Above: The detailed interior at California Brandy House, Napa

Fortified Wine and Spirits Tastings

The detailed interior at California Brandy House, Napa

For those interested in tasting something a little stronger while visiting the Napa and Sonoma valleys, there are numerous options. Temptations include bourbon at Napa Valley Distillery, vodka at Hanson of Sonoma, gin at Spirit Works Distillery, rum at Prohibition Spirits Distillery, port at Prager Winery & Port Works and brandy at the new California Brandy House. We decided to scout out the latter two.

Prager Winery & Port Works

Port varieties, Prager Winery & Port Works - Richard Lenney

Situated off the St. Helena Highway, Prager Winery & Port Works has only a small wooden sign outside and is easy to miss. Founded by husband-and-wife-team Jim and Imogene Prager in 1979, it offers an intimate tasting experience of three ports and a lightly fortified late-harvest Riesling, each paired with locally sourced cheeses, caramelized nuts and chocolate truffles homemade by the eldest Prager, Jim’s mother. The original winery was housed within a wood-paneled carriage home dating to 1865, and it has now been converted into the tasting area. The interior walls are plastered top to bottom with thousands of dollar bills, interrupted by historic black-and-white photos of the house and estate when it was under the management of the John Thomann Winery and Distillery. When the Pragers purchased the property in 1977, its production amounted to just 120 cases. The winery, still a family-run affair managed by Jim and Imogen’s five children, now produces over 4,000 cases.

The Pragers blend Touriga Nacional and Tinta Cão grape varieties to create their Noble Companion Tawny Port. It displayed the classic brownish tinge, silky-smooth taste and slight leathery smell of a tawny, but although enjoyable, it didn’t seem especially unique. On the other hand, their Blonde Tawny was an absolute delight, not least because it is rare to find an aged white port. A blend of 82 percent Napa Valley Chardonnay and 18 percent Verdelho, this unusual port has been aged for more than 10 years in oak barrels. The straw-colored Blonde had strong notes of caramel and vanilla, yet acidity finely balanced the sweetness. It would have gone just as well with dark chocolate as with lobster bisque. A bottle came home with us.

California Brandy House

Flight at the California Brandy House, Napa

Situated in downtown Napa, California Brandy House was a total contrast to Prager Winery’s historic setting, but the informative tasting led by the affable and knowledgeable Damon Boelte was just as enjoyable and intimate. Opened in November 2020, this stand-alone tasting room is dedicated solely to California-distilled brandies crafted from California-grown grapes. As the parameters for brandy making in California are fairly broad, producers are more experimental and have developed brandies unlike those to be found elsewhere. Brandies are traditionally made from a neutral white varietal wine, but most produced in-state employ both red and white grapes.

California Brandy House pours flights by two distilleries, Germain-Robin and Argonaut. We preferred the former, which features brandies with spicier stone-fruit flavor profiles. Cognac distiller Hubert Germain-Robin, who came to Napa Valley from France with the goal of making Armagnac-style brandy using California grapes, paired up with professor Ansley Coale in 1982 to create Germain-Robin. Using alembic pot stills, the Germain-Robin XO is created primarily with Pinot Noir and older-vintage Colombard wine, then aged in Limousin oak barrels for seven years. The sweet notes of peach and apricot are countered by a dark cherry piquancy. It is exceptionally smooth and has a long finish.