As a brilliant alternative to the usual tasting room, rising star Jamey Whetstone pours samplings of his eponymous wines at a vineyard picnic cohosted by superchef Michael Chiarello.
Jamey Whetstone of Whetstone Wine Cellars is one of Napa Valley’s biggest up-and-coming talents. But when the recession hit in 2008, he realized that in order to keep his business alive, he would have to essentially reinvent what it means to be a modern winemaker. So he added the titles of sales guy, tour guide and maître d’ to his list of responsibilities and began pouring wines for customers at picnic lunches in the vineyards that provide his grapes. Not many winemakers would put down their hoses and pipettes to do this, but those vineyard lunches have helped keep Whetstone’s business afloat.
At a wooden table surrounded by acres of vines, Whetstone and his wife and co-proprietor, Michelle, talk about their wines and hang out with their customers. Conversation can go in any direction, with Whetstone candidly discussing everything from his winemaking techniques to his South Carolina upbringing (he is, literally, the son of a preacher man) to the challenge of child rearing (he and Michelle have four kids) to his annual "pig pickin’" barbecues. "We’re just there to show a little bit of ourselves—and I think that’s very different from what most people are used to," says Whetstone. "When our guests settle in, they start talking about their lives, and we want to get to know them." After lunch, customers invariably order a few of his bottles to be shipped home.
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Still, in this economy, wines in the $40 to $65 price range like Whetstone’s won’t sell if they aren’t great. And his wines—three Pinot Noirs, a Chardonnay, a Syrah and a Viognier—are great. Whetstone learned winemaking from Napa stars Larry Turley and Ehren Jordan; in fact, after starting his label in 2002, he produced his first three vintages in Turley’s cellar. This pedigree shows in the wines, sourced from superb vineyards in Napa Valley, the Russian River Valley and the Sonoma Coast. All are elegantly balanced, with a brightness that makes them very food-friendly. They pair well with the wonderful sandwiches and salads the Whetstones offer at the lunches (from chef Michael Chiarello’s NapaStyle panini counter).
Whetstone also pours samplings of his Manifesto! wines. The idea for Manifesto! came to him truly out of the blue. He explains, "One day, I saw a guy flying over Napa in a Cessna with a sign dragging behind it that said "Drink’—it was an ad for an inexpensive wine—and I thought, How crazy! How crass! How much money they must be making! And how much fun they must be having!" He and a friend, Henri Gabriel, decided to produce really good value wines in the $13 to $18 range. Those wines, launched as Manifesto! in 2006 with former Whole Foods exec Peter Roy as a third partner, now include a Sauvignon Blanc, a Cabernet Sauvignon and, as of this fall, a Zinfandel.
The Whetstones are longtime friends of Chiarello, one of Napa’s most famous chefs—a cookbook author, TV celebrity, entrepreneur (he owns the NapaStyle retail empire) and winery owner; Bottega, his two-year-old restaurant, is a homey Italian place in the town of Yountville. Says Chiarello of the picnics, "Everything tastes better outside—especially the kind of food I do. You can have it standing up or sitting down."
For a recent lunch, Chiarello made an exceptional meal to show off Whetstone’s wines and illustrate some key principles of creating wine-friendly food. About his roasted artichokes with prosciutto, he says, "When I moved to Napa, everyone told me, "Don’t cook with artichokes—the bitterness will hurt the wine.’ But I wanted to figure out how to introduce artichokes to wine in a way that would help them understand each other. So we tone down the artichoke’s bitterness by roasting it." A squeeze of roasted lemon also makes the dish good with Whetstone’s citrusy 2008 Manifesto! Sauvignon Blanc.
Chiarello decided to use a bit of the rich 2008 Whetstone El Pajaro Chardonnay in his chilled spaghettini with wine-braised calamari. "I’m looking for layers of flavor, so I toast garlic a bit first, and I put some chile in and cook the calamari. Then I bolster the dish with the Chardonnay. The wine has some weight, but also some brightness, and that acid is like a trampoline for flavor."
Food aside, Chiarello credits the success of the picnics to the Whetstones’ hand-crafted approach. "Jamey and Michelle are so lovable that once you get beside them, you really want to support what they’re doing—a young family striking out on their own, working together, kind of bootstrappin’ it; selling the way people used to sell when they showed their belief in a product—by passionately sharing it."
Where to Find the Picnic Hosts
Jamey and Michelle Whetstone
The Whetstones’ vineyard picnics are by appointment only. $20 for wine, $30 for wine and a sandwich.
The Whetstones also pour their wines at a tasting bar in downtown Napa, inside a shop called Ubuntu Annex.
Chiarello’s Italian place in Yountville serves homespun dishes, like ricotta gnocchi, alongside a nice Cal-Ital wine list.
Next door to Bottega is Chiarello’s newest NapaStyle outpost, which sells picnic goods, tableware and furniture.