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January 25, 2008


The Tasting Room: Wine meets NASCAR at Bennett Lane's pit stop


- Amanda Gold


At Bennett Lane Winery, it's easy to forget that certain spots in the Napa Valley have become commercialized and riddled with tourists. At this tiny, hidden tasting room a couple of miles past the main street in Calistoga, you'll find the type of laid-back, accessible service that reminds you of how relaxing and informal a day of tasting in Wine Country can be.

Owners Lisa and Randy Lynch are relative newcomers to the wine world, having purchased Bennett Lane just five years ago - previously, it was Vigil Vineyards, a custom crush facility - but the winery is already producing vintages worthy of a trek to the northern tip of the valley.

Following Randy's love of racing cars, Bennett Lane is the only winery to fully own and sponsor a NASCAR team, which races in the Western U.S. circuit.

The vibe: It's casual and quiet in the pint-size tasting room, which sits at the front end of a Mediterranean-style building. With just a scattering of the knickknacks you'll find in larger spots, the room is less about decor and ambience, focusing more on the wines.

The team: Lisa and Randy Lynch don't have a long and storied wine background - Randy spent his earlier years racing cars and then building up a marketing company in San Ramon before opening Bennett Lane. He now divides his time between the grapes and his NASCAR team.

Winemaker Rob Hunter has been with Bennett Lane since April 2005, after serving as the VP and director of winemaking for Sterling Vineyards. His resume also includes Markham Vineyards and Robert Keenan Winery.

The wines: Hunter and Lynch both lean toward a style of dark, fruity and jammy reds. For $10, tasters can sample a flight of four of the winery's six bottles. These include the full-bodied Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, a Reserve Chardonnay, the Maximus red blend - referred to as a "feasting wine" because of its wide range of pairing capabilities, and White Maximus, a crisp blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Muscat.

If you're lucky, you might get a sample of the new release Bennett Lane dessert wine. On Saturdays, tasting room staff cuts up a variety of dark chocolate that pairs beautifully with this sweet, Port-style wine, in addition to the Maximus red.

The experience: You'll get plenty of personal, one-on-one attention here, as the small counter fits only about four tasters comfortably. The staff is quick to give detailed information, including pairing and recipe suggestions for the flight of wines. Tours and a custom blending experience for groups are available with advance reservations.

The extras: It's hard to find good places to picnic in the Napa Valley, especially those where you can bring your own spread. Here, a smattering of tables just outside the tasting room is surrounded by vineyards, and the staff is happy to let tasters linger over lunch.

Also, don't miss the "petting vineyard" on the property, with marked rows of Cabernet, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec, Syrah and Chardonnay.

Nearby: Atalon Winery (3299 Bennett Lane, Calistoga; 800-224-4090), Envy Wines (1170 Tubbs Lane, Calistoga; 707-942-4670) and Chateau Montelena (1429 Tubbs Lane, Calistoga; 707-942-5105).

Chronicle critics make every attempt to remain anonymous. All expenses are paid for by The Chronicle. Star ratings are based on a single visit.

Bennett Lane Winery
3340 Highway 128, Calistoga
877) 629-6272,
Open 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. daily

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Welcome to Bennett Lane Winery  - Home of 36 90+ Point Wines from Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast and Robert Parker's Wine Advocate


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