Frog’s Leap Winery

A 'sense of place' with a sense of humor

In a valley chockablock with competitive brands, a good story is nearly as important as good wine. Frog’s Leap does a neat job on both. Founder John Williams pitched a tent, unannounced, on John Turley’s property in the 1970s, having recently swapped his cheesemaking focus at Cornell for vinting. Williams found a job with Stag’s Leap Winery, and the pair later made a batch of wine they cheekily named “Frog’s Leap.” The New York Times took note, and the frog leapt into history.

But the fact that Williams doubled down on a method of farming that is largely seen as, well, historical, is the main narrative today. Frog’s Leap vineyards are dry-farmed, grown with only water that the soil soaks up in the rainy season and a system of tillage. As Williams points out, this is how the great wines that established Napa Valley’s reputation were grown.

Although it looks typical of big, old farm houses seen throughout the valley, the Vineyard House was built in 2005. Staff are as numerous and professional as in any Napa hospitality joint, but in place of a tasting bar, the relaxed mood is set by a cozy drawing room, complete with fireplace, stuffed chairs, shaggy dog and lap-seeking, sleepy cat. When the tour begins, Williams’ dog Abby bounds after us, as if it were the highlight of her day.

Our tour guide totes a wicker basket and a bottle of 2010 Napa Valley Chardonnay ($26), a crisp, floral Chard with hard cider and golden-raisin flavors, that we enjoy with an informative talk on dry-farming, flavored with just a dash of hyperbole. As we wind through the vineyard, the rustic 1884 winery and the barrel chai, he finds more bottles along the way, like Easter eggs.

By the frog pond, we get a tall tale and a pour of the cool, juicy 2010 Napa Valley Zinfandel ($27), deep with red cranberry fruit, accented with gingersnap. The 2009 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($42) has the kind of clarity and what some call minerality—like sucking on shale, in a good way—that you might expect from a wine deeply connected to the soil, with juicy blue fruit flavors.

The tour ends with a walk through a garden brimming with produce, laden with tree fruit. Visitors may also order up a seated tasting on the wraparound porch, sip a 2011 Rutherford Sauvignon Blanc ($20), razor-edged with gooseberry, lime and kiwi fruit flavors, and find that dry-farming—who knew?—can produce a beverage more thirst-quenching than water.

Frog’s Leap Winery, 8815 Conn Creek Road, Rutherford. Open daily, 10am–4pm. Tastings, $20; tours Monday–Friday, $20. 707.963.4704.