frog's Leap 2011 Napa Valley Chardonnay which sells for $26.  It is whole cluster pressed and sees full malolactic conversion.  I usually do not like Chardonnays that are allowed full malolactic , but this one has the acid and structure to balance it.  Malolatic conversion, also incorrectly referred to as malolatic fermentation or MLF, is a natural process that makes the wine smooth and buttery. (Seth correctly referred to is as malolactic conversion.) Many Chardonnays do not have the acid and structure to balance this and end up too flabby and tasting like buttered popcorn if they are allowed full malolactic conversion.  The same applies with oak, which is often done excessively, ruining the Chardonnay varietal characteristics.  The Frog's Leap Chardonnay obviously benefits from malolatic conversion and is not overly oaked, although the oak certainly is there.  To the eye it is a pale gold.  The aroma is slight and mostly lemon.  On the palate it is full bodied for a Chard. with good acid that is well integrated.  The butteriness is well balanced with the acid and fruit so is quite pleasant.  I got mostly green apple, lemon and buttered toast with a medium length finish.  Although it is very nice by itself, this Chardonnay is dry and crisp enough to pair very well with food.

Space saving rectangular tanks

Our third pour was the Frog's Leap 2011 Napa Valley Zinfandel that sells for $30.  It has 14.5% Petite Sirah and .5% Carignan blended with the Zinfandel and saw 12 months in American oak.  This one is not overwhelmed with alcohol or "fruit bomb" as are many Zins these days.  After a pleasant fresh red fruit nose I got red cherry, raspberry, pepper and spices.  (I'm always glad when a Zin has some pepper or spice because it makes the wine more interesting and complex.  This one has both.)  It is well balanced and medium bodied for a Zin, with a medium short finish.   It is very pleasant and easy to like.

Famous label that is now
in the Smithsonian

Our fourth tasting was the favorite for both of us, the Frog's Leap 2010 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon at $42.  It is 93% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Cabernet Franc and 1% Merlot.  It saw 21 months in French oak. It had a nice nose of mostly cherry.  On the palate it is fairly big and lush but still rather dry, with good tannins and some herbaceousness and spice. I got mostly blackberry, and black currants with hints of toasted oak and cedar.  Finish was long in length with some toastiness. It is neither overly extracted nor is it a Cab you will have to cellar for years to enjoy.  Quite drinkable now, it obviously has the structure to cellar well.  It is only a 2010 but is rich, complex, smooth and very well balanced.  At $42 this Frog's Leap 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon is under priced for the quality.  An excellent Cab!

View from upstairs of Red Barn

Our final tasting was the Frog's Leap 2011 Rutherford Petite Sirah at $37.  This is one of my favorite varietals and I recently attended the PS I Love You event where many of the finest Petite Sirahs were offered for tasting.  This one is 100% Petite Sirah and had an aroma of black cherry and blackberry.  It was more fruit forward, softer, smoother and more lush than many Petite Sirahs and without the pepper or pronounced tannins.  Ordinarily I do not like this style, but this one is very well balanced and will appeal to many people who do not ordinarily like Petite Sirahs.  I got blueberry, blackberry and black cherry on the palate with a pleasant medium length smooth finish.  My friend and several people on our tour really liked it.  Very well done if you like the style.

Main entrance to Vineyard House

In addition to a great sense of humor, very friendly hospitality, lovely setting and excellent wines, Frog's Leap Winery offers a wonderfully informative and animated hour and a half tour that is not to be missed.  Yes, frogs really were hopping all over!  Visitors were laughing and really enjoying themselves.  If you think Napa Valley wineries are formal, stuffy, serious places, then you haven't been to Frog's Leap Winery.  This is a winery whose name often comes up in conversations among us locals.  It seems that everybody who visits just loves the place and the word is out that if you have family or friends visiting, this is a great place to take them, not only for the wine but for the special setting and atmosphere.  Be sure to bring a camera.  I have my own motto for this winery:  "Frogs really do leap when you are having fun at Frog's Leap Winery."

View from patio

Frog's Leap Winery
8815 Conn Creek Rd
Rutherford, California 94573
Phone: 800-959-4704
Date of visit: June 12, 2013

Red Barn

Grounds and companion plants

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