Sempre Vive - California Winery of the Month June 2014

Pulcinella Visits Napa

Sempre Vive

Art is a familiar part of the wine business as anyone knows, who has perused bottle labels in a wine shop. But the art and wine connection can run much deeper than the label. Some wineries serve as galleries. Others invite artists to extract inspiration from the estate. Some enhance their premises with murals and sculptures. For the new Sempre Vive tasting room in Calistoga at the northern end of Napa Valley, owner Frank Romeo commissioned Italian born artist Carlo Marchiori to paint a mural that stretches around the walls and depicts the various stages of winemaking as performed by Pulcinella, a masked character from the 17th Century Commedia dell’Arte. Marchiori painted tiles with the same Pulcinella theme for the outdoor kitchen, including an imported 3000-pound pizza oven, a barbecue, and smoker.

While the big venues in Napa, like Chandon or Coppola, to name just two, definitely have their charm, intimacy is not one of them. At the Sempre Vive tasting room off main street in Calistoga, small is beautiful and personal. On the stone patio under redwood trees, music wafting through the air, scattered tables accommodate no more than 50 people. The food menu varies from day to day. Pizza, grilled meats, sandwiches, and small desserts accompany wine tastings. “Visitors just love it,” Frank says. “People will come in and buy a bottle of wine and talk and just stay there.

“But once you prepare food, you cross a line and have to get involved with the health department and a lot of regulation,” Frank explains. “Most tasting rooms don’t want to deal with all that. I don’t blame them in some respects. But I’ve always wanted to do something a little bit different than everyone else.”

Most visitors to the Napa Valley collect around the Rutherford and Yountville area, but Frank says that more development is occurring around Calistoga, where he is. “The Four Seasons bought property for a restaurant between Calistoga and Saint Helena, and they’re going to be putting in a big hotel in the area. This development will bring more people to the northern end of the valley, and that’s good.”

This year, Sempre Vive wine production will reach 5000 cases of mainly the Bordeaux varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petite Verdot from the estate vineyard and Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay from purchased fruit. When Frank bought his 40-acre Calistoga vineyard in 1996, Cabernet vines were planted on the property. But he has since added the other Bordeaux varieties together with different clones of each one.

Frank is a firm believer in blended wines. Even when a particular wine is mostly a single varietal, it may contain multiple clones of that varietal together with a small percentage of another different variety. For instance, the 2009 Petit Verdot contains three different clones of Petite Verdot and four percent of Old Vine Cabernet Sauvignon.

“For each wine, it might take my wife and I and our winemaker a whole day to arrive at a blend that the three of us like. We have to be sure that we’re happy compared to the year before. If two of us like it, but one doesn’t, then we still have to work on it. Our blends aren’t simple. They might have up to six different grapes and different clones of particular grapes. I’m amazed every year. We’ll take out one or two percent of something, and these fine little adjustments make a difference.” Of course each year, the fruit is different, and many of the adjustments that they might make from year to year correspond to those differences.

Frank praises their winemaker Alison Doran for being attentive and hands-on, checking each phase of vine growth on a regular basis. She joined them when they first began to make wine in 2003. “We’re always talking about how we can make a wine better. As good as we’re doing, we’re always trying to do better, to see if there’s something we’re missing. That’s a big part of the enjoyment, trying to make a wine even better every year if we can.”

Frank is philosophical about the Cabernet competition that he faces in his own Napa Valley back yard. “The best thing is to let people try the wines and decide for themselves what they like. People will come in and ask what my best wine is. That’s a difficult question to answer because three different people will like three different wines. I let them compare and tell me what they think. We get a good response from people coming in here, who have gone to all these different tasting rooms. We’re getting good feedback even price-wise. I’m happy with it. People like the wines, and I think the more they taste them the more we’ll be selling.”

Restaurants and wine shops in the greater San Francisco Bay Area provide the main market for Sempre Vive wines, and Frank hopes to develop more business in Los Angeles. He says they are selling small amounts of wine in New York, Louisiana, Illinois, and Texas. And he hopes to reach more people through the tasting room.

“We’ll be doing more events here, too,” Frank says. In a couple of weeks we’ll be renting the premises for a wedding rehearsal dinner. They’ll take over from 5:30 to 10 at night and will bring their own caterer, but otherwise we could do it. We can also hire different chefs other than our main one. I’m flexible. Whatever people want to do is fine.

“We’re just trying to create a nice experience for people who come up to the Napa Valley. If they make arrangements with us, we’re open and flexible. Hopefully they will like our wine and food, the service and the setting.”

California Wines of the Month

Artisan Series

Sempre Vive 2011 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

Winemaker Allison Doran’s Notes

Our 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon contains smaller amounts of Merlot, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec. Aromas of sage and cumin lead but then relax into red cherry and licorice. The wine is graceful and balanced with cherry and cranberry flavors that produce a broad easy effect on the palate and make this an easy drinking Cabernet that just gets rounder and softer as it opens up. We made 359 cases of this Cabernet and aged the wine for 16 months in 35% new Seguin Moreau and Remond French oak barrels.

Anna Maria’s Notes

This is a delicious Cabernet Sauvignon with rich and ripe berry patch flavors and a bit of spice and chocolate on the finish but balanced with nice grainy tannin texture and enough acid, altogether pretty impressive with 14.5% alcohol. Serve with any grilled meats of the season.

Sempre Vive 2012 Napa Valley Chardonnay

Winemaker Allison Doran’s Notes

Our 2012 Chardonnay is a blend of fruit from vineyards in Oak Knoll, Sonoma Carneros, and Napa Carneros. On the nose, interesting lemon thyme and rosemary spice scents combine with butter and are reinforced with spicy oak. The palate shows lemon curd and ripe apple flavors that center this balanced and still evolving wine. This Chardonnay is more graceful than forceful and is made in a refreshing non-malolactic style. We made 795 cases and aged the wine for six months in 50% new oak barrels.

Anna Maria’s Notes

This is a mouthful of Chardonnay fruit, but the wine is balanced with acid and a slight hint of oak. The alcohol is just 13.8%, which is remarkable for a wine coming out of Napa even with a dose of cooler region Sonoma Carneros Chardonnay, which might account for its refreshing mouth-feel. Altogether the wine is elegant and pleasing.

Winemaker Series

Sempre Vive 2009 Napa Valley Petit Verdot

Winemaker Allison Doran’s Notes

Elegant cassis and flowery hyacinth fragrances let you know that this is a unique Petit Verdot. Graceful and appealing rather than the normal brawny Petit Verdot, it has a sweet graham cracker and sandalwood entry but with a core of dark cassis and milk chocolate. The wine expands on the palate and provides a rousing finish. With four percent of our Old Vine Cab in the blend, we aged the wine for 18 months in new Remond Alliers M+ barrels and older French oak barrels. We made 446 cases.

Anna Maria’s Notes

In the several years that I’ve been acquainted with Sempre Vive wines, I’d say that they have become ever more delicious. This might be my favorite despite the 15% alcohol. The total effect is one of balance with delicious fruit, but also fine tannins and adequate acid. Frank Romeo says there isn’t much Petit Verdot around. His is delicious fruit and absolutely up to being a stand-alone varietal wine instead of a blending grape as it’s used traditionally in Bordeaux. The 4% Old Vine Cab might be contributing more than what the number suggests. Regardless, the wine is a beauty, and that’s all we need to know. Serve at cool room temperature.

Sempre Vive 2009 Miscela

Winemaker Allison Doran’s Notes

Our 2009 Miscela is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, and Malbec with full aromas of sandalwood, hyacinth, raspberry, and vanilla. The palate is broad and interesting with complex layers of chocolate, molasses, and licorice that alternate with spicy plum and raspberry, echoing the varietal complexity of the wine itself. The long finish with evolved tannins balances the sweet entry, making this wine a real mouthful. We aged the 2009 Miscela in 40% new Seguin Moreau and Remond oak barrels and made 537 cases.

Anna Maria’s Notes

This is a beautiful blend, and once again terrific fruit flavor balanced with acid and fine tannin texture, which can be said for all the wines in our lineup. Frank Romeo has been making wine since 2003, in his case long enough to develop impressively delicious wines. If you’re planning a trip to Napa, visit the charming Sempre Vive tasting room in Calistoga and sample his full line-up.


Menu of the Month

Glorious Summer

First Course

Platter of sliced tomatoes, topped with multi-colored cherry tomatoes,
small white mozzarella balls, green Castelvetrano olives,
and slivers of fresh basil, drizzled with extra virgin olive oil

Main Course

Grilled chicken, marinated with lemon, capers, and olive oil,
served with potatoes tossed with red onions, capers, lemon zest,
and chopped parsley, dressed with extra virgin olive oil


Organic red lettuce with thinly sliced red onion and chopped cilantro,
dressed with lemon-olive oil-garlic vinaigrette


Fresh mango-nectarine crumble

Recipe of the Month

Grilled Chicken, Marinated With Lemon, Capers, and Olive Oil

This dish is a classic, which doesn’t mean we should ignore it, especially in this season when grilling outdoors is the preferred heat source. You can find many variations on chicken marinated with lemon. This one is a favorite of mine. Enjoy!


1 chicken cut into serving pieces

1/2 cup fresh lemon juice

2 cloves garlic, sliced

2 tablespoons capers

2 tablespoons flat leaf parsley, finely chopped

1/2 teaspoon salt


Combine lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, capers, and parsley. Pour marinade into a flat glass dish large enough to hold the chicken in one layer. Immerse chicken in marinade for at least 30 minutes, turning once. Refrigerate and marinate up to two hours, and turn every hour. Remove from refrigerator a half hour before grilling. Preheat grill. Put chicken on an oiled grid for about 30 minutes, turning and basting occasionally until chicken is cooked through. Put on a serving platter, sprinkle with salt, and garnish with lemon wedges.