There’s a new, ornate cathedral in the tiny hamlet of Rutherford, at the epicenter of Napa Valley. It’s lined with Italian marble and lit by Murano-style, Venetian chandeliers.
To set the record straight: it’s not a religious cathedral. It’s a Cathedral of Wine – where you go to worship innovative winemaking.
The recently opened Del Dotto Estate Winery and Caves, on Highway 29 near Zinfandel Lane, is a shrine to wine, envisioned and built by Dave Del Dotto, who traces his family’s heritage back to the 1150’s in Venice.
The wine, which Dave makes, is likely far better than what his forebears drank 850 years ago in Venice, but still, Dave wanted to capture elements of his ancestry, so he spent millions to build a Venetian-inspired winery on a 17-acre parcel, which he had acquired 20 years earlier.
“This is the most educational wine tour I’ve ever taken!” exclaims an Hawaiian-born guest on my Del Dotto tour, who eagerly lapped up the wine lore of our knowledgeable guide, Bob Groff.
“It’s SO worth the $50 fee,” said a man on our tour. “An hour in the cave is like going on a vacation!”
Well, that’s one way of describing the tour through the darkly lit cave, constructed out of stone from quarries and old homes in Italy.
“We brought 100 containers of stone, marble and ceramics from Italy,” says tour guide Groff. To make the vaulted roof of the cave, for example, they brought over 40,000 well-worn bricks, taken from old buildings. Stonemasons from Italy spent months, carefully chunking the bricks into place in the cave roof.
The detail in the floors and ceilings of the salon and even in the cave induce one’s jaw to drop.
Part of the experience here is disorienting; you just don’t expect to find such ornate, Italian touches in a winery in the middle of Napa Valley.
There is also an element of Disneyland about the visit. Four, or five, small groups are led through the cave simultaneously and there is an air of excitement as you “thieve” the barrels, hunting down new, and different, flavor hits.
On the average tour, guests taste wine from eight to 12 barrels. At Del Dotto, ALL wine is aged in 100 percent new oak. As well, all the fruit is organic, it’s all hand-picked, all hand-sorted and only free-run juice is used to make wine.
Dave believes that what changes wine, hastens its maturation, or alters its taste, is a series of things in the winemaker’s toolbox.
As a consequence, Del Dotto makes more than 350 different Cabernets! Many Cabs are in lots as small as two barrels (48 cases).
There are many permutations to achieve this diversity. At Del Dotto, they age wine in different woods; you may taste, and buy, wines aged in French Oak, or American oak. The level of toast is varied, too. You can have wine aged with a heavy toast, a medium toast, or a light toast.
Then they get really experimental. They have routed U-shaped ridges on the inside of some barrels to expose the wine to more wood surface area, increasing the tannic structure of the wine. Then, to really push the limits, they invented a V-groove, carved deeply into the staves of some barrels, exposing the wine to even more wood.
They experiment with yeasts here, too, Visitors can taste wines made with any of five different natural yeasts.
On reflection, the place is really like one giant wine experiment. You can have your Cab any way you like it; they put visitors into the winemaker’s seat, enabling guests to mix-and-match wines, which they personally like. It sure beats chasing someone else’s ratings to identify wines that you might like.
On my tour, we started by tasting a Cabernet that was aging in a barrel whose oak came from central France. We sipped, slurped and swallowed. Then we walked 10 yards to another barrel; Bob, our guide, inserted his thief (a glass syringe used to “steal” wine from the barrel – hence a “thief”) and filled our glasses with wine that was aging in a barrel made from the of oak of nine different French forests! Although it was the same Cabernet, the wine tasted completely different, modified by the many types of oak with which it had been in contact for a year.
In this fashion, we tasted nearly a dozen different wines – most of them starting out as the same supple Cabernet.
In total, production at Del Dotto is about 10,000 cases, but very few are identical. As you can see, on purpose.
Dave Del Dotto made his money in real estate and TV infomercials. His sense of educating – and motivating – the public to buy wine isn’t a whole lot different than moving them to buy real estate.
By presenting visitors with many different wines to taste – all made with the same starter Cabernet -- Dave gets guests to identify their own tastes. Essentially, he is enabling guests to customize their own bottles.
Many visitors choose one, or two, bottles aged with a specific oak, or level of toast, and choose other bottles aged in different woods. In this manner, many visitors fill a case, with different customized wines.
Readers may have visited the Del Dotto caves on Atlas Peak Road, and may have read what I wrote about my visit to that winemaking facility years ago.
(Go to http://www.ilovenapa.com/favorite_dark.shtml ) Dave moved into these caves years ago, while he was building his Rutherford dream cathedral.
Dave told napaman that he intends to stay in the Atlas Peak facility for the next two years and may renew his lease on that property when it comes up for renewal.
The indefatigable entrepreneur, Dave Del Dotto, who has just announced plans to build a third winery in Napa Valley. Slow down, Dave – you’ll soon have as many wineries as Steve Martin has had guest appearances on Saturday Night Live (15)!
In addition to finishing his new winery in Rutherford, and starting to plan another in Yountville, Dave has been busy buying land on which to grow grapes.
Today, Del Dotto owns more than 400 acres in Napa and Sonoma counties, of which 96 are planted. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Sangiovese are planted.
The fruit comes from five different estate vineyards, the largest of which is Cinghiale (which means ‘wild boar’ in Italian) Vineyard, on the crown of a ridge on the Sonoma Coast, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. This is Del Dotto’s source of Pinot Noir and some Chardonnay.
The salon area of the winery – where you enjoy camaraderie and bottled wine after your cave tour.
After the cave tour, your guide hosts a tasting in the salon, where you are served a plate of charcuterie and cheeses plus house-made pizza. You are also served some terrific examples of Del Dotto’s bottled wines, and if you pass the final exam (just kidding), you are also served house Port, made from Del Dotto’s pressed wine.
During my visit, Dave revealed that he would like to develop a third winery in the valley – on a plot across from Mustards Grill, in Yountville. Dave bought the 13-acre site, which used to be a strawberry patch, and plans to convert it into a “Pompeii-style winery” at which all wines will be fermented and aged in clay vessels – “the way they made wine 2,000 years ago,” says Dave.
According to tour leader Bob Groff, who is wine historian, the term amphora, referring to the clay vessels which have two handles and are used to store liquids, seeds, grain, even wine, actually means “carried by two men.” Hence the reason there are two handles on the newly released bottles of Del Dotto wines aged in clay amphorae.
Yes, it sounds crazy, but for the past two years, Dave has been studying this historic style of winemaking and has been making some tasty Zinfandels and Cabernets, which have been fermented, and aged, in clay.
It’s a known fact that fermenting in vessels interred in the ground keeps the fermenting juices cool, which promotes color and flavor extraction, and aging in clay, or slightly porous material, also helps improve a wine.
Some of my favorite Chateauneufs du Pape are fermented in large cement vessels. And one of my recent favorite Napa Valley Cabs – from Ovid on Pritchard Hill – is fermented in cement. So Dave just may be on to something when he launches an entire series of wines that are fermented and aged in clay.
As making money is as much a rush to Dave as making wine, the Yountmill property is actually on the market with a $12.5 million price tag.
“If we sell it, we’ll make our clay-fermented wines at Del Dotto,” says tour guide Groff. “If we don’t sell it, we’ll move the clay operation to the new location.” Either way, we’re making clay-aged wines.”
To experience Del Dotto Estate and Caves, be sure to leave a good two-hour window in your day. This is not a winery to visit when you’re doing four in a row. This is an eye-opening, one-of-a-kind experience that requires your full time and attention. It’s like one of Dave’s infomercials – it’s in your face and likely to change your thinking.
Del Dotto Estate Winery & Caves, 1445 St. Helena Highway South, St. Helena, CA, 94574. Visits by appointment only. The cave barrel tasting tours are staggered throughout the day, but usually depart the reception area at 11 am, 1 pm and 3 pm. On weekends and holidays, additional tours are offered at 11:30 am, 1:30 pm and 3:30 pm Tel: 707-963-2134.