Barking Dog Vineyard
10 acres in Napa Valley’s famed Coombsville region
It all started more than forty years ago when Larry and Beverly Thompson met as students at the University of California Los Angeles, better known as UCLA. She was an art major and Larry was a pre-med student. The pair later married and Larry sought out a position in his field of pathology. Only two openings were available, a position in downtown Los Angeles and one in Napa Valley.
“I must confess that Napa was the last place I wanted to locate,” confided Beverly Thompson during a recent interview. “At the time, it was really quite rural. There was no shopping to speak of and practically nothing to do with your time.”
But Larry had always been interested in farming and the couple finally found a small, ten-acre parcel in the Coombsville growing area. “We just wanted an acre or two,” explained Beverly Thompson. “But the Agricultural Preserve of 1968 set standards on how land could be subdivided. We were fortunate to find the parcel we did and then we just trusted we would do the right thing with it.”
Then came the disastrous Atlas Peak fire of the early 1980’s and the Thompson’s were faced with a dilemma. “I told my husband we needed to plant grapes as a firebreak and that’s how we first got into the grape growing business,” Beverly Thompson confided.
The Thompsons were among the first to plant the Bordeaux varietal merlot on their land. The plants flourished and the Thompsons were able to sell their fruit to several high quality wineries including Vichon Winery, Markham Vineyards and Merryvale Vineyards. Along the way, they began making a few cases of wine, “mostly to give to friends and to drink ourselves.”
Then, they caught a lucky break. Their son was a friend of the son of legendary Napa Winemaker Jerry Luper (Freemark Abbey Winery and Rutherford Hill Winery). Luper visited the property and agreed it was perfect for merlot and that the quality of the grapes was exceptional.
When winemaker Art Finklestein (see Winemaker Profile) entered the picture, the idea of a working winery became a reality. He was more than a winemaker to the Thompsons; he was a close personal friend.
The winery was conceived and named Barking Dog Vineyard after a neighbor of the Thompson’s from Los Angeles indicated she wasn’t used to the barking of dogs in the early morning hours. The Thompsons had had a series of standard poodles (who liked to bark) and the name Barking Dog Vineyard became a reality. The couple’s third standard, Chianti, adorns their label as proof of their devotion to animals.
The first release of some 1100 cases occurred in 2003. The winery received excellent reviews and soon developed a strong following. Production of wines slowly increased until it reached a high level of around 2,000 cases in 2010.
In 2010, Dr. Larry Thompson suffered a heart attack two weeks after winemaker Art Finklestein passed away. Dr. Thompson was forced to cut back on his time in the vineyards. The Thompsons have since stopped crafting wines and exclusively focus on growing grapes.
Art Finkelstein - Winemaker
Celebrated Napa Valley winemaker Art Finklestein made all of Barking Dog Vineyards award winning wines. Finkelstein was a Chicago native and University of Southern California graduate in architecture. He began his career as a winemaker by making successful home wines even before the term ‘garage wines’ was termed.
In 1971, a trip to Napa Valley brought about the purchase of a piece of land that eventually became the well-respected Whitehall Lane Winery. In 1988, he downsized to a smaller facility named Judd’s Hill, named after his son. Finklestein rose to the very pinnacle of the winemaking profession and was considered one of Napa Valley’s premier professionals. During his career, he mentored numerous winemakers and was a founder of the California Cabernet Society.
Finklestein had a penchant for making great wines and considered the fruit from Barking Dog Vineyard as the finest merlot grown in the entire Napa Valley. He was particularly impressed with the vineyard’s rocky terrain, and often compared it to some of Bordeaux’s finest vineyards.
Finklestein died of a rare form of cancer in 2010. His cancer was diagnosed by Barking Dog owner Dr. Larry Thompson who works as a pathologist in Napa Valley.
These Barking Dog Vineyard selections are among the last wines produced by Art Finklestein.
Coombsville, Napa Valley
For a great many years, the Coombsville Region of Napa Valley was home to numerous small growers who sold their fruit to well-established wineries for use in their various wine programs. The land around Coombsville was initially inexpensive and many of the farmers actually worked their own land. Located directly east and south of the town of Napa, the area is rugged and filled with volcanic soil from the western side of the Vaca Range. Also distinct is its singular geologic feature: the half- moon-shaped caldera that defines the area, which lies in the lee of the Vaca Mountains. The Napa River borders the region that has suddenly gained an incredible reputation for fruit quality as well as its own AVA designation in 2011. It now boasts of more than 50 wineries and even more growers.
Certain varietals thrive in the Coombsville AVA, most notably merlot and cabernet sauvignon. Its proximity to chilly San Pablo Bay mitigates the daytime temperatures during the all-important growing season. Daytime highs are never as hot as up valley or as cold as the frosty mornings along Highway 29 that can threaten the development of the late ripening cabernet sauvignon.
Most of the Coombsville soils are well-drained and fall into the rolling benchlands category. This accounts for modest yields that result in smaller grapes with intense flavors. Nearly 11,000 acres comprise the Coombsville AVA, or about the same size as it northern neighbor Atlas Peak AVA.
Coombsville AVA is one of sixteen Napa Valley appellations and is certainly the most talked about of late.
Beverly Thompson - Owner
Although she has now passed the tender young age of 70, Barking Dog Vineyard owner Beverly Thompson doesn’t seem to have slowed down one bit. The New York State-born Thompson came with her family to California as a youth and has been there since that time.
“I was an art major and Larry was in pre-med at UCLA when we met. We fell in love and the rest is history,” she recalled.
Beverly became interested in wine when she studied in Sienna, Italy in 1964. “I fell in love with the area and its wines, and Chianti in particular. I never guessed at the time that I would one day be involved in a winery. But, it has been a fun ride, and we have a great deal to be thankful for.”
Beverly Thompson also points out that her husband Larry has always had a fondness for gardening and growing, and that he has been instrumental in developing their 10-acre vineyard.
“We took a trip to Bordeaux and while we were there we visited the famous Chateau Petrus,” she recounted. “We took note that the soils and ground there were extremely rocky and quite similar to our own property. When we found out that Chateau Petrus is almost entirely merlot, we felt we were on the right track with our vineyard. If the most famous wine in the world is made from merlot, why not make our wines from the same grape?”
At that time, Napa Valley was comparably small with only forty or fifty wineries. “We knew all the families and everyone helped everyone else out. If someone needed something, you’d just call and ask and it would be done.
Today’s modern Napa Valley isn’t quite the same to Beverly Thompson. “It’s positively overwhelming, the number of wineries that exist today. Everything is so commercialized; you just don’t have any idea where to start. We belong to the Coombsville Vintners & Growers Association and there are more than 50 winery members. I know it’s all progress and the fact that Coombsville has its own AVA is wonderful, but I really miss that fact that in the old days, everyone knew everyone else. It’s sort of sad, really, but not in a really bad way.”
Today’s Barking Dog Vineyard wines are produced at the Judd’s Hill Winery of Judd Finklestein. His father Art Finklestein was Beverly and Larry Thompson’s close personal friend and winemaker.
“We miss Art a great deal,” Beverly Thompson continued. “He was a true renaissance man and could do just about anything. He was a great winemaker but he was an even better friend to Larry and me. We are just thankful that his son Judd is just as talented as his father and has carried on in his dad’s marvelous tradition. Our wines are still as well-received as they were when his father made them for us.”
Wineries like Barking Dog Vineyard are slowly fading from the scene as owners pass away or the businesses are sold to other entities. This too is sad, for a historical element of our wine history passes away with them.