If an impressive facade is what you're after, you can do better in the Napa Valley than Chateau Boswell, as faux chateaux go. The better part of Boswell is hidden underground.
The face the winery presents to the Silverado Trail is quaint enough. Founder R. Thornton Boswell was no fool. In 1979, he figured that since the best wines on the market had a chateau on their labels, he would darn well build one for himself. Later, vines were planted on the steep hillside behind the winery, and a cave was carved out of rock 65 feet below them.
There's not much to see inside the winery, packed with tanks and equipment, besides a hot little number they call "Bettina," I believe, an Italian-built pump that's especially gentle on the wine—hot for anyone who's got some of that 60-degree cellar-rat blood in their veins.
The journey continues into an atmospheric cave, where voices pop out of alcoves and between racks of barrels. Here and there, small groups are having quiet chats over the barrelhead. Several wineries share this space, which has served as an incubator for up-and-coming brands over the years—Arietta and Realm Cellars being current. Making the Boswell wines for three years is Russell Bevan, a rising Napa star with west Sonoma County cred, as evidenced at Sebastopol's Zazu Kitchen, which named a porterhouse steak "the Bevan."
A lot about winemaking is just moving the stuff around, from tank to barrel and back again, before finally shipping it off to the consumer. But that's not enough for this winery's fans, as Boswell's Khristopher Lund tells me at the end of the tour. "I love that clients bring wines back to us," says Lund. They want to share those older vintages with the winery.
What inspires fandom like that, in a valley chockablock with similarly blended Cabernet? The Cabs I tasted were good—in a charred, waxy, oaky, brooding plum and licorice kind of way—but the Chardonnay surprised me. Boswell sources Chardonnay from Dutton Ranch and other Sonoma County vineyards, and transforms them into a distinctive varietal expression that's perfumed with waxy oak, shows sweet baked-apple elements and has an elegant saline quality.
Or maybe it's because Chateau Boswell is about a conversation. Sure enough, a couple of visitors walk in, their manner a bit stiff at first. But when we peer down into the cave a few minutes later, they're gesticulating and talking around a barrelhead. That Boswell wine kicks in fast.
Chateau Boswell, 3468 Silverado Trail, St. Helena. Tasting by appointment, $60. 707.963.5472.