Tucked up in the hills of Napa Valley at the end of an unpaved, rocky road where I dare to guess very few – if any – wine tour buses or limousines have ever ventured lie the wine caves of Road 31. Here in rented space in these remote caves, artisan winemaker Kent Fortner hand crafts tiny batches of his Road 31 Pinot Noir.
Road 31 has no tasting room, no logo glassware, and no list of wines from which to pick and choose. In fact, the only wine available from Road 31 is Pinot Noir. And outstanding, impeccably crafted Pinot Noir at that. Tasting this wine requires scheduling a tour of the private caves with Kent, coming across a lucky bottle at a small handful of local wine stores or restaurants, or signing up for the “Truckers” mailing list. “Truckers” get first dibs on each new vintage and a small allocation is held for each member. Only 700 or so cases of each vintage are produced and once those are gone, they’re gone.
My first personal experience with Road 31 happened a few years ago when a good friend was trying to convince me that it was one of the best Pinot Noirs he had ever tasted. We traded bottles and I tried it that same night. And he was right… Road 31 was delicious. It was well-balanced and full of character with plenty of juicy fruit and hints of toast and spice with a long, smooth finish. You could literally taste the care and attention to detail in every sip. I signed up to be a Trucker immediately.
A couple of weeks ago, I scheduled a visit to meet Kent and tour the Road 31 caves for the first time. This was by far one of the most interesting and memorable wine experiences I’ve had to date. Even the driving directions Kent sent included a sentence that said “TAKE EVERY RIGHT HAND TURN INCLUDING FORKS AND UNMARKED DRIVEWAYS. Eventually you’ll end up on the crush pad, and just park so that you don’t block in a tractor.” I couldn’t wait. In my opinion, the more remote, off the beaten path and small production, the better.
We followed the directions without a problem and found Kent waiting in front of the big wooden doors that guarded the caves. Unfortunately, he didn’t bring his signature green truck but it didn’t squelch my excitement. This trademark green truck adorns the label on each bottle of Road 31 Pinot Noir.
Road 31 pays homage to the gravel road outside Kent’s grandparents’ homestead back in Kansas and the green ’66 Ford Truck that drove it regularly. Kent’s grandfather, a farmer, willed the truck to him in ‘86, and it now accompanies Kent while he oversees farming, delivers wine, and harvests and hauls grapes to cave space he borrows from some friends up in Stag’s Leap district of Napa.
Kent is a true artisan winemaker with an infectious passion for his art. Starting with his first vintage in 2001, his hands have personally overseen every step of the crafting: fermenting, barrel aging, bottling, and peddling. He even takes regular trips to Tokaji, Hungry and France to personally choose the wood from which he has his barrels made. He is literally a one-man show and wouldn’t have it any other way.
During our tour, we were led through the cavernous caves and absorbed all the fascinating information we were being given. We tasted samples of the yet to be released 2009 Road 31 Pinot Noir direct from the barrel – 1 sample aging in French Oak and the other in Hungarian Oak. We were also given a sample from Kent’s private barrel which was truly delicious. We ended our tour sharing a bottle of the ’08 vintage and chatting about food, wine, travel, and considering the US had just lost their last game in the World Cup – soccer.
When I asked him “why Pinot?” he simply replied “I didn’t choose Pinot… it chose me”. As he explained the process of making his wines with inexhaustible enthusiasm, it was crystal clear how much he loves what he does and is constantly seeking perfection in what he produces. I learned so much from our hour-long visit and left feeling like I wanted to learn even more. Kent was such a passionate, knowledgable guy with a friendly and laid back Midwestern vibe. It was such an incredible experience.
I wanted to finish with a quote from Kent I found on the Road 31 website that sums up the wine and Kent’s philosophy on winemaking perfectly :
“On a spiritual level, I believe wine, in all its chemistry and complexity, tells a story of all that has gone into its creation. The winecrafter’s job—my job—is to take all those complex individual stories of the land, the vineyard, the farmer, the vintage, the cellar, the cooper and the winecrafter himself, and select and link them to form the greater epic that becomes the bottle of wine. Finding an authentic farmer, a soulful piece of dirt, a colorful cooper, and a beautiful vineyard yields a wine—when crafted properly by the winemaker–that is equally authentic, soulful, colorful, and beautiful. Road 31 is a wine of place, craft, and story.”
ROAD 31 WINE CO.
1175 Azuar Dr.
Mare Island, CA 94592
Phone: (707) 649-1200
* NOTE: The above address is the winemakers home address. Correspondence ONLY. The caves and winery in the Stag’s Leap district of Napa are open strictly—but happily—by appointment.