This story takes place in relative recency. It does not involve crossing the Sierra Nevada, nor does it paint a picture of great hardship, but it is inspiring never-the-less. The tale starts in Seattle, with David Sinegal – the heir to the Costco empire. David was spellbound in the afterglow of the global growth of Californian wine, something he saw happen for himself in 20 years of heading-up buying for the multinational cash-and-carry company. He came to Napa and was immediately seduced by the sublime, historic Inglewood Estate. David didn’t know very much about winemaking, so he set out to learn – and now he prides the Sinegal Estate winery on its 1,403 (yes, it’s that precise) steps to making the perfect, cult-status Cabernet Sauvignon. But it isn’t this that makes Sinegal the talk of Napa at present – but more so his approach to marketing and its tourism offering. In a saturated market, David has created something different – his property is ‘by membership only’, where just a select few can taste, eat and ultimately enjoy the luxurious property and grounds, away from the madding crowd of Napa’s mainstream wine-tourist trail – a ‘Soho House’ of vineyards so to speak.
“They were still adding finishing touches to the Sinegal Estate, but I could already see how this place will set the bar and revolutionise Napa VIP tasting experiences.”
On visiting Sinegal, I’m greeted by Eddie, the property’s Director of Marketing and Strategy – a job title that alone sums up the way this vineyard approaches its existence. Everywhere I looked, I noticed subtle branding, from the windows to its barrels, its labels and its highly-produced brochures. The logo takes form of an iconic skeleton key – the original key that opens the front door to the historic home, I’m told. For me, this is yet another reminder of the spirit of Napa – that with the right attitude, you can open any door to greatness.
The place itself is stunning, the stuff of dreams – one of Napa’s oldest and most coveted properties, set in 30 acres. Its focal point is its huge, light-ochre Victorian estate house – flanked by a private lake complete with rowboats, not to mention gorgeous green lawns speckled with palms and olive trees. The tasting room is a new-build, unlike any I’ve seen before, a far cry from the damp, old-world cellar rooms you get in other wineries – but instead an enormous, double-height, light-filled space, interior-designed to within an inch of its life – like a New York City design hotel. Huge wooden doors open into the cellar, creating a seamless connection to the building and land beyond it. It was so new when I visited that they were still adding finishing touches, but I could already see how this place will set the bar and revolutionise Napa VIP tasting experiences.
Something else which is seeing a renaissance in creativity is Napa’s food scene. Ever since the 70s, chefs have escaped to Napa to channel their flower-power sensibilities into nurturing food – using anti-establishment, micro-culture, and artisan techniques. Ask any chef here where they find inspiration and you’ll be immediately herded through their adjoining vegetable garden. This was no different at the Round Pond Estate; our fabulous farm-to-table ‘Il Pranzo’ lunch was preceded by a ‘we grew it here’ tour, where we picked and ate fresh arctic strawberries and ogled giant beetroot. Round Pond is a second-generation MacDonnell family venture, but despite its mammoth growth over the years, you can tell that the same passions still hold strong. The mark the MacDonnell juniors have put on the property is an emphasis on olive oil production – and they have become famed for their delicious flavoured oils. Their philosophy is simple, to create an olive oil that’s a departure in taste away from what we use every day, the difference being as obvious as that between carton orange juice and the freshly squeezed variety. The energy at Round Pond is vibrant and the people who work here are as passionate as the MacDonnells. They’re friendly, grounded and noticeably healthy – excited to be part of something that embraces all that is magical about Napa.
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If there has been one consistent theme here, the wine aside, it is that Napa Valley’s charm lies in its omnipresent, entrepreneurial spirit. And besides the fantastic balloons, luxury wine lodges and delicious food experiences, I take some fantastic lessons away with me from my time here, engaging with the concepts brought to life by the entrepreneurs of Napa.
Firstly, to always trust your instinct and connect with your passion. If you’re passionate and optimistic about something like Jay Kimball was – you’ll approach it with a sense of vigour and authentic enthusiasm. You’ll feel energized by the challenge and push the boundaries, no matter how stacked the odds.
Secondly, like David Sinegal, always look at how you can do better. I think it was Mark Twain who said, “If you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” Mainstream tourism in Napa is a relatively young industry, but rapidly reaching its half-century anniversary – the very best and successful businesses constantly innovate and surprise.
And the final lesson? Take calculated risks, execute and don’t be afraid of failure. George C. Yount didn’t know back then how much of an inspiration he would become as the forefather of modern winemaking to the over 400 wineries here in Napa; and more so, the equal number of related tourism businesses, today. They have, in their own journeys, walked in his path and they understand what it really takes to make it here. Perhaps to some degree, they ‘put their trust in Mother Earth’, but somehow I think what they really put their trust in are equal measures of love, hard work and ambition.
Uwern’s maiden balloon voyage was taken with Napa Valley Aloft, found in the central V-Marketplace in Yountville. Rides start early in the morning, subject to weather conditions and are followed by a delicious brunch at the infamous Pacific Blues Cafe.
The sublime Sinegal Estate is located just off the St. Helena Highway and available to visit by appointment only.
Round Pond Estate is a Californian farm, winery and olive mill, located in the acclaimed Rutherford region of Napa Valley. A family-owned and operated estate, experiences are designed around its splendid vineyards, gardens and orchards.
Photography by Uwern Jong, Leo Morgan, Bel Ragay (via Unsplash) and courtesy of Sinegal Estate
Get out there
… know that despite your best (or worst) efforts, wine will pass your lips on a visit to the Napa Valley. All of Napa’s points-of-interest can be far apart, so leave your car at the hotel and use life-saving Uber.
… remember this – swirl, smell and sip. Or as some say, spit, don’t swallow. Wine-tasting should be a joy, not a contest.
… check out the different townships of the Napa Valley – Angwin, City of Napa, Yountville, Oakville & Rutherford, St. Helena and Calistoga are all wonderful and each has wholly distinctive characteristics.
… forget to look beyond the obvious, Napa is not just about wine. There are plenty of fantastic activities from arts and culture, to outdoor pursuits.
… come unprepared. Do your research on who owns what – using a local, family-owned business is more community-spirited than going with a corporate.
… just eat out. Finding a great place to dine is not going to be a problem in Napa, where there’s plenty of fabulous choices, but a nice respite is a picnic. Pick up supplies from Oakville Grocery or the Oxbow Public Market.