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Written by Nikitas Magel   

Hillside Hideaway

Boutique Wine Brand Delivers Charm & Appeal from its Nook on Spring Mountain
— Spotlight on Guilliams Vineyards

Shawn Guilliams is the exactly the type of woman any urban-dwelling 30-something would want to have as a 'cool aunt' — whether because she can easily kick back with you like a buddy, yet on occasion offer pearls of mature sagacity that come from her experience as a mother; or because she can spend the better part of her time tucked away in the secluded recesses of her hillside hideaway overlooking the Napa valley, yet enthusiastically break out of its provinciality to pop into the city bustle when the situation calls for it; or still because she's completely devoid of the pomp and pretense that seem to run rampant among many of the valley's other wine industry notables. Regardless of the reason, she is without doubt an effervescent and engaging personality who makes up half of the team that is Guilliams Vineyards. Her husband, John — a talented renaissance man with a penchant for designing and building his own homes — sustainably farms their 7 acre vineyard along the steep slopes of their hillside property on Napa's Spring Mountain, a district with an elevation of 2,000 ft.  It was here that I spent an afternoon with my partner Bill, sitting down to lunch with Shawn, to learn about what life is like for a micro-producer of premium Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.

The first thing that struck me was the size of the property. With a scale as modest as the Guilliams themselves, its total output lies just under 1,000 cases per year, classifying it as a true 'boutique winery.' It became quickly apparent to me that wine production for the couple has been a labor of love — rather than of status — and one that developed only after having purchased the land in the late 70s, following foresight that the microclimate and soil were ideal for growing Bordeaux varietals. In a sense, they were among a small cadre of hillside pioneers, planting on the elevated slopes well after fruit grown on valley floor was being bottled by the early established wineries.

Nearly three decades later, Shawn and John continue to produce truly outstanding Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot that they pour at seemingly every tasting event opportunity. In fact, it was at the California Cabernet Society's 2004 Spring Barrel Tasting where I first discovered Guilliams' wines. It was during my stint as wine buyer for (the now defunct) Friendly Spirits in San Francisco, when I accompanied the shop's owner, Ken McDonald, on the trip up to St. Helena for the tasting. A small handful of producers really stood out for Ken as unusual enough for him to want to carry in the shop, and Guilliams' estate Cabernet Sauvignon was one of them. With its bold expression of dark berry notes plus a good dollop of cool spice and mint, one of the striking things about this wine — back then and still today — is its very high quality-to-price ratio. On its own, the wine is stellar. But the real kicker is how inexpensive it is, relative to other Napa Cabernets of comparable quality, that are often (no exaggeration) twice the price. In a region where $80, $90, $100 for a bottle of wine no longer bats an eye, Guilliams' $45 is a sight — and taste — to behold! Unlike a growing number of wines produced in the valley, this is one that's still well within reach for a lot of us.

For more information on Guilliams Vineyards, contact the winery by phone at 707-963-9059 or This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .