Ink Grade Estate launched in 2021 with a critically praised trio of wines, but the young winery’s Napa Valley connection dates back to the 1870s and a vineyard high up Howell Mountain. The land’s fascinating history and the present-day owners’ ambitious regenerative farming practices are among the topics discussed at tastings—one of them an absorbing experience à la the Van Gogh Exhibit—a mile and a half south of downtown St. Helena.
Light streams into The Pavilion by Ink Grade, a one-story tasting lounge that exudes luxury yet pays homage to the hilltop vineyard’s craggy, volcanic terrain with a centerpiece lichen-covered boulder from the property.
Visiting The Pavilion by Ink Grade
Guests booking the Estate Collection tasting ($75) sip current releases—a Sauvignon Blanc followed by three reds, the last two always Cabernets. A wine educator describes the winemaking philosophy and the winery’s evolution.
SENSES by Ink Grade ($125), the winery’s flagship tasting, also of current wines, takes place in a room where vineyard scenes plus a few of the winemaking process are projected floor to ceiling on all four walls. Riveting and educational, SENSES by Ink Grade immerses participants in the four seasons of winemaking through visuals, music, and the hosts’ commentary.
The two tastings are available from Thursday through Monday by appointment.
All the wines come from the Ink Grade Vineyard, named, as is the winery, for Theron H. Ink (1831–1891). Ink’s many accomplishments as a vintner, businessman, and local politician include building Howell Mountain’s Ink Grade Road, which connects the Napa Valley and Pope Valley to the east.
More recent plantings came in 1990, a year after the Heitz family, well known to wine collectors for its valley-floor Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, bought the rugged 800-acre ranch.
Because the Heitz family farmed organically from the onset, the transition to biodynamics under the current owner, Lawrence Wine Estates, proceeded relatively smoothly. Biodynamics is an agricultural philosophy that views farms as closed, self-sufficient systems based on the existing ecology. At 220 planted acres, Ink Grade Estate was certified in 2023 as Napa County’s largest biodynamic ranch.
Farming regeneratively, says winemaker Matt Taylor, yields pristine fruit that expresses the steep site, much of it terraced in narrow curving rows, in an “honest, unmanipulated” way. The grapes include Viognier, Petite Sirah, Carignane, and Mourvèdre, but the initial focus has been on Bordeaux varietals—Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon—plus Zinfandel.
The Cabernet is the reason Ink Grade came into existence. Several months after he purchased Heitz Cellar in 2018, Gaylon Lawrence Jr. and master sommelier and Lawrence Wine Estates CEO Carlton McCoy Jr. tasted some Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon still aging in barrel. The two found the Cabernet so compelling they quickly established a separate label to showcase wines crafted from Ink Grade Vineyard grapes.
The Wines of Ink Grade Estate
All the wines have the taut minerality and mouthwatering acidity one might expect from a mountain site like Ink Grade’s, but rather than attempt to mitigate this, Taylor revels in it. These powerful wines, especially the two Cabernets, please all the more for his daring approach that harkens back to Napa wines predating the fruit-forward era.
The attention to quality and presentation underlying SENSES extends to the labels, lush reproductions of 19th-century artworks selected by McCoy and estate director Julie Gilles. Among the artists represented are Lewis Prang, cited as the “father of the American Christmas card”; Thomas Hill, famous for his portraits of Yosemite Valley; and avian watercolorist John James Audubon.
As with the wines, the expressive labels strike the right balance between elegance and unbridled nature.