One of the more striking wineries in Napa when you get close to the circular entrance, Opus One was created as a joint venture between Robert Mondavi and Baron Philippe de Rothschild in 1979. After Constellation took over Mondavi in 2004, it functioned more independently of the individual owners.
When the winery was built, the attitude towards consumers followed Bordeaux rather than Mondavi, and they did not intend to open to the public. That has changed dramatically with a new focus on oenotourism. The winery has just completed a five year reconstruction program. The working winery has been extended at the back, and a luxurious hospitality center has been created at the front, with lounges and verandas where hosted tastings can be held. There will be a culinary program as well, “but everything stays focused on the wine.”
As one of the first collaborations between Bordeaux and Napa winemakers, it was assumed from the start that the wine would be a Bordeaux blend. The wine is labeled as a proprietary red, but usually has more than 80% Cabernet Sauvignon (enough to carry a varietal label). The lowest Cabernet Sauvignon was 71% in the cool, wet year of 2011; the highest was 97% in 1989.
There are 70 acres of vineyard around the winery and another 100 acres split between To Kalon north and south. Plots are replanted after 25-30 years. Initially the blend started with Cabernet Franc and Merlot; Malbec was added in 1994 and Petit Verdot was added in 1997.
Opus One is easy to under-rate in its early years, when it tends to be somewhat dumb, with a touch of austerity, but it comes out, decade by decade, so my tasting at the winery of wines from three decades was the perfect way to assess it. Taking the European aesthetic farther, the wines are extremely expressive of vintage.
The current release, the 2017, isn’t releasing a lot of fruit or aromatics yet; coiled up tight, it is waiting to unwind. The 2010 is more developed than the 2006; in fact, in a blind tasting I would probably have reversed the vintages of this pair. The 2010 reflects a (relatively) cooler growing season until there were heat spikes at the end of August and in September. The wine impresses as ripe, but reflecting cool-climate conditions. Showing some tertiary notes, it’s perfect now. The 2006 growing season was also relatively cool, but had a heat wave earlier in the season, in July. The wine feels 4-5 years less developed rather than more developed by comparison with the 2010: it is just at the point of making the transition from fruity to savory. All the wines show a restrained style in which flavor development steadily accentuates with age.
The oldest vintage I have had was the inaugural 1979 (made from grapes from Mondavi’s To Kalon vineyard) which at 30 years of age was still vibrant. Other vintages have been excellent after 20 years, so I anticipate a very long life for current vintages.
An updated profile will be included in the 2022 edition of the Guide to Napa.
Tasting Three Decades of Opus One
2017 (Cabernet Sauvignon 80%, Cabernet Franc 1%, Malbec 1%, Merlot 5%, Petit Verdot 9%) Fairly tight as it opens but promises elegance as it matures. Tannins are tight but not overbearing. Aromatic black fruits come out slowly in the glass. Not ready yet, not because of tannins, but needs time to develop flavor variety. Overall a relatively restrained European style. 92 Drink 2024-2039
2010 (Cabernet Sauvignon 84%, Cabernet Franc 5%, Malbec 1%, Merlot 5%, Petit Verdot 4%)
Some signs of development with tertiary notes that are typical of cool climate extending to faint vegetal notes as counterpoise to the fruits. Mature black fruits have touch of sous bois in background and very faint touch of herbaceousness. Complex flavors on palate give Bordeaux-like cool climate impressions, then the black fruit aromatics take over from the herbaceous overtones in the glass. This is perfect for drinking now. 92 Drink -2026
2006 (Cabernet Sauvignon 77%, Merlot 12%, Cabernet Franc 5%, Petit Verdot 3%, Malbec 3%) On release the wine was closed and austere and hard to read. Now it has really come out. It’s developing slowly as the aromatics are fresher than 2010 and show only a faint touch of development. It seems in fact to be a few years behind 2010 in development. Mature black fruits are right at the tipping point from fruity to savory. The style plays to elegance rather than power. 14.4% 93 Drink -2030
For comparison, this is my tasting note for the 2006 soon after its release:
Deep purple with black hues. Deep black fruit nose, some nutty aromas coming to the fore in the glass. Although the Cabernet Sauvignon percent is low this year, the wine shows greater austerity than usual. Falls just a bit short in flavor interest, and is a bit briary and closed at the moment.
“For us the holy grail is a wine that technically has a lot of tannin but tastes soft,” winemaker Philip Titus says as we taste the flagship Pritchard Hill Cabernet Sauvignon. In fact, when he returned to Chappellet as chief winemaker in 1990 (he had previously been at the winery as assistant winemaker) his first mandate from Don Chappellet was to soften the mountain tannins in Chappellet Cabernet.
Chappellet is venerable as one of the first wineries to be built in Napa after Prohibition, in 1967 (one year after Mondavi). Driving up the narrow access road from Lake Hennessy, deep into the woods, it feels quite isolated. Covering 700 acres, the estate extends well beyond the 100 acres of vineyards, which range from 1000 to 1700 feet, just above the fog line. The winery was in the shape of a striking pyramid, but a new winery was built just behind it in 2014, and now the pyramid is mostly filled with barriques. There were already vines on the property when it was purchased, but there was a lot of Chenin Blanc. Following a replanting program in the nineties, most of the vineyard today is Cabernet Sauvignon, the variety for which Chappellet is best known.
Some Chenin Blanc was restored in 2006 and now makes the one white wine from the estate. “There was Chardonnay here, but in the early 90s I was aware it was too warm for Chardonnay. We pulled it out and went farther south. Eventually we ended up in Petaluma Gap in Sonoma.” The Chardonnay is one of the Grower Collection series of wines, which come from named vineyards aside from the Chappellet estate. The series also includes Pinot Noir from Russian River Valley. It’s fair to say these wines show a different character from the bold fruity style of Cabernet for which Chappellet is known, and reflect a cooler-climate style.
“The Signature Cabernet really gets back to what we’ve been doing for the last 54 years, Philip says. “It should be ready to drink, has to be stylistically approachable, but needs the ability to age.” It started out as 100% varietal, but now is a blend with 75-85% Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot and Malbec. “We didn’t find that blending with Cabernet Franc improved the wine,” Philips says, but he had gained experience with Petit Verdot and Malbec when his father planted them at his family vineyard in the 1970s. (Philip and his brother were skeptical, but their father said: you’ll need them one day.) Signature comes mostly from the estate, but also includes grapes from neighbors, and reflects its mountain origins in a sense of tension. Current vintages seem to have a more mineral style than the bolder vintages of the past.
The latest Cabernet Sauvignon cuvée is the 100% varietal Hideaway Vineyard, which comes from a plot just on the other side of Pritchard Hill. The first vintage was 2016. The terroir is different from the rest of the Chappellet vineyards, and has very shallow, rocky, red volcanic soil. It shows great purity of Cabernet fruits, with slightly lifted aromatics conveying a sense of precision.
“Pritchard Hill is the top wine. Everything we do revolves around this wine,” Philip says. It’s a vineyard selection followed by a barrel selection. A bigger wine, with long aging potential, it ages in 100% new oak compared to Signature’s 50%. Like Signature, it started as a varietal but now is a blend. It has impressive depth and density and needs several years to begin to show its quality.
An updated profile will be included in the 2022 edition of the Guide to Napa.
2019 Signature Chenin Blanc Fruity nose, citrus overtones, ripe fruits but with slightly tart finish. Smooth and full of flavor, lives up to its name as a signature wine. “This is a very simply made wine,” Philip Titus says, “to keep brightness and minerality.” It’s aged half in neutral barriques and half in tank. 13.7% Chappellet 89 Drink -2025
2019 Petaluma Gap Calesa Vineyard Chardonnay Barrel fermented with 30% new oak and going 100% through MLF. Nose gives a lean mineral impression with only faint traces of oak. More aromatic on the palate than expected from the nose, although stopping short of exotic fruits (this was fermented at low temperature). The palate is more phenolic than mineral with a long finish. The phenolic or floral impressions are due to the range of clones in the vineyard, which tend to high production of terpenes. 90 Drink -2026
2018 Russian River Valley, Apple Lane Vineyard Pinot Noir
This comes from the cool area of Green Valley. Nose opens with hints of earthy notes and red cherry fruits. It’s earthy on the palate, which shows quite bright red cherry fruits with just a touch of tannic bitterness at the end to show the structure. It’s a very clear, precise style for Russian River, with well-delineated fruits. It’s full of flavor and beginning to develop. “This is what I like about Russian River Valley,” Philip Titus says, “a richer deeper style of Pinot Noir.” It ages in 45% new barriques. 90 Drink -2028
2018 Napa Cabernet Franc (Cabernet Franc 75%, Cabernet Sauvignon 15%, Malbec 6%, Petit Verdot 4%)
Nose offers sense of chocolate and tobacco, following to palate which shows some breadth with furry tannins on the finish–softer than the precision and structure of the Cabernet Sauvignon. Starts out quite primary but Philip Titus says it should start to develop secondary characters after 6-8 years. 91 Drink -2033.
2018 Signature Cabernet Sauvignon (Cabernet Sauvignon 85%%, Petit Verdot 10%, Malbec 5%) Quite a restrained nose leads into smooth palate with tannins giving a chocolaty texture and just a touch of bitter chocolate at the end. The lean character of the fruits shows the influence of volcanic soils and the elevation of the vineyards. Palate inclines towards herbal or mineral notes. This can be enjoyed now but will really come out in a few years. 92 Drink -2034
2018 Hideaway Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (100%) Chocolate notes overlay very pure black Cabernet fruits, with tannins showing as bitter chocolate on the finish. Aromatics are a little more lifted compared with the Signature Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s still very young, flavor variety has yet to develop, but it conveys a great sense of volcanic tension and purity of Cabernet fruits. It shows a mountain structure now but will become smooth and silky as it ages. It ages in 100% new oak. 94 Drink 2024-2039 2017 Pritchard Hill Cabernet Sauvignon Black inky color. Stern nose shows deep black fruits. This is a rich, big wine, with a chocolaty texture that carries its high tannins well. Fruits show as blackberries with hints of blueberries, but aromatics haven’t come out fully yet. Finish is very long with some breadth on the palate. Already it shows a seamless quality that I expect to be reflected in layers of flavor as it develops 94 Drink 2027-2045
“This is Quintessa,” says winemaker Rebekah Wineburg, gesturing at the hills around us and the lake below, “this is what it’s all about, we are an estate.” Although Quintessa has 150 acres of vines in a 280 acres estate, it produces only one wine. “The wine is an expression of the entirety of the estate.”
The estate runs from the Silverado Trail to the Napa River. But its terrain is not at all what you expect from the location in the center of the valley. The valley floor is generally rather flat, but Quintessa has a series of hillsides. It’s actually quite a steep hike up from the building at the entrance to the individual pavilions in the hills where tastings are held. The folds of the land are deceptive, and it feels as though you’re in the foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains, although actually they are three miles away. A large lake in the center of the estate, created by a dam, provides water for irrigation, together with wells elsewhere on the property.
“I have three types of terroir here,” Rebekah says. The eastern part of the estate is a landslide from the Vacca hills with white volcanic ash (rhyolite). The central and western hills are mixed volcanic and older alluvial soils. The benchland in the west along the Napa river is clay and true alluvial soil. The variations are emphasized by a barrel tasting from the 2019 vintage. Mount Calisse (from volcanic ash on the eastern hills) has a tight impression with the tension of volcanic mountain origins, while Bench (from deep clay by the river) is rich and powerful with a chocolaty edge to the finish.
“Quintessa has always valued elegance rather than power, and was not popular for that, but the pendulum has shifted,” Rebekah says. New oak has come down from 80-85% in earlier vintages to 60% in 2018. Fermentation is in stainless steel, concrete, and there is some barrel fermentation (especially for lots with mountain tannins). It’s racked only three times during aging, and is bottled without fining or filtration. The blend is 90% Cabernet Sauvignon, with small amounts of Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Merlot, and Carmenère. Tasting recent vintages, there seems to be an increase in refinement. The 2018 conveys a sense of precision, 2016 shows breadth on the palate;, both vintages show nicely defined black fruits on the palate, with hints of chocolate on the texture. From a much cooler vintage, 2011 shows development in a savory direction.
The Sauvignon Blanc, Illumination, comes from a mix of sources: the estate, farther south in Napa, and Bennett Valley in Sonoma. It is labeled as a Napa-Sonoma blend. It uses a variety of vessels for aging: barriques with 4% new oak, acacia, stainless steel, and concrete eggs. It’s another demonstration of the potential of Sauvignon Blanc in Napa to produce wines that are harmonious, with as much sense of stone fruits as citrus, and with some aging potential. Comparison of the 2018 and 2019 suggests that it needs a year after release to gather extra depth.
Faust is sometimes described as a second wine of Quintessa, but although it started at the estate, it now comes from a separate vineyard and winery in Coombsville, plus grapes from other sources, including some from the Quintessa estate.
The focus on a single wine from such a large estate makes Quintessa unusual for Napa, especially given the diversity of terroirs in the estate. Clearly the view here is that the blend is greater than the sum of the parts.
An updated profile will be included in the 2022 edition of the Guide to Napa.
Napa-Sonoma, Illumination Sauvignon Blanc, 2019
Subtle mix of herbaceous and perfumed notes show on nose. Palate is quite aromatic, nicely rounded, follows subtlety of nose. Very faint touch of bitterness on finish accentuates impression of freshness and helps balance fruits. This is a little muted by comparison with the 2018 and still needs a few months to come out. 90 Drink now-2025.
Napa-Sonoma, Illumination Sauvignon Blanc, 2018
Just a touch more herbaceous development than 2019 with hints of asparagus on the nose. The extra year’s development has brought a more pungent sense of Sauvignon Blanc on the palate than 2019 and more flavor intensity with slight bite to finish. Fruits tend to citrus, showing grapefruit and bitter lemon. 91 Drink now-2025.
Rutherford, Quintessa, 2018
This will be released in September. Restrained sense of black fruits to nose. Quite an elegant impression with an almost chocolaty texture to palate. Very smooth tannins on the finish. This vintage shows the most precision. 14.5% 94 Drink now-2036.
Rutherford, Quintessa, 2016
Similar fruit spectrum to 2018 but not quite as concentrated on the palate. Elegant fruits tend to blackberries with a chocolaty texture. Tannins are smooth and firm on the finish. This vintage shows the greatest breadth and should age to become quite delicate. 14.5% 92 Drink now-2033.
Rutherford, Quintessa, 2011
This cool, wet vintage has resulted in more rapid development in the wine. Nose shows some tertiary notes with hints of gunflint at first, and then calms down in glass. Development is not so obvious on palate although you might describe it as savory, with tertiary notes coming back faintly retronasally. Tannins are resolving and fruits tend to blackberry. 90 Drink now-2025.
“The press have characterized us as a Chardonnay house,” says David Ramey, a fraction ruefully, “but I think we make world-class Cabernet as well.” He makes his point with a tasting of the complete range of Chardonnays, showing his Eurocentric aesthetic when he divides them into ‘village wines’ (AVA) and single-vineyards. We followed this with a tasting of Cabernet Sauvignons from a recent vintage and from the ‘difficult’ 2011 vintage.
David Ramey founded his own cellar in 1996 after making wines for several wineries in Sonoma and Napa. Today his children Alan and Claire are taking over. The winery is a bare bones warehouse-like structure on the outskirts of Healdsburg. Estate vineyards are mostly in Russian River, but grapes also come from long-term contracts with vineyards on Sonoma Coast to the west and Napa Valley to the east. Production is 60% white and 40% red.
The Chardonnays offer a textbook illustration of differences between areas and sites. Pressed as whole clusters, they ferment and age in French barriques, for 12 months with 15% new oak for ‘village’ wines and for 20 months with 25% new oak for single vineyard wines. Aging is identical for all single vineyard wines. Style does not change going from an AVA wine to a single vineyard, but these develop greater flavor variety and more complexity, and give the impression of more structural support for longer aging.
Fort Ross Seaview is relatively lean compared to the richer Russian River Valley or Carneros. In Russian River, Westside and Woolsey are leaner than the more opulent Rochioli and Ritchie. The cuvée from Hyde Vineyard in Carneros offers one of the most Burgundian-like expressions of that vineyard I encountered this month.
How long will they last, I asked, with the problems of premature aging of white Burgundy in mind. “Twenty years,” David says, “with no premox!” After some years of trials, the winery made a switch in 2013 to using the Diam technical cork, which not only guarantees absence of TCA, but also offers a controlled rate of oxygen ingress. David makes his point about the effect this will have by pulling out a Woolsey Chardonnay from 2013 and a Ritchie Vineyard from 2009. The 2013 (under Diam) was scarcely different in appearance from the current release, and nose and palate showed the same style, but with increase in depth and density resulting from age. The 2009 (under conventional cork) was a deeper color, and the organoleptic spectrum showed the beginnings of oxidative changes. “Diam will allow the wine to age longer and retain the same character,” David says. (The winery is given to experimentation and trialled screwcaps, but David does not believe the wines would ultimately achieve the same complexity as under cork.)
We turned to red wines. The Pinot Noir from Russian River shows the restrained style of the house, and the Syrah from Petaluma Gap (a relatively cool area) showed a northern Rhone-like freshness. But the Cabernets were the pièce de résistance. Annum comes from a variety of sources in Napa Valley, about half from Oakville, the rest from Mount Veeder and Saint Helena or Diamond Mountain. The restrained style is reinforced by some subtle hints of bell peppers to cut the black fruits. Good as Annum is, however, it is eclipsed by the single-vineyard Pedregal, which is subtler and deeper. Both wines are blends, Annum with a minor component of Cabernet Franc, and Pedregal with Petit Verdot (the two varieties are cofermented rather than blended to get a more integrated result). For both wines we compared the 2015 vintage with the 2011, a year that had been generally slated by the critics at the time. But the 2011s showed beautifully as classic representations of the Bordeaux blend, with the varietal character of Cabernet Sauvignon really coming out. “Some critics are looking for power, but we’re showing the 2011 vintage now,” David says.
There’s room for all styles in Napa and Sonoma, of course, but across the range these are real food wines: there is nothing forced or pumped up here.
An updated profile will be included in the 2022 edition of the Guide to Sonoma.
2018, Fort Ross-Seaview, Chardonnay This comes from the Charles Martinelli Ranch, two miles from the pacific at 1,100 ft elevation. Fresh nose leads into elegant palate with some buttery overtones. Generally a relatively lean, well balanced impression, just short of expressing minerality. 14.2% 91 Drink -2028
2018, Russian River Valley, Chardonnay Fruit is a little more obvious on the nose than with Fort Ross Seaview Chardonnay. It’s a touch fatter on the palate, with a touch more viscosity, but also more sense of citrus in the fruit spectrum. Very flavorful. This comes from a variety of sources, with more than 50% from Westside Farms, the rest from four other sites. 92 Drink -2028
2018, Russian River Valley, Ritchie Vineyard Chardonnay Fresh nose leads into palate with filigree sense of acidity. Fruits moving towards yellow plums. Greater sense of texture to the palate compared with Rochioli, and long finish. David Ramey says this is usually the richest of the single vineyard wines. 93 Drink -2030
2018, Russian River Valley, Rochioli Vineyard Chardonnay Restrained nose with faintly herbal, piquant impressions. Palate shows lovely balance of stone and citrus fruits with some bare hints of oak in the background. There’s just a touch of citric acidity to offset the oak. Flavors are now emerging on the palate. David Ramey says this is usually one of the richest single vineyard Chardonnays. Sourced mostly from Mid-40 block with the rest from River block. 93 Drink -2029
2018, Russian River Valley, Westside Farms Chardonnay Fragrant nose with sense of perfume and filigree acidity. Oak shows faintly in background with just a hint of residual bitterness. This cuvee has a restrained sense of asperity., This vineyard is also the major source for the Russian River Valley Chardonnay, which shows as fatter from its other components. 93 Drink -2030
2018, Russian River Valley, Woolsey Chardonnay Bright acidity reinforces the lively impressions of the citric-driven palate, offset by a touch of oak on the finish. Softly textured palate shows yellow plums and citrus. Lovely balance and texture. David Ramey says this is usually the leanest of the single vineyard Chardonnays. 93 Drink -2031
2018, Carneros, Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay More herbal impressions here, compared to Russian River Valley single vineyard wines. There’s a fugitive whiff of gunflint, and David Ramey says this is often a feature of this vineyard. Greater sense of extraction on palate, although not more viscous. Fruits incline to citrus with touch of bitterness from oak in the background. Great flavor variety is coming out on palate. 93 Drink -2031
2013,Russian River Valley, Woolsey Chardonnay Color is barely any darker than the 2018, still lemon rather than gold. Nose shows faintly herbal overtones and age has brought more evident depth to the palate: the citric impressions are a little more forceful and there’s a hint of gunflint. Everything is a bit deeper and more intense. 92 Drink -2027
2009, Russian River Valley, Ritchie Vineyard Chardonnay A little deeper in color than current vintages and more golden. The nose shows just a whiff of development and a trace of oxidative influences is evident on the palate, although still at the stage of adding complexity. While this is still very good, it shows more of a change in character, moving away from the primary citrus influences. This vintages was bottled under conventional cork, and later vintages bottled under Diam will no doubt show as fresher at the same stage. 91 Drink -2025
2017, Russian River Valley, Pinot Noir This comes from a mix of clones and terroirs, ferments with 23% whole clusters, and ages for 14 months with 40% new oak. Does not show the flamboyant style of exuberant fruits and viscous palates of the more extreme Pinots from Russian River, but is nicely balanced between earthy fruits and herbal notes. Structure shows in a bare hint of bitterness on the finish that should resolve shortly. 90 Drink 2022-2030
2015, Petaluma Gap, Rodgers Creek Vineyard Syrah Complex nose shows red fruits and a fugitive trace of menthol. Palate is slightly herbal, slightly nutty, full flavored, with that suspicion of menthol returning on the finish. Developing nicely with good follow-through on the finish in a style reminiscent of the northern Rhone. 91 Drink -2029
2015, Napa Valley, Annum Cabernet Sauvignon (Cabernet Sauvignon 80%, Cabernet Franc 17%, Malbec 3%,) Sweet ripe fruits show a nicely restrained style, with a palate more focused on blackberries. Tannins are supple in the background. There are some faint and attractive herbal notes showing retronasally on the long finish. The Eurocentric style is reinforced by a fresh not of faint bell peppers at the end. 92 Drink -2031
2015, Oakville, Pedregal Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Cabernet Sauvignon 85%, Petit Verdot 11%) More subtle and deeper than Annum. Very faint bell peppers on the nose. Beautifully restrained, Bordeaux-like freshness, nicely rounded fruits are supported by supple tannins, hints of bell peppers and tobacco come back on the finish. It has the quality of top wines of seamless layers of flavor. 94 Drink -2031
2011, Napa Valley, Annum Cabernet Sauvignon (Cabernet Sauvignon 75%, Cabernet Franc 25%) The wine opens with absolutely delicious classic notes of bell peppers to counterpoise the black fruits. Palate is smooth and supple with tannins resolving. The cool climate impression reflects the conditions of the vintage and really reflects varietal character. 92 Drink -2027
2011, Oakville, Pedregal Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Cabernet Sauvignon 76%, Petit Verdot 24%) Nose shows subtle notes of bell peppers and faint hints of development. A leaner, mineral character balances the black fruits. The finish shows a good sense of texture with firm tannins supporting the fruits and some hints of dryness developing on the finish together with notes of tobacco. 93 Drink -2029
“Everything is understated at Grgich, which is not necessarily the most popular style,” Ivo Jeramaz says. Ivo is Mike Grgich’s nephew, and came from Croatia to join his uncle when Mike set up his own winery in 1977. “What kind of wine do we want to make?” Ivo asks. “We want authentic wine… We are European, we believe in terroir not winemaking; winemakers are not artists. Of course, we have to be skillful, not to spoil the grapes, we like to say we raise our wines rather than make them.”
How have things changed at Grgich since I last visited, I asked. “The biggest change of my career was seeing the effects of regenerative farming. We’ve been organic for 20 years and became biodynamic in 2003, and we switched to regenerative farming in 2019. A major difference between organic and regenerative farming is not tilling the soil. I am fascinated by the microbes in the soil. Tilling means the microbes get killed by surface heat.” It’s too early to see all the effects, but Ivo says that already it’s been possible to reduce spraying for mildew by half.
In each of the major varieties, Grgich makes a range of styles. Essence is a top Sauvignon Blanc, made conventionally by whole cluster pressing, fermented in stainless steel, and then aged in neutral foudres. Skin Fermented is a new approach, treating the grapes like red wine winemaking, with fermentation including the skins (like an orange wine, but with maceration not long enough to get orange-like effects); the first vintage is about to be released. Essence is flavorful and the skin fermentation adds the sort of richness usually associated with barrel fermentation and new oak, but without the impressions of oak.
“I judge Chardonnay on its minerality,” Ivo says, but he is a good enough winemaker to produce Chardonnay from Carneros, aged in neutral foudres resulting in a leaner style tending to salinity, as well as the Paris Commemorative Tasting Chardonnay from Napa, which is an attempt to reproduce the style of wine that Mike Grgich made at Château Montelena that won the Judgment of Paris tasting in 1976. This is fat, rich, and buttery, showing the use of new barriques. Chardonnay has become more precise since Ivo eliminated use of sulfur before fermentation and allows the phenols to oxidize. “They drop out and this reduces bitterness” he says.
“I would like our Cabernet to have more polished tannins,” Ivo says, and he has switched from racking the wine off immediately after malolactic fermentation to leaving it in the same barrel for 6 months before racking. The longer contact with the lees makes for more refined tannins. The Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon comes from Yountville, Rutherford, and Calistoga, including small amounts of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, and has an approachable style with the slightly lifted aromatics that are typical of Napa. The Rutherford Cabernet is 100% varietal from the vineyard at the winery.
Grgich has a 25 acre vineyard in Yountville that has some of the oldest Cabernet in Napa, consisting of the Inglenook clone planted on St. George rootstock in 1959. This makes the Yountville Old Vines cuvée, a dark, brooding wine that is a real vin de garde; it may need several years to come around, but it gives the impression it will last for ever.
An updated profile will be included in the 2022 edition of the Guide to Napa.
2020Napa Valley Skin Fermented Quite a reduced nose. Rich impression on palate with powerful sense of granular texture, more viscosity than Essence. Palate inclines to stone fruits. 92 Drink -2025
2019 Napa Valley Essence
Faintly reduced nose. Palate is full of flavor, more stone fruits than citrus (with some apricot impressions), very smooth on palate, faint sense of bitterness lends support on finish. 91 Drink -2025
2013 Napa Valley Essence Faintly nutty notes have developed with age and the palate is richer than the current vintage. but the wine has stayed fresh. Fruits are mature moving towards beeswax (giving something of the impression you get from some Semillon, even though this is100% Sauvignon Blanc). Certainly makes Ivo’s point that Sauvignon Blanc can age. 91 Drink -2023
2018Carneros(Miljenko’s Selection) Lean style is quite Burgundian, with good acidity enhancing sense of salinity. The salinity has refreshing more-ish quality. Plays to elegance rather than power. 90 Drink -2027
2018 Napa Valley Label says Napa but Ivo says the grapes come from Carneros. Sweet ripe impressions with typical viscosity of Carneros. Good acidity with a touch of lime and a hint of exotic fruits. The ripe fruit character is certainly Napa but it’s not overblown. I suspect the exotic notes will take over with aging. 14.1% Napa21 89 Drink -2025
2018 Napa (Paris Tasting Commemorative) Restrained nose. Palate shows its acidity on opening. Rich fat style with impression that development will start quite soon. Already shows some faintly nutty impressions. 89 Drink -2024
2014Carneros(Miljenko’s Selection) More restrained nose and an altogether leaner style than the Paris Napa cuvee. More a sense of salinity than minerality to the palate, still fresh, with lots of flavor variety, and still time to go. 14.1% 91 Drink -2023
2014 Napa (Paris Tasting Commemorative) This has a typically Napa texture, fat and buttery, and you can see the effects of aging in barriques with some new oak, although the oak is no longer not directly obvious. The nose becomes a little nutty as it develops in the glass. Hints of tertiary notes on the palate suggest it is time to drink up. It’s a bit obvious. 14.1% 89 Drink -2021
2016 Yountville Old Vines Cabernet Sauvignon
Round ripe black fruit nose with hint of piquancy. Deep intense blackberry palate with brambly fruits showing good freshness, and some bitter aromatics at the end. This really needs time for the tannins to resolve. 92 Drink 2026-2041
2013 Yountville Old Vines Cabernet Sauvignon Reserved nose with smoky notes on top of black fruits. Has softened only marginally by comparison with 2016 (although this vintage had the highest IPT ever recorded). Tannins are still suppressing the fruits on the palate, but you can see the intensity behind. Actually the palate is relatively soft with a long aftertaste, but the finish is still a bit bitter. Still a few years off being ready. 92 Drink 2024-2039
2010 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Faintly smoky notes and some mineral overtones on nose lead into brambly blackberry fruits. Nice sense of freshness with lifted aromatics showing black fruits tending towards cassis. 91 Drink -2030
2009 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Softer impression to the nose than 2010, with minerality pushed more in the background. Smooth, ripe, and round on palate with soft viscous impression on finish. Not so aromatically lifted on palate, although fruits still in direction of blackcurrants. 91 Drink -2031
Viader Vineyards occupies a steep slope on Howell Mountain that runs down into Bell Canyon. At an elevation of 1,200 feet, it’s just below the Howell Mountain AVA. Delia Viader purchased and then cleared the land in 1981 to plant with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot. The estate has 90 acres with 27 acres currently planted with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Syrah, and Malbec.
The Glass Fire started in the hillside opposite Viader, and 60% of the vines were lost to fire. Production will be reduced until the replantings come on line, but all the cuvées continue to be made. A rocky vineyard at the very top which was planted with Cabernet Franc that struggled to ripen is being replaced with some experimental varieties, Touriga Nacional, Tempranillo, and Grenache. The property has the potential to plant an additional 17 acres, and there had been plans to plant another 10-12 acres before the fire, but that’s now been delayed by the need to replace lost vines. The cave consists of tunnels dug into the hillside.
Delia has now handed over winemaking to her son Alan, although she is still involved in the blending trials. The flagship Viader is a blend of only Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, with proportions varying from year to year, but always with a majority of Cabernet Sauvignon. Della had intended to include Petit Verdot, but it turned out not to fit the profile she had in mind. For a while there was a varietal Petit Verdot, and now there is the V cuvée, a blend of Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon, with varying proportions but always a majority of Petit Verdot. There’s always been a varietal Cabernet Franc, and it’s now called DARE. Alan introduced the Black Label cuvée, which started out with much more Syrah but now has a majority of Cabernet Sauvignon and also includes Cabernet Franc and Malbec. This is intended to be more aromatic and approachable.
As Alan explains his style, “I do like a wine that is approachable on release, it doesn’t have to be ready to go. I want it to show well after 10 years but I don’t like massive intense wines that you can’t enjoy for ten years.” Alan started off by perhaps using a little more extraction than Delia, but in 2017 was forced by fires to intervene less in winemaking. “The wines made themselves,” he says, “which told us that perhaps we didn’t need to do so much, and now we have reduced pump-over.”
The style of all the cuvées shows the tension of mountain tannins. Black Label is the most aromatic and approachable. Viader is restrained, not quite stern, but showing a fine structure. V shows the taut precisely delineated aromatic black fruits of Petit Verdot, backed by the structure of Cabernet Sauvignon.
An updated profile will be included in the 2022 edition of the Guide to Napa.
Tastings of Current Releases
Black Label 2017 (Cabernet Sauvignon 56%, Cabernet Franc 9%, Syrah 23%, Malbec 12%)
It’s hard to disentangle varieties on fruity nose but the aromatics of Syrah seem the most obvious with impressions towards blueberries, and then perhaps a very faint note of tobacco from Cabernet Franc. Palate is fruit-driven and aromatic, but in elegant style with smooth tannins that are not at all obvious. There is just a faint touch of bitterness to cut the fruits at the end, perhaps from the Cabernet Sauvignon. This gets the least oak of any of the Viader cuvees, and is more or less ready to drink now. 90 Drink -2027
Viader 2015 (Cabernet Sauvignon 69%, Cabernet Franc 31%) Some development shows on nose as tertiary notes with touch of gunflint. This is quite a restrained style of Napa, definitely in the mountain tradition, although not aggressive. Palate at first shows furry texture melding into touch of bitterness on finish. Fruits are mature and black with a faint piquancy coming out in glass, cut by impression of tobacco at end. There’s a good sense of grip on the palate. 91 Drink -2029
V 2017 (Petit Verdot 59%, Cabernet Sauvignon 41%) The nose shows floral, perfumed notes. The palate shows the precisely delineated black fruits and aromatics of Petit Verdot with a more structured impression from the Cabernet Sauvignon. The overall impression is more typical of Petit Verdot than Cabernet Sauvignon, but the wine may be going through a closed phase. Viader 91 Drink -2031
“We sold Eisele but we still wanted to make wine and this property came up,” says Daphne Araujo as we walk through the winery at Wheeler Farms. “It came with a permit to produce 30,000 gallons, which was much more than we needed, so we made it into a custom crush.” It’s a practical operation, with modern equipment in a warehouse on the ground level, and a barrel room underneath. Wheeler Farms was a large property, with 376 acres in 1926, but today it is just 12 acres on Zinfandel Lane. It services about 6 winemakers and 11 brands in addition to the Araujo’s own wines.
The objective at Eisele, which Daphne and Bart Araujo purchased in 1991 and sold in 2013, was to make wines in a European aesthetic, and the same objective applies at their new venture, Accendo, made at Wheeler Farms together with another label, JH Wheeler. The focus is on the same varieties as before, split between Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon. Daphne summarizes the approach: “You make a wine with 16% alcohol and you get noticed, but that’s not what we want to do, we are more European.”
“The objective for the Sauvignon Blanc was to produce a wine in the style of white Graves. We started at Eisele using stainless steel as we found that too much oak lost freshness. Now we are sourcing grapes from farther down the valley we use more oak. The style is to have freshness, but to make a serious wine that is savory with a long finish. It has some Sémillon and Sauvignon Musqué,” Daphne says.
Accendo started with a single wine, and then Laurea was introduced with the 2018 vintage with the intention of producing a wine that is a little more juicy, a little more quaffable. It’s predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon, but labeled as a proprietary red to keep blending options open. “We don’t like to call it a second wine, it’s a different wine. It has the same aging as Accendo but is released sooner. Everything is made as though it will go into Accendo until blending. We choose the lots for Accendo first and then start over.”
Accendo itself is a Cabernet Sauvignon blend from various sources including some Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. It’s very fine, and the current vintage seems virtually drinkable on release. How will it age? “Accendo’s first release was 2013 so we don’t have a ten year perspective yet.”
The JH Wheeler range is made by the same winemaker, Nigel Kinsman, who was the winemaker at Eisele, but it’s kept separate from Accendo. Wheeler has single-vineyard wines from grapes purchased from sources such as Beckstoffer and Vine Hill Ranch. The price point is a little lower than Accendo. The Wheeler wines are very good, but don’t have the absolute refinement of the Accendo. Accendo makes about 1000 cases of the main wine, Laurea is about 600 cases, the Sauvignon Blanc is 900 cases. There are 2000 cases of Wheeler Farms.
An updated profile will be included in the 2022 edition of the Guide to Napa.
Tasting of Accendo Cellars
2019 Sauvignon Blanc Light golden color. Nose more inclined to stone fruits than citrus with some faint hints of oak. Smooth and fruity, in fact unusually fruity for the variety, showing good ripeness, with a sense of viscosity on the palate that gives more of an impression of breadth from maturation in oak than the aggressive character of stainless steel. 91 Drink -2024
2018 Laurea Red Quite lifted aromatics give the impression of pure black fruits. Very fine silky texture, you hardly see the tannins except for a slight dryness on the finish. Those black fruit aromatics poke up from the palate and the wine seems virtually ready to drink already. 91 Drink -2029
2017 Cabernet Sauvignon This is a blend with Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Sterner black fruit aromatics than Laurea, deeper, blacker impression on palate, more sense of tannic structure on the finish. Texture is very fine. Great potential for aging, with elegant balance promising savory development in the direction of delicacy. 94 Drink -2040
Tasting of JH Wheeler
2018 Napa Red Faintly spicy nose shows red and black fruits. Smoother and softer than Accendo, not as lively, tending towards a chocolaty texture on palate. Nicely balanced, already ready. 91 Drink -2029
2018 Beckstoffer George III Cabernet Sauvignon (Rutherford) Very restrained nose. Silky, smooth palate, very fine texture, you can hardly see the tannins at first, then very slowly some dryness becomes evident on finish. Black fruit aromatics are just beginning to emerge. The fine, almost tight, texture reminds me a bit of St. Julien. 94 Drink -2037
2017 Missouri Hopper Cabernet Sauvignon (Oakville) Slightly spicy black fruit aromatics on nose, a bit closed at outset. Deep palate with intensity of black fruits joined by a gritty texture. Not as fine as George III. Cassis comes out on finish. Aromatics become more obvious in glass. 93 Drink -2036
The winery has had a roll call of famous consultants since it was founded in 2002 when Cliff Lede left his construction business, Ledcor, to go into wine production. Bordeaux was his passion as a wine collector. David Abreu planted the vineyards, Michel Rolland consulted on winemaking, Philippe Melka was winemaker. Today Cliff’s son Jason is involved, with Christopher Tynan as winemaker.
Cliff Lede has two major plots in Stags Leap: the 40 acre Twin Peaks Vineyard surrounds the winery on the west side of the Silverado Trail; the 20 acre Poetry Vineyard is higher up on the other side of the Silverado Trail. There’s also a 20 acre vineyard at Diamond Mountain in Calistoga. The winery is state of the art, with an optical sorter, gravity feed operations, tronconique tanks for fermentation. It’s just up the road from the tasting room; the road is called Abbey Road after Cliff’s other passion, rock-‘n-roll.
Focus is on Cabernet Sauvignon and blends, with several cuvées from different vineyards. The style for the Cabernets has backed off a bit. “Until 2016 we were more into big powerful wines, now we are picking a bit earlier, not restricting yields quite so much, and getting lower alcohol, more towards elegance,” says winemaker Christopher Tynan. The Stages Leap Cabernet Sauvignon, which is the largest production run in reds, has all five varieties. It comes almost entirely (95%) from the estate, mostly from the main vineyard plus a little from younger vines at Poetry, and a little fruit purchased from neighbors. There’s about 7% new oak and it ages on gross lees for 22 months. It’s supplemented by smaller cuvées from Diamond Mountain, Howell Mountain, Songbook (a blend from Thorevilos and Madrona Ranch), and Beckstoffer To-Kalon. Claret and High Fidelity are Bordeaux blends.
Going from the Stags Leap cuvée to single vineyard blocks, the black fruit aromatics become darker. Beckstoffer To Kalon is relatively understated for the vineyard, promising elegance as it ages. “For Beckstoffer To Kalon we are always the first to pick the vineyard,” Christopher says. The flagship Poetry Cabernet Sauvignon (100% varietal) is always the least accessible of the Cabernets when it is young. Brooding and reserved, it promises long aging. When will Poetry be at its peak? “We don’t know yet,” Jason says, “but the reckoning is that you should wait ten years before starting Poetry.” The first vintages of Poetry were more approachable and fruit-forward; recent vintages seem to be more tightly structured.
The largest production run is the Sauvignon Blanc, a blend from Rutherford and some other vineyards, including some Sémillon, aged two thirds in barrique. It has frequent battonage and offers a smooth palate with stone as well as citrus fruits. A separate range, called FEL, comes from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from a 42 acre vineyard Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley to the north.
Oenotourism is encouraged by a range of tastings (vineyard blocks are named after rock-‘n-roll songs, and classic rock plays in the tasting room), and the Poetry Inn is a boutique hotel above the Poetry Vineyard.
An updated profile will be published in the 2022 edition of the Guide to Napa.
2019 Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc (Sauvignon Blanc 85%, Sémillon 12%) Attractive fresh nose is poised between perfume and herbaceous. Balance on palate is smooth and silky. Ripe fruits shows stone as well as citrus fruits and aromatics at end add complexity. Very successful, especially considering the scale of production. 14.1% 90 Drink -2024 2018 Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon (Cabernet Sauvignon 76%, Cabernet Franc 2%, Malbec 3%, Merlot 13%, Petit Verdot 6%) Faintly piquant, faintly pungent nose promises development to come. I get a sense of pungency from Merlot. Typical for the area: rich but not overwhelming. Tannins are ripe and round, palate is smooth and pretty much ready to drink, black fruit aromatics are coming out. This is very good for the scale of production. 14.9% 90 Drink -2028 2018 Stags Leap District Magic Nights Cabernet Sauvignon (92% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Petit Verdot, 3% Merlot) Each year there is a special cuvée blended from two plots. 2018 is Magic Nights, a blend of Nights in White Satin (the eastern part of the main vineyard) and Magic Bus (a lower block at Poetry). Darker black fruit aromatics than the Stags Leap Cabernet Sauvignon, trending towards black cherries and blackberries, but not too obvious. More sense of structure here with tannins just showing a faint bitterness and drying finish. Quite a fresh impression and nothing too overt. I would give this another year. 91 Drink 2022-2034
2018 Sunblock Cabernet Sauvignon (Cabernet Sauvignon 76%, Merlot 13%, Cabernet Franc 4%, Petit Verdot 7%) A blend of 4 varieties only just above the minimum for Cabernet Sauvignon, this has Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc from Madrona and Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot from Thorevilos. Some aromatic lift to the nose, spicy notes, hints of herbal pungency, more forward and overtly fruity than To Kalon, but also more obvious structure with some bitterness from the tannins. Blackberry and other black fruit aromatics are more obvious than To Kalon and this is certainly a big wine, very intense and concentrated. It needs at least another 3 years. 93 Drink 2023-2040
2018 Beckstoffer To Kalon Cabernet Sauvignon Aromatics come out on nose with a touch of piquancy. Very good balance between the black fruits, which are deep and black but not flashy, and the structure of firm ripe tannins, with little dryness evident on finish, which picks up in the glass. Faintly smoky as the aromatics evolve in the glass, a little flattening from the tannins, and then gravelly impressions on the finish. When the tannins resolve the fruits should show as quite elegant; this is relatively subtle for To Kalon, and it’s potentially the most subtle of the Cabernets. 14.4% 94 Drink 2022-2037
2018 Stags Leap District Poetry Cabernet Sauvignon This is always the least accessible of the Cabernets when it is young. Quite stern nose shows some rocky impressions. Reserved on the palate, real sense of restraint, aromatics not coming out yet, touch of tobacco but otherwise stern on gravelly finish. Blackberry fruits in background. Coiled spring waiting to unwind. 94 Drink 2026-2045
Poetry 2014 Stags Leap District Poetry Cabernet Sauvignon
Some development shows with tertiary notes of gunflint. Smooth on the palate as tannins have begun to resolve, allowing fruits to come out a bit, but still quite tight. Blackberry fruits still see a little brambly. May be in a closed phase as the palate seems to have tightened up a bit by comparison with younger vintages. 94 Drink -2040
Arriving at Hyde Estate in Carneros, there was a cool breeze blowing, and it felt about 10 degrees cooler than it had when we left St. Helena farther up the valley 30 minutes earlier. True to form, the wines showed more of a cool-climate impression than those from up valley.
Larry Hyde started with 50 acres for growing grapes in 1979 and built Hyde Vineyard into one of the most prestigious sites in Carneros, selling grapes to more than 40 producers. In 2005 he purchased an apple orchard close by, and in 2006 he planted it to Pinot Noir. “The project was launched specifically with making wine at the estate in mind,” says Larry’s son, Chris. There are 3 acres of Pinot Noir and 15 acres of Chardonnay. More recently he purchased another vineyard in Carneros which is planted with Syrah, Merlot, Viognier, Cabernet Franc.
The winery (small and practical along bare-bones warehouse lines) was built from 2014 to 2017, when Alberto Rodriguez came from Patz and Hall as winemaker. Pinot Noir is by the far the best known variety here, but there are also varietal estate wines of Chardonnay, Merlot, Syrah, and Viognier. The wines age for 11 months in barriques with 25% new oak. The Chardonnay is rich with sweet fruit impressions and notes of exotic fruits, the Pinot is quite aromatic with earthy red fruits backed by crisp acidity, and the Syrah has impressions of the light style of the Northern Rhône.
Larry is also a partner with DRC’s Aubert de Villaine, a relative by marriage, in Napa’s HdV Wines, which sources its grapes from Hyde Vineyard. The project started in 2000, and the winery was built in 2003, a practical building with the appearance of warehouse. It’s located just outside downtown Napa, at the start of the Silverado Trail, and is surrounded by a 24 acre vineyard, which is managed by the team at Hyde, but the grapes are sold off. The focus is on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
Chardonnay is barrel fermented, with 15-20% new oak, and no battonage. It stays on the lees for 11 months and then spends 4 months in stainless steel. It’s 60-70% Wente and the rest is Calera by clonal origin. The style is one of the most Burgundian I have encountered in Napa; in terms of comparisons with Burgundy, there are mineral impressions like Puligny Montrachet when young.
Pinot Noir comes from two sources: Ysabel is the exceptional cuvée that’s not from Carneros, but comes from a 1400 ft high plot on Sonoma Mountain. It gives a much stronger impression of cool-climate origins than the Ygnacio Pinot Noir from Carneros, which is rounder and more aromatic and quite Beaune-ish. The Syrah, Californio, has rounded fruits supported by elegant tannins much in the style of the Northern Rhône. Bonne Cousine is a Bordeaux blend, varying quite a bit with vintage, but typically a bit more than half Merlot and a bit less than half Cabernet Sauvignon.
Grapes sources are similar for the two producers, but the wines are distinct, although Chris Hyde says, “HDV has had an impact on our own winemaking. We farm for the site, we get a little more acid.” The Chardonnay at HdV has a more eurocentric style while at Hyde it shows the typical richness of Carneros, the Pinot Noir from Hyde is more distinctly cool-climate than the Ygnacio from HdV, and the Syrah from both has an elegance far more like the Rhône than like Shiraz from the New World.
An updated profile will be included in the 2022 edition of the Guide to Napa.
Tasting of Hyde Estate 2017
Chardonnay Rich with sweet fruit impressions and notes of exotic fruits, Attractive and approachable, with the fruits becoming more linear as it develops in the glass. 89 Drink -2024
Pinot Noir Quite aromatic nose shows red cherries and raspberries, with strawberries in the background. Crisp acidity follows to hints of earthy strawberries on palate. The aromatics are quite earthy, but the overall impression shows freshness of Carneros, emphasized by some tea-like tannins on the finish. 90 Drink 2022-2030
Syrah Somewhat stern nose leads into crisp palate with light impressions of the Northern Rhone. Tannic structure shows in slight touch of bitterness on finish, with some tea-like tannins giving impression of striving for ripeness. Fruits round out nicely in glass and seem increasingly like the Northern Rhone. The palate is moving in an attractively spicy direction. 90 Drink -2028
Tasting at Hyde de Villaine
2018 Chardonnay Fresh nose with subtle fruits shows a resemblance with Burgundy, with hints of minerality that point towards Puligny Montrachet. Nice density, well balanced fruits and acidity, some hints of citrus and gunflint. Very fine balance. 92 Drink -2029
2015Chardonnay Faint notes of exotic fruits show development with touch of asperity. Fresh palate shows greater density and viscosity compared with 2018, rounder and richer. The exotic hints become fainter in the glass as the palate moves more towards minerality. The texture and overall impression reminds me a little of Corton Charlemagne. 91 Drink -2025
Ysabel (Sonoma Mountain) 2018 Pinot Noir There’s a definite cool-climate impression, with the earthy strawberry fruits showing a touch of asperity. The dry earthy finish gives this quite a lean character. (Fruits come from a site at 1400 ft elevation.) The vineyard is surrounded by redwood trees, and it’s possible that this is response for a cedary impression on the palate. 89 Drink 2023-2031
Ygnacio 2018 Pinot Noir Reflecting its origins in Carneros, rounder and more aromatic than Ysabel. Ripeness on the palate shows against a touch of young tea-like tannins drying the finish, with greater sense of viscosity. Still needs more time, and may become generous and elegant. It seems quite Beaune-ish. 90 Drink 2022-2032
Californio 2016 Syrah Nicely rounded impression on nose follows through to elegant palate supported by fine, silky tannins. Purity of fruits really comes through. The elegance and fine texture remind me of the Northern Rhone 14.3% 91 Drink -2031
It’s all change at Stony Hill, an icon in Napa Valley for its early production of Chardonnay. Fred and Eleanor McCrea purchased the property in 1943 and planted their first Chardonnay in 1947. The first vintage, produced in a lean style without malolactic fermentation, was 1952. Even today, after a half century of changes in fashion, it remains one of Napa Valley’s best-known Chardonnays. although its style lives up to the name of the winery, stony and lean, the antithesis of the caricature of rich, fat, buttery Chardonnay that more often typifies Napa. “Fred’s objective was to produce Chardonnay that would do well after ten years,” says Laurie Taboulet, the estate manager since Gaylon Lawrence bought the estate in 2020. Jamie Motley came as winemaker from Pax Mahle.
The address on St. Helena Highway North is deceptive. The estate is actually an enclave within the Bale Grist Mill State Historic Park (the winery was founded before the park), several miles up a steep, twisting road to the winery, which at 800 ft elevation is in the center of the vineyards, which rise up to 1500 ft, all above the fog line. This may not be the most isolated winery in Napa Valley, but it’s certainly a contender. Soils have more clay around the winery, and become volcanic and quite ferrous as indicated by a redder color as you go up to the top. The woods were burned by the Glass Fire but the vineyards escaped.
Long time winemaker Mike Chelini used short elevage and the wine was bottled the June after harvest. Wine was aged only in used barriques, and MLF was blocked. Jamie plans to use longer elevage and to age wines in a mix of demi-muids and foudres of Austrian oak from Stockinger, as well as some cement. New oak will remain light, but may be a bit higher during the transition period.
The style of the Chardonnay is distinctly reserved, more stony than mineral. The herbal edge of young vintages gives an impression of austerity. There isn’t much development in the first couple of years, but after about six years the style opens out, and the herbal character of young vintages segues into a sense of garrigue, releasing more mature flavors inclined towards a citrus spectrum, with a delicious delicacy. This for me is the peak. Flavor intensifies and the palate becomes more viscous for another few years, until the wine begins to tire.
The Cabernet Sauvignon (either 100% varietal or close to it) is an eye opener, one of the very few Cabernets in Napa where I might hesitate in a blind tasting as to whether its origins were New World or European. The first year was 2009. Even a young vintage such as 2017 shows a distinctly restrained style, silky and elegant (if I wanted to compare with Bordeaux, St. Julien would come to mind). Ten years after the vintage, the style of the 2010 shows the tension of mountain tannins without the aggression that characterizes many mountain Cabernets. These are very much food wines, and left me persuaded that Stony Hill has the potential to produce Cabernets that will rival its reputation of Chardonnay.
An updated profile will be included in the 2022 edition of the Guide to Napa.
Tasting Notes of a Chardonnay Vertical
2018 Stony with austere impressions on palate. Very dry impression with just a faint lift at end. Flavor variety hasn’t started to develop yet, but there’s a sense of a coiled spring waiting to unwind. 13.5% 91 Drink -2030
2017 Palate hasn’t really started to develop yet, acidity melds into hints of piquancy as it opens in the glass. The austere stony character really lives up to the name of the vineyard. A slightly nutty aftertaste promises complexity to come. 13.5% 92 Drink -2030
2015 Fresh nose still offers some herbal impressions. Development shows as softness on palate, tending to salinity rather than minerality, with a real impression of delicacy. The palate has really come into balance now with mature citrus fruits and a faint viscosity. This is the perfect point of balance, retaining freshness but showing development. It’s the roundest of the vintages of the past decade. 13.0% 92 Drink -2025
2012 Distinctly more golden color than younger wines. Greater sense of viscosity cuts the austere impression on palate, bringing more roundness with age, and a sense of the garrigue has come with development. Intensity picks up in the glass. 89 Drink -2023
Tasting Notes on Cabernet Sauvignon
2017 Fresh herbal impressions on nose retain the familar house style from the Chardonnay. This impresses as a restrained Eurocentric style. Fruits are already showing flavor variety and are balanced by light silky tannins. I would not have difficulty in believing this smooth style came from Bordeaux. 93 Drink -2031 2010
2010 Fruits show as more red than black on nose, with faintly piquant developed character. Silky palate shows maturing red and black fruits, showing the restraint and tension of mountain fruits but without the tension of mountain tannins. This is very much a food wine. 13.5% 91 Driuk -2033