Larkmead Vineyards is one of the oldest family-owned establishments in Napa Valley. Originally founded in 1895, the Larkmead estate is now under the stewardship of the Solari-Baker family.
The broad patch of Calistoga that Larkmead Vineyards calls home has been under vine since the mid-1800s and has witnessed the turning of two centuries. In that time, Napa Valley has transformed from a vinous vestige of the Wild West to one of the most preeminent wine regions of the world. Larkmead played an active role in that swell, as their grapes have contributed to countless, celebrated Napa Valley wines across the decades. Critical to Larkmead’s success, the estate has been in the hands of the Solari family since 1948. This steadiness has allowed for the type of careful study that is necessary to truly unlock a vineyard’s potential. Since the beginning of their modern winemaking history in 1997, the family has relentlessly fine-tuned their viticultural and cellar techniques to express the vineyard’s voice most accurately.
Larkmead’s legendary vineyard features a remarkable diversity of soils that are more typical of a hillside than the valley floor. Centuries of alluvial flow have resulted in the accumulation of ancient riverbed gravel, clay, and loam. Winemaker Avery Heelan captures the nuance and complexity of this site by vinifying small lots according to clonal selection and soil type.
The 115 acre vineyard is masterfully tended by vineyard manager Nabor Camerena and viticulturist Kelly Maher.
“Kate and I wanted to recapture the historic place Larkmead Vineyards has held in the Napa Valley and to make wines for a new generation that truly reflects the stature, personality, and history of this world class site.”
- Cam Baker, Proprietor
1 New labels for the 2013 vintage.
2 Larkmead participated in the California State Fair from 1936-1941.
3 Barrel tasting with Winemaker, Avery Heelan.
1992 - Present
Proprietor Kate Solari Baker and her late husband, Cam Baker, have been the dynamic force behind Larkmead’s transformation from a historic vineyard into a world-renowned wine estate. During the first ten years of their ownership, they directed a complete replanting of the property, tailoring the selection of varieties, clones, and rootstock to suit the special characteristics of each individual block.
The completion of the hospitality-focused Lark Room and the expanded Barrel Hall in 2014 was phase two and marked a new era for Larkmead. Now the winemaking team has all the tools they need to produce wines that best express the vineyard. And the goal - to restore Larkmead’s former glory – has been affirmed through the high praise we’ve received from visitors, collectors, and press.
In 2005, they built the first phase of a state-of-the-art winery on the property so that each vineyard block could have its own dedicated vinification tank. Designed by architect Howard Backen, an old family friend, the farmhouse and production facility are both classic and comfortable, providing a place for peaceful reflection away from a busy and demanding world. The completion of the hospitality-focused Lark Room and Gallery along with the expanded Barrel Hall in 2014 began the second phase of Larkmead’s recent history. Today, winemaker Avery Heelan possesses the tools she needs to produce wines that best express the historic vineyard’s terroir.
Kate’s parents, Larry and Polly Solari, purchased Larkmead in 1948. Kate spent her childhood in the valley, exploring a bygone Napa dominated by prune and walnut orchards, hayfields, cattle ranches, and acres of empty fields. The towns were very small, catering to local farmers and ranchers, and everyone knew each other’s name. Kate rode horses and swam in what was then called Paradise Park (now Bothe State Park) and played kick-the can on Main Street in St. Helena. Her parents were aware of Larkmead’s storied past and sought to honor its legacy, a philosophy they passed down to Kate and her husband. Today, Kate’s three children (Cameron, John, and Ann) and three grandchildren (Mac, Lucy, and Alma) are often found at the estate, continuing the family tradition at Larkmead into its fourth generation.
1 Fog lifts over the Vaca Mountain Range.
2 Larry and Polly Solari with Kate Solari Baker and Cam Baker circa 1962.
3 Kate and Polly celebrating her 79th birthday.
4 The original Larkmead Vineyards sign proudly displayed at our historic barn.
5 Kate Solari Baker, well known for her pastel artwork, has a studio in the hayloft of the historic Larkmead Barn.
“I can’t say enough good things about what proprietor Cam Baker and the entire team at Larkmead are doing at this historic property.”
- Antonio Galloni
As an adult, Kate achieved recognition as an artist for her pastel landscapes and multimedia pieces. She has a studio in Sausalito and her work is also displayed throughout the estate. In 1995 and 2010, she was asked to create posters for Auction Napa Valley.
Cam was the manager of Larkmead’s operations until 2022, using his business, legal skills, and expertise to bring Larkmead back to the stature it enjoyed years ago. For many years he worked with his father-in-law, the late Larry Solari, whom he remembered as a giant in the California and U.S. wine industry. Cam had a deep passion and respect for the estate and his goal was to uphold Larkmead’s reputation as one of the finest estates in the Napa Valley.
Larry Solari was, above all, a captivating storyteller. He spoke often of his early days as a wine salesman trying to convince people across the country that wine deserved a place on every dinner table.
Larry’s California journey began in 1920 when, after immigrating to the US from Tuscany at the age of nine, he traveled by train to Sonoma’s Geyserville. He was told as a child, that in America he could be whatever he wished to be and he took those words to heart. In 1933, he was the first in his family to earn a college degree, graduating from UC Berkeley at the height of the Great Depression. Shortly thereafter, he married Polly Kavanaugh, a third generation Californian, in a humble courthouse ceremony.
“My father, Larry (Bruno) Solari, is recognized as one of the early pioneers of the California Wine Industry. He always expressed his belief that the wine business is one that is uniquely built on personal relationships, person to person, one at a time.”
- - Kate Solari Baker, Proprietor
In 1940, after struggling to find a job that utilized his talents, he went to work for the Wine Growers Guild in Lodi. This was his first connection to the grape growing and winemaking community in California, and it was here that he forged his lifelong appreciation for making and drinking wine. In 1948, he and Polly purchased Larkmead. At the same time, he accepted a job as a Sales Manager for Italian Swiss Colony, charged with the goal to convince Americans that wine had a place at the family dinner table. For Larry, this was already a give—wine was a natural part of Italian culture, customary at each meal. This unpretentious, yet impassioned goal drove Larry’s success in the wine industry and made him a beloved and respected compatriot for other small winery owners in Napa Valley.
1 Larry Solari (center), the Geyserville Highschool Class of 1929 Valedictorian.
2 Larry (right) and his parents, Paulo and Guilia, with baby brother Enzo in 1921.
3 Larry Solari (right) and Sidney Braunstein of Medallion Wine Corp.
4 Polly Solari celebrating her 40th wedding anniversary at Larkmead.
5 Baker, Kate Solari. Polly Solari. 1990. Pastel on Paper. Larkmead Vineyards, Calistoga.
Between 1948 and 1952, Larry commuted to San Francisco during the week, leaving Polly to run the winery and supervise daily operations. It was a far less onerous task in those days than it is now, but nonetheless very unusual for a woman. This was a time of resurgence for the Napa wine industry following Prohibition and World War II. Through both Larkmead and Italian Swiss Colony, Larry helped provide many local grape growers with a home for their grapes and therefore welcome income. In return, mother nature blessed the Solari family’s first harvest at Larkmead Vineyards with a bounty beyond imagination.
Larry went on to become President and CEO of United Vintners, the 1,500-member grape grower cooperative that owned Italian Swiss Colony, Inglenook, and Beaulieu Vineyard. His next move was to Heublein, where he served as Executive Director and even helped to acquire United Vintners. Many years later, he accepted a position as Chairman of the Wine Institute, a fitting capstone to a distinguished career. To this day, he is regarded as one of the “giants” of the California Wine Industry, and even Robert Mondavi referred to him as a mentor.
The Salmina family arrived in the Napa Valley from Switzerland in the 1860s, leased the Larkmead winery in 1895 and purchased it outright in 1903. Felix Salmina had a background in winemaking and quickly set about converting the old wooden winery into a grand business. By 1906, their plans for expansion were complete and the new Larkmead winery stood strong, built of stone quarried from the nearby hills.
In the early days at Larkmead, grapes sold for $14 a ton and wine for a penny a bottle. Prohibition hit hard, but Larkmead was able to survive by selling fruit and making sacramental wine. By the mid-1930s, Larkmead was releasing wine under its own label again, and quickly built an impressive reputation. André Tchelistcheff, Napa’s leading enologist at the time, considered Larkmead to be one of the four "outstanding wine processing plants” alongside Inglenook, Beaulieu Vineyard, and Beringer.
“The story of Larkmead follows closely the development of the great dry wine industry here, in which Larkmead products played their prominent part in bringing to this district a fame not surpassed by French wines in their heyday.”
- St. Helena Star, Friday, June 25, 1943
1 Vintage Salmina era bottlings.
2 Felix Salmina.
3 The historic barn bridges the past with the present.
4 Original Larkmead wine case boxes.
5 A magazine ad lauding Larkmead’s winnings at the California State Fair.
6 The Salmina family in front of the neighboring Tucker family homestead.
The Salminas were Industry leaders of their time. They chaired many local wine organizations and contributed much to the development and promotion of Napa Valley wine. After Felix's death in 1940, the family sold Larkmead Vineyards to a Chicago based bottler and distributor, Bragno & Co, in 1943. The property was later sold to National Distillers and then, in 1948, to the Solari Family.
In 1851, Charles Hitchcock, an army surgeon, moved from North Carolina to San Francisco with his wife, Martha, and their spirited daughter, Lillie. Lillie immediately took to the city, describing it as full of “all fire and action.” This proved prophetic as she was later dramatically rescued from a fire in San Francisco by the Knickerbocker No. 5 Fire Company. Through this experience, she became a lifelong and passionate supporter of the San Francisco fire department and even paid homage to her heroes by signing her name with the number ‘5’ after it for the rest of her life. They made her an honorary member of the fire company—the only woman in America at that time‚which earned her the nickname Firebelle Lil. Later, in recognition of her unwavering enthusiasm and support of the fire stations, Lillie was named the patroness of all San Francisco firemen.
Lillie was a force of nature whose wit, poise, and charm were the stuff of legend in San Francisco society and ensured her a loyal following of admirers. She also challenged the conventions of the day by drinking bourbon, smoking cigars, playing poker, and driving a team of six horses. These antics, combined with her intellect, placed her among the most famous women in America at that time. For many, she represented the independent pioneer spirit of the early Californians.
In the eyes of her family, Lillie’s behavior ranged from improper to scandalous, so she was ordered to live at the Hitchock family Napa Valley country estate “to learn to quiet down.” Lillie named her new home Larkmead after the meadowlarks in the area (pictured above), and regularly invited her artist and intellectual friends to gather and share ideas in a series of salons. Her landscaping was also quite notable; in addition to planting the three palms for which the famous vineyard would one day be named, she cultivated a good-sized vineyard that included Zinfandel and Riesling among its vines. This project connected her to many of the local winegrowers of the day, including Schram, Tubbs, Krug, and Beringer.
1 Lillie Hitchcock Coit, America’s first female firefighter.
2 A portrait of an heiress.
3 The old toll road connecting Calistoga to Lake County.
4 Calistoga's Main Street in the late 1800s.
“Mabel Gray and I are busy with the wine half the day. We have sealed nearly all the Centennial white wine of the ‘Lillie’ brand, which was made in 1876 and was our first vintage.”
- Martha Hitchcock, Drew Sparks & Sally Kellman, A Salon at Larkmead
After her death in 1929 at age 86, Lillie left a third of her fortune to the city of San Francisco. Named in her honor, the Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill is a tribute to Lillie and to the brave firemen of her city.
The above is only a glimpse of the true character of Lillie Hitchcock Coit. In tribute to the strength of her spirit and her connection to Larkmead, three wines are named after her – the ‘Lillie’ Sauvignon Blanc, Firebelle, and LMV Salon.
The Napa Valley Railroad was founded in 1864 by Sam Brannan, California’s first millionaire and owner of Calistoga’s earliest resort. Brannan built the railroad from Vallejo to Calistoga as a way to entice San Francisco residents to make the journey up valley to his hotel and hot springs resort. One of the few stops north of St. Helena was at Larkmead, near Lillie Hitchcock Coit’s home. Today, many of the historic railway stations are marked by cross streets between Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail that still bear the original station name.
Following the repeal of Prohibition, the Salmina family marketed their accomplishments at local and state fairs. A pamphlet from the early 1940s features awards for over 20 different Larkmead bottlings spanning from the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition to the 1938 California State Fair.
“My parents, Larry and Polly Solari, married in Oakland, California in 1933. They were 22 and 21 years old, respectively, and, like many during the Great Depression, lived on meager resources. They had $50 to their name and had to borrow a car from a friend in order to go on a short honeymoon. After their civil ceremony at the courthouse, the City of Oakland bestowed the happy couple five silver teaspoons and a cookbook. This photo is from their wedding.” - Kate Solari Baker, Proprietor