When it comes to Chateau Lane Winery, I want to be Frank. I, of course, want to be frank about our visit in the sense of being honest about the winery, but I would also, literally, like to be Frank as well. Frank D’Ambrosio, that is. He, along with his brothers Nick and John, own Chateau Lane Winery, Verismo Wines & D’Ambrosio vineyards, but let’s start with Chateau Lane Winery before we talk more about the D’Ambrosios and how they got into the winemaking business. Chateau Lane Winery is located at 100 Rapp Lane in Napa. For those more familiar with Napa and its various appellations, the winery is located in the Southeastern portion of Napa known as Coombsville. This area is named after Nathan Coombs who also founded Napa, but that story is for another time. To be honest, I had not spent much time in the Coombsville area. In fact, this was the first winery I had actually visited there. Chateau Lane Winery is not one that you would stumble upon on a typical Sunday drive in the Napa Valley. I am not sure you would even stumble upon it as you drove around Napa on any given day of the week! And that is what they prefer. It is a reservation-only winery but it definitely is worth the time to venture off the beaten paths of Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail. Our arrival was expected—as should be yours since it is reservations only. We were very well greeted by Trish who is, as she describes it, Frank’s work wife. We started out on their patio, which overlooks the vineyards and the southern end of the Napa Valley Country Club. There we got a chance to enjoy some of their wine and listened to the story of how Frank and his brothers embarked upon their journey to become winemakers. Many of you are actually very familiar with Frank, his brothers and his late father who was also named Frank. Frank Sr. created the NY Style Italian Sausage Company back in 1951 in Palo Alto, and now in Sunnyvale, California. The sausages can be found in most grocery stores and Costco’s here in the Bay Area and it is actually my personal sausage of choice when I go shopping. As Frank Sr. was becoming the Abe Froman of the San Francisco Bay Area, the boys were also getting their first taste of being in business for themselves. In the early 70’s Frank Sr. got a call from one of his relatives to whom he had lent some money for a restaurant, of which at one time he was an owner as well. The restaurant was not doing well so they wanted Frank Sr. to trade the existing restaurant for the debt and call it even. Frank Sr. was not interested in going back to the restaurant world, but his sons were. The boys convinced their father to let them take over the restaurant and they would owe him the money. The father relented and the boys become restaurateurs. By investing some money and improving the food quality the restaurant became a hit and grew to a small string of eateries here in the Bay Area. You may also be familiar with that endeavor, known as Frankie, Johnnie & Luigi Too! and Giorgio’s Italian Restaurants, which still are operating in the South Bay cities of Dublin, Milpitas, San Jose and Mountain View. Things were going great for the boys. The sausage business was running along and the restaurants were doing well in their own right. This gave the boys an opportunity to look into other businesses as a way to invest and grow their extra money. Frank Jr. had come to Napa in the early 80’s and saw the growth that was occurring and all the boys agreed that the Napa Valley was a great area to invest in. They bought retail properties and they also became de facto farmers. Not chickens, cows and corn, but grape farmers. Wine grape farmers, to be exact. At that time you could buy an acre of wine growing land for about $18,000 to $22,000, though the prices were rising rapidly. They dove in and ended up with over 240 premium, grape-growing acres across the Napa Valley. They trimmed their holdings by a little more than half when prices reached over $250,000 an acre to settle debts and free up cash. Life was good for Frank and his brothers. Frank oversaw the vineyards and other Napa properties while his brothers oversaw the sausage and restaurant business. Life would have continued on that course if not for a wrench that was thrown into the brothers’ lives in the form of a movie. That movie was Sideways, which came out in 2004 and told the story of two friends’ last jaunt to the Santa Barbara (not Napa mind you) wine country before one of the friends upcoming wedding. One of the main characters in the movie LOVED Pinot Noir and disdained Merlot and famously says in the movie; “No, if anyone orders Merlot, I’m leaving. I am NOT drinking any f**king Merlot!” That movie single-handedly created a surge in Pinot Noir sales and a corresponding drop in Merlot sales. And what, may you ask, caused Frank and his brothers all the problems? They were not making wine at the time just growing grapes. Grapes that they sold to other wine makers so they could make wine. Well, the varietal they grew the most was, you guessed it: Merlot. What is especially ironic of the situation and that movie is that the wine most loved by that main character in Sideways was a Cheval Blanc, which is made from a blend of Cabernet Franc (another wine varietal that the character hated) and Merlot! To say that the market for Merlot dried up overnight would not be an understatement. The winemakers were calling up and canceling contracts one after another, and there they sat with over 90 tons of Merlot grapes. Mark Mondavi, a good friend, agreed to take a fraction of the grapes for a fraction of the price just to cover the cost of the farming as a way to help them out. The rest was lost for 2005. In 2006 they faced the same problem; still no one wanted Merlot grapes. Frank was on the verge of letting it rot on the vine as a way to save the cost of picking the unwanted grapes when a fellow grower and winemaker tasted them and thought they were fantastic, much too good to let them rot on the vine. So, he suggested a plan to help him. Pick the grapes, crush them and set the juice aside and that would give him some time to sell that juice to a bulk winemaker. After the grapes were crushed, Frank and his brothers started to reconsider their thought to stay out of the winemaking business. They asked the question; “What would it cost to make ‘great’ wine from some of this juice?” And the rest is history. They invested and started to learn the intricacies of winemaking and working with people that could help them achieve their goal of great wine. It was not a clear path to success, though. The votes were still out on Merlot so they called their first bottling “Red Table Wine.” They opened a small tasting room to market and sell the wine in a retail space they already owned and off they went. Little by little sales increased and they got better at making wine. The brothers had never done things on the cheap so they invested quite a bit in both people and equipment to make the best wine possible. Chateau Lane’s tasting room only recently opened and thought it is hard to find, the wine is wonderful (especially the Merlot). I am not going to get into the various tastes and qualities because I feel strongly that wine is a very intimate creation; no two people are the same and therefore no two palates are the same either. Suffice it to say that I have enjoyed enough wine to distinguish between a good wine and a good cooking wine and Frank and his team are making the former and not the latter. The setting is comfortable with a large patio overlooking some of their vineyards and a small tasting room which features “Frank’s kitchen.” The kitchen allows them to put together special food and wine pairings so visitors can experience it as it should be. The best part is the intimacy. It is you and the people who are creating the art. The team is working hard to make great wine and are sharing it with people that enjoy great wine. I find one of the best experiences I can have while enjoying wine is to be able to sit down with the people that are growing it and actually producing that varietal, so that I can hear about what it was they were thinking about when blending it. Winemaking is an art and the people that do it are artists so the experience to me is as if I am sitting down with a successful painter, sculptor or any type of artist to learn about their vision. That captures my imagination to learn about their process and how they transformed some “fruit” into this wonderful creation that I can enjoy. Chateau Lane Winery and Frank’s story is a fascinating one and they make a great wine to savor the story. Take the time, get off 29 for a little bit and experience Chateau Lane Winery and some of these other hard to find treasures before some large corporation buys them up and transfers the focus from the “art” to the bottom line. Sit down with Frank over a glass of wine and you’ll see why I still want to be Frank. Cheers!