These days, most of the folks who are familiar with Charbono tend to be the old timers. These are the people who remember when Inglenook was one of the Napa Valley’s most reputable wine producers, long before corporate ownership ran the brand completely into the ground (as corporations tend to do). Inglenook, for a good number of years, actually used to bottle quite a bit of Charbono. Throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, the varietal was one of the winery’s more popular offerings, with a devoted customer base.
During its heyday, Inglenook was responsible for much the Charbono plantings that still exist in the Napa Valley today. But now Inglenook only exists as a name — a name to avoid — if you ever happen to troll the lower shelves of your supermarket’s wine section. Charbono’s existence is a bit tenuous as well, although for entirely different reasons. There’s just not that much of it left anymore. However, it does remain in the dedicated hands of a few wineries that are devoted to its legacy.
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If any winery would be synonymous with Charbono now, it would probably be Summers Estate in Calistoga. Worldwide, there are only about 80 acres planted to Charbono, all of them in California, half of them in the Napa Valley (with a very heavy concentration in Calistoga). Summers is one of the leading producers of the varietal, with an annual production of about 1,200 cases. Aside from bottling Charbono, the winery also offers Cabernet, Merlot, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, and a stainless-steel screwcap Chardonnay, LeNude.
I visited Summers tonight for their annual Summers Solstice Blues Bash, a casual affair with a live blues trio and several variations of grilled chicken wings. The winery offered four wines, but I quickly moved to the two reds, which were the 2005 Adrianna’s Cuvee Cabernet Sauvignon ($25) and the 2006 Estate Charbono Villa Adrianna Vineyard ($24). Both wines present great values, especially the Cabernet Sauvignon, which may be one of the sweetest deals in Napa County (a place where bargains can be few and far between). The Summers Cabernet is a solid work-horse wine, with a finish that lingers far beyond its price-point.
But even though Cab is king in Napa Valley, the Charbono was the wine that the guests most requested tonight, no doubt taking advantage of the opportunity to taste this obscure varietal. The Summers Charbono exhibits clean acidity, a deep inky color, and a distinct blackberry profile that is undeniable. In terms of food pairing, I would be inclined to treat Charbono as I would Zinfandel, drinking it alongside tomato-based dishes. Then again, the dark berry elements would also complement game birds, such as squab or pheasant.
With the Cabernet offering a tremendous value and the Charbono offering a unique yet delicious novelty, I took home both bottles on principle. If you ever trek all the way upvalley to Summers Estate, I recommend doing the same.