SF GATE: Tasting room: Salvestrin Winery

No matter how many wineries are visited and how many wines are tasted, there is still a certain thrill anytime it happens. “It,” of course, is if the winemaker appears. OK, he or she is really just someone who knows a way around grapes, but it still somehow feels like meeting a celebrity.

At Salvestrin Winery in St. Helena, it’s a good bet that you’ll come face to face with owner and winemaker Rich Salvestrin. It’s hard to miss him, actually, because part of the tasting experience takes you into the tank and barrel room, past his tidy little laboratory and right to the heart of where he produces about 3,500 cases a year. When our group marched in, he came over and shook our hands, causing, I swear, one starstruck lady in my party to blush.

The vibe: Though the stylish stone and red painted wood winery on Main Street is within cork-popping range of St. Helena’s tourist-heavy downtown, it is far removed from typical glitzy tasting-room experiences. The relaxed mood feels more like you’re visiting someone’s home, and you actually are. The Salvestrin family lives on the property, with Rich’s mother and father, Susanne and Ed, running the historic 1879 Victorian-style bed-and-breakfast that sits in front of the tasting room.

The team: Originally planted by Dr. George Crane in 1860, the 26-acre property was purchased by John and Emma Salvestrin in 1932. Next, Ed took over, and now Richard does it all, alongside his wife, Shannon. Instead of just selling the family’s grapes to other wineries, Richard began making Salvestrin estate wine, with the first vintage released in 1994 and the winery facility built in 2001.

The wines: The flagship is Cabernet Sauvignon, and these are the organically managed vines that your host will tour you through as she explains the Salvestrin story. Then you’ll begin your tasting of the estate wines, including Sauvignon Blanc ($22), Cabernet ($52), and Retaggio ($34), a blend of Sangiovese, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. Our pours were generous (topping half a glass each), but with a $15 fee, the tasting isn’t a good value unless you’re planning to buy; the fee is waived with a $50 purchase.

The experience: As my hostess quipped, it’s “chill.” You can sit outside at the picnic tables nestled up next to the vines and surrounded by colorful flowers or in an cozy chaise grouping in the patio corner. If the weather isn’t cooperating, the tasting room is on the second story, decorated in knotty wood paneling with several endearing black-and-white photos of John and Emma. The by-appointment gatherings are intimate, limited to just six guests at a time. What the tasting may lack in glamour is made up for by warmth, with our group feeling like we were being treated to a private open house.

The extras: Umbrellas are thoughtfully offered to shade the sun as you tour the vines. There’s no gift shop to linger over, but this would be a nice, very quiet place for a bring-your-own picnic from Dean & Deluca down the street.

Nearby: Sutter Home (277 St. Helena Highway S., St Helena; [707] 963-3104; sutterhome.com). Heitz Wine Cellar (436 St. Helena Highway S., St. Helena; [707] 963-3542; heitzcellar.com). Hall’s Winery (401 St. Helena Highway S., St. Helena; [707] 967-2626; hallwines.com).

If you go: Salvestrin Winery, 397 Main St. (at Grayson Avenue), St. Helena. (707) 963-5105. salvestrinwinery.com. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, by appointment.

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