A Voyage Around Arrowood

When I was in Sonoma last week, I visited all three of the properties where legendary winemaker Richard Arrowood has made wine, ending up with a meeting with the man himself. This I undertook with some trepidation. Earlier in the day, I had been warned that as well as winemaking, he is famous for his gun collection, so I took great care not to arrive too early in case I was mistaken for a trespasser. When I arrived (exactly on time) I was greeted by Richard Arrowood with his arm in a sling, the result of an accident when he was requalifying for his concealed gun permit. But to go back the beginning.

I started out at Chateau St. Jean, where Richard was the first winemaker after it was founded in 1973. “The owners asked me to do vineyard designates like the Burgundians do,” he recollects, and Chateau St. Jean became famous for the single vineyard Chardonnays; at one time there were as many as nine. Although these attracted the most attention, there was actually more red wine production than white, with the focus on Cabernet Sauvignon. Chateau St. Jean changed ownership when it was sold to Beringer in 1996.

The year that Arrowood left, in 1990, Chateau St. Jean produced the first vintage of its Cinq Cepages, which as its name suggests is a Cabernet-dominated blend with all five of the classic Bordeaux varieties. Until 2007, the wine carried a varietal label as Cabernet Sauvignon, but that was removed as of 2008. “This had been the intent from the beginning. We put Cabernet Sauvignon on the label at the beginning because we were so closely identified with white wine,” says current winemaker Margo Van Staaveren, who has been at Chateau St Jean almost since the beginning. The wine is definitely softer these days and appears intended for immediate gratification; I tasted vintages from 2003 to 2008, all of which seemed pleasant, but lacking in the stuffing required for longevity.

Richard had bought land and built a winery, called Arrowood, in 1987. From 1990 his main focus was producing wines there. The operation followed the same model as Chateau St. Jean in sourcing wine from growers. Its own vineyards are just 9 acres planted with Bordeaux varieties used for blending with Cabernet Sauvignon; it was known at the winery as Richard’s spice box. The top wines here, which are not distinguished by price, are the Monte Rosso single vineyard designate and the Réserve Spéciale, a blend that is made more years than not, but not every year, from sources that may change depending on the vintage. I tasted several of the vintages that Arrowood made before he left in 2010. (Arrowood was sold in 2004 to Mondavi, and then after Constellation bought Mondavi, had a troubled period when it changed hands more than once, ending up with Jackson Family Estates in 2010). The Monte Rosso wines had all the power of a top vineyard and I generally preferred them to the Réserve Spéciale. The latter was interesting because the older vintages (before 1998) were blends, but the more recent vintages are 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. Even allowing for development with age, I preferred the blends: only one of the pure Cabernet vintages struck me as being as complete as the blended wines. I did not taste the most recent vintages, which following Jackson Family Estate’s takeover are now being made at Jackson’s central facility in Napa Valley.

Finally, on to Amapola Creek, which is Richard’s latest venture. He had purchased the site in 2000 and planted the vineyard with the intention of selling the grapes, but then decided to make the wine himself. The 100 acre ranch just below the famous Monte Rosso vineyard is planted with 20 acres of French clones of Cabernet Sauvignon and a little Petit Verdot, Syrah, and Grenache. I tasted all vintages of the Cabernet since the first (2005, which is 100% Cabernet; later vintages also include a little Petit Verdot), and liked the precision in the fruits; the only thing detracting from complete refinement is the high alcohol (around 15%). The style was more similar to the Arrowood Monte Rosso (perhaps not surprising considering the proximity of the vineyards) than to the Réserve Spéciale. It will be fascinating in future years to see how Amapola Creek Cabernet Sauvignon compares with the Arrowood Monte Rosso.

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