Napa Valley is a place where people come to leave their money. They part ways with their wad in a hundred ways: hoarding hundred-dollar Cabs, padding around five-Benny rooms, and finally, bewitched by the lifestyle, plunking down millions for their very own slice of St. Helena sunshine. But I like best the tradition at Prager Port Works, where they simply staple-gun cash to the plywood walls and leave it at that.
John Prager explains that it all started in the mid-’80s when his father received a dollar in the mail, free and clear—a junk mail type of promotion. He tossed the mail, but tacked the bill to the wall of the winery he started in 1979. Somewhere around 1988 an instigator type stopped by, said “I’m going to start a trend” and tacked up his own dollar.
He must have moved up in the world, because he’s since added a five, 10, even a 20 to his collection, which is now surrounded by banknotes on the ceiling, walls and banisters; currency from around the world and across time, from the Dominion of Canada, Nationalist China and, from Zimbabwe, a $100 trillion note (worth upwards of $3 at one time). Most are small bills; one cryogenically frozen dollar is especially small. Making for a fun, dive bar effect, it says something more: people are saving up their rarest old banknotes to donate them to Prager’s walls well before they even leave for their Napa getaway.
Hosted today by John Prager, his brother the winemaker, Peter, and their brother-in-law Richard Lenney, winetasting is conducted in the barrel room while they put the finishing touches on a long-overdue upgrade to the old room. But don’t worry about the threadbare oriental rug or Prager’s famous “web site,” a cobwebbed window that hasn’t been cleaned since 1985—they’re still there.
Made from traditional port grapes, the 2009 Port ($55) sighs with aromas of dark raisin and desiccated fig, and gushes with black plum and chocolate flavor. All Petite Sirah, the 2007 Royal Escort Port ($72) shows its heady spirits (it’s fortified with 170-proof brandy) but lingers like blueberry syrup. The 2009 Aria ($48.50) white port is just a liquid bear claw, while the 10-year Tawny Port ($75) is sublime and difficult to describe—hazelnuts huddled at the bottom of a cool, murky pond dreaming that they’re sipping black tea spiced with orange rind, with sherry for afters, maybe.
When touring the underdog wineries of the Napa Valley, Prager should be among one’s top stops. They’ve got something that money just can’t buy.
Prager Winery and Port Works, 1281 Lewelling Lane, St Helena. Daily, 10:30am–4:30pm (from 11am Wednesday and Sunday). Tasting fee, $20. 707.963.7678.