BOSC Finalist Sam Melanson recently returned from a 4 day enrichment trip to the Napa Valley and shares his experience at the Robert Mondavi ‘To Kalon’ Vineyard Certification Program.

In my eyes, there is no question that the Napa Valley is the preeminent New World wine region. No other appellation outside of Europe commands such consistently elevated prices, or has people fighting to get on the mailing list of cult wine producers for the right to pay thousands of dollars per bottle. The Napa Valley is synonymous with high quality wines. But until recently the sub-appellations of Napa have meant little to consumers, and single vineyards even less so. Most sommeliers would struggle to name five single vineyards within Napa, but could rattle off thirty or forty producers without breaking a sweat. Despite this, there is one vineyard that would surely be named by all, the storied To Kalon vineyard.  Existing in some form since 1868, To Kalon has been the site responsible for making some of the most famous wines throughout the history of the Napa Valley, from H.W. Crabb’s “Black Burgundy”,  to Mondavi and Opus One, to the wines sourced from Andy Beckstoffer’s pricey parcel of the To Kalon vineyard.

The confusing history of To Kalon and its boundaries, ownership, importance and yes, even its trademarking, makes studying such a complex place difficult. Of course, you could read Master Sommelier Matt Stamp’s great article on called The True Story of To-Kalon Vineyard, but the best way to learn? Is to travel to the place, stand in the vineyard, ask questions and drink it all in.

Robert Mondavi I-Block Sauvignon Blanc

Robert Mondavi I-Block Sauvignon Blanc perched atop one of the 72 year old vines from which it comes.


Learning by Immersion

The importance of travel when it comes to learning about wine cannot be overstated. There is no single thing you can do to more quickly, completely, learn about any single place then to visit it. No map, book, or masterclass will ever compare to the learning by osmosis that happens when you are physically present in that region. The sights, smells, tastes, wines and the people become etched into your brain when travelling. It is fundamental to our craft as sommeliers, our continued growth as people and our professional development. Of course, this is helped when your four day certification program involves discussions with the winemaking team, viticultural team and is lead by Master of Wine Mark de Vere, who’s spent his last 22 years at Robert Mondavi familiarizing himself with the place. Alas, these are some of the very opportunities that cannot be recreated at home.

Robert Mondavi Vineyards

Do you know what else is great about wine travel? The food! While I had some fantastic meals at Morimoto Napa and the classic Gott’s Roadside, I was blown away by the meals created by Robert Mondavi Winery Chef Jeff Mosher. Each day we were treated to multiple course lunch and dinners, using a wide array of incredible products sourced from California.

Robert Mondavi Winery Chef Jeff Mosher

 Chef Mosher and his team managed to orchestrate thoughtful meals day in and day out with great flow and progression. Remarkably, we did not eat the same protein twice over the course of the entire week, flipping from scallops and tilefish, to quail and bison.

Chef Mosher Creation


The highlight of the entire trip however, was the last night of the program. A journey through the wines of Robert Mondavi through 5 decades, including wines from 1977, 1989, 1998, 1999, 2007 and 2012.

Robert Mondavi through 5 decades,


Thank goodness I had all of these wines to help wash down the enormous double cut, dinosaur-sized, lamb chop that was cooked to perfection.

Chef Mosher Lamb Chops

So have you started planning your next wine trip? There truly is no better way to learn.