Just up the road from Terra Valentine we found the sign and entrance to Guilliams, our next winery visit. If you’re not paying attention, you could blow right past it. Perched up on a hill, the house that John Guilliams built by hand over 30 years ago overlooks the winery’s modest 7 acres of vines at approximately 2000 ft. above sea level.
Discovering this beautiful spot, as well as the desire to find a place of great natural beauty and diversity was what led Shawn and John Guilliams to set down roots here on Spring Mountain in 1978. Prior to this, the young couple had “migrated” from the Bay Area, where John had recently graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in Engineering and Conservation of Natural Resources. With the magnanimous help and advice of several of their Spring Mountain neighbors (think Fred Aves of Terra Valentine), the Guilliams planted 7 acres in 1979 to 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Franc. Seven different soil types were identified, which John studiously considered when deciding where and what to plant. The winery was bonded in 1983, and the first official Spring Mountain Estate wine release was off and running in 1985.
Since that time not too much has changed at Guilliams, wine wise that is. The entire 7 acres of vines is generally harvested over a period of 3-4 weeks, in order to ensure the ideal ripeness of a particular group of vines. Fermentation takes place in small lots (often less than one ton) with punch downs done by hand. Elevage takes place for 20-24 months in French (mostly) Nevers barrique.
At this winery, French oak is much preferred to American oak. John adds, “With ripe, sweet fruit, I much prefer to delicately season the wine with subtle notes of vanilla and buttescotch rather than dill and coconut.” Regarding fining and filtering of the wines, there are no hard or fast rules. Each wine and vintage has its distinct qualities, in which John’s cumulative years of experience will dictate how the wine is treated.
The annual case production hovers at an artisanal 1000-1200 cases, most of which is dedicated to the Spring Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon blend. A considerably smaller production of reserve Cabernet Sauvignon as well as estate Merlot and Cabernet Franc are also produced.
60% of Gulliams total sales are done at the cellar door, which goes to show how “connected” to the vineyard Guilliams customers are. Boutique without being “cult”, old school and understated, visiting Guiliams felt like I was a heartbeat away from one of my favorite (and all time great) producers in France, Domaine de Trevallon. If you are of the mindset that that elegance and artisanal do not exist in the Napa Valley, I highly suggest that you get to know the “house” the Guilliams built. In my opinion it does not get more authentic than this.
In my next post you’ll find out more about what we got to taste at Guilliams. Please stay tuned!