Napa Valley, the Big Daddy of California wines, is today world-famous for Big Cabs and Bold Chardonnays, landmark wineries and the Napa Valley Wine Train.
But dig a little deeper, and you find a lot more than those stereotypes. First, it wasn’t always thus: Cabernet Sauvignons of the 1970s were far from the 15% ABV, super-oaked blockbusters that became the norm in the 1990s.
Moreover, perhaps partly as a result of the In Pursuit of Balance movement and partly as more wineries explore mountain vineyards over the Valley floor, there are some wineries bringing restraint and freshness back to Napa’s flagship – Cathy Corison perhaps the most celebrated.
Likewise, whilst turbocharged Chardonnays do absolutely still exist, like Shafer’s Red Shoulder Ranch Chardonay at almost 15% ABV with full barrel maturation and MLF butteriness (actually a good wine, I must add), others are again dialling-back a little.
Furthermore, the Valley does have other options. A fellow MW pointed out that Argentina should be worried by its Malbec, and I certainly tasted a couple of interest. Merlot may be having a renaissance as well, with Duckhorn’s 2015 Three Palms Vineyard Merlot being made Wine Spectator’s Wine of the Year. Myriad other varieties are being tested too.
It should be said that rich, ripe and fully-oaked Cabernets not only exist, but can be done well by the right producers. I had a rule-of-thumb that Cabernet Sauvignon over 15% ABV lost its identity and fell apart, but I have now found some that held quality, even at that level of ripeness.
At 14.8%, Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 is nearly in that camp, yet it gives a masterclass in elegance, integration, perfume and above-all, freshness.
The downside of Napa’s fame is that everything comes at a price, and an oft-inflated one at that. Where wines of equivalent quality in Sonoma or Santa Barbara might be $40, $60 or $80 a bottle, their Napa counterparts are $100-200. The old ‘$100 / bottle Napa Cabernet’ norm now seems to be more like $300, while ‘cult’ wines can easily exceed $500.
That makes great Napa wines far less accessible to most people, and especially in export markets, which is a real shame because much of Napa’s reputation is entirely justified.
About the Napa region
Napa Valley starts at San Pablo Bay, with the Napa section of Carneros. It runs roughly North-west and gradually tapers, moving inland, as the Eastern Vaca Range of mountains closes in towards the Western Mayacamas Range that divides Napa from Sonoma that lies further West. The two ranges almost meet at the top of the Valley, just beyond the town of Calistoga. To the North of that small gap lies Sonoma’s Knights and Alexander Valleys.
The degree to which Bay fogs penetrate up the Valley transforms the Southern end into a cool-climate zone, while the Calistoga end is much warmer, yielding sparkling grape-growing in Carneros and very ripe Cabernet around Calistoga. At least in terms of the Valley floor. In the mountain zones, of increasing interest to winemakers, altitude can lift vineyards above the fog line to give greater solar exposure – even if the altitude itself moderates temperatures.
Though comparatively simple topographically, Napa is incredibly complex geologically. Time as a seabed provides marine elements of shale, limestone and sandstone. Volcanic venting generated significant amounts of tuff derived from volcanic ash, and other volcanic components.
After folding and other processes to create the Mayacamas and Vaca ranges, erosion then stripped much of the Mayacamas volcanic material and deposited it and other gravels and loams in the form of alluvial fans onto the Valley floor too – creating the renowned benchlands, including the Rutherford and Oakville benches in the heart of the Valley.
Although much of the 45,400 acres of vineyard planting is on the flat Valley floor, where aspect is not really a factor, with more exploration of hillside and mountain vineyards – as long as they do not exceed 30% in steepness, above which it is illegal to plant – there is also a fair range of different exposures to play with as well.
This complexity does give winemakers who are looking for freshness or looking to express different terroirs, something of a diverse palette to explore. This looks like something of a trend within Napa, with what seems to me to be more single-vineyard labelling or at least bottling a range of AVAs.
It is hard to do justice to the whole of Napa, given almost 500 wineries present there, but these are those who have made impressions both during this trip and in 4 prior years of Annual IMW North American Cabernet tastings. There are notable abscences like Opus One, but that’s because I simply don’t have enough experience of them. The below producers run from ‘old timers’, through newer breeds, and up to the latest ‘cult’ wineries and new projects:
- Robert Mondavi: yes, big…but not only a pioneer for the modern-day region, but also still producing some great wines, as well as owning by far the largest piece of Napa’s most famous To Kalon vineyard. The relatively entry-level stuff is good value too
- Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars: though recently sold by retiring Warren Winiarski to the owners of big, Chateau Ste Michelle – and perhaps turning a little towards the riper side, which would be a pity – SLWC have produced and continue to produce benchmark, refined, ageworthy Cabernets from FAY and SLV vineyards
- Silver Oak: a proven track-record of ageworthy, distinctive Cabernets, with a signature of American oak, that carry elegance more than power
- Cakebread: a relatively long-established Rutherford winery who persisted in holding some restraint to their Cabernets and Merlots, with a pretty decent Syrah too
- Grgich Hills: Croatian Mike Grgich founded the winery and has passed the reins to nephew Ivo Jeramaz. They have long gone their own way and though there can be some rusticity to some of the wines, there’s typically restraint, freshness, a light oak touch and some longevity – Chardonnays, Cabernets and Merlots
- Duckhorn: established in the late 1970s as a Merlot-focused estate, they have continued to bang the drum for the variety, even as Sideways turned the market against them. Fine quality, ripe but balanced wines. They also own the Migration side-brand with some rich but refreshing Chardonnays
- Corison: though she began in 1987, the purchase of the Kronos vineyard in 1995 marked a key point in the development of Cathy Corison’s own project. It took me a while to understand these wines, but I now do. They have a lighter hand – and alcohol, around 13-13.5% typically – than most of their neighbours, with red fruit and mineral expression. The leader in restrained, fresh Napa Cabernet
- Rudd: based on the Silverado Trail side of Oakville, producing wines in the ripe, polished, oak-laced, Napa idiom, but with finesse and sophistication thrown in
- Screaming Eagle: a single, 48 acre, North-facing vineyard, also on the Silverado Trail side of Oakville produces a Cabernet Sauvignon that is First Growth in quality, yet ‘of Napa’. Its Merlot-dominated The Flight is pretty special too. Really ‘that’ good
- Colgin: big Cabernet wines, but very, very neatly done, with integration that harnesses the density and power, and freshness from altitude. Like Rudd, but better. And with a bigger price-tag. But not as big as Screaming Eagle…
- OVID: based on only one wine, tasted as part of the Mountain Cabernet masterclass, this well-appointed winery in the Vaca non-AVA of Pritchard Hill shows some real sophistication from this neighbour of Colgin
- Au Sommet: also based on one wine at the Mountain masterclass, this new project from renowned winemaker Heidi Barrett, on Atlas Peak, is already looking great
Here are the AVAs that stood out or deserve special mention amongst the full range of Napa. I could have discussed the likes of Spring Mountain, Calistoga, Oak Knoll or St. Helena, but I think the below are the most interesting, running from South to North-ish:
Valley floor AVAs:
Carneros (Napa): by San Pablo Bay and, like the Sonoma side, this is the lowest-lying and most exposed to cooling Bay-fogs. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, for sparkling wines as well as still, dominate, though the likes of Hyde Vineyards grow Merlot that can have some cool-climate restraint too. Sparkling producers include Mumm’s and Taittinger’s respective California outposts, Mumm Napa and Domaine Carneros.
Stag’s Leap District: overlooked by the Stag’s Leap rocky crag itself, this is an unusual alluvial fan from the Vaca range, below Atlas Peak. I find the wines from this region, including both the eponymous wineries, Stag’s Leap Winery and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, to have dimensions of freshness, elegance and often a dusty-rocky mineral tone.
Oakville: Oakville’s alluvial benchlands may not be quite as famous as Rutherford’s, but it is home to Napa’s most famous vineyards: To Kalon and its next-door neighbour, Martha’s Vineyard. To Kalon Cabernet Sauvignon fruit from the section farmed by Andy Beckstoffer can go for anything up to $50,000 / ton and single-vineyard bottlings are rarely less than $300 a bottle. Oakville is home to a plethora of great producers, including Robert Mondavi, Opus One, Silver Oak, Rudd and Screaming Eagle.
Rutherford: the Rutherford Bench on a Mayacamas alluvial fan, is the most famous of the Napa benchlands. Its well-drained, gravelly soils providing conditions not that bear some relationship to the gravel ‘croupes’ of the Médoc. Its Cabernet Sauvignon fetches high prices per ton and it is home to several historic Napa champions, including the resurgent Inglenook and the sadly somewhat jaded Beaulieu Vineyards, whose Georges de Latour used to be a beacon for fine Cabernet Sauvignon in the Valley.
Mayacamas mountain AVAs:
Mt Veeder: the largest Mayacamas mountain AVA, and most Southerly, sitting above Oakville and Yountville. Scattered vineyards along the ridge-line get the coolest and wettest conditions in the Valley, meaning ripening can be a challenge, but freshness is generally good. Cabernets can be a little rustic here.
Diamond Mountain: only 202Ha planted, but 81% to Cabernet. Though this sits above Calistoga in the hottest end of Napa, at the North end of the Mayacamas, it is notably cooled by air passing through Diamond Creek. Also, unusually for the Mayacamas, soils are volcanic, including volcanic glass that lends its name to the mountain. Though small, the two examples shown from Lokoya and Dyer were particularly fine and fresh.
Vaca mountain AVAs:
Howell Mountain: at the Northern end of the Vaca, on red volcanic soils, the AVA’s boundaries – like Fort Ross-Seaview in Sonoma – are defined by the fogline. Cabernet dominates here but there’s some historic Zinfandel too apparently. Wines tend to favour power over elegance.
Atlas Peak: at the South-eastern section of the Vaca range, with more rainfall than other parts of the Vaca, and overlooking Stag’s Leap District. Mountain vineyards on volcanic soils, that include the famous Stagecoach Vineyard, with Western exposures that warm up quickly. Only first planted in 1981, showing some impressive wines that balance ripeness and freshness, such as Au Sommet.
Pritchard Hill: strictly not an AVA, but has a cluster of wineries around the Chappelet’s original location, including Colgin and OVID, that have raised the profile of this area as a trendy source of sophisticated Cabernet Sauvignon. Along the ridge from Atlas Peak, its poor, rocky soils naturally restrain yields, being above the fog line gives solar exposure for ripeness, while altitude helps preserve acidity.
The detailed programme:
- Day 7.4-7.5: Robert Mondavi To Kalon winery intriguing masterclass on Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon from 1970s to 2010s, followed by a walkaround of diverse Napa Valley Vintners wines
- Day 8.1: very interesting overview of the business of selling wine with Annette Alvarez-Peters of CostCo, whose team buys around $4Bn-worth of wine a year
- Day 8.2-8.3: equally insightful E&J Gallo perspectives on the business of making wine, including growing the US and winemaking cost footprints, then lunch at Louis M. Martini winery
- Day 8.4: masterclass tasting and review of Napa’s mountain regions with Kelli White at OVID
- Day 8.5: masterclass panel tasting including legend Heidi Barrett, on consulting winemakers, at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars
- Day 8.6-8.7: reception then formal wine dinner with Napa’s greats, at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars
- Day 9.1: dawn hot air balloon ride over Napa Valley, giving different views on it and its viticulture
- Day 9.2: first-ever blending components masterclass that shows Screaming Eagle to be that good (report now on Decanter.com)
- Day 9.3: burgers and blends wine lunch at trendy Compline wine shop-bar-restaurant in Napa
- Day 9.4: sparkling wine reception then gala dinner at Waterbar, Embarcadero, San Francisco
- Extra day 1: Future of Napa Merlot masterclass with the IMW North America
- Extra day 2: IMW NA get-together and wine dinner at George Chen’s new ChinaLive venture
Peter Marks MW (Robert Mondavi), Matt Deller MW (TOR Wines COO, who focus on single-vineyard expressions) and Nova Cadamatre MW (Robert Mondavi Director of Winemaking) presented Napa wines from each decade between the 1970s and 2010s, to explore the evolution of styles and wines across the period where Napa established itself as the pre-eminent region in the US.
Linda Reiff of Napa Valley Vintners also gave an introduction, reminding us that Napa makes 4% of California and 0.4% of global wine production. Soils are diverse, with around half of the world’s soil orders in one valley. 90% of Napa County is under permanent or high levels of development protection, reflecting deep environmental commitment, and aim for 100% sustainability certification of Napa Valley Vintners members by 2020.
Peter looked at the pre-1970s and 1970s history. The 1968 Agricultural Preserve constrained development and focused the region on agriculture. In 1967 dry wines overtook sweet wines as the largest volume sales. Robert Mondavi built in 1966 – the first, new commercial winery in the valley since Prohibition. 1973 saw grapes exceed cattle as the largest agricultural product.
California sprawl pruning shaded grapes with leaves, coupled with leafroll virus resulted in irregular ripening and tart aspects to wines. Cabernet was still relatively sparsely planted and cost $473 / ton (v. $7,500 average today). The 1976 Judgement of Paris brought external focus and investment. Opus One was founded in 1979, in JV with the Rothschilds. Pioneers of Cabernet included Joe Heitz and the Diamond Creek Winery.
In the 1980s, technology came in, with deeper research into understanding how wines work and how they are made. UC Davis did more vineyard and winery research. The Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator scoring wines came to the fore and Napa began to transition to a more modern style.
Drip irrigation was introduced in 1975 by Andy Beckstoffer and widely adopted in the 1980s without understanding – often leading to over-irrigation. Phylloxera arrived at the end of the 1980s as the Valley was planted to non-resistant AxR1 alongside resistant St George rootstocks. All AxR1 has now been re-planted. Mountain viticulture also came to the fore in the decade.
Groth Cabernet was the first US wine to be awarded 100 points by Robert Parker, which drew sales and opened eyes to how his influence could bring sales for wines he liked. Wineries used to penalise growers for grapes that went over 24 Brix, which then changed as ripeness was seen to matter, and Brix levels rose. Winemakers had more influence and control on picking date.
The 1990s were a decade of investment in a buoyant economy, as consumers were willing to spend on wine, whilst entrepreneurs had money to invest in the Valley. Consumers were also into plushness and sweetness, almost as a reaction to 1980s austerity, and Robert Parker’s critical acclaim for those styles brought it to the attention of producers. Cabernet prices rose rapidly in the 1990s, with cult producers releasing at $40 in the early 1990s, then $150 and higher by the end of the decade.
Much re-planting happened following AxR1 in the 1990s, with many producers inspired by Bordeaux into close-planting. Simultaneously, virus-free clones on better rootstocks with VSP were used, leading to rapid growth in fruit ripeness that fitted consumer and critical demand. 1997 then happened – a high-yield year that led to late picking as a result of labour shortages – that was then highly lauded, leading to over-indulgence in ‘hang time’.
Napa Valley ‘cult’ winemakers emerged in this decade as small-producing winemakers were able to sell direct, as inter-state shipping became deregulated, so Screaming Eagle, Harlan, Colgin and Araujo all were established. Oak use accelerated, not so much on the proportion of new oak, but on higher toast levels for marked flavour, and longer 20-24 month ageing.
In the 2000s, night-time average temperatures had risen from 50-53°F since 1970, accelerating malic acid decomposition, increasing softness at the same time as starting photosynthesis earlier in the day, resulting in more sugar accumulation, while daytime temperatures didn’t shift too much. Going to the high-powered blockbuster style accelerated.
Some producers like Cathy Corison were looking away from the now-dominant blockbuster style, however, looking for freshness. Also, young winemakers at large wineries started side-projects, buying grapes for small production cuvées. That process accelerated as global downturns reduced money to spend on cult classics and the 2011, cooler vintage reinforced that Napa could make lighter, fresher, but fine Cabernets. In Pursuit of Balance and sommelier influence has helped drive that.
To Kalon is 6-700 acres, with 450 acres owned by Mondavi, 100 acres by Opus One, 90 acres by Andy Beckstoffer, with 2-3 others covering the rest, including UC Davis with a small, experimental plot. Mondavi are using micro-farming techniques to understand sub-block ripening above and below the soil surface. The first time Mondavi Reserve was To Kalon labelled was the cool 2011, where the quality of the vineyard showed through to the winemaking team.
As for the wines, what was clear to me was 2 steps – more evident oak between the 1970s and 1980s, then much more ripeness and concentration by the 1990s – along with a major step-up in the release prices too (though I’m sure $30 would have been considered expensive in 1978!).
The 1970s wines were both showing very well, with evident staying power, regardless of how much know-how there was at the time. It was a very great pleasure to drink the Heitz Martha’s Vineyard 1976 that I rated 18.5 / 20 or 97 / 100; the Robert Mondavi Reserve 1979 was just a nose behind.
The 2000-10s wines sometimes veered into overripeness and power. In this ‘big’ idiom, however, both the Colgin Herb Lamb Vineyard 2007 and the Robert Mondavi Reserve 2013, from the best plots of To Kalon, were very fine examples. The $697 / bottle current market average for the Colgin is nevertheless, hard to justify, let alone the $150-170 original release price.
Heitz, Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville 1976 (18.5 / 20; 97 / 100)
Martha’s Vineyard fruit on benchland in Oakville AVA, with well-drained, rocky soils from the Mayacamas. Very dry year. Very low yields. 1 year in oak tank, 3 years in French oak then 1 year in bottle, pre-release. 5.71 g/L TA, pH 3.72, 13.5% ABV. $30 ($360) / bottle RRP.
A: Mid brick-garnet, with a medium rim
N: Meaty, grilled steak tones. Spicy, toasted tobacco. Fresh earth and some richness of dried fruit. Plenty of density, even if fully-mature. Black tea and truffle tones. Complex
P: Quite firm, slightly chunk tannins, but which work in the wine – some resolution. Bright not brisk acidity. Rich, supple, dried cassis and red cherry. Meaty. Balsamic hints with black truffle and meat. Long, tobacco and fresh earth finish
Robert Mondavi, Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 1979 (18 / 20; 96 / 100)
88% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Cabernet Franc, 6% Merlot. 59% To Kalon, 41% other Napa vineyard fruit. Horizontal roto-tank fermentation for 4-5 days then 10 day maceration. 24 months in 87% new, Nevers French oak. 6.2 g/L TA, pH 3.41, 13% ABV. $35 ($180) / bottle RRP.
A: Mid-deep garnet, with a medium, brick rim
N: Toasted, camphor-laced, baked earth and spice. Roasted coffee touch. Hint of toasted, dried capsicum and toasted tobacco. Complex. Mature, with Worcester Sauce and soy
P: Brisk acidity. Plenty of life. Toasted tobacco. Rich, dried cassis and baked earth. Some Worcester Sauce through the finish. Medium, slightly grainy tannins. Long
Robert Mondavi, Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 1988 (17 / 20; 94 / 100)
83% Cabernet Sauvignon, 14% Cabernet Franc, 3% Merlot. 60% To Kalon, 40% other Napa vineyard fruit. Extended post-ferment maceration. 18 months in small French oak with regular racking. 5.7 g/L TA, pH 3.57, 12.8% ABV. $45 ($100) / bottle RRP.
A: Mid-deep brick-garnet
N: Roasted coffee and baked earth. Clove oak tones. Smoky, rich and dark. Some soy and black truffle development
P: Dried red cherry. Truffle and soy, with coffee and spice. Firm, chalky tannins. Espresso length
Dunn Vineyards, Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain 1985 (17.5 / 20; 95 / 100)
13-20 year old Dunn and Frank clones on St. George, planted on iron-rich clay slopes at 2,200 feet. Crushed and destemmed. Stainless steel fermentation, then 30-32 months in 50% new French oak. pH 3.67, 13% ABV. $30 ($199) / bottle RRP.
A: Opaque, deep garnet-brick
N: Soy, broad, slightly VA-balsamic lifted nose. Mature. Dried, roasted capsicum. Camphor wood
P: Brisk, lively acidity. Chewy, spicy tannins. Some perfumed richness of black and blueberry fruit. Some dried fruit. Clove and baked earth. Perfumed tobacco finish that goes on for a considerable time
Robert Mondavi, Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 1999 (16.5 / 20; 93 / 100)
85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc, 2% Merlot, 2% Petit Verdot, 1% Malbec. 68% To Kalon, 82% of which in Oakville, 11% Stag’s Leap and 7% Carneros vineyards fruit. 40 day extended maceration. Pressed to 80% new, 60 gallon French oak for MLF then 17 months ageing with 6 rackings. Unfiltered. 0.7 g/L RS, 6.1 g/L TA, pH 3.67, 14% ABV. $125 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep black-garnet
N: Closed. Soy and balsamic. Espresso. Dried black cherry and Worcester Sauce. Pyrazine tone
P: Sweet, baked black cherry. Lots of dried tobacco and espresso. Firm to high, chalky tannins. Warming finish with some meaty tones. Full-bodied. Good length
Colgin, Herb Lamb Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 1997 (18 / 20; 96 / 100)
Established by Andy Colgin and Fred Schrader. Lower Howell Mountain slopes at 6-800ft on weathered greenstone, surrounded by pine forest. Long growing season. 13.7% ABV. $697 ($150-170) / bottle RRP.
A: Deep black ruby-garnet
N: Minty, coffee and toasted hazelnuts. Suave, integral toasted tobacco. Black cherry and dried cassis. Baked earth. Beautiful integration
P: Rich, full-bodied. Bright acidity. Firm, chalky but fine quality tannins. Good length with a camphor-oak, though warming finish
Robert Mondavi, Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2006 (16.5 / 20; 93 / 100)
95% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Cabernet Franc. 91% To Kalon, 9% other Oakville Bench fruit. Hand-sorted, gravity-fed to 5,000 gallon French oak tanks for fermentation with 37 day extended maceration. Basket-pressed. 18 months in French oak barrels. 0.54 g/L RS, 6.3 g/L TA, pH 3.69, 15.5% ABV. $135 ($121) / bottle RRP.
A: Deep black-garnet with a narrow rim
N: Eucalypt. Jammy, balsamic-laced black cherry. Sweet, with smoky, dark chocolate and espresso oak with cinnamon and clove sweetness. Cordite and some dusty earth
P: Full body. Dense, jammy black cherry. Clove and espresso with dark chocolate oak. Firm to high, dense and compact tannins. Mouthcoating. Starting to resolve, but very firm. Mocha-espresso with a warming finish. Long though
Schrader, RSB To Kalon Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville 2009 (16.5+ / 20; 93+ / 100)
Schrader liked To Kalon fruit so much that he decided to make single-vineyard bottlings – in fact making 6 from the vineyard, often with specific clones. This had 100% clone 337, Block B1 and B2 Cabernet Sauvignon in Beckstoffer To Kalon, with high mineral soil content and good drainage, with North-South Sun exposure. 20 months in Darnajou French oak barrels. ??% ABV. $300 ($348) / bottle RRP.
A: Deep black ruby, with a very narrow rim
N: Liqueur, crème de cassis and crème de mure fruit. Mocha and dark chocolate. Sweet and voluptuous. Fine-grained oak, with vanilla-cream and cinnamon
P: Bright acidity. Richly-dense, liqueur black cherry fruit and some raspberry red fruit (added acidity?). Compact, powerful, drying tannins. Smoky, dark-chocolate and liqueur fruit mid palate. Warming finish with chocolate and espresso
Robert Mondavi, Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2013 (17.5+ / 20; 95+ / 100)
Heat spikes in July, but more stable August and September. 88% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Cabernet Franc, 4% Petit Verdot. To Kalon best plots. Hand harvested, sorted 3 times, destemmed to 5,000 gallon French oak vats for cold soak, fermentation and extended 34 day maceration. Pressed to 100% new French oak for MLF, then 21 months’ ageing. 6.4 g/L RS, 6.9 g/L TA, pH 3.73, 15% ABV. $155 ($140) / bottle RRP.
A: Deep black-ruby with a very narrow rim
N: Coffee-cream, clove and vanilla, with some torrified spices. Sweet, rich oak and dense liqueur cassis fruit beneath. Ripe and sweet
P: Spicy clove oak. Polished, plump and very ripe cassis. High, ripe tannins. Cocoa and torrified spice oak. Long, vanilla-spice and cordite finish, with warming tones
TOR Wines, Black Magic Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2016 (17+ / 20; 94+ / 100)
Vine Hill Ranch that produced 1968 Georges de Latour. 2t Cabernet Sauvignon and 1t Petite Sirah, co-fermented in the same 3t vat. 3 weeks on skins, then aged in almost all new Darnajou barrels and 2 small French Taransaud oak barrels. ??% ABV. $300 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep black ruby with a very narrow rim
N: Cassis, damson and plum liqueur fruit. Vanilla cream and cinnamon sweetness of oak. Dusty, dark chocolate
P: Velvety, dense, ripe, damson and cassis. Broad, ripe fruit. Chocolate. Vanilla cream. Firm to high, grainy-chalky tannins. Creamy, chocolaty finish
After the formal Napa Cabernet masterclass, we had a more casual opportunity to taste a range of wines from Napa Valley Vintners, in the moonlit courtyard of the To Kalon winery with food vans to choose from.
This relaxed tasting was designed to showcase more unusual varieties and styles from Napa, though there were a few more traditional Napa Cabernets. Some of the vintners were around too. With over 100 wines to choose from, I was never going to get around them all, and rather just tasted a more selective selection. By accident, these were mostly other Bordeaux varieties, with the odd alternative thrown in, as I sat down at a bench and some winemakers like James Stewart gradually sat down around me and they happened to have Bordeaux variety wines in the main.
Amongst them was Stewart’s Beckstoffer Las Piedras Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 from their Nomad series. Broad-shouldered, with plenty of oak, but this held those components in check very well, to create a very fine Napa Cabernet. As James explained, the Las Piedras vineyard abuts the Mayacamas, so is shaded, evening out ripening and avoiding heat spikes. Though “Nomad” was intended to ‘wander’ to the best vineyard in each vintage, 10 of 11 have been Las Piedras. I can just about overlook the enormous bottle…
With the other Bordeaux varieties, Delia Viader brought a fabulous 2003 vintage of Viader “V” Petit Verdot, which is maturing beautifully. Alongside Pine Ridge’s pretty decent 2015 Petit Verdot, that suggests Napa can get the variety ripe enough to do varietal expressions. The couple of Cabernet Francs tasted, however, tended towards the overripe and oaky, so losing some of the perfume and elegance of the variety.
Spoto Family’s 2015 Oakville Malbec, was authentic and dense, and suggesting Napa is able to give the Argentines a run for their money – though quite a lot of it, at $150 a bottle. Modus Operandi made their 2015 Antithesis Merlot in an unusual way, co-fermenting with the skins from a previous Petite Sirah ferment, to make a big, 15.5% ABV wine that nevertheless worked in its intriguing idiom. $150 again though.
Yao Family Wines, Yao Ming Brut Napa Valley 2016 (14 / 20; 83 / 100)
Basketball legend Yao Ming’s new Napa venture. ??% ABV. $?? / bottle RRP.
A: Pale lemon, with a faint bead
N: Toasty lees-spice. Yellow apple
P: Sweet, confected apple. Short
Black Stallion, Albarino Napa Valley 2017 (?? / 20; ?? / 100)
Hillside vineyard overlooking San Pablo Bay. 2 months in stainless steel. 7.1 g/L TA, pH 3.27, 13.5% ABV. $?? / bottle RRP.
A: Pale lemon
N: Aromatic apple and citrus. Oyster shell and crushed rock mineral. Authentic
P: Vegetal tone. Lean lemon. Salty. Bitter peel. Some warmth, but brisk acidity. Decent effort
Black Stallion, Roussanne Napa Valley 2016 (16.5 / 20; 92 / 100)
??% ABV. $?? / bottle RRP.
A: Pale gold
N: Ripe, rich vanilla cream over honeysuckle and orange. Yellow peach
P: Full body. Creamy honeysuckle and mandarin / yellow peach. Aromatic. Fat. Full. Viognier-like finish
Lang & Reed, Chenin Blanc Oak Knoll District 2017 (16 / 20; 91 / 100)
13.5% ABV. $27 / bottle RRP.
A: Very pale lemon
N: Toasty, spiced, ripe yellow apple. Oak baking spice. Savoury
P: Brisk, ripe, yellow apple. Decent length
Constant, Cabernet Franc Diamond Mountain 2014 (16 / 20; 90 / 100)
Made by Paul Hobbs. 14.5% ABV. $175 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep black-ruby
N: Slightly oxidative. Cooked red and black cherry. Some toasted tobacco. Bold and baked
P: Sweet, baked, black cherry fruit. Firm, slightly drying tannins. Chocolate finish. Moderate acidity. Warming finish
Oakville Ranch, Robert’s Cabernet Franc Oakville 2015 (15.5 / 20; 89 / 100)
15.3% ABV. $110 / bottle RRP.
A: Mid-deep purple
N: Bright, ripe, violets and macerated black cherry. Vanilla-clove. Sweet and ripe
P: Ripe, dense, red and black cherry. Bright-ish acidity. Chocolate-clove, spiced oak. Firm, fine tannins. Warming alcoholic finish
Monticello Vineyards, Corley Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2001 (15.5 / 20; 88 / 100)
14.2% ABV. $90 / bottle RRP.
A: Mid-deep garnet
N: Stewed, leafy cassis. Tobacco. Black tea. Some clove-camphor lift
P: Brisk, dried cassis. Herbal, slightly raw capsicum. Toasted tobacco. Clove-camphor. Grainy, firm tannins
Stewart, Nomad Beckstoffer Las Piedras Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2015 (18 / 20; 96 / 100)
337 clone, planted on small-pebble soils, with East-West row-orientation for even ripening, near St Helena, that gets shaded by hills after 2pm, with few heat spikes. 1-1.2t / acre yields. 3am harvest and hand sort before transport to the winery. Cold soak. Fermentation with 22 day maceration. 22 months in 60% new French oak. Idea of Nomad was to ‘wander’ to the best vineyard for each vintage, but 10 of 11 have been Las Piedras fruit. 14.5% ABV. $175 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep black-purple, with a narrow rim
N: Violets and surprisingly fresh cassis. Some leaf and dusty earth. Creamy vanilla tone and some clove. Sophisticated and restrained within its idiom
P: Polished, ripe cassis. Camphor and clove oak. Fine, ripe, velvety, but firm tannins. Really well-handled. Dusty, stony and fresh earth mid-palate. Not that long, but very sophisticated
Spoto Family Wines, Malbec Oakville 2015 (17 / 20; 94 / 100)
Part of historic H. W. Crab Oakville Vineyard. Small, open-topped fermentation, with multiple hand punchdowns / day. 24 months in 1, custom-made French oak barrel. pH 3.7, 14.6% ABV. $150 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep black-purple
N: Orange, coriander and violet. Clove spice. Jammy blackberry and plum
P: Bright acidity. Coriander and violets over blue-black berry jammy fruit. Firm, peppery tannins. Smoky – black pepper. Medium-long to long and not fiery
Coho, Michael Black Vineyards Merlot Coombesville 2013 (16.5 / 20; 92 / 100)
Cooler site on the valley floor. Small berries and clusters, due to a special clone. 1.25t / acre. 14.9% ABV. $55 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep black ruby-purple
N: Some raisin tones. Baked black plum and damson. Chocolate and clove-cedar oak
P: Plump, rich, velvet fruit. Full-bodied. Milk and dark chocolate. Some prune. Fine, ripe, fairly-firm tannins. Medium-long to long. Rich
Modus Operandi, Antithesis Merlot Napa Valley 2015 (17 / 20; 94 / 100)
Boyd Vineyard and Bacigalupi Vineyard. Petite Sirah wine made separately and not included in the finished wine (10-day cold soak, then 4-day fermentation, finished in barrel). Petite Sirah skins retained, and added to destemmed, whole-berry Merlot for cold soak then co-fermentation. Up to 24 months in 60-70% new Francois Freres and other French oak. 0 g/L RS, 7.5 g/L TA, pH 3.42, 15.5% ABV. $150 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep ruby
N: Plummy, spiced tones. Some inkiness. Super-ripe black cherry
P: Dense, polished, plush fruit. Damson, plum spice. Firm, chalky-chewy tannins. Velvet. Full-bodied. Vanilla-clove and dark chocolate finish
Stewart, Merlot Napa Valley 2014 (16 / 20; 90 / 100)
14.5% ABV. $50 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep ruby
N: Compote plum and black cherry. Vanilla. Soft, ripe and round. Mocha and oak spice
P: Plush, plum fruit. Sweet and ripe. Vanilla cream. Clove oak. Fine, ripe, moderate tannins. Medium-long. Straightforward but appealing
Pine Ridge, Petit Verdot Napa Valley 2015 (16.5 / 20; 93 / 100)
52% Rutherford, 25% Oakville, 23% Stag’s Leap District AVAs. 1.43 g/L RS, 6.8 g/L TA, pH 3.62, 14.9% ABV. $?? / bottle RRP.
A: Deep purple
N: Smoky, spicy, dark chocolate and crème de mure fruit. Black pepper. Dense with clove oak
P: Plush, damson jam and plum. Black pepper and clove oak. Chalky, fairly-firm tannins. Moderate acidity. Rounded. Good length
Viader Vineyards, “V” Petit Verdot Napa Valley 2003 (18 / 20; 96 / 100)
Introduced by Delia Viader. 94% Petit Verdot, 6% Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, from mountain vineyards. 14.5% ABV. $?? / bottle RRP.
A: Deep garnet
N: Mid-maturity cedar and tobacco. Black pepper and spice. Ripe not jammy, dried cassis and plum. Mealy oak
P: Velvety plum and damson. Black and white pepper. Dark chocolate. Firm, fine tannins. Velvety, dark chocolate finish. Very fine
Cakebread, Guajolote Red Blend Napa Valley 2014 (16.5 / 20; 93 / 100)
14.7% ABV. $57 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep purple
N: Capsicum grill. Toasted tobacco. Toasted black pepper, allspice and chilli. Meaty, spicy tones
P: Bright to brisk acidity. Flinty. Meaty blackberry jam and spice. Fairly firm, polished tannins. Creamy-clove and chocolate finish
Volker Eisele Family, Terzetto Red Blend Chiles Valley District 2014 (16.5 / 20; 93 / 100)
14.5% ABV. $75 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep ruby
N: Melted chocolate. Some coriander seed tones to clove oak. Dense black fruit
P: Ripe, broad black fruit. Bright-ish acidity. Well-handled, fairly-firm, chalky tannins. Long, chocolate finish
Annette Alvarez-Peters, AVP for Beverage Alcohol – the beers, wines and spirits division of CostCo – gave us an overview of their business and the process she and her team take to buying, Globally. Annette’s team of 11 domestic, regional US buyers and 8 international buyers are responsible for beers, wine and spirits across CostCo.
CostCo is a $138.4Bn retail business, based East of Seattle, founded in 1983 that merged with another $8Bn business, Price Club, in 1993. 222,000 people work for CostCo, worldwide, across 107m sq ft of retail space. Employees tend to be long term and you are expected to work from the bottom up, in the shop-floor of warehouse, before you reach executive levels. Stores are 145,000 sq ft average sized warehouses, of which there are 762 warehouses.
Food, beverage, toiletries, ‘hardlines’ of electrical goods, furniture, toys, pharmaceuticals, petrol, diamonds, and a wide range of goods are stocked. But a the range of SKUs is only 4,000, compared with much broader ranges of any good type than Wal-Mart or other competitors. SKUs are therefore on fast turnover and often being switched in and out – when it’s gone, it’s gone. Beverage alcohol sales totalled $4.4Bn, with 80% of warehouses carrying alcohol licenses – most variable in the US, due to State-level liquor licensing variation.
527 warehouses are in the US and 28 in the UK. In the UK a minimum proportion of sales must be to the trade, or CostCo could lose its licence, so the SKU mix is different to attract trade buyers, for example a greater range of beer SKUs than a typical US store, but a narrower wine reach. They have recently entered China, with a store outside Shanghai currently under construction. Market entries can take a lot of time, for example France needed licensing, which was repeatedly blocked by Carrefour objections.
CostCo is a member-only, cash & carry wholesaler, originally only for businesses. However, consumers were able to become members, totalling 50m households of 91.5m cardholders, and 35% of CostCo members are now consumers earning over $100,000. Average household incomes of members is $92,000 vs a US average of $69,000.
They target high income demographics through high-quality SKUs they stock, like 1er Cru Bordeaux, Rolex watches, diamond rings, BMWs etc. But these are simply priced lower than alternative sources of these goods, which does attract higher-income buyers who still want a good deal. Millenials are not yet their target because they don’t yet spend a lot of money, but Millenials who do shop at CostCo are attracted by organic SKUs, and CostCo are still working out what SKUs are most motivating for that demographic.
Part of the proposition is that the shopping experience is fun. Part of that is that CostCo move the locations of categories often and don’t label zones, to encourage members to walk around and explore what’s being sold. That fits into a philosophy of “the right product, in the right place in store, at the right quality and in the right condition, at the right quantity – arriving and leaving at the right time to avoid over or under-stocking, and at the right price – low prices drive volume and show the best value on higher ticket items”.
Operating margins are targeted at 14%, with membership fees on top of that of $60 / year for consumers or $120 / year for a business, meaning product pricing is low relative to all the markets they operate in. Membership fee revenue is $2.9Bn. Although they look for low costs from their suppliers, they don’t want to be more than 30% of any supplier’s business and they don’t want suppliers to sell to them on an unsustainable basis. There is some vertical integration, for example a new chicken factory has just been established in Nebraska, to support the 90M rotisserie chickens the business sells.
Buying is done on a country or regional level, so that individual countries or regions of the Us can be flexible to their markets. That’s particularly true for alcohol in the US because of the 3 Tier system and its complexity, which is so different from other international markets. The prime focus in buying is not on the target margin, but how low they can get the price of that SKU to put it on the shelf. There are some Global-level deals done, but complexity of the US alone makes it difficult to do a product sourcing deal that gets a relatively homogeneous end-price.
For wine, top-end labels are stocked, including 1er Cru Bordeaux. However there are many wineries who choose not to be sold in CostCo because the business is going to price their wine lower than the prevailing market price. That’s particularly the case for high-end California wines, where price is a key part of the brand and positioning. They observe significant regionality within the US, where e.g. Washington State residents will tend to drink Washington wines over California. 235 SKUs are stocked at any one time across Beverage Alcohol, meaning 1,500 SKUs could be ‘in play’ at any moment, to be rotated in and out.
Buying starts with reading high-end magazines like Wine Spectator, Decanter etc to understand what their top-end consumers are interested in, as well as watching what’s happening in the on-trade for latest trends. They also go to trade shows, for example half the team went to the New York Wine Experience last week including new recruits. That helps establish relationships with the trade that can help identify new lines and get good-value deals.
Buyers also go on buying trips, such as Bolgheri, Montalcino, Piemonte and Franciacorta, to find wines that would not readily be available in the US. The buyers might find 400 interesting wines, then narrow that down to 100 and then to 50. They then present the 50 best values identified back to the rest of the buying team. In 2018, they visited South America, the Rhône and Italy for buying trips.
Once a SKU is identified, they have a network of importers for clearing, on lower-margin deals as the importers have not had to take sales costs, to get the wines into 45 US States. They try to minimise pricing differences on a given SKU across the US, which inevitably come about through 3 Tier variations and logistics differences.
Kirkland Signature is a range of own-label wines that CostCo has had since 2003, where the buying team gets involved in the production process, and works with winemakers to get the best quality within a cost footprint. This range includes California wines, Prosecco and other Italian wines, covering 40 different wines in total. Which of these then get distributed to different regions and countries depends on those countries’ consumer preferences.
Selling in-store includes roadshows for specific wines or regions and supplier tastings.
Gina Gallo welcomed us to the Louis M. Martini winery, undergoing major restoration, originally founded in 1933, at the same time as Ernest and Julio Gallo founded their own winery.
Roger Nabedian, SVP of the Premium Wine business unit then introduced Gallo and gave an overview of their view of the business of wine, in what proceeded to be an interesting follow on to our breakfast business session – once you got past a bit of the corporate gloss, but that was to be expected.
Newly-promoted CMO, Stephanie Gallo explained Gallo’s ambitious Marketing strategy both to democratise wine and grow the total US wine consumption market – true ‘leadership’ of the market, in my view – and to target all consumer segments. She described the role of consumer insight and innovation in that strategy, which was followed by a more in-depth view of the consumer data Gallo have to deliver that insight, from Jennifer-Jo Wiseman, Head of Consumer Insights.
Finally, Scott Kozel, VP of Winemaking for Premium Wines gave us a fascinating overview of the cost impacts of different viticultural, winemaking and packaging decisions, and how that varies the cost structures of basic $8 wines, mid-range $20 bottles and finally $80+ wines. This notion of making wine to a ‘cost footprint’ is something more people in the wine business should understand, if it is ever to make money, consistently.
As Stephanie and Scott presented their respective sections, we paused for Scott to lead tastings of 2 flights of E & J Gallo wines, that helped illustrate on the one hand, wines to target different consumer groups and ‘democratise’ wine, as well the differences in winemaking choices across those different price categories.
Amongst the wines, the Louis M. Martini Lot 1 Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 demonstrated that Gallo can indeed stretch up to high quality winemaking, albeit at a very ‘healthy’ $145 a bottle.
Background and strategy
E & J Gallo’s mission statement is to remain a family-owned, leading US winery, bringing California wines to the world. That means, simultaneously, to express premium wines of California at high quality that represent their place, and to help consumers understand and appreciate wine, to buoy-up the whole category of wine. Stephanie’s role across business units is to translate consumer insights into promotion of Gallo’s wines.
Gallo operates 16 wineries across California and Washington States. In the coast, they farm 8,500 acres for quality wines, in addition of 16,000 Central Valley acres for entry level wines. They therefore have a large number of grower-partners that they have to work closely with if they want to, for example, innovate vineyard practices. They also have 24 international partners to import wines. 115 brands are owned, and 15,000 items are produced and sold across the world.
Driving consumer appeal for products is critical to their expansion. They target all consumer segments with different wines and brands, and look at whole market growth as part of their remit, including wine acceptance across the whole US market. That includes general alcohol acceptance across different wealth and attitude demographics, and to drive household penetration of wine specifically, as well as growing understanding of wine usage occasions.
Gallo started into premium wines with a sense of place and quality in the 1970s, much earlier than commonly expected. They invested significantly in vineyards in Sonoma. IN the last 20 years, Napa, Santa Lucia Highlands and Santa Barbara County vineyards have been rapidly added to expand the premium portfolio.
Much of the investment focus has been in getting vineyards as the basis for premium wines, as much or more than wineries and brands. Napa’s largest vineyard, Stagecoach, at 600 acre of hilltop vineyard was recently acquired, for example.
Wineries have been acquired as part of this, however, such as Talbott in Santa Lucia Highlands. Here, 8 of the business’ wineries can be split into to 2 within each winery – boutique production of minimum $50 / bottle wines, kept separate from a scaled-up winery on the same site, to leverage labour scale benefits on the same site whilst keeping processes focused on different price-point and different quality outcomes.
They have recently partnered with Dave Phinney to develop new brands and world-class wines, after creating new hit wine brand, The Prisoner. With Orin Swift, Phinney can continue to design and develop wines for segments he sees in the marketplace, without having to build a marketing and logistics network to deliver volume ‘at scale’ – Gallo provide that directly. Gallo’s wines are exported to over 100 markets worldwide, primarily with California wines, but also with partner wines like Orin Swift.
Stephanie Gallo explained that Ernest and Julio’s philosophy from early on was to democratise wine at a time when the country was a beer and whiskey-drinking country. She still believes that has not been achieved, given that 33% of the US drink wine regularly while 27% do drink but not wine. Per capita consumption is only 2.3 gallons vs. 14 gallons in the US.
US consumers are now starting to consider wine as a casual social beverage rather than an elitist drink for special occasions only. 79M Millenials have now all reached legal drinking age, many in households that drank wine, so that has normalised wine for that generation. It is a generation that doesn’t have history with wine so will experiment.
Generation Z are just reaching legal drinking age and are digital natives who share the social experiences of wine drinking, making this yet more casual. Further, wine is being seen on TV and in other places outside traditional written media.
That expansion of attitude has been reflected in the locations that are listing wine, including sports stadiums and other non-traditional wine locations, as well as Amazon and other new retailers have moved into off-trade wine sales.
Casual drinking is also reflected in product types – easy-drinking wine styles, rose wines and sparkling wines. Premiumisation is an important trend for Gallo, but that has to be balanced by the need for democratisation of wine. Gallo are worried at the rate of producers rushing to premiumise, when the numbers of consumers moving into buying at a premium level may not be growing as fast.
Reflecting their desire to democratise, and thereby grow total consumption, innovation has 2 focuses: how can new consumers be attracted to wine? How can the number of occasions where wine is drunk be increased?
For bringing new consumers in, wines like Moscato have been very powerful. As a result Gallo Family Sweets range has been developed. Under screwcap for ease of opening, these are 9% ABV, fruit flavoured, sweetened and gently sparkling. With little distribution effort to date, this has already reached 5-600,000 cases, with many drinkers being new to wine.
For new occasions, Gallo realised wine drinkers were switching out when looking for refreshment. They developed Barefoot Spritzers in cans, to meet that consumer need and keep wine drinkers in casual settings in the category. It also attracts some new consumers too.
Jennifer-Jo explained Gallo’s consumer research database and approach, called KUBE (Knowledge Unearthed for Business Expansion). It comprises 23,000 alcohol consumers’ data and 10,000 shopping surveys, covering 37,000 shopping and 100,000 consumption occasions.
Each respondent kept alcohol diaries, looking at purchases and consumption over several weeks. This dataset helps understand a consumer’s total drinking life and the variety of occasions and situations that actually come about with alcohol. The Kube has 3 dimensions: Consumption, Shopping and People, so can relate the demographic and attitudinal dimensions of the person to their buying and drinking.
They have generated 6 consumer segments based on their psychographics, to explain why their behaviour is what it is. Examples of these include Status Seekers – risk takers and experimenters, who value what others think of them and want to be seen with the latest thing, Resilient Traditionalists – conservative, who have internally-focused, family values, and Relationship Connectors – for whom wine plays a social lubricant role, and they will stick to wines they know to deliver that. Socially-conscious Explorers, Forever Young and Newly Established rounded out the list.
They have also identified 6 in-home occasions, on a 2×2 matrix, where alcohol is either more primary or more secondary to the situation, drinking either together or more alone: Complement my Meal, Evening Wind Down, Spur of the Moment, Thanks for the Drink, Hanging Out and House Party.
Likewise on-premise occasions can be split into 7: After Work Socialising, New Places New Faces, What do you recommend, Feeling Sociable, Table for Two, The Meal.
8 shopping occasions were identified as well, covering stocking-up over impulse buying, etc. Shopping journeys for specific attitudinal segments can then be built, to help Gallo and retailers see how and where to make it easier for consumers to understand and build desire for wine at that buying point.
Globally, similar segmentations have been done though the KUBE level not yet, as the US is such a major market for Gallo. Generally, from prior work, psychographic segments tend to be similar around the world and translate from market-to-market, but in different proportions. However, occasions tend to be very different, market-by-market.
Scott then explained approaches to winemaking in the Group, and how choices influence cost, for 3 styles of wine. That began with vineyard flow, from establishment to management, to yield, and ultimately to harvest.
Grape costs vary hugely depending on region of planting, from $300, $700, $1,400, $2,500, $5,500 and up to $40,000 / ton from Southern California to Napa Valley’s top vineyard. Dry Creek could be $2,500 but at Monte Rosso, 35 miles away, that is around $7,500 / ton. That clearly puts a huge stamp on the total cost of the final wine, since grape costs are often one of the largest cost components in any wine.
Yield management is closely related to water availability, so understanding variations in vineyards can allow better management of yield across a vineyard area, as well as high-vigour issues. Gallo therefore conduct aerial soil surveys before planting, then adjust rootstock and clonal selections to adjust vigour across blocks, and vary irrigation, to make more homogeneous vineyards with better farming costs, while driving quality.
Picking timing impacts quality, but also yield significantly due to shrivelling: 24°Brix might do 5t / acre, but that becomes 3.5-4t / acre at 28-30°Brix. Mechanisation with top-range picking machines, carrying on-board sorting, can deliver no MOG with fully-destemmed fruit at $90-100 / ton to pick vs. $180-190 / ton to pick by hand. Gallo experimented with side-by-side row picking of red grapes, made the wine and preferred the machine-picked in blind tasting.
For analysis of cost footprints, grape costs are significant proportions of the cost and price structure of all levels of wine. However, other operational decisions drive a big uplift in boutique winemaking costs, as the illustrative breakdown Scott shared demonstrate:
In the winery, scale impacts hugely. 1 winemaker with a 50t automated array of tanks can manage far greater volume than 7t fermenters operated by hand, driving cost variance from $1 of highly-automated generic wine production through to $13 for that hand-crafted approach.
Likewise, oak chips or staves can keep cost to $0.25, whereas new French barriques are far more expensive at $11. Interestingly, the Coastal bottling has only a modest increase to $0.50, where perhaps used barrels and more sophisticated oak alternatives can deliver the quality consumers require.
At the packaging stage, a heavy bottle, premium label and top-end closure again shifts cost from $2.50 to $14 – for example, corks can vary from a composite at $0.05 / unit, up to guaranteed TCA-free natural corks at $1.20 / unit. Finally, using in-house, high-speed bottling lines on constant operation makes the cost of bottling just $0.75 vs. keeping small, slow bottling lines idle or using mobile bottling lines, at $3.00 / bottle continues the broad spread of costs by operating step.
It should be noted that these costs are not strictly costs – clearly, since they add-up to the price point in the entry level $8 bottle, and up to just above the lowest $80 price-point for the luxury end. Rather, slightly confusingly, these ‘cost’ figures include elements of the winery’s margins, allocated across all steps.
Nevertheless, these give a clear view of the relative costs that are incurred by different winemaking approaches. The clear step-up in cost profile of moving to small-scale and often manual, hand-crafting of top-end wines is particularly interesting.
Around 50% of retail comes back to the winery across all price points. Overall, the mid-tier of ‘coastal’ or equivalent tends to deliver the best returns for Gallo, but they believe good returns are available across all price-points through managing the cost footprint.
We then tasted Flight 2, looking at the 3 different levels of price, style and cost footprint.
We discussed Apothic’s origins. Gallo identified red blends early-on, as they started to get consumer traction in Washington State and realised a gap in the wider market. They then designed a wine that they thought would be widely appealing. In terms of packaging, consumer research was used to ‘personify’ the consumer need-state being addressed. The combination of ‘apothecary’ for the wine design as well as ‘epic’ being mentioned a lot in research from younger consumers, to yield the name Apothic.
J Vineyards, Pinot Gris California 2017 (14.5 / 20; 84 / 100)
Illustration of a winery acquisition, made in 2015. No changes were made in winemaking, just expanding the scale. Grapes from across California – 20% in Sonoma, 80% Lodi. Some Gewurztraminer and Muscat for lift. Stainless steel. No MLF. Short maturation – 3-4 months from harvest. Screwcapped. 13.5% ABV. 2.8 g/L RS. $20 / bottle RRP.
A: Pale gold
N: Subtle dusty spice. Orchard fruit. Simple
P: A little RS. Fresh acidity. Simple orchard fruit and a touch of spice. Short
Talbott Vineyards, Sleepy Hollow Chardonnay Santa Lucia Highlands 2016 (15.5 / 20; 89 / 100)
Illustration of a premium style. Later harvest. Barrel fermentation in 40% new oak. Screwcapped. 14.1% ABV. $45 / bottle RRP.
A: Mid gold
N: Ripe yellow peach and yellow melon. Creamy-buttery. Baking spice. Bright and very California
P: Bright acidity. Rounded, creamy-butter yellow peach. Baking spice. Medium-long. A little soft overall
Barefoot Bubbly, Moscato Spumante NV (13.5 / 20; 80 / 100)
Illustration of democratising wines. Charmat method. Central Valley fruit. 250,000 case production. 57 g/L RS, 10.5% ABV. $10 / bottle RRP.
A: Very pale lemon, slight spritz
N: Bright, simple, tinned orange blossom
P: Loose-knit. Sweet and slightly cloying. Orange blossom and grape. Short but easy
Dark Horse, Cabernet Sauvignon California 2016 (14 / 20; 84 / 100)
Brand created 2011. Lodi fruit. $750 / ton. 150-300t fermentation tanks. High-speed bottling. 0.5M cases. 13.5% ABV. $8 / bottle RRP.
A: Mid-deep ruby-purple
N: Jammy, baked blackberry. Hint of herb. Soft
P: Soft, ripe, rounded black fruit. Some creaminess. Simple and short
Louis M. Martini, Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma County 2016 (15 / 20; 87 / 100)
$2,500 / ton. 50t fermentation tanks with staves for the majority. Medium-speed bottling line. 285-300,000 cases. 14.5% ABV. $20 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep black, with a narrow purple rim
N: Spicy blackberry fruit. Plum. Some meaty tones. Inky. Background clove-cedar
P: Rich, jammy, spicy black cherry. Juicy acidity. Peppery mid-palate with medium-firm, ripe tannins. Medium-long, coffee finish with a warming tone. Approachable
Louis M. Martini, Lot 1 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2014 (17 / 20; 94 / 100)
Edge of Napa Valley fruit including Stagecoach and some purchased fruit. Hand-sorted fruit. 7t fermenters. 2-5 weeks on skins. 22-24 months in new French oak. Bottling line used 2 times a year, maximum. 2,000 cases. 15.1% ABV. $145 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep black with a very narrow, ruby-garnet rim.
N: Vanilla-clove entry. Oak dominant. Dense, jammy black cherry. Some cedar emerges on swirling
P: Full-bodied, dense, velvety, jammy black cherry. Fairly bright acidity. Firm to high, ripe, velvety tannins. Clove and cedar oak. Warming finish with dark chocolate. Sweet and full. Well-crafted in its idiom
The formal tasting was followed by a formal lunch amongst the barrels in the Martini winery, with a suite of 6 Louis M. Martini and other Gallo brand wines served. These were a little hit-and-miss, though it should be noted that at least one of these, the Dark Horse Rose 2017 is only $8 per bottle.
Louis M. Martini, Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley 2017 (15.5 / 20; 89 / 100)
Small amount of Semillon. 14.4% ABV. $40 / bottle RRP.
A: Very pale lemon
N: Pear and tropical, passionfruit. Clean and pure. Touch of boxwood sweatiness
P: Spicy touch to ripe passionfruit and some ripe grapefruit. Brisk to crisp acidity. Slightly warming, medium length finish
Louis M. Martini, Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2015 (15.5 / 20; 88 / 100)
15.1% ABV. $43 / bottle RRP.
A: Mid ruby-purple
N: Compote cassis with straightforward, pyrazine-touched herbal tones. Creamy, spicy oak. Good Cabernet character
P: Sweet, jammy cassis. Creamy vanilla tones. Velvety, moderate intensity, ripe tannins. Chocolate, warming, medium-long finish
Dark Horse, Rose California 2017 (14 / 20; 83 / 100)
12.5% ABV. $8 / bottle RRP.
A: Very pale pink
N: Dusty, spicy, slightly industrial notes over cool-fermentation pear and strawberry fruit
P: Some spice to ripe strawberry fruit. Missing a little in the mid-palate, but fair fruit density. Some green apple. Quite short
J Vineyards, Chardonnay Russian River Valley 2016 (15.5 / 20; 89 / 100)
14.1% ABV. $31 / bottle RRP.
A: Mid gold
N: Ripe pineapple and very ripe yellow peach. Fresh butter tones. Subtle baking spice and some hazelnut
P: Butter, richly full bodied. Moderate acidity. Mouthful of yellow tropical fruit with passionfruit through the core. Caramel and baking spice. Medium-long
Talbott Vineyards, Sleepy Hollow Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands 2016 (14.5 / 20; 85 / 100)
14.2% ABV. $50 / bottle RRP.
A: Mid ruby with black tints
N: Compote, soft berry fruit with crème de mure tones. Cinnamon with a little toasted allspice. Touch of meat
P: Spicy, black pepper and allspice. Cinnamon-clove mid-palate. Compote, somewhat roasted blackberry and crème de mures. Light, soft tannins. Bright acidity maximum. Warming finish
Orin Swift, 8 Years in the Desert Red California 2017 (15.5 / 20; 88 / 100)
60+% Zinfandel, blended with other varieties that vary annually, including Grenache, Syrah, Malbec and Petite Sirah. 2017 was Petite Sirah and Syrah only. Stagecoach and Santa Rosa fruit, mainly. 8 months in 30% new oak. 15.5% ABV. $50 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep black, with a very narrow, purple rim
N: Dusty white pepper over dense, liqueur damson fruit. Some hazelnut. Dark chocolate oak, but not marked vanilla
P: Powerfully spiced, jammy damson and liqueur blackberry. Quite bright acidity. Sweet and rounded fruit. Fairly firm, peppery tannins. Full-bodied. Medium-long, quite hot, chocolate finish
Kelli White, long-time, Roederer-award-winning journalist and senior staff writer for GuildSomm, moderated a tasting at the 15 acre OVID winery in Pritchard Hill, exploring the styles and influences of Napa’s mountain zones and AVAs. Kelli has also helped Alessandro Masnaghetti to map the vineyards of Napa, while she has just joined the MW study programme.
Kelli introduced the geography and geology of Napa, covering both mountain and valley formation, which are critical for the complex soil structures of the Valley. Though considered as ‘northern’ California, it is worth remembering that Napa is still 5 hours’ drive from the northern border of California.
Napa was formed between 140 and 80M years ago as an inland sea, yielding clays and ultimately, after compression of those clays, layers of shale bedrock. 25-5M years ago, Napa-Sonoma volcanics were introduced as a result of the San Andreas fault formation. Unusually, these volcanics were thrown out of volcanic vents rather than resulting from volcano or mountain formation, and covered Franciscan Melange bedrock.
The Franciscan Melange bedrock itself formed in the intervening period, 80-25M years ago. Here, material was scraped from the passing Farallon plate as it moved north, past and away from Napa. This scraping deposited much Magnesium-rich Serpentine which characterises the Melange.
Mountain formation began around 3M years ago as a result of compression between the Pacific and North American plates. The eastern Vaca range resulted from splits in the crust which then progressively stacked on top of each other. By contrast, the Mayacamas, between Napa and Sonoma, were formed by a later, crustal ‘wrinkle’.
The Vaca carries much volcanic materials in its soils, including tuffs, formed from compressed volcanic ash. Curiously, the Mayacamas shed much of its volcanic material through erosion, so little is found from the north-central, Spring Mountain District, and southwards. Volcanics are thus, generally, relatively rare on the Mayacamas. Alluvial deposits down towards the Valley floor are therefore common and important.
Given this rapid, recent geology, soils are therefore young – 80-140M for sands and shales, and 5-7M for the volcanics – and also extremely diverse, with 33 soil types identified in Napa. To compare soil ages, South Africa has some 500-600M year old granites in the Cape.
Alluvial fans from the mountains to the floor of the Valley increase complexity, more on the Mayacamas side, in line with the washing-off of volcanic material. The long, alluvial gravel bench of Rutherford is perhaps the most famous. On the Vaca side, fewer fans exist, with Stag’s Leap being a notable exception. The Mayacamas side had slower water run-off when the range was forming, causing greater carriage and deposition of material into the Valley compared with the Vaca.
Napa has a Mediterranean climate, but marine fogs cool the climate significantly towards the southern, lower-altitude end, near San Pablo Bay. That causes higher-altitude Calistoga to be significantly warmer, with only the Diamond Creek gap bringing fog influence to the area around the town.
The general position of the fog line means that higher elevations above the fog line are sunnier, though maximum daytime highs and nighttime lows are less than the valley floor. Diurnal temperature variations are significant on the floor of Napa, where the shift can be as much as 40°F.
The Mayacamas and Vaca ranges both get similar amounts of rainfall, but the solar exposure of the western-face of the Vaca range dries it more than the Mayacamas eastern flank, making the Vaca range browner and more arid-looking – as was clearly demonstrated the next morning, when we took a daybreak balloon flight over the Valley.
Increased elevation in the mountain districts is the same as in other mountain regions, causing lower temperatures, higher solar radiation, slower ripening and lower sugar accumulation, thicker skins and deeper colours, and rockier, freer draining, lower vigour soils. Kelli also speculates that it changes the attitude of the winemaker.
We then tasted the wines in pairs by AVA. Each pair showed one wine in a more rugged style and the other in a more polished, ripe style. These, Kelli felt, reflected her sense of the diversity of attitudes of the winemakers involved, where mountain districts were more likely to find winemakers comfortable with more rusticity of style, in keeping with their wilder environment.
Amongst the wines, Heidi Barrett’s skill came through clearly with Au Sommet 2014 Cabernet from Atlas Peak. Modern style, for sure, but a soaring-peak of a wine. The Diamond Mountain pair from Dyer and Lokoya both showed the strength of this small appellation, with Dana from Howell Mountain up there with them. OVID’s Estate red blend 2009 from the non-AVA of Pritchard Hill was equally fine, and a pleasure to taste with age. Overall, notable freshness of acidity held true, whether the wine was in a modern or ‘rustic’ idiom.
Atlas Peak: in the southern Vaca, with more rainfall and cooled by the Bay, however it warms rapidly with a western exposure. Elevations range from 760 to 2,600ft. The 243Ha Stagecoach vineyard is the largest and most famous. It is not widely cultivated, with only 616Ha of 4,613Ha in the 1992 AVA, actually planted. Much is still cattle farming. Little viticulture existed before Prohibition and that died away. Major modern planting began in 1981. 65% is Cabernet Sauvignon.
Pritchard Hill: Mid Vaca range, hills opposite and above Rutherford and Oakhill. Technically not an AVA as the Chappelet family owns the trademark and were concerned about a politically-motivated expansion of the AVA zone, that could damage the reputation of the region, so refused to relinquish the name to allow an AVA. Tim Mondavi and others have some interest in creating a different name, but that seems unlikely to come about. Some lake influences from the locally-dammed lake appear to give additional humidity to the region. Slopes over 30% may not be planted due to the Slope Ordinance, which dramatically reduces the plantable area. The area has attracted a lot of cachet, and generally ‘Beverley Hills’ winemaking. Often these wines are blends. Mostly red-sand soils
Howell Mountain: High-elevation plateau in the northern Vaca. The AVA was granted in 1984, with 405Ha planted of 5,666Ha, at 1,400-2,800ft elevations. 2,000 acres have been owned since 1909 by the temperant Seventh Day Adventists. The AVA is based on the fogline position, with red volcanic clay loam soils and some compressed volcanic ash zones. 69% is Cabernet Sauvignon. Randy Dunn brought acclaim to Howell Mountain in the 1970s and 1980s, and luxury Cabernet abounds – not all of which is in his highly-extracted style – plus some historic Zinfandel. Howell Mountain does not reach the Valley’s valley-floor AVAs.
Diamond Mountain: north-west Napa Valley in the Mayacamas, with the Diamond Creek ‘access route’ for coastal fogs, keeping it particularly cool in the otherwise hot Calistoga AVA that is around it. 202Ha of 2,023Ha of the AVA are planted, 81% to Cabernet. The first mountain vines to be planted by Schramsberg were here, while Diamond Creek Winery was arguably the first Napa ‘cult’ wine, based in the AVA.
Spring Mountain: a district, rather than a mountain, with lots of natural springs in the hills. Least dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon, with Riesling and Pinot Noir also found. Transition from volcanic mountains to the north, to sandstone and shale in the south. Up the slope from St Helena and includes the terraced, Cain vineyard. Rolling, slightly jagged hills.
Mt. Veeder: the mountain by the Bay, with scattered vineyards at 500-2,600ft elevation, and the lowest-density planting of any AVAs. Lots of Serpentine and Magnesium. Steep slopes prevent a lot of planting. It is the coldest and wettest mountain in Napa, so ripening is not always easy, which has made the AVA a less attractive and less fashionable place to grow grapes. 61% Cabernet Sauvignon is planted. Mayacamas is the oldest, longest-established winery, pre-Prohibition, but only 40 producers today.
Au Sommet, Cabernet Sauvignon Atlas Peak 2014 (18 / 20; 96 / 100)
Classical Napa style. 97% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Petit Verdot. Western Vaca range fruit, near the summit. Made by Heidi Barrett. 18 months in 50% new French oak. 14.8% ABV. $250 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep ruby-purple
N: Expensive, fine-quality cinnamon-clove oak. Some coriander. Polished, ripe cassis
P: Sweet cassis entry. Good acidity. Fine, fairly-firm, well-handled tannins. Some finesse and perfumed. Long, with a warming finish
Scribe, Cabernet Sauvignon Atlas Peak 2014 (17 / 20; 94 / 100)
New project based in north, Sonoma Carneros. More rugged, traditional, restrained style. Eastern Atlas Peak. East and Southeast-facing , volcanic tuff and gravel vineyard. 1,600ft altitude. Stainless steel fermentation, then neutral oak maturation. 6.4 g/L TA, pH 3.65, 14% ABV. $77 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep ruby
N: Dusty, with white pepper. Stones. Blue and cassis fruit. Some meatiness. Very mineral
P: Chalky, fresh earth. Subtle oak spice. Plenty of freshness of acidity. Peppery textured, fairly-firm tannins. Perfumed violet finish
OVID, Estate Red Blend Pritchard Hill 2009 (17.5 / 20; 95 / 100)
First vintage 2005. Volcanic loam soils. 58% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Cabernet Franc, 8% Merlot, 3% Petit Verdot. Concrete and oak tank fermentation. 20 months in 82% new French oak. pH 3.68, 14.9% ABV. $680 / bottle RRP library release.
A: Deep ruby-garnet
N: Dusty mineral touch to rich cassis fruit. Some dried thyme. Clove oak and cordite
P: Chalky, fairly firm tannins. Pure cassis. Dusty, crushed rock tones. Touch of salinity. Quite bright acidity, but less than Atlas Peak wines. Quite elegant and long, with a tannic bite
Pulido-Walker, Melanson Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Pritchard Hill 2013 (17 / 20; 94 / 100)
Clones 7 and 337 Cabernet Sauvignon. 20 months in 80% new French oak. 6.5 g/L TA, pH 3.84, 14.7% ABV. $209 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep ruby-purple
N: Coriander seed and cordite oak, with some dusty mineral. Bright, ripe not overripe berry fruit. Some old leather touches
P: Bright, fresh red cherry and cassis fruit. Mid-full bodied. Peppery, chalky toned, fairly-firm tannins. Quite long. Lots of fruit. Bright and young
Angwin Estate Vineyards, Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain 2013 (16.5+ / 20; 94+ / 100)
New producer, but looking to a more historic style of Napa Cabernet. ENTAV 169 clone Cabernet Sauvignon at 2,150 feet on volcanic rock and weathered ash / clay. 24 months in 57% new French and Hungarian oak. <1 g/L RS, pH 3.82, 14.3% ABV. $120 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep ruby-purple
N: White pepper. Rocky minerality. Cedar clove background tones. Some herbal, dried capsicum tones. Savoury. Black fruit beneath
P: Brisk acidity. Firm. Medium bodied style. Firm, grainy, chewy tannins with some rusticity. Dusty, rocky mineral. Medium-long, floral finish
Dana, Hershey Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain 2014 (17.5 / 20; 95 / 100)
100% Cabernet Sauvignon. 25 months in 91% new French oak. 6.2 g/L TA, pH 3.82, 15.2% ABV. $415 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep ruby
N: Rich, ripe, compote tones to the blackcurrant fruit. Cedar-clove oak and dusty mineral tones. Bigger than the Angwin, but not valley-floor ‘big’
P: Pure, precise cassis and blackberry. Fair freshness. Polished, ripe, compact but firm tannins with some peppery texture. Quite long, perfumed finish with chocolate and clove oak. Carries its alcohol well
Dyer, Dyer Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Diamond Mountain 2014 (17.5+ / 20; 95+ / 100)
Husband and wife team, making very small production wines. 7-10% incline mid-slope, North-facing vineyard on a 2.3 acre bench. 81% Cabernet Sauvignon, 14% Cabernet Franc and 5% Petit Verdot. 5.8 g/L TA, pH 3.74, 14.2% ABV. $80 / bottle RRP.
A: Mid-deep ruby-purple
N: Cordite and dust oak. Some roasted spices. Quite restrained, with some blue fruit. Rocky mineral tones
P: Fresh and bright acidity, lifting blue and cassis fruit. Firm to high, grainy, somewhat drying tannins. Austere. Medium body. Rocky mineral. Some toasted spice through the medium-long finish
Lokoya, Cabernet Sauvignon Diamond Mountain 2014 (17.5 / 20; 95 / 100)
1,200-1800ft. 19 months in 99% new French oak. 14.5% ABV. $375 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep ruby-purple
N: Rich, coffee-mocha oak. Cedar. Polished leather. Smoky notes. Ripe, black cherry
P: Fresh and bright acidity. Ripe, black cherry and cassis. Precise. Extracted, firm tannins. Creamy, blue fruit finish with some dark chocolate. Bright and polished
Philip Togni, Philip Togni Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Spring Mountain 2014 (16.5+ / 20; 93+ / 100)
British owner, who attended the University of Bordeaux’s first oenology class, then worked in Chile. Founding winemaker at Chalone after working at Mayacamas. [add in]. At or under 14% so don’t have to list ABV. $135 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep purple
N: Old leather, white pepper and dust. Rocky.
P: Juicy, fresh cassis and blue fruit. Chalky, firm to high tannins. Somewhat rustic. Subtle, spicy cedar. Rocky finish. Needs time
Vineyard 7&8, Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Spring Mountain 2014 (17+ / 20; 94+ / 100)
Picked early-mid October. Hand-sorted twice. Whole berry fermentation, with 30% in new French oak barrels with 50-60 days average maceration. 26 months in new French oak from artisan coopers. 14.9% ABV. $185 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep ruby-garnet
N: Wood and cedar. Clove oak. Coriander seed and camphor notes. Some baked tones to ripe red cherry and cassis
P: Plus, polished black cherry and cassis. Compact, extracted, ripe but very firm, drying tannins. Smoky, espresso and rock finish
Mayacamas, Cabernet Sauvignon Mt. Veeder 2014 (16.5 / 20; 92 / 100)
92% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Merlot, 4% Cabernet Franc. 32 months in neutral French oak. 14.25% ABV. $125 / bottle RRP.
A: Mid-deep ruby
N: Funky, smoky. Rock and cedar-clove oak touches. Scented violets. Red and black fruit
P: Brisk, quite crisp acidity. Sour edge to red cherry and cassis. Flinty touch. Rustic, fairly-firm, quite wild tannins. Nutty background oak touches
Rudd, Red Blend Mt. Veeder 2014 (17+ / 20; 94+ / 100)
Modern, richer style. Site mainly planted to Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. 68% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Petit Verdot, 10% Merlot, 8% Malbec, 4% Cabernet Franc. 75% new French oak. 15.5% ABV. $250 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep ruby-purple
N: Vanilla and cedar oak. Rich oak. Some crushed rock. Ripe and rich blackcurrant
P: Pure, sour-edged cassis and raspberry. Nutty and cedar-spiced. Powerful, quite grainy tannins. Needs time. Long, vanilla-clove finish
Moving to Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Kelli White then led a panel tasting with legendary consulting winemaker, Heidi Barrett along with fellow consultants, Jeff Ames, Philippe Melka and Renzo Cotarella. She began by reminding us that consulting on winemaking is quite different task and role than being a winemaker.
Heidi became a consultant in the 1980s and owns La Sirena. Philippe began at Dominus in the early 1990s, before moving to Seaver as his first consulting project. Jeff is a more recent arrival to the Valley. Renzo is the chief winemaker for all Antinori winemaking worldwide, with Antica being Antinori’s first Napa project.
Heidi considers herself as an independent winemaker for small wineries today, rather than a consultant, since she works for clients who don’t have a winemaker, working only with assistants. She has had consulting clients before that she would see a few times a year for tasting, thoughts on blending, help with corrections if needed, but didn’t work crush. She is paid monthly depending on level of support required, but on her partnership brands, she’s paid on a share of partnership profits.
Her perspective on the importance of scores is that is was very important in the 1990s and 2000s, but there has been a substantial change towards customers looking to find experiences, authenticity, a story behind wines and not conversations about point scores, at least for domestic customers. Points still count substantially in some export markets.
Jeff came from Alabama and arrived in Napa in 1999 while working for Decanter. The two wines he brought are from 2015, planted in 1997 to the same clone, with the same barrels and winemaking process. 85% of the consulting he does is on Cabernet-based wines. Jeff determines the picking date. He also makes the oak-buying decisions. In opening discussions with new clients, they may demand a wine ‘like XYZ’, but he will only promise that if the fruit source is similar. For him, he is paid as a salary, not on outcomes like scores.
Renzo grew up in a wine family then studied chemistry, before oenology. He then began working to make wine for the Antinori family in the 1970s, that ultimately could be shared with others. His intent is to make wines that reflect the personality of the property or family, not the personality of the winemaker. He works with Antinori estates that have their own winemakers and agronomists, who know the individual vineyards better than he does, so he consults and advises this team. He prefers to let the winemakers take responsibility.
With red wines, managing and controlling the tannins is Renzo’s biggest focus – fruit selection, punchdowns in conical tanks which needs less firmness to punch down and less mechanical action, using a temperature of fermentation that is higher in early stages then reducing temperature as alcohol rises to reduce tannin extraction.
Amongst the wines shown, having enjoyed 2004 before, it was nice to see the 2015 Stag’s Leap FAY Cabernet Sauvignon doing very well. Close behind were both of Jeff Ames’ wines – the still-youthful TOR Herb Lamb Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 and the Rudius Kaley Elizabeth 2014. Quixote Cabernet 2016 from Stag’s Leap District was up there too.
Amongst a line up of good-to-excellent wines to which we were treated, it must be said.
La Sirena, Pirate TreasuRed Red Blend Napa Valley 2014 (16.5+ / 20; 92+ / 100)
Heidi Barrett consulting. [add notes]. Blend of 7 varieties to give layers of flavour without necessarily being able to identify particular, single flavours. Bordeaux meets the Rhone. Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon main components, then Merlot and Grenache, with Petit Verdot, Petite Sirah and Cabernet Franc for spice. Shows the skill of a consultant as blender. Old-looking bottle with a treasure-map style label, to reflect the ‘pirate’ theme. 22 months in 40-45% new oak. 6.1 g/L TA, pH 3.79, 14.7% ABV. $65 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep ruby-garnet
N: Clove and camphor. Dark chocolate tones. Chalk. Floral tones to rich blackberry fruit
P: Bright, juicy acidity. Raspberry and blackberry. Chocolate and spice. Fine, fairly firm tannins. Warming finish but with decent length
La Sirena, Grenache Napa Valley 2015 (16 / 20; 91 / 100)
Heidi Barrett consulting. Steep, terraced vineyards that Heidi had been buying since 2007, but have now been grubbed up in favour of Cabernet Sauvignon. 2012 was the first time there was enough for a varietal wine, instead of blending into Pirate. [add notes]. 6.4 g/L TA, pH 3.82, 14.7% ABV. $45 / bottle RRP.
A: Pale-medium ruby
N: Coriander-seed oak note. Cocoa powder. Ripe strawberry, slightly cooked fruit
P: Quite juicy, full-bodied, jammy redcurrant and ripe blueberry. Some kirsch fruit tones through the warming finish
TOR, Herb Lamb Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2015 (17.5+ / 20; 95+ / 100)
Jeff Ames consulting. Wild-yeast fermentation in a single, closed tank, at maximum 85F, for 14 days with maximum 2 pumpovers / day. Natural MLF in barrels, followed by 18 months 70% new Taransaud French oak. 15.1-15.2% ABV. $100 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep black ruby-garnet
N: Intensely mocha oak with sweet, torrified and caramel tones. Rich, sweet, broad black fruit beneath, but lots of melted chocolate oak
P: Herbal, leafy tobacco tone to the ripe, jammy black cherry entry. Pepper spice to the mid-palate. Lots of chocolate and mocha through the slightly warming finish. Chalky, young, firm tannins that are well-crafted
Rudius, Kaley Elizabeth Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2014 (17.5 / 20; 95 / 100)
Jeff Ames consulting. Whole-berry fermentation in closed tanks, for 16 days with 2 pumpovers / day. Natural MLF in barrels, followed by 22 months in 70% new French oak. No fining or filtration. pH 3.65-7, 15.1-15.2% ABV. $125 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep ruby
N: Coriander seed, clove and cinnamon oak. Some milk chocolate. Ripe and dense. Oak-led, but very fine quality barrels
P: Ripe, focused, crème de cassis fruit with more overt sweetness. Not so much freshness, but supple. Dense, dark chocolate, clove and sweet cinnamon oak with a subtle coriander seed tang. Velvet mouthfeel, with fairly firm, very fine-grained tannins. Silky. Warming touch to the long finish. Sophisticated, in its ripe idiom. Drinkability may be a question?
Quixote, Cabernet Sauvignon Stag’s Leap District 2016 (17.5 / 20; 95 / 100)
Philippe Melka consulting. Cooler clay – unusual on a hillside estate. 96%, 4 and See clones of Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Sodero-clone Malbec. Bottled July. 5.8 g/L TA, pH 3.81, 14.1% ABV. 500 cases. $125 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep black-ruby
N: Floral rose tones to raspberry and black cherry fruit. Ripe, jammy fruit. Black, dry earth aromatics to clove and dark chocolate subtle oak tones.
P: Ripe, rose-scented, spicy blackberry fruit. Juicy mid-palate but not marked acidity. Firm, chalky tannins give through to a powdery, cocoa-laced, long finish. Some finesse to a Napa style
Seavey, Estate Grown Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2014 (17+ / 20; 94+ / 100)
Philippe Melka consulting. Rocky, eastern-Oakville site. 60% new French oak. 14.5% ABV. 1,200 cases. $160 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep ruby
N: Mocha then clove. Cedar wood. Toasted tobacco. Roasted spice. Black fruit beneath
P: Mocha and cedar oak. Cassis and some raspberry. Firm to high, chalky tannins. Slightly warming tones to the melted chocolate, fairly long finish
Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, FAY Estate Grown Cabernet Sauvignon Stag’s Leap District 2015 (18 / 20; 96 / 100)
Renzo Cotarella consulting, since Warren Winiarski asked Antinori to buy the estate. Always a more elegant counterpoint to SLV’s power. Less than 2t / acre, leading to a more powerful style than typical. Stainless steel fermentation. MLF. 22 months in 89% new French oak. 5.1 g/L TA, pH 3.78, 14.5% ABV. $150 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep ruby
N: Minty, violet floral lift. Notable dried tobacco. Some spicy, crushed rock with subtle cedar oak spice
P: Mint, focused, pure, ripe cassis with a mint-herb lift. Fine line of freshness, with an elegant style. Fairly firm, powdery tannins. Slightly warming, long but not super-long finish just detracts a little from a fine, appealing wine
Antica Napa Valley, Townsend Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Atlas Peak 2015 (17+ / 20; 94+ / 100)
Renzo Cotarella consulting for the Antinori’s own estate. 24 acres on West-facing, well-drained, volcanic soils at 1,100ft altitude. High density planting and low-trained to absorb radiant heat from the ground. Destemmed and sorted. 7 separate plots, stainless steel fermented with temperature control for 15 days. Racked to 100% new French oak for MLF and 18 months’ maturation. ??% ABV. $110 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep black-ruby, with some rim purple
N: Rich cedar-cordite oak with a tobacco and herbal notes. Some coriander seed. Old leather and dusty minerality on ripe cassis
P: Full bodied, with firm to high, powdery tannins that melt through the finish. Velvet black fruit. Some ink. Dark chocolate, somewhat warming finish
We closed out our final full day in Napa with a reception then gala dinner at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. On our way in, it was a good reminder that this was a fully-operational winery, still in harvest-swing, as the team cleaned-down their crushpad ahead of the next morning’s pre-dawn pick.
A near-full range of Stag’s Leap wines were made available for us to taste, especially the exceptional 1994 Cask 23 Cabernet Sauvignon, which was a real treat. Tasting also the 2015, I can’t help but wonder if the new, post-Warren Winiarski regime is moving towards a more contemporary, riper style – whether for good or ill?
Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Karia Chardonnay Napa Valley 2016 (15.5 / 20; 88 / 100)
Fruit from across Southern, cooler Napa Valley. 88% MLF. 7.5 months on lees in 34% new French oak. 5 g/L TA, pH 3.65, 14.5% ABV. $35 / bottle RRP.
A: Very pale gold
N: Ripe, rich yellow peach. Some spicy, cinnamon oak, but not caramelised
P: Rich, slightly warming, sweet, orchard fruit. A bit simple. Baking spice oak. Fairly-long
Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Aveta Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley 2017 (16 / 20; 90 / 100)
86% Sauvignon Blanc, 10% Sauvignon Musque, 3% Semillon, 1% Muscat Canelli. Fruit from Usbelli (Pope Valley), Ranch Chimiles (Wooden Valley), Danita Ranch and Zulu (Oak Knoll), Beckstoffer Melrose (Rutherford) and Solari (Calistoga). 52% stainless steel, 47% neutral French oak and 1% concrete cool-temperature fermentation. 6 months on fine lees with bi-weekly stirring. 5.8 g/L TA, pH 3.38, 14% ABV. $26 / bottle RRP.
A: Very pale lemon
N: Sweaty boxwood. Gooseberry. Nutty oak background tones. Some spice
P: Bright acidity. Ripe, spicy, gooseberry and some hints of passionfruit. Textured. Warming, spiced finish
Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, SLV Cabernet Sauvignon Stag’s Leap District 2015 (17.5 / 20; 95 / 100)
100% Cabernet Sauvignon. Lots vinified separately and aged 21.5 months in 95% new French oak, with blending near the end of maturation. 5.4 g/L TA, pH 3.75, 14.5% ABV. $175 / bottle RRP.
A: Mid-deep ruby-purple
N: Camphor and cocoa. Spicy, dried tobacco. Dusty, with some gravel and crushed rock. Savoury and oak dominant with some slightly baked cassis
P: Rich, velvety black cherry. Chocolate and cocoa-powder oak. Velvet texture with ripe, firm tannins. Moderate acidity, but drinkable. Warming finish with good length
Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Cask 23 Cabernet Sauvignon Stag’s Leap District 2015 (17 / 20; 94 / 100)
100% Cabernet Sauvignon. 58% SLV blocks 2A, 2B, 3A, 3B, 4, and 42% FAY blocks 2A, 3A, 7A, 10A, 12A. Lots vinified separately and aged 21.5 months in new French oak, with blending near the end of maturation. 5.4 g/L TA, pH 3.83, 14.5% ABV. $295 / bottle RRP.
A: Mid-deep ruby-purple
N: Focused, slightly baked tones to blackberry and cassis. Fresh earthy, dusty note. Sweet, subtle clove. Youthful
P: Rich, full-bodied. Jammies than the 1994 or FAY. Spicy clove. Warming. More obvious Napa. Creamy, long finish. Powdery, fairly-firm tannins. Less elegance; more power
Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Artemis Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2016 (16 / 20; 91 / 100)
91% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Merlot, 2% Petit Verdot, 1% Malbec. Napa vineyards from various AVAs. 15.5 months in 30% new, 96% French and 4% American oak. 5.1 g/L TA, pH 3.91, 14.5% ABV. $69 / bottle RRP.
A: Mid-deep purple
N: Jammy mixed berries. Some cherry and cordite oak spice. Hint of meat. Dried tobacco overtones
P: Vibrant, jammy, mixed berries. Full body. Fairly-firm, ripe tannins. Ready now
Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Cask 23 Cabernet Sauvignon Stag’s Leap District 1994 (18 / 20; 96 / 100)
98.4% Cabernet Sauvignon, 1.4% Merlot, 0.2% Petit Verdot. Blend of SLV and FAY. MLF. 18 months in new French oak. 5.3 g/L TA, pH 3.53, 13.7% ABV. $100 / bottle RRP.
A: Mid ruby-garnet
N: Spicy with tomato leaf and tobacco. Dried cassis, some gentle soy and balsamic. Gentle toast. Developed. Harmonious and complex
P: Rich, spicy, dried tobacco and dried cassis. Firm, resolving tannins. Bright acidity. Sweetness of fruit at the core. Good length
The reception was followed by an exceptional, fully-poured wine dinner. Some true gems were served to us that we were again, privileged to encounter. Especially the superb 1992 Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon from magnum, that I went back to several times, alongside Stag’s Leap’s FAY Cabernet Sauvignon 1995. Both of these came back with us for the after-party!
We were joined by many winemakers, including Lou Kapscandy, to whom I spoke briefly, Tor Kenward of TOR and Cathy Corison, often lauded for her restrained expressions of Napa Cabernet. The first couple of times I encountered Corison wines, I didn’t get them but have come to understand them – with the 2014 Kronos Cabernet Sauvignon here being a fine example.
Beth Novak Milliken of Spottswoode was kind enough to bring not only their pretty decent 2014 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon as planned, but also a bottle and magnum of 2001 and the supreme Spottswoode Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1998 respectively. Suzanne Groth went one step further and apparently switched out the 2015 and presented the excellent 2009 Groth Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, which came across as still pretty youthful – maybe we did get the 2015?!
Most of the winemakers introduced their wines and perhaps talked a little about their perspective on Napa. Jean-Claude Boisset, by contrast, gave a curious speech in which he lauded women in wine (good), then proceeded to ‘jokingly’ insult the MWs in the room (bad). In a moment of schadenfreude, his modestly-entitled, gold-labelled, JCB No 1 Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 was appalling – overripe, over-oaked, over-extracted and over-priced at $300 a bottle.
Antica Napa Valley, Estate Grown A26 Chardonnay Atlas Peak 2016 (16.5 / 20; 92 / 100)
Block A26 and coincidentally, they are just celebrating the 26th generation of the Antinori family. Clone 4 at 1,420ft on Bale clay- and Perkins gravelly-loam, volcanic alluvial soils. Destemmed and gently pressed. Cold-settled in stainless steel before inoculated-yeast addition. Fermentation in 100% new French oak, then MLF and 10 months on lees in barrel. ??% ABV. $55 / bottle RRP.
A: Mid-deep gold
N: Toasted brioche, toasted hazelnut, some struck match, ripe yellow peach. Spice. Dense and powerful, with some dried fennel lift
P: Bright acidity. Sweet, yellow peach and some pineapple. Popcorn touch. Creamy and nutty. Good length. Very California. Quite hot finish detracts a bit
Trefethen, Estate Chardonnay Oak Knoll District 1991 (17.5- / 20; 95- / 100)
Presented by Hailey Trefethen, winemaker and 3rd generation of the family, who are celebrating their 50th vintage. 30th September harvest was their latest ever Chardonnay vintage at that time. 20 weeks in 72% new French oak. 7.1 g/L TA, pH 3.09, 13% ABV. $?? / bottle RRP.
A: Deep burnished gold – verging on amber
N: Fully-matured old cream, butterscotch and crystal stone fruit. Caramelised nuts. Oxidative, but not oxidised. Toasty oak tones
P: Lively acidity – which becomes a little angular in the glass. Caramel. Dried and preserved yellow peach and pineapple. Long, nutty, creamy finish. Mature but still alive
Wente, Nth Degree Merlot Livermore Valley 2015 (16 / 20; 90 / 100)
East-West facing blocks on well-drained, rocky soils. Small stainless steel tank-fermentation with 3 gentle pumpovers / day. 3 months in neutral French oak then blended. 17 months in 80% new French oak. 6.2 g/L TA, pH 3.59, 14.4% ABV. $95 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep ruby, with garnet glints and opaqueness
N: Spiced, slightly baked plum and black cherry. Clove and chilli spice. Some grilled meat
P: Plush and rich. Baked plum, clove and chilli spice. Dark chocolate. Velvet with slightly grainy, moderate tannins. Hot finish with fairly-long length
Kapscandy, Roberta’s Reserve Merlot Yountville 2015 (16 / 20; 91 / 100)
97% Merlot, 3% Cabernet France. Aged 70% new, 95% French and 5% Hungarian oak. 14.4% ABV. $375 / bottle RRP.
A: Mid-deep ruby, with opaqueness
N: Vanilla and papery tones. Creamy. Aromatic red plum and some dried thyme. Leafy tobacco tones and a touch of spice
P: Quite plump red and black plum. Spicy. Juicy acidity. Whopping, grainy, grippy tannins that unbalance the whole, and a warming finish
Corison, Kronos Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon St Helena 2014 (17.5 / 20; 95 / 100)
Cabernet Sauvignon, planted 1971. 13.5% ABV. $185 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep ruby-purple
N: Chalky, precise, focused, floral, ripe cassis. Gentle cedar spice. Aromatic blend of oak and varietal character
P: Medium body. Raspberry and ripe cassis. Focused and precise. Youthful, peppery, fairly-firm tannins. Long, blackcurrant leaf and rock finish
Spottswoode, Estate Cabernet Sauvignon St Helena 2014 (16.5 / 20; 92 / 100)
86% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc, 4% Petit Verdot. 20 months in 60% new French oak. ??% ABV. $190 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep ruby-purple, with some opaqueness
N: Vanilla, toasted coconut and clove. Oak dominant over rocky notes and saturated, jammy black fruit. Complex. Rich
P: Chalky, firm-to-high, quite ripe tannins. Very ripe cassis. Fair acidity. Chocolate and spice finish. Fairly long
Spottswoode, Estate Cabernet Sauvignon St Helena 2001 (17 / 20; 94 / 100)
Extra wine. ??% ABV. $?? / bottle RRP.
A: Deep brick-garnet with a broad brick rim, and some opaqueness
N: Meaty and spicy. Burly. Soy, dried cherry, roasted spice and steak. Grilled, dried tobacco
P: Toasty tobacco. Roasted spice. Grilled meat. Dark chocolate and espresso. Velvet, fairly-firm tannins. Warming, but long
Spottswoode, Estate Cabernet Sauvignon St Helena 1998 (17.5 / 20; 95 / 100)
Extra wine. Magnum. ??% ABV. $?? / bottle RRP.
A: Deep garnet, with an opaque, brick rim
N: Powerful tobacco herb, dried black cherry, black tea and old leather development. Vanilla and clove oak. Mature but not old
P: Juicy, dried black cherry and chocolate. Resolved, fairly-firm tannins. Medium-long to long, slightly warming finish
Benziger, Obsidian Point Red Blend Sonoma Valley 2014 (16.5 / 20; 93 / 100)
Mainly Cabernet Sauvignon. Hillside, terraced block with soils containing obsidian. Hand-sorted. Wild-yeast fermentation in small tanks. Natural MLF. 20 months in 35% new French oak. 5.9 g/L TA, pH 3.65, 14.5% ABV. $65 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep black ruby-purple
N: Jammy raspberry and cassis. Broad. Leafy. Slightly medicinal liquorice root. Clove-cordite oak
P: Quite juicy, raspberry and blackberry. Broad, sweet but with some freshness. Clove oak. Firm, chalky tannins. Quite elegant
Black Stallion, Transcendent Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2014 (16.5+ / 20; 93+ / 100)
2010 first vintage. 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. 71% Diamond Mountain, 22% Oakville, 3.5% Atlas Peak, 3.5% Mt Veeder. 27 months in new French oak. 5.9 g/L TA, pH 3.74, 15.4% ABV. $110 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep black-ruby
N: Very dense, brooding, slightly baked cassis and grilled capsicum. Dark chocolate and some coriander seed oak. Complex
P: Inky, ripe cassis. Quite fresh, but full with high, drying, chalky tannins. Dark chocolate and spice, quite hot finish
Groth, Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville 2009 (18 / 20; 96 / 100)
Different wine than the 2015 planned. 95% clones 7, 15 and 337 Cabernet Sauvignon on 039-16 and SO4 rootstocks in Yolo loam and gravel, 5% Merlot. Mechanical sorting. 3-day cold soak. Inoculated-yeast fermentation in small lots. 8 months in new French oak. Blended, then 14 more months in same barrels. ??% ABV. $?? / bottle RRP.
A: Deep ruby
N: Subtle clove and dusty-chalk oak. Cordite. Dark chocolate. Some touches of old leather and dried tobacco, but mostly youthful and primary
P: Bright, brisk acidity. Peppery, firm to high tannins. Blackberry and cassis, fresh fruit. Dusty, spicy and rich fruited, with a long finish
Silver Oak, Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 1992 (18.5 / 20; 97 / 100)
12.5% ABV. $?? / bottle RRP.
A: Deep garnet with a broad, brick rim
N: Toasted coconut. Dill weed and dried tobacco leaf. Balsamic tones to dried cassis and plum. Still plenty of fruit to the tea leaf and truffle development. Lovely harmony
P: Sweet, dried cassis and tobacco. Resolved, fine grained, fairly-firm tannins. Some toasted coconut. Rich, very long, chocolatey finish
Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, FAY Cabernet Sauvignon Stag’s Leap District 1995 (17.5 / 20; 95 / 100)
96.4% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2.2% Petit Verdot, 1.4% Merlot. 18 months in Nevers French oak. 5.4 g/L TA, pH 3.49, ??% ABV. $70 / bottle RRP.
A: Mid-deep garnet with a broad, brick rim
N: Focused, dried cassis and some pot pourri lift. Dried tobacco and clove tones. Crushed rock. Truffle, balsamic and meat, with a touch of dill
P: Quite dense, dried cassis and tobacco. Leafy mid-palate, with chocolate tones. Rich. Long and perfumed
Chateau St. Jean, Cinq Cepages Red Blend Sonoma County 1999 (13 / 20; 78 / 100)
Cool vintage. 10th release. 76% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 8% Cabernet Franc, 4% Malbec, 2% Petit Verdot. 29% Sonoma Valley, 26% Knights Valley, 15% Dry Creek Valley, 30% Alexander Valley. Components aged separately for 24 months in 51% new French oak. Blended then 1 year in bottle, pre-release. 5.7 g/L TA, pH 3.74, ??% ABV. $70 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep garnet with a narrow, brick rim
N: Stewed, grilled capsicum. Green and yet roasted coffee – like poor quality, virused South African Bordeaux blends. Leather
P: Dried tobacco, balsamic and black tea. Enormous, rugged tannins. Hot finish. Awful
JCB, No. 1 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2009 (15 / 20; 87 / 100)
Jean-Claude Boisset. Juice 26 days on skins, then 4-day cold soak. Fermentation followed by additional 9-12 days on skins. 60% new, M+ toast French oak.??% ABV. $300 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep black-garnet
N: Liqueur blackberry. Lots of sweet cinnamon oak and vanilla-clove. Cocoa powder ice cream. All oak
P: Intense, spicy, liqueur cassis. Dark chocolate. Rich and dense. Overblown. Lots of oak. Fine, full tannins, with an unbalanced, hot finish
Larkmead, Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2012 (15.5 / 20; 89 / 100)
94% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Petit Verdot. 18 months in 54% new French oak.??% ABV. $109 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep black ruby-garnet
N: Creamy vanilla-cinnamon. Jammy raspberry and red cherry. Lifted aromatics to the fruit
P: High, grainy-chalky tannins. Chocolate. Hot, spicy, rich, compote plum and black cherry. Liqueur fruit. Inky. Sweet
TOR, Beckstoffer To Kalon Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville 2012 (16 / 20; 91 / 100)
Bale loam and clay-loam, with rocky old stream beds. Wild yeast fermentation. Longest and slowest fermentation ever, with maximum 2 pumpovers / day. Gentle press to Darnajou and Taransaud French oak. No acidification (To Kalon gives good natural acidity), fining or filtration. <30ppm free SO2 at bottling. ??% ABV. $225 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep ruby-black, with a touch of garnet at the rim
N: Baked cassis and jammy raspberry. Cinnamon-clove and vanilla oak. Minty touch
P: Bright to brisk acidity. Ripe raspberry and jammy blackberry. Chocolate tones. Firm, chalky-chewy tannins. Drying, warming finish. Acidified? (no, never – just natural acidity from the vineyard) Medium-long to long finish
An optional extra this, which most of us took up. A beautiful experience in its own right – ascending to the heavens without the constant roar of engines…
…and only the occasional burst of flame for lift. Between the delicate take-off…
…watching Sunrise over the Vaca Range…
…and gentle landing…
…it was also a fantastic way to get, quite literally, a different view of Napa Valley:
Not only that, but to get a perspective on its viticulture:
For example, seeing what “almost completely planted out” means in reality – like incorporating an underground water-treatment sump:
Also, how invisible undersoil features can manifest in vine vigour:
We could also see how and where vines extended:
And we were not the only wine early-birds out – brave folks!
Mary Margaret McCamic MW, who has run sales and marketing for Screaming Eagle since 2015, led a first-ever masterclass tasting of component wines and finished blends of Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon, and its Merlot expression, The Flight. She was joined by winemaker, Nick Gislason, who has made the wines since 2010.
In describing the vineyard’s meso-climate, the variations in soil type and drainage, and in the range of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc expressions they have available, they were able to explain their approach to blending.
This demonstrated just how fine both wines are, that both justify the hype and explode any ‘cult Cabernet’ prejudices we may have had.
My full write-up, going into details of the terroir and blending process, with tasting notes on the components and the finished wines can now be found here on Decanter.com.
For lunch on our final day of the official trip, we filled the relatively new and trendy Compline restaurant-wine bar-shop in downtown Napa. Run by Ryan Stentins and Matt Stamp MS, this has quickly become a go-to place for winemakers as well as wine-lovers in and around Napa.
There we were treated to an array of wines – primarily red and mostly blends – with the winemakers introducing their wines, and accompanied by great fries and fine-quality burgers. Although the intro was a bit lengthy, telling the vineyard’s story in great depth, DeSante The Old Vines Field Blend 2016 white was fresh and interesting. I was also quite taken by White Rock’s Claret 2015 from Napa, which handled its ripe style well.
DeSante, The Old Vines Field Blend White Napa Valley 2016 (16.5 / 20; 93 / 100)
Old plot, saved from being grafted-over to Cabernet Sauvignon, now farmed organically and without sulfur use. Planted over 70 years ago, with some over 90 year old vines, either on St George or own rooted. Multiple varieties including Semillon, Golden Chasselas and Pinot Blanc, as well as Green Hungarian and Sauvignon Vert that are no longer registered varieties in California, so varieties may not appear on the label. 1t / acre or 16HL / Ha yields in a good year. Bottled unfixed and unfiltered, with some lees. 7 g/L TA, pH 3.4, 12.5% ABV. $40 / bottle RRP.
A: Cloudy, pale-medium lemon
N: Nutty, yeasty. Rich and bright with ripe lemon, lemongrass, some baking spice and chocolate
P: Brisk acidity. Creamy lemon rind, some white flowers and a spicy touch. Long
Fine Disregard, Atlas Piedras Vineyard Grenache Alexander Valley 2016 (16+ / 20; 91+ / 100)
Alban clone, on rocky hillside, in Eastern Alexander Valley. Head trained. Biodynamic since 2012. Whole-bunch, wild-yeast fermentation, foot trodden for first 4 days’ maceration, then gentle pumpovers. Pressed into neutral French oak for 12 months, untracked. No fining or filtration. 6.6 g/L TA, pH 3.52, 14.2% ABV. $38 / bottle RRP.
A: Mid ruby-purple
N: Ripe strawberry and some black cherry. Gentle spice and dried herb. Subtle cocoa oak. Some orange hints
P: Quite sweet strawberry. Grainy, quite firm tannins. Moderate acidity with a warming finish. Some floral tones. Stony-spicy finish
Long Meadow Ranch, Merlot Napa Valley 2014 (16.5 / 20; 93 / 100)
75% Merlot, 24% Petit Verdot, 0.5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 0.5% Sangiovese. 50% new French oak. 13.5% ABV. $35 / bottle RRP.
A: Mid-deep ruby
N: Dried mint lift. Rich plum and Ribena cassis. Some rock
P: Bright, leafy and fresh. Rich cassis and plum. Medium-full body. Fairly-firm, peppery tannins. Medium-long
Trinchero, Forte Red Blend Napa Valley 2013 (14.5 / 20; 84 / 100)
c. 75% Malbec (Haystack Vineyard Atlas Peak, Cloud’s Nest Vineyard Mt Veeder), Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot (Central Park West Vineyard St Helena), Merlot (Vera’s Vineyard Napa). 6 g/L TA, pH 3.85, 14.9% ABV. $65 / bottle RRP.
A: Saturated black-purple
N: Liqueur cassis, blueberry liqueur. Very ripe and sweet. Clove-cinnamon and chocolate oak
P: Liqueur cassis. Alcoholic burn through the mid-palate. Soft, but with grippy, fairly-firm tannins
Inconnu, Kitsune Red Blend Carneros (Sonoma) 2013 (16.5 / 20; 92 / 100)
85% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon. Wild yeast fermentation. 11 months in neutral French oak. Only additions of SO2. ??% ABV. $28 / bottle RRP.
A: Medium ruby-purple
N: Sandy, nutty, chilli spice and some old leather funk. Nutty. Raspberry and crushed rock
P: Quite brisk. Crunchy, red cherry and ripe redcurrant. Sandy, fairly-firm tannins. Some scent. Medium-long
Kautz Ironstone Vineyards, Reserve Red Blend Sierra Foothills 2014 (15 / 20; 87 / 100)
82% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc, 8% Merlot. Hay Station Ranch fruit at 2,400ft, with decomposed granite, volcanic sediment and red clay. Aged in small oak barrels underground. 2.6 g/L RS, 6.64 g/L TA, pH 3.81, 15% ABV. $45 / bottle RRP.
A: Mid-deep ruby-garnet
N: Chilli spice and toasted brown spices. Roasted fruit and dried tobacco. Dried fruit tones
P: Mocha and dark chocolate. Baked, broad, black fruit. Firm, powdery tannins, that dry through the finish. Hot finish
Lange Twins, Midnight Reserve Red Blend Lodi / Clarksburg 2013 (15 / 20; 87 / 100)
Cabernet Sauvignon (Miller, River Ranch and Twin Oaks, Lodi), Malbec (Jahant Woods II, Lodi), Petit Verdot (River Ranch), Merlot and Cabernet Franc (Miller Vineyard, Clarksburg). 14.8% ABV. $30 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep ruby-black
N: Spiced. A little dumb. Baked, roasted blackberry. Some soy. Broad
P: Full body. Broad, nondescript, baked black fruit. Some spice. Moderate length
White Rock Vineyards, Claret Red Blend Napa Valley 2015 (17 / 20; 94 / 100)
65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 23% Merlot, 6% Cabernet Franc, 6% Petit Verdot. 22 months in French oak. 5.8 g/L TA, pH 3.73, 14.3% ABV. $54 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep, opaque ruby
N: Deep, brooding, ripe black fruit. Camphor and cedar
P: Velvet texture to fairly-firm tannins. Broad black fruit and subtle cocoa. Integral. Spicy and long, with a touch of warmth
Bonterra, Cabernet Sauvignon California 2016 (14.5 / 20; 86 / 100)
Organic and sustainable certified vineyards across California, mostly Mendocino. Oak aged. 2 g/L RS, 5.9 g/L TA, pH 3.69, 13.8% ABV. $16 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep purple
N: Jammy black and blueberry. Baked. Some chilli spice and grilled meat hints. Dried herb
P: Jammy raspberry and cassis. Chalky, moderate tannins. Lightweight. Moderate length. Moderate acidity
CrossBarn by Paul Hobbs, Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2015 (16.5 / 20; 92 / 100)
Different approach to main Paul Hobbs brand wines, with less new oak and more youthful, lively profile. 87% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Merlot, 3% Cabernet Franc, rest Petit Verdot and Malbec. Coombsville, Yountville, Calistoga and St Helena fruit. 18% new French and American oak. 14.5% ABV. $?? / bottle RRP.
A: Deep black-ruby
N: Jammy, baked blackcurrant and vanilla tones. Toasted spices and mocha oak. Dense and ripe with some fresh earth
P: Cocoa powder tannins with cocoa and jammy cassis & blackberry. Decent length and fair freshness
In San Francisco the trip wrapped up with a sparkling reception then relaxed, wind-down dinner at Waterbar, in the Embarcadero district of the city. Our dining room overlooked the patterned, art-installation, light show now adorning the recently-enhanced Bay Bridge. My note-taking, only on my iPhone, was unsurprisingly less detailed and more casual!
Amongst the sparkling wines, J. Schram 2009, the top cuvée of Schramsberg, stood out. Its 2000 late disgorged sibling was interesting, but a little too far on the oxidative side, suggesting too long on lees is possible. Taittinger’s Domaine Carneros Le Reve Blanc de Blancs 2011 was pretty as well, though not particularly good value at $115 a bottle.
With dinner, the class showed once more of Sandhi with Mt Carmel Chardonnay 2014 while the quality of the To Kalon vineyard was reflected in the Sauvignon Blanc of Robert Mondavi’s Reserve Fume Blanc 2014. For the reds, Kutch Falstaff Pinot Noir 2016 gave plenty of interest, as did the pair of estate wines pictured below, of Mt Eden Estate Pinot Noir 2011 and E & J Gallo Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2006. The less said about the Bourbon barrel-aged, turbocharged 1000 Stories Zinfandel, the better…
Reception sparkling wines
Domaine Carneros, Brut Rose Carneros (Napa) 2014 (15 / 20, 87 / 100)
63% Pinot Noir, 37% Chardonnay. 3-day skin contact for proportion of Pinot must. 9 g/L RS, 7.1 g/L TA, pH 3.13, 12% ABV. $42 / bottle RRP.
A: Very pale salmon
N: Reductive-dominated aromatics that are quite hard to get past
P: Loose knit, frothy mousse and quite sweet dosage. Ripe citrus fruit
Domaine Carneros, Le Reve Blanc de Blancs Carneros (Napa) 2011 (16.5 / 20, 92 / 100)
100% Chardonnay. 9 g/L RS, 7.1 g/L TA, pH 3.2, 12% ABV. $115 / bottle RRP.
A: Pale gold
N: Smoky biscuit, ripe lemon, with decent complexity
P: Fine mousse, with softness from dosage, rather than sweetness. Appley, with some toasty lees mid-palate. Medium-long
Gloria-Ferrer, Brut Rose Carneros (Sonoma) NV (15.5 / 20, 88 / 100)
60% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay. Hand picked. Gentle press. 36-48 hour skin contact for 50% of Pinot Noir. 2 years on lees. 7.4 g/L TA, pH 3.11, 12.5% ABV. $29 / bottle RRP.
A: Pale pink
N: Reductive strawberry and nutty lees with some citrus
P: Dry and strawberry-laced palate. Moderate length
Gloria-Ferrer, Anniversary Cuvée Carneros (Sonoma) 2010 (16 / 20, 90 / 100)
67% Pinot Noir, 33% Chardonnay. Gentle whole-bunch press. First press to stainless steel for cool 55-60°F fermentation. After 6 months, 14 lots blended for 2nd fermentation in bottle. 5.5 years on lees. 7.2 g/L TA, pH 3.19, 12.5% ABV. $50 / bottle RRP.
A: Pale lemon
N: Toasty lees and cooked citrus, ripe fruit
P: Loose, frothy mousse. Bright acidity. Broad citrus, with a medium-long, toasty finish
Schramsberg, J Schram Brut North Coast 2009 (17 / 20, 94 / 100)
86% Chardonnay, 14% Pinot Noir. 115 cool-climate sources: 50% Sonoma (mainly Horseshoe Bend and Keefer, Sonoma Coast), 41% Napa (mainly Schwarze and Jones, Carneros (Napa)), 4% Mendocino, 4% Marin. 27% barrel-fermented. Partial MLF. 7 years on lees. 10.9 g/L RS, 8.6 g/L TA, pH 3.01, 13.3% ABV. $120 / bottle RRP.
A: Dense, toasted brioche – lots of lees. Yellow apple fruit
P: Fine, elegant mousse. Brisk not crisp acidity but nicely balanced, dry dosage. Long
Schramsberg, J Schram Late Disgorged Brut North Coast 2000 (16.5- / 20, 93- / 20)
Disgorged April 2018. 80% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Noir. 60% Napa (mainly Schwarze and Tognetti, Carneros (Napa)), 20% Mendocino (mainly Rose, Anderson Valley), 12% Sonoma, 4% Marin (Pacheco). Gentle press. 38% barrel-fermented. Partial MLF. 17 years on lees. 8 g/L RS, 9.1 g/L TA, pH 3.08, 12.8% ABV. $185 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep gold
N: Marmite toast lees, coffee, mushroom, black cherry and dried stone fruit
P: Fine mousse. Brisk, with oxidative old cream brioche. Long but lacking freshness. 2nd bottle less oxidative and fresher, but still well-matured and not for keeping
Robert Mondavi, To Kalon Fume Vineyard Reserve Blanc Oakville 2014 (16.5 / 20, 93 / 100)
98% Sauvignon Blanc, 2% Semillon. Hand harvested. Whole-bunch pressed. Almost all cool, slow, barrel-fermented in 42% new French oak. 9 months on lees with hand-battonage 2 times / week in cement eggs. 6.3 g/L RS, 6.7 g/L TA, pH 3.2, 14.5% ABV.
A: Very pale lemon
N: Nutty, Graves-like oak over gooseberry
P: Richly textured, smoky tones to some tropical and gooseberry fruit. Quite hot, medium-long to long finish
Sandhi Mt Carmel Chardonnay Sta Rita Hills 2014 (17.5 / 20, 95 / 100)
Magnum. Steep, South-facing, dry-farmed, organic plot, planted on own-roots in 1991. 12% ABV. $95 / magnum RRP.
A: Pale lemon-gold
N: Struck match, vegetal tones and white peach
P: Chalky, with taught, crisp acidity and a core of lemon and white peach. Long
Patz & Hall, Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay Carneros (Napa) 2015 (16 / 20, 91 / 100)
100% Chardonnay. Low vigour, well-drained sandy vineyard with small-berried Hyde-Wente clones. Whole-bunch pressed. Wild-yeast fermentation and MLF in 40% new, 228L French oak. Weekly battonage. Unfiltered. ??% ABV. $65 / bottle RRP.
A: Pale gold
N: Butter-vanilla and yellow peach
P: Yellow peach, with good acidity and lift. Rich not big, with fruit sweetness. Medium-long
Kutch, Falstaff Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast 2016 (17 / 20, 94 / 100)
828, 777 and 115 clones on 101-14 rootstocks, at 550ft, North-South orientation with VSP, planted 2001 on marine quartz sandstone and Goldridge soils. 100% whole-bunch, wild-yeast fermentation. Natural MLF in older oak, then 17 months on lees without racking. 12% ABV. $120 / bottle RRP.
A: Pale-medium ruby-purple
N: Ripe blueberry with stem herb and a stony note. Generous
P: Beetroot, clove, herb and blueberry. Light, furry tannin, with a green-herb finish
Talley, Estate Chardonnay Arroyo Grande 2016 (16 / 20, 90 / 100)
Wild-yeast fermentation in 14% new French oak, then 13 months on lees. 13.8% ABV. $78 / bottle RRP.
A: Pale gold
N: Toasty oak. Pineapple
P: Bold tropical fruit but decent acidity. Mealy, fairly-long finish
Mount Eden, Estate Pinot Noir Santa Cruz Mountains 2011 (16.5 / 20, 92 / 100)
7.5 gL TA, pH 3.55, 13.5% ABV. $60 / bottle RRP.
A: Pale ruby
N: Crushed rock and spice savour, with focused red cherry fruit – cool
P; Smoky chocolate, rich red cherry and spice. Light, powdery tannin, bright acidity and fair length
Ernest & Julio Gallo, Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 (16.5 / 20, 92 / 100)
A: Deep ruby
N: Toasty tobacco, ripe focused cassis – a bit stewed. Mint touch
P: Sweet, rich jammy cassis / cherry, chocolate. Velvet, moderate tannins. Warming finish
Twomey, Monument Tree Pinot Noir 2014 (15.5 / 20, 89 / 100)
18 months in 36% new French oak. 13.6% ABV. $146 / bottle RRP.
A: Pale-medium ruby
N: Vanilla-cream, soft, red, jammy fruit and sweet spice
P: Sweet, jammy red fruit, but with some freshness. Light tannins and medium-long length
Concannon, Mother Vine Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Livermore Valley 2012 (16 / 20, 91 / 100)
96% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Petite Sirah, 1% Merlot. Concannon Clones 7, 8 and 11 from Chateau Margaux. 2.1 g/L RS, 6.7 g/L TA, pH 3.71, 13.5% ABV. $40 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep ruby-garnet
N: Cedar-tobacco, with fresh, ripe, red cassis fruit and spice
P: Red cherry and cedar. Decent freshness, with moderate peppery tannin. A bit warming
J Lohr, Cabernet Sauvignon Paso Robles 20?? (15 / 20, 86 / 100)
A: Mid-deep ruby
N: Cooked red fruit, tobacco, and creamy cinnamon oak
P: Bright acid, ripe cassis and raspberry, quite soft structure
1000 Stories, Batch 43 Bourbon Barrel Zinfandel California 2016 (13.5 / 20, 81 / 100)
3L double-magnum. Dry-farmed, head-trained Zinfandel from Mendocino, Lodi and Paso Robles, Petite Sirah from Lake County. Aged separately in American and French oak. Blended then aged in 8-12 year old barrels including 24% old and 3% new Bourbon. 5.7 g/L TA, pH 3.61, 15.5% ABV. $20 / bottle RRP.
A: Mid-deep ruby
N: Baked red fruit and leafiness of mixed-ripeness Zinfandel, with sweet, malty oak
P: Sweetness, cooked fruit, hot alcohol and a bourbon lick
Benziger, Signaterra Sunny Slope Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma Valley 2014 (15.5 / 20, 88 / 100)
30 year old vines on South-west facing, fractured stone vineyard. Certified biodynamic. Open-top fermenters. 20 months in French oak. 6.6 g/L TA, pH 3.46, 14.5% ABV. $59 / bottle RRP.
A: Deep ruby
N: Roasted coffee, vanilla, baked black cherry, cedar and old leather
P: Ripe spicy cassis and leaf touch, peppery moderate tannins and a warming finish
Black Stallion, Limited Release Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2015 (15 / 20, 87 / 100)
88% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 2% Petit Verdot. 33% Oakville, 20% Coombsville, 15% Atlas Peak, 10% Diamond Mountain, 9% Oak Knoll District, 8% Howell Mountain, 7% Mt Veeder. 20 months in 80% new French oak. 5.6 g/L TA, pH 3.77, 15% ABV. $?? / bottle RRP.
A: Mid-deep ruby
N: Dusty, white pepper and papery oak. Super-ripe cassis and cedar
P: Thick and rich, jammy cedar-cassis. Hot mid-palate, with firm, chalky tannins
Wente, Charles Wetmore Cabernet Sauvignon Livermore Valley 2014 (16.5 / 20, 92 / 100)
78% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Malbec, 6% Merlot, 4% Petit Verdot. Gravelly loam soils. Stainless steel fermentation with 2 pumpovers / day. 20 months in 40% new French oak. 6.8 g/L TA, pH 3.54, 14.5% ABV. $130 / bottle RRP.
A: Mid-deep ruby
N: Toasted spice, clove and chocolate oak, with ripe cassis
P: Juicy, ripe cassis, chocolate-powder, moderate tannins. Attractive, velvety finish
Though the official California Wine Institute-organised trip concluded over hotel breakfast, IMW North America organised a couple of extra events on the Saturday afternoon and evening, for any MWs still around. Students and other interested folks joined us for the afternoon session.
This was a panel discussion on the future of Napa Merlot, with tasting of wines from the panel attendees. It was led by Tim Marson MW and Mary Margaret McCamic MW, with Nova Cadamatre MW (Robert Mondavi), Ivo Jeramaz (Grgich Hills), Neil Bernardi (VP Winemaking at Duckhorn) and Aaron Pott (Pott wines and consultant for wineries including Blackbird Vineyards).
The subject of Merlot and its future in California, is a fascinating one, given the hit in reputation that the variety took from Sideways. The previous year, the IMW North America looked at Cabernet Sauvignon, so it was appropriate to review where Merlot is and where it is going.
Tim gave some background: OIV stats make Merlot the 4th most planted of all grapes and 2nd of wine grapes Globally, representing 3% of world production. It is 4th in Chile and Australia, notable in Italy and South Africa, and is 4% of US plantings, being the 6th most planted variety.
For California, 39,786 acres were planted in 2017, with Merlot representing 12.3% of Napa County at 4,881 acres, slightly below 2016’s figures. In crush volume terms, 6% of California was Merlot, slightly behind 6.2% for Pinot Noir. Surprisingly, there is actually more Merlot planted today than at the time of the Sideways movie.
Mary Margaret introduced the topic, referencing the quality of Screaming Eagle’s The Flight as an example of what Merlot can do in Napa, and reminding the audience that US consumer and winemaker perspectives of the grape may not be indicative of a Global consensus of attitudes.
She also wrapped-up the session with observations and discussions of that consumer perception resulting from Sideways, citing an academic study that recently concluded the positives for Pinot outweighed the negatives for Merlot, and suggesting that Merlot is declining for consumers. Ivo disagreed on the latter, saying that his Merlots are selling out and that consumers are now tiring of Pinot that is not giving them what they are interested in.
Nova believes that Sideways resulted at weeding-out of plenty of the ubiquitous, not very good Merlot. She also believes that great wines step outside trends and can always sell, whatever the current mass-consumer style trend happens to be. Aaron’s Blackbird client believed that Merlot was a good grape and that it was underrated, so invested heavily in it, to be primarily a Merlot estate.
For Duckhorn, as one of the largest producers of Merlot in Napa, having started with varietal in Merlot since the 1970s, they actually benefitted, because the Sideways effect weeded out competitors. Nevertheless, to deliver that, they still had to work hard to tell the story of Merlot, for example in their tasting room. Their vineyard and winery practices may not have changed, but the way they talk about it has changed.
That includes co-operating with other producers, like Pahlmeyer and Pride Vineyards. Together, they made October “Merlot-me Month” with a combined trade and digital promotional drive, co-funded. In terms of outcomes, recent IRI data shows that Merlot over $15 a bottle is showing some success.
Duckhorn’s Three Palms 2014 was named Wine Spectator’s Wine of the Year, which seems to be bringing Merlot ‘full-circle’, back to respectability, and their core, Napa Valley Merlot has grown 38%.
During the tasting, Mary Margaret posed a series of questions, followed by questions from the audience, that sparked some insightful discussion:
What do you love about Merlot? What is most challenging?
Ivo explained that Merlot’s challenge is being more difficult to grow than Cabernet, due to a tendency to raisin. Grgich Hills has some Merlot near Dominus – who pulled Merlot out because it raisined without irrigation – but Grgich use 20 gallons a year just to prevent raisining, rather than to irrigate the plant per se. They also ensure canopy shading to prevent berry heat that cooks fruit and reduces sugar accumulation. American Canyon in Carneros provides 80% of their Merlot, and 20% from Yountville. Merlot brings acidity that can be pH 3.35 at picking with 24-25°Brix.
Nova believes it needs a much cooler site than Cabernet, with some difference in soils – some gravel and not too heavy. In a bad site, its profile becomes ugly, and because it is a much lower price per ton than Cabernet Sauvignon – around $3,400 vs. Cabernet at $7,500 – it is often planted in poor sites. Further, growers have little incentive to invest in it in the vineyard, and indeed, to keep it planted at all. For her, the beauty of Merlot is that it can bring subtlety and beautiful texture to a blend, so is and will continue to be important.
Aaron spent time as winemaker in Troplong Mondot, and his view on its biggest challenge is poor flowering as a result of berry shatter in any challenging weather – much like Pinot Noir – though not as terroir sensitive as Cabernet Franc. Merlot needs good humidity, which is relatively rare in Napa, so where redwood trees are found, holding humidity, tends to help, as well as foggy Carneros. It has big leaves and relatively close leaf nodes, which keeps the humidity up around the plant itself.
Neil’s Duckhorn estate focused on Merlot initially because it was plusher and more approachable than other varieties available in the 1970s. Heat-sensitivity is the major issue for him, with a narrower band of perfection at the point of harvest, meaning trellising, irrigation and other vineyard choices are more critical than for Cabernet Sauvignon.
How does Merlot work with other varieties and how do you select wines for blend base?
Ivo explained that 100% Merlot works for them to give personality over ‘prettiness’, so didn’t blend in other varieties to fill-in gaps and make it look better. Temperature is controlled to under 80°F, because higher temperatures leave bitter tannins, and skin maceration is shorter than Cabernet. In blending, Merlot is used just if it happens to add something.
Nova also maximises fermentations at 85°F, whereas Cabernet Sauvignon will be 3-5°F higher. Merlot tannins tend to be more astringent and coarse, so tannin handling is very important. Open top fermenters can be used if 0.5-1% ABV needs to be evaporated away, otherwise water addition can ameliorate high Brix at harvest.
Aaron explained that acidity is less critical for Merlot ageing than tannic structure – pointing out a 4.01 pH of 1947 Cheval Blanc. While he handles the grapes gently into the vat, he then punches down several times a day, and uses extended skin macerations to make sure that the tannins in the finished wines have the perfect, velvet tannins and doesn’t drain the tank until that point – up to 50 days total skin contact. That’s especially true for his Howell Mountain estate.
Neil echoed the importance of Merlot tannins. To achieve that, hand harvesting and sorting is followed by gentle destemming with a high-tech destemmer, then 24 hour cold-soak and 82°F maximum temperature fermentation (vs. 85-87°F on Cabernet). 12-14 day fermentations and maceration is the total.
Ivo discussed clonal experimentations, but said he doesn’t intend to uproot as they plant for 50-100 years, with 2 clones planted – mostly Clone 3. Nova explained that Schweitzer vineyard’s clone is unknown, planted on St George and 101-14. Some of To Kalon is being replanted and Nova has asked for some to be Merlot, by Highway 29.
There isn’t much new genetic material available, as nurseries are focusing on cleaning out red blotch and other viruses. Aaron explained that material has come from Europe but often failed due to viruses, and he uses the Three Palms clone. Duckhorn prefer 181 and 3, for smaller berries and shrivel resistance.
Can higher yields be used to mitigate alcohol?
Joel Butler MW challenged the panel on this and Mary Margaret questioned whether reaction to climate change is part of the move to freshness. Ivo explained that 2018 is a case in point, where yields were high and quality good too, coming in with good malic acid at 25-26°Brix ripeness.
Nova also experienced the same, but believes the acidities are not a function of yield, but just a cooler growing season. For her, 5t / acre is possible but over that, phenolic ripeness becomes difficult, and it is highly site-specific.
Where else could be good for Merlot?
Aaron discussed the switch from Pinot to Merlot in Carneros and some other cooler Napa zones, but unfortunately, Sideways has pushed Merlot away from being a grape to be explored and planted. Neil and Nova both believe Washington State’s cooler zones are interesting, with Nova also citing New York State for cool places.
What wood is best?
Ivo believes that tight grained oak is better to avoid tannin donation and only around 40% new oak, but this is the same for their Cabernet. They are exploring Hungarian oak and may seek out some alternative European sources. Either way, oak is only a spicing for their house style, so is relatively low-influence across the board.
Nova uses only French oak, but the Napa Merlot is only 3% new (40% on the blend and 80% on Cabernet), with tight grain also important. Demptos or Boutes oak are not tight enough, so Sylvain, Taransaud and others are preferred. Less new with Merlot is important.
Aaron explained that in St Emilion, in the 1980s, barrels specific for Merlot were explored in-depth and spawned a group of Right Bank coopers making fine, Merlot-ready barrels, like Sylvain. Western French forests, which are more humid and more aromatic, with extremely tight grain, provide the wood these coopers are using. Lower toast, with long drying is also important.
Duckhorn mostly use French oak, but with some ‘spice-rack’ experimentation with Hungarian. They have a range of coopers, but over time, are whittling down the right coopers for each block and vineyard, to have oak that supports and complements, rather than dominating vineyard character.
What makes an ageworthy wine and how does Merlot do that, and is ageability important for you?
Ivo looks for structured tannins for ageability, including some seed tannins especially, so avoids delestage that removes seeds. Ripe seeds are therefore crucial. Grgich Hills do look for ageability, but consumers are much less tolerant today of holding, though that may be swinging back now.
Nova looks for the interplay between acidity and tannins, as too much acidity can make tannins feel short and harsh. Getting the right balance is important for ageability. Mondavi have multiple styles, since different consumers are looking for different things. The Estate Cabernet is designed for drinking immediately at purchase, but can hold for up to 5 years, while the Momentum 2013 blend is more ageable and intended to appeal to consumers interested in that.
Aaron targets ageworthiness, as that his the style he personally likes. Tannic structure is the most important, with plenty of quantity of tannins, but also resolution and finesse of the texture of those tannins, for example through extended macerations. Some of Bordeaux’s greatest vintages are low acidity. But they have tannins. Pinot is different – with a different overall structure – that needs acidity. He also thinks that higher-yield wines tend not to deliver the right structure.
For Neil, ageability is important, but bearing in mind that the vast majority of wines are drunk within 24 hours, so being pleasing to consumers immediately is important. Up the price-bracket, being able to stand the test of time matters more, so Three Palms is designed to be more ageworthy, whilst Decoy is much less so. Stout Vineyard also is ageworthy, and that reflects the importance of site to ageworthiness.
Grgich Hills, Estate Merlot Napa Valley 2008 (16.5 / 20; 93 / 100)
100% Merlot, in cooler zones, gives a more Cabernet. Clay, humid soils at American Canyon, planted 25 years ago on AxR1 then interplanted with resistant rootstocks, but the plants on AxR1 are still OK. Cooler vintage than higher-rated 2007, but he believes it is ageing better.
A: Deep garnet
N: Mellow mocha, tobacco, some prune. Dusty mineral. Broad. Old leather and some VA touches emerge
P: Supple, moderate, fine tannins. Some freshness of acidity. Good length, with dried tobacco and old leather, underpinned by some mature red fruit
Grgich Hills, Estate Merlot Napa Valley 2013 (16.5 / 20; 92 / 100)
100% Merlot. Great vintage for Cabernet and pretty good for Merlot.
A: Deep black-ruby
N: Perfume tone to rich black cherry and black plum. Ripe. Rocky mineral. Mocha subtle oak
P: Good freshness. Plump black cherry and spicy tobacco. Mocha. Fairly-firm, fine tannins. Fairly long
Robert Mondavi Winery, Merlot Napa Valley 2016 (16 / 20; 91 / 100)
Carneros, Oak Knoll and Stag’s Leap fruit to keep fresh acidity.
A: Deep black-ruby
N: Compote plum and blackberry. Broad and plush with plenty of fruit ripeness. Subtle tobacco and camphor oak.
P: Green herbal tones. Bright acidity. Leafy blackberry. Ink. Rich. Mocha finish with peppery, fairly-firm tannins
Robert Mondavi Winery, Momentum Red Blend Napa Valley 2013 (16.5 / 20; 92 / 100)
66% Stag’s Leap single vineyard Schweitzer vineyard Merlot on pumice volcanics, giving more structure and ‘crunchy’ tannins. Cabernet to fill out the blend.
A: Deep black-garnet
N: Plush and broad, with a touch of VA to the ripe red plum fruit. Smoky oak and mocha spice oak tones
P: Bright acidity and medium body. More Cabernet-like. Firm, peppery tannins. Warming touch to the medium-long finish
Robert Mondavi Winery, Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville 2015 (17 / 20; 94 / 100)
Blend of all 5 Bordeaux varieties, where Merlot fills the mid-palate gap.
A: Deep black-purple with some ruby tones
N: Rocky blueberry and spicy blackberry fruit. Some vanilla. Some leafiness
P: Rocks. Blackberry and plummy, smoky fruit. Broad. Firm, fine tannins. Warming, but long finish. Attractive
Blackbird Vineyards, Illustration Red Blend Napa Valley 2012 (17 / 20; 94 / 100)
Mostly Stagecoach Vineyard Merlot.
A: Deep black-garnet, with a very narrow rim
N: Slightly baked, broad, black fruit. Dried tobacco. Camphor oak and dusty mineral. Some VA lift
P: Bright, juicy texture. Baked blackberry and plum. Toasted tobacco. Mocha oak. Velvet-textured, ripe, firm tannins. Creamy vanilla finish, with some warmth
Pott Space and Time, Chateauneuf du Pott Estate Vineyard Mt Veeder Napa Valley 2016 (17+ / 20; 94+ / 100)
Well-drained clay over loam. To be released in 2019.
A: Deep, opaque ruby
N: Vanilla cream. Cinnamon. Dense fresh plum. Some old leather complexity
P: Fresh, brisk acidity. Creamy, slightly baked, smoky-rocky red and black plum. Peppery, grainy, fairly-firm tannins. Touch of warmth, but good length
Duckhorn Vineyards, Merlot Napa Valley 2015 (16.5 / 20; 93 / 100)
23 different vineyards from Howell Mountain to Carneros to Calistoga, with a skew to southern Napa for red fruit, but with Three Palms as a significant proportion. 85% Merlot, 12% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Cabernet Franc and 1% Petit Verdot.
A: Deep ruby-purple
N: Cordite and cedar oak, that develops into mocha. Rich, plush, ripe, only slightly raisin-toned, broad black fruit. Deep
P: Fresh, supple, red fruit – raspberry tones – to cassis. Velvet, fairly firm tannins. Rich, appealing and fairly long. Touch of finish warmth
Duckhorn Vineyards, Three Palms Vineyard Merlot Napa Valley 2015 (17.5 / 20; 95 / 100)
Surprisingly warm site but which gives good structure. Acquired outright in 2015. 91% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc, 4% Cabernet Sauvignon, 1% Petit Verdot. $98 / bottle.
A: Deep black-ruby
N: Cool, coal tone, then dark chocolate and clove oak. Floral scent to red berry fruit. Ripe, not overripe
P: Juicy, supple, red berry and cassis, ripe fruit. Fairly-firm, quite velvety tannins that need time fully to resolve. Creamy vanilla finish. Californian but with acidity to hold it together
Duckhorn Vineyards, Stout Vineyard Merlot Howell Mountain 2015 (17 / 20; 94 / 100)
A: Deep ruby
N: Smoky cordite and crushed rock oak. Dark plum and espresso. Some dried thyme touches
P: Plush, full-bodied entry. Powdery, fairly-firm, fine tannins. Plummy mid-palate with milk chocolate and cocoa flavour and texture. Long and creamy finish. Very fine. Ready now
Duckhorn Vineyards, Merlot Carneros 2015 (16.5 / 20; 92 / 100)
100% Merlot from cool, Hyde and Hudson vineyards in Carneros.
A: Deep ruby-purple
N: Clove and some pepper spice. Cooler, fresher fruit. Mixed, ripe red berries. Slate mineral touch
P: Bright acidity, with marked, ripe red berry fruit – raspberry, red plum and cherry. Medium-full body. Peppery, chalky, fairly-firm tannins. Chalky mineral tones. Quite fragrant, fairly long finish
Doug Frost MS MW and Mark de Vere MW organised this in a new venture from Chinese chef George Chen, in the less fashionable Chinatown district of San Francisco. George himself came to see us and cooked.
The food was excellent and it was accompanied by a plethora of eclectic wines brought mainly by the North American MWs present, including many from unusual states like Iowa and Nebraska, courtesy of Doug. I carried over several extra Duckhorn Merlots from the earlier tasting.
Several of these were misses (20+ year aged Norton anyone?), but instructive nevertheless. Some less usual varieties and / or origins were hits though. Amphora was a nicely-textured, albeit ‘natural’ funky wine, with the wine and the amphorae apparently made by the owner. There was an interesting Petit Manseng South River Vineyard from Virginia. But a particularly convincing star was Hartford’s 2016 Jurassic Vineyard Chenin Blanc from Santa Ynez, reinforcing from Day 1 that this vineyard can produce quality Chenin.
In his leadership role at Robert Mondavi, Mark supplied a 5L Impériale of Mondavi’s 30th Anniversary special edition Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 1996 which was both generous and very fine. Their straight Napa Cabernet Sauvignon from the unfancied 1972 vintage showed surprisingly well, if on its way down; a pleasure to taste such history.
Amongst the other wines, with a chilli-prawn dish, I hoped a Riesling Spatlese might be amongst the wines available; sure enough someone had brought a Dr Loosen Wehlener Sonnenuhr Spatlese 2015 and the match was faultless. It was matched by another Riesling Spatlese – Leitz Rudesheimer Magdelenenkreutz 2009 from the Rheingau. On the Riesling theme, the 2008 vintage of Trimbach Cuvée Frederic Emile is drinking very well now.
John Hoskins MW had a well-matured J. L. Chave Hermitage Blanc 2007 which, though perhaps not with the finesse of finer years from Chave, was a fascinating, mature Marsanne-Roussanne, with buttered macadamia-nut richness and some salinity to give freshness to its otherwise fat frame.
Belhurst Semi-dry Riesling Seneca Lake 2016 (14.5 / 20, 85 / 100)
A: Pale lemon
N: Lime, with a peach hint and some flint
P: Medium-sweet and quite cloying. Floral, lemon-lime, but with a tinned edge
Leeuwin Art Series Riesling Margaret River 2016 (15.5 / 20, 88 / 100)
A: Very pale lemon
N: Petrol touch to floral lime
P: Brisk, flinty and dry with a medium-long petrolly finish. Surprisingly developed for 2016
A. D. Beckham, Amphora Vermentino Applegate Valley Oregon 2017 (16.5+ / 20, 93+ / 100)
Made by a potter, who also made the amphorae used for fermentation and maturation.
A: Very pale lemon
N: Reductive funk. Stones, resinous herb and lemon skin
P: Apple and stones, with more reductive funk. Dry, saline, with a subtle phenolic touch. Long
Trestle 31, Riesling Finger Lakes 2015 (14 / 20, 85 / 100)
Made by Nova Cadamatre MW.
A: Pale lemon
N: Very floral and white peachy. Very different, hint of spice. But dominated by an odd TDN or industrial oil tang to the peach that doesn’t work
P: Dry, but actually quite soft acidity
Sand Reckoner, Malvasia Aromatica Wilcox Arizona 2017 (15.5 / 20, 89 / 100)
A: Pale lemon-gold
N: Nutty toast and almond tones to marked white flower and star fruit
P: Bright, grapefruit peel bitterness of terpenes to white flower and apple. Dry. Fair length
????, Petit Manseng South River Vineyard Petit Manseng Virginia 20?? (16 / 20, 90 / 100)
N: Very toasty-nutty reduction, ripe quince and yellow melon
P: Rich mouthful of yellow fruit and quince, brisk acidity, some pineapple, and struck match. Medium length
Comte Armand, Aligote Bourgogne 2017 (15 / 20, 87 / 100)
A: Very pale lemon
N: Gentle background nut and simple fruit
P: some chew and smoke to creamy citrus. Surprisingly simple and short, given its pedigree
Trimbach, Cuvée Frederic Emile Riesling 2008 (17 / 20, 94 / 100)
A: Pale lemon-gold
N: Smoky, spicy, wet slate and lime
P: Slightly earthy tone to gentle TDN and stones. Lime, with long scented peel finish, brisk and ready
Pascal Doquet, Diapaison Grand Cru Le Mesnil Champagne NV (16 / 20, 91 / 100)
A: Pale gold, with a lively bead
N: Oxidative touch to apple, with creamy almond-nut lees
P: Dry, with a moderately-fine mousse. Slightly bruised apple, spice and stone. Fair length
Pine Ridge, Cabernet Sauvignon Stag’s Leap District 2013 (16.5 / 20, 92 / 100)
A: Deep black ruby-garnet
N: Creamed almond and coconut, a mushroom hint, toasted sweet spice, and baked black cherry
P: Supple, rich, ripe black cherry with some soy. Moderate, supple tannins. Quite long
Diel, Riesling Auslese Nahe 1990 (16.5 / 20, 92 / 100)
A: Pale amber
N: Wax and nut brittle, with dried bruised lime
P: Crisp acidity balances rich sweetness. Crystal dried lime, caramel and nut brittle. Medium-long
Leitz, Rudesheimer Magdalenenkreutz Riesling Spatlese Rheingau 2009 (17.5 / 20, 95 / 100)
A: Pale gold
N: Appealing hints of overripe white peach, honey, flower and rocks
P: Medium-sweet but racy. Floral and delicate with stones then lime. Long
Hartford, Jurassic Chenin Blanc Santa Ynez Valley 2016 (17 / 20, 94 / 100)
A: Pale gold
N: Nutty and fresh earth, some jasmine, spice, and ripe yellow apple
P: Crisp, fine acidity, good length and dense fruit. Convincing
Wind Gap, Gap’s Crown Vineyard Chardonnay Sonoma Coast 2016 (16+ / 20, 91+ / 100)
A: Pale gold
N: Flinty-chalky, with subtle cream and mealy oak, lean citrus and some dried herb lift
P: Crisp, lean herbal orchard fruit. Tight, with an almond nut touch. Fair length. Young, and a little lean
Brusset, Cairanne 2000: (15.5- / 20, 88- / 100)
A: Pale-medium brick-garnet
N: Broad, toasty-meaty. Old leather and dried tea leaves, dried fruit still there
P: A little hollow and fading. Toasty meat, brisk acidity, with light, furry tannins
Trestle 31, Chardonnay Finger Lakes 2017 (16 / 20, 91 / 100)
Made by Nova Cadamatre MW. Just bottled, so no label.
A: Very pale gold
N: Mealy oak, a touch of struck match and ripe pear
P: Vibrant acidity. Orchard fruit. Fair length, mealy-nutty finish
J. L. Chave, Hermitage Blanc 2007 (17 / 20, 94 / 100)
A: Mid gold, with burnished tints
N: Integral, old cream and buttered macadamia. Some hints of marmite, dried stone fruit and floral lift
P: full-bodied, fat and oily. Soft acidity but some saline mineral gives lift. Rich almond nut finish
Dr. Loosen, Wehlener Sonnenuhr Riesling Spatlese Mosel 2015 (17.5 / 20, 95 / 100)
A: Very pale lemon
N: Floral, slate and lemon-lime, with nutty lees and some peach
P: Racy, with delicate, floral, sherbet and peach hints. Superb balance of medium-sweetness and racy acidity. Delicately long
Starmont, Pinot Gris Carneros 2015 (15 / 20, 87 / 100)
A: Pale-medium gold
N: ripe pear and some musk, with a hint of cooked fruit oxidation
P: Oxidative, funky brown apple and spice
Robert Mondavi, 30th Anniversary Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville 1996 (18 / 20, 96 / 100)
5L Imperiale. Only the best plots of To Kalon.
A: Deep brick-garnet. Opaque, with a broad rim
N: Black tea, grilled meat, rich dried tobacco, dried black cherry, scented tones and leafy elements. Complex and fairly-mature but alive
P: Peppery but resolving, polished tannins. Sweetness and boldness to dried berry fruit. Meaty with toasted spice, fresh leather and an old tobacco finish. Long
Wind Gap, Mi-Pente Pinot Noir Carneros 2014 (16.5 / 20, 92 / 100)
A: Pale-medium ruby
N: Floral, lightly-stewed cranberry, gentle clove and coffee
P: Crisp acidity, ripe strawberry and red cherry, with some balsamic, floral and stem herb. Light-medium tannins and medium-long finish
DeLille, Grand Ciel Cabernet Sauvignon Woodinville Washington 2012 (15.5 / 20, 88 / 100)
A: Deep black-garnet
N: Vanilla, clove, cream, cedar, spice and baked black fruit
P: Juicy, with dried red fruit, and spicy, grilled tobacco. Powerful, with chunky tannins and a hot finish
Robert Mondavi, Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 1972 (16- / 20, 91- / 100)
A: Pale-medium brick
N: Black tea, old tobacco, toffee, old leather. Fully mature
P: Bright acidity showing through from the old leather, black tea and mushroom flavour. Delicate tannins, with a smoky finish
Hunt Country, Vidal Ice Wine Finger Lakes 2016 (15 / 20, 87 / 100)
A: Mid-deep gold
N: Yellow fruit and mirabelle jelly – straightforward
P: Very sweet, with racy acidity. Confected, jellied, yellow and bruised fruit. Moderate length
Rare Wine Co / Barbeito, Boston Bual Madeira NV (16 / 20, 91 / 100)
A: Deep amber, with some tawny tints
N: Broad, caramelised chocolate and some cooked red cherry
P: Brisk, firm acidity, cooked citrus and smoke, with a sweet, smoky walnut finish. Fair complexity and medium-long. Great with cocoa nib dark chocolate, brought by Sarah-Jane Evans MW