Lola Wines by Esther Mobley for San Francisco Chronicle

In 2008, in the midst of a recession, Seth Cripe chose an inauspicious time to launch a wine business. Then in 2020, he chose the worst possible time to open a tasting room.

The first tasting room for Cripe’s Lola Wines, which has had a robust national retail presence for years, opened in January in Calistoga — then reopened, after the COVID-19 shutdown, in June. But inopportune timing or not, the tasting room feels like a breath of fresh air in Napa Valley.

Cripe’s wines are uncommonly vibrant, with equal footing in the eclectic and the traditional. What’s more, they possess a quality that’s rare to find in Napa, and which may become increasingly important to drinkers as the pandemic wears on: affordability. Its three core wines, a Chardonnay, a Pinot Noir and a Pinot Noir rosé, cost around $20 per bottle, and some of the best Lola bottlings — like Chenin Blanc and Malvasia from St. Helena, and Riesling from Monterey — are between $30 and $40.

More people ought to know about these wines, and they ought to know about Cripe, too. Yet, although the winemaker, along with his fiancee and business partner, Rafaela Costahas, has been hustling for more than a decade, he may be better known for his side gig. In addition to Lola, Cripe is also the owner of Cortez Conservas, one of the few U.S. producers of bottarga, the Italian delicacy of cured fish roe.

“I’ve gotten way more attention for the bottarga than for my wines,” he laughs. Cripe’s bottarga is made from mullet caught off of Florida’s Gulf Coast, near his hometown of Anna Maria Island, Fla. (His brother helps run the daily operations in Florida.) Top restaurants including Octavia, Cotogna, Delfina and Mister Jiu’s are fans. His biggest customer pre-coronavirus, he says, was the Los Angeles pizzeria Gjelina, which topped a pie with bottarga, smoked mozzarella, tomato confit and jalapeño.

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