Napa Diary Day 15: The Refinement of Screaming Eagle

By far California’s most famous (and expensive) cult wine, Screaming Eagle has a very discrete entrance off Silverado Trail with only the number to indicate the address. There is nothing remarkable to see across the slightly sloping vineyard, and winery buildings are workmanlike wooden structures without any of the flamboyance of the price of the wine.

Nick Gislason came as winemaker in 2010 and takes a pragmatic view to viticulture and winemaking. “We are a low-tech operation,” he says. Harvest is determined by tasting, not by technical details, although sugar levels and acidity are measured to have a record. The vineyard is divided into roughly 1 acre lots for picking, so there are about 50 different fermentations. This is an early ripening site, but even so, they are early pickers here, usually a week to ten days ahead of everyone else.

About half the vineyard was replanted in 2006, with the row orientation changed slightly, and spacing increased from 550-600 vines/acre to 2,300 vines/acre. Another 4 acres were replanted in 2014, and 2 acres in 2021, with wider spacing. It all depends what suits the spot. The proportions of the three black varieties in the vineyard, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot, have stayed the same.

Viticulture has moved to a no-till system. “If you mow or till, what do the insects have to eat except the vines,” Nick says, as we walk the vineyard, pointing to cover crops that harbor a variety of predators that prey on insects that might attack the grapes. There hasn’t been a tractor anywhere in the vineyard since October 2020.

Trials to eliminate spraying for mildew started with 2 acres in 2014 and have now extended to the whole vineyard. The vineyard has been fitted with a clever system for spore trapping for mildew. (It’s about the only example of anything remotely hi-tech in the place.) It consists of a spinning rotor that is coated with grease, which picks up spores. The rotor is sent off every week for DNA analysis, and spraying is done only if a density of spores is detected. There are 4 in the vineyard, placed at points where mildew pressure has been experienced previously, but Nick thinks that one would probably be enough. There has not been any need to spray this season.

Powered by a solar panel, the spinning rotor is coated with grease and catches mildew spores.

The winery (completed in 2010) is quite compact, with a fermentation hall and barrel room. There’s a mixture of wood and concrete fermenters, all in a conical shape, but Nick doesn’t attach much importance to the type of vessel. Almost everything is destemmed. There’ve been some trials with whole clusters, so there may be a tank with 10-15%, but this amounts to only a small proportion of the total blend. After cold soak for a week, fermentation now takes place with native yeasts. The blend is made after 15 months. Depending on the year, one or two barrels of press wine might be added to the blend.

There are two red cuvées. Screaming Eagle is usually 75-85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3-4% Cabernet Franc, and the rest is Merlot. Originally this was the only wine. But this comes from only part of the crop. Before Stanley Kroenke bought the estate in 2006, a large part of the crop, including most of the Merlot, was sold off, because the original winery had limited capacity. After the sale in 2006, they began to use all the crop. “We had the choice of changing the blend of Screaming Eagle, or making another wine with the Merlot,” Nick explains.

“We made a wine based on the Merlot from 2006 to 2011 and then decided in 2011 to release the wine.” The first release was a pack of two bottles each from 2006-2009, and it was called Second Flight. “But the name didn’t feel right since we were putting the same effort into the Merlot-based wine as we put into the Cabernet Sauvignon-based wine, so we changed it to Flight (in 2015). It’s an expression of a different variety.” Flight is usually 60-70% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc, and the rest is Cabernet Sauvignon. Production of Screaming Eagle and Flight is roughly equal.

The surprise when you taste Screaming Eagle, if you are not familiar with the wine, is that it does not at all fit the image of the typical Napa cult wine: big, bold, and powerful. Instead, what comes across most of all is the sheen of refinement. Supple tannins make it approachable even in the first few years, although its black fruit palate is quite reserved. Flight is more open, showing more perfumed, lifted aromatics, but shows the same house style of smoothness melding into elegance.

An updated profile will be included in the 2022 edition of the Guide to Napa.

Tasting the 2016 Vintage

Screaming Eagle
Sterner nose than Flight, with black fruit aromatics not so lifted and more in background. Smooth and elegant on palate, touch of tobacco on gravelly finish with hints of chocolate coating. Very supple tannins make it possible to drink already, but I would wait at least a couple of years. Tannins are very fine indeed and evidenced directly only by some residual dryness on finish. A fresh, restrained style, starting off relatively tight, but promising elegance and even delicacy as it develops.  95 Drink 2023-2040

Flight
Opens with slightly lifted blueberry and blackberry aromatics giving a smooth impression. Palate offers faint sense of tannic bitterness and some hints of tobacco at end. Nick Gislason describes fruits as floral; they are supported by good freshness. Already quite flavorful on palate. Overall quite a delicate impression for Merlot.   93 Drink -2031

Napa Diary Day 14: Restraint and Ageworthiness at Opus One

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.”

Opus One nestles into the ground

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.

The Reality of Appellations in Napa

In Napa for the Barrel Auction this weekend, I spent Friday afternoon at a series of tasting events organized by the producers of several AVAs. My objective was to determine whether I could see any specificity to Cabernet Sauvignon produced in the  top three appellations of the valley floor: Rutherford, Oakville, and Stags Leap.

The Rutherford Dust group of producers takes its name from the supposed quality of Rutherford: a dusty note in the wines. Whether this is real or is a marketing ploy has been long debated. “The tannins of wines from Rutherford give the sensation you get by running your hand backwards along velvet,” was a description by one producer. Things started out well at the Rutherford Dust group tasting. The first three wines, Alpha Omega 2009, Faust 2009, and Grgich 2008 all showed a similar quality to their tannins. I would not describe it as dusty, more as a sort of slightly sharp tang to the tannins on the finish, but it was a distinctive tannic grip. Then inevitably came some wines to spoil the pattern, Hall Excellenz 2005 (massive tannins), Flora Springs Trilogy (tight and elegant), and then Rubicon Estate 2008 (firm and furry). But with the exception of Peju 2008 and 2001, whose wines were distinctly more aromatic than the others, there was a commonality, with firm tannins giving the wines a classic impression across several vintages.

Things also started well in Oakville, where the first few wines all seems to fit a pattern where taut black fruits were supported by fine grained tannins that reinforced the impression of elegance. Nickel and Nickel’s Branding Iron and Sullenger Vineyard 2008s, Ghost Block Estate 2009, Kelleher 2007, Far Niente 2009 all supported a view that Oakville plays St. Julien to Rutherford’s version of Pauillac. Bond St. Eden 2006 was much more reserved, but generally conformed to the elegant style.But then Harbison 2009, Plumpjack Estate 2009, and Paradigm 2008 all displayed a much softer style, with more overt, opulent black fruit aromatics extending from blackcurrants to cassis.

In Stags Leap District I got much less impression of consistency. Several wines were very soft, forward, and approachable, with soft black fruits on the palate, supported by nuts and vanillin on the finish, with tannins noticeable only as a soft, furry presence in the background. Clif Lede Poetry 2009 and 2004, Stags Leap SLV 2008 and 1997, Pine Ridge 2008 were nice enough wines if you would like something to drink in the immediate term, but I was left wondering how it represents Cabernet typicity as opposed to Merlot or Syrah to make wines that are so fruit-forward and lacking in tannic structure. Shafer One Point Five 2009 showed Shafer’s usual ripe, aromatic style, while Clos du Val 2007 and 1997 showed a more traditional approach, with good acidity supporting firm fruits and the tannins showing a structure halfway between the Rutherford grip and Oakville precision.

Where am I left? There may be a typicity that distinguishes the tannins of Rutherford and Oakville if you let it express itself; I reserve judgment about Stags Leap. In any of these appellations, however, you can make soft, forward, fruity, wines with lots of nutty vanillin to bump up the appeal, using appropriate winemaking techniques. Caveat terroir.