Napa Valley Refocused With Some New Faces to Look For
By Kerry Winslow, grapelive
Over the past couple of years, with this deep recession, there has been a big refocus on what is Napa Valley and where it should go in the future. Many labels and wineries have disappeared and many more with do so soon, it is the times and the reality now. The boom years and the era of easy money are gone and it is time for the real wine guys to shine again, a time for the passionate winemakers to move out of the shadows of the wannabes and take their place as the face of Napa Valley. Now, I will admit that those that still have their fortunes continue and most of the big names still draw attention, but I am seeing some new faces making it even in these difficult economic conditions, and that is a great thing to see.
I will always root for the “I’m doing it because I love it, and because it is in my heart” crowd and want to give them my loyal support when I can. During the last few months I’ve traveled the wine country, especially Napa Valley and met these kinds of souls and was struck by how down to earth and enthusiastic they were, and tasted their wines, and was left in awe, being impressed greatly by the quality and complexity of these handcrafted wines. For the purist, Napa Valley is all about Cabernet Sauvignon so that is what I’ll stick with here for this article, though I have seen the quality of everything from Chenin Blanc to Zinfandel rise in this fabled Valley.
One of my friends, who makes wine, and once said he’d never do a Napa Cabernet, is now doing exactly that, though he is mixing it with a healthy dose of Petite Sirah that is growing in the same vineyard. I just tried he barrel from this last harvest, and it was a true unique terroir wine with life and vibrancy, proving that Napa Cabernets don’t have to be formula flavored generic to be admired. What I mean is, over the last ten years most Napa wineries tried to make what everyone else was making, a dumbing down of the wines, making for a dark, low acid, almost sweet wine with lots of oak. They were all hoping to gather big scores in the wine press and make lots of money, and many did for a long while. Not that there was anything wrong with the wines, it was that for a period of time most tasted very much the same. They almost took out the natural flavors of the vineyard, by means of picking very late with super high sugars and using all high toast new oak barrels. On the good side, this made the wines with smoother tannins and less acidity, making the wines much easier to drink young, unlike the “Old School” Napa guys, Diamond Creek and older Dunn Vineyards which always had powerful tannins and were difficult or near impossible to drink young.
There seems to be a happy middle ground that has come to the fore, and some experienced and some new winemakers that have taken a bit of old and bit of new and have dialed in a more interesting wine in the process, the would call it letting the vineyard, or the place speak for itself. While we’ve seen a trend to bring the sugars down, as well as the alcohol level, but not sacrificing true ripening of the grapes. This is a more intensive method and makes for higher costs in the vineyard, as the vines need to be much more closely catered to and coddled. Making sure the grapes are fully ripe, but not lacking in acid is tough in hot vintages, though with great management and care it can be done, and I’m seeing it in these new Napa Cabernets.
Here are some wineries and winemakers to search out or watch over the next few years as their stars are rising, or have been even more so lately. Without any order of significance I’ll put some of my thoughts and reflections of whom I was really impressed by in this last year or so and think that will be more highly regarded in the future. Of course many will be missed or overlooked, as I can’t visit everyone in this time frame, but I’ll follow up later with others as I have opportunity in following articles.
A few years back, I met a winemaker Jeff Ames, from America’s great south, that was just starting his own label in his spare time, as he was a full time assistant winemaker to Thomas Brown, at Schrader, Tor (Jeff took over as head winemaker in 2003), Outpost and Maybach, one of the elite winemakers at the moment, and tried his wine. It was a Syrah and it was almost mind-blowing glorious, and I knew I had to keep an eye on this guy, and now his winery Rudius is a huge hit and he is specializing in Cabernet Sauvignon now with tiny lots being made from small plots from unique corners and hills around Napa Valley. Jeff Ames, the winemaker, has with almost no budget or huge dollars backing him has turned out to be a star and I can’t even get a bottle of his wine it is so sought after! I can say I tasted his first Rudius wine, but now he is in with Robert Parker, the world’s most famous wine critic, which is like getting the golden ticket. I suggest you search him out and get on his mailing list as soon as you can, I can tell you that you will not be disappointed.
Rudius Cabernet Sauvignon is sold only on the mailing list and as a futures pre-order, the current vintage has sold out, meaning I can’t write any tasting notes even. The Rudius Syrah and Grenache are worth checking out in the meantime.
Another young guy that has turned from Rhone style wines to Cabernet Sauvignon is Dylan Sheldon, of Sheldon Wines a “Micro-Winery” who found an old vine vineyard in St. Helena that has a field blend of mostly Cabernet Sauvignon and with a good chunk of Petite Sirah mixed in the site. Instead of separating the grapes he has chosen to craft a cuvee from them as they are and the result is very impressive in the barrel, though you’ll have to wait another couple of years before release. Dylan and his partner and wife Tobe, have won praise for their signature Chateauneuf-du-Pape wine, the Vinolocity, and have had 90 Point scores in Wine Enthusiast for their Pinot Noir, but have now turned their attention to Cabernet and will be doing more of it in the future. The Napa wine they call “Weatherly Cuvee” might be offered to their list early, so again I’d check them out, and drink some of their other wines while you wait.
I was lucky enough to run into Dylan recently, and got to taste some of his wine in barrel, including his Napa Cabernet Sauvignon Blend (with Petite Sirah) to be called the Sheldon”Weatherly Cuvee” Napa Valley, from the vineyard in St. Helena. This wine is about 2 years away from release and just a baby in barrel, but is all ready showing elegance and delicate flavors, though it with really bulk up as it ages and develop a thick texture. It has a bright purple hue and lots of blackberry fruit, it is wine to look forward to….
One of the top wines I’ve had out of Napa in the last couple of years comes from a new winery called Fairchild Estate, and if you are a regular reader of my articles you’ll have heard me comparing it to Chateau Latour and heaping praise on these Cabernets. Lawrence Fairchild’s estate vineyard and wine Sigaro is an amazing wine, both the 2006 and 2007 releases are magical. Fairchild employs the talented team of winemaker Paul Hobbs and one of the top gurus of vineyard management Jim Barbour to tend to his baby, a very smart and successful move. Fairchild also has a cuvee from top vineyards that Paul Hobbs makes for him, and it too is remarkable, with the 2006 mostly coming from Beckstoffer’s To-Kalon Vineyard and the 2007 mostly from grapes off Beckstoffer’s George III Vineyard, both some of the best fruit available.
2007 Fairchild Cabernet Sauvignon “Sigaro” Napa Valley.
This amazing wine is all ready very compelling with a hedonistic and fragrant bouquet of perfume, violets, lilacs and other wildflowers on the nose with touches of cedar spice, black fruits and vanilla. All this before you even taste the wine itself, which is a good sign for things to come, and good things do come on the palate, in force too. The mouth is filled with black currants, mountain berries, cherry liqueur, blueberries and crème de cassis, while in the background there is plum, melted licorice, a sage like spice and cigar box. A nice elegant cherry and cedar element come out too after some air, as does some mocha, almost chocolate like notes add complexity. All the layers unfold beautifully and as all the wines I’ve tried from this estate everything is well balanced with a very defined focus, while the tannins are well integrated and ripe, giving solid structure with any harshness. Only 100 cases made. ($150 Est.) 97 Points, grapelive.
Then there is a tiny estate on the eastern side of the Napa Valley that should get some mention, Dos Lagos Vineyards, this really small vineyard and label has been brought from total obscurity to almost breakthrough status by the talented Robert Foley, for winemaker at Pride Mountain Vineyards, and famous for his own Robert Foley label as well. Bob fell in love with the grapes here and uses them in his own wine and also makes a small lot of single vineyard Cabernet for Tom Dinkel. Dinkel bought the property around ten years ago with a small vineyard and has planted a bit more since, and has been rewarded with great fruit, but the yields are so low there is not much wine at the end of the day. Foley has certainly played a huge role and been a great guide to Dinkel, and has made a fantastic Cabernet Sauvignon that is both expressive of the vineyard and full flavored and explosively rich, maybe taking it to the extreme with going over the edge is the best way to describe it, but is great non the less.
2007 Dos Lagos Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley
The 2007 Dos Lagos is a deep and thickly concentrated Cab with solid structure and fruit intensity with a black/purple hue that coats the glass. The palate is ripe, but focused showing massive black fruits and pure Cabernet character, leading with blackberry, dark currant, plum and blueberries before array of background flavors unfold. Interesting crème de cassis, mocha, cedar spice, cigar tobacco and violet like perfume all come across in layer after layer with powerful tannins holding things together, though thankfully they are not harsh or distracting from the wine and I’m sure as it is still a very young wine will fade in time to allow much pleasure over the following 5-10 years. Bob Foley, ex Pride, and maker of top Napa Cabernet like his own Claret, Switchback Ridge and Hourglass seems to have fallen in love with the terroir at this rugged Atlas Peak location, and after tasting this vintage, I think he is on to something big here.($125 Est.) 95 Points, grapelive
Lastly, I am excited to be visiting soon Cimarossa winery on Howell Mountain, a winery I fell in love with a few years back. This vineyard and estate is all ready a top level producer, though still not well known, with the perfect location, steep terraced vines and with Mia Klein making the wine they have too much going for them not to succeed! Mia, famed for her past and present roles as winemaker to Della Valle, Araujo and Spottswoode, just to name a few as well as her own Selene label, continues to grab headlines and press for her elegant and layered wines that rival or better all comers. Ex-Peter Michael man, Sean Capiaux made the Cimarossa Cabernets until this last harvest, and the current wines are drinking great! Cimarossa (Red Hill) with it’s Italian owner Dino Dina of Genoa also makes an estate olive oil from trees on the property, that also give the place an exotic flair, not that it needed more with such great wine and being on the famous slopes of Howell Mountain, Cimarossa is a must have Cabernet Sauvignon. You would be well served to get on their mailing list soon and watch for their new releases coming soon.
Of course there are many others I should talk about and I will, but this is a tight little list of some very interesting people and wines that are just now being recognized and that offer wines that are distinct in character and have soul, that also showcase their individual terroirs and styles. Napa Valley has its Opus Ones, Caymus, Silver Oak and Joseph Phelps that produce tens of thousands of cases of very good, if not great Cabernet, but is nice to see the small guys take the stage too, and especially as they produce their Cabernets in the hundreds of cases, making it just that much more special and rare.
1185 Friesen Dr, Angwin, CA, 94508-9670. Phone: (707) 965-2143
Fairchild Estate Vineyards
P.O. Box 807 St. Helena, CA. 94574 Telephone (866) 725-7503. Fax (707) 581-7393
6761 Sebastopol Avenue #500 Sebastopol, CA. 95472 Phone: (707) 829-8100 Fax: (707)824-2676
Dos Lagos Vineyards
Phone (415) 279-9227
Fax (415) 358-4534
P.O. Box 552 Napa, CA. 94559 Phone: (707) 287-2986