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An Insider's View: The Food & Wine of Napa Valley

July 23, 2008


Silenus: Once a wine sot… now a hot wine spot!

If you’re down a quart on wine mythology, Silenus was the teacher and companion of Dionysus, the God of Wine. According to legend, Silenus had a serious drinking problem; he consumed so much wine that he couldn’t stand, and had, in fact, to be carted around on a donkey. In other words, an early day rock star.

Today, Silenus Vintners is one of the newest, sweetest, custom-crush facilities in Napa Valley, offering 18 small wineries a place to make their hedonistic blends as well as serve them to the public.

Silenus Vintners, located on the northern fringe of Napa town, operates a tasting room seven days a week, 10 to 4 pm, where visitors, on a by-appointment basis, can taste a dozen different wines, all handcrafted in small batches at the facility.

I like a lot about Silenus Vintners, including owner Bob Williamson and his dedicated wine team, which includes Scott Turnnidge, who runs the tasting room, and Brian Graham, winemaker for Williamson’s own label, Ideology.

If you are a resident of Napa Valley, you have likely driven by this winery numerous times without knowing that things have changed in the place previously called Koves-Newlan. Silenus Vintners is on Solano Ave., immediately south of Darm’s Lane, in the Oak Knoll District appellation.

If you are a visitor, first-timer or not, you might think about making an appointment to visit and taste through the wines made on this site. Some of them are spectacular and all of them represent significant value, of which wine drinkers can’t have too much in these tense economic times.

“In a way, we’re a mini-Napa Valley Wine Co.,” says owner Bob Williamson, explaining that his custom-crush facility operates like the big custom-crusher in the valley in Oakville, about nine miles north of Silenus Vintners.“

”And by mini, I mean teeny-tiny, mini-mini,” adds Williamson.

In total, clients at this facility collectively produce about 30,000 cases of wine annually, with the average production of any one label in the 300- to 400-case range.

You may recognize some of the brands produced and offered in the tasting room. I sold Brookdale and Ilsley Cabernets on my former website,, in 2003. These two brands are now produced, blended and bottled at Silenus Vintners, and they are as good now as they were then – compelling wines at very fair prices. I am extremely fond of these wines and their producers. Five years later, they are still making first-class, heads-up, must-have wines.

My wine buddy, Rob Fanucci, whom I help make Charter Oak Zinfandel and Charter Oak Petite Sirah, is moving production to Silenus Vintners for this coming harvest. Charter Oak will be the 18th winery to join this small-lot production house, supplying the only Napa Valley Zinfandel in the tasting room.

“I don’t think we can accommodate any more winemakers or labels,” says Williamson, aiming to cap enrolment at his facility. Williamson, who was formerly a land developer in Half Moon Bay, knows about building big, but he also knows when to stop building. And in the wine business, it appears to be now.

In the tasting room, Scott Turnnidge, part-Scot, part-Englishman, part-Irishman, is an affable host. He pours wines with gusto and knowledge and fills the room with welcoming laughter. It’s evident, too, that he knows way more about wine than he does about spelling; just ask to see the misspelled tattoo on his left forearm. Blimey!

I asked Brian Graham, who is Bob Williamson’s winemaker and who also produces a wine for himself called Ramian, about his winemaking philosophy.

“I believe in hands-off winemaking. Conduct your due diligence in the vineyard and at harvest, then let the wine speak for itself in barrel. I believe in extended barrel aging to soften tannins,” explains Graham.

I participated in a mini-tasting in the elegant Silenus Vintners’ tasting room and have these highlights to share:

2004 Brookdale Cabernet Sauvignon.
I have a soft spot for this wine, having sold it on my former website in the early 2000s. It was a winner then and is still a winner today. Big hugs to Kristi Seitz, who continues to manage this label so well after the tragic death of her husband, Mike, whom we all admired. This is a gorgeous, approachable wine filled with raspberries and at the core, a discernible coffee, cocoa note. This is a put-me-down-for-a-case wine, especially given the price, $45. An easy 92 point wine.

If you’re visiting Napa Valley and hire a limo to take you around to different wineries, just be careful how you pronounce your intended destination. With a Midwestern accent, or deep southern drawl, your driver may hear you say “Salinas,” when you tell him to head to Silenus. In which case, you’ll find yourself traveling 146 miles south to Salinas, the lettuce capital of America and the hometown of one of America’s best-ever writers, John Steinbeck!

Silenus (and NOT Salinas!) Vintners is located at 5225 Solano Ave., Napa.
By appointment, seven days a week, 10 to 4 pm. 707-299-3930.

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