Wine – Liquid Sunshine
Napa Estate Wineries Along the Mountain Roads
After 20 years of my wife and I working our way through the 600+ wineries in Napa Valley, we have learned a thing, or two. One of those hard-earned gems is: if you want to find consistently big, complex Cabernet Sauvignon, follow the Napa mountain roads. While the valley floor locations like the Rutherford and Stags Leap areas (AVA’s) produce great cabs too, the most structured wines with highly concentrated flavor profiles are found along the roads to the top of these mountains: Veeder, Spring, Howell, Diamond and Atlas. Our original Seavey Vineyards visit was while on one of these mountain journeys up to Howell Mountain.
I ran into Seavey wines about five years ago through the purchase of their 2000 vintage Signature Cab from an online retailer. I mention the source in passing, to highlight the additional avenues available for discovery of great wines. When you understand your palate well enough to purchase wine without tasting, sources such as online retailers, flash sites, brokers, and auctions become very viable options. Follow this link for more info on the topic: “What a Waste of Wine & Money?” When you are able to identify and clearly describe wine characteristics you enjoy, it becomes easier to choose wines from critics’ notes and reviews. These hillside locations produce a fruit flavor profile that seems to be a good match for me and it may be for you too. The vineyards are planted on very poor soils, making the vines work very hard to ripen the fruit. The result tends to be highly concentrated flavors.
Wines seem to be catalogued in my brain based on memory of place and experience. I enjoy this quirky aspect. When visiting wineries, this idea brings me closer to the whole wine concept of terroir and helps me think of each wine as a living thing with its own evolution. Understanding the “feel” of an estate winery is important, if you want your tasting experience to be memorable. Your first impression at Seavey provides a welcoming atmosphere of farm animals and dogs with beautiful vineyards as a backdrop. The world just seems a little slower here. The employees you meet are relaxed and welcoming. This is quite different from the busy, large production wineries on the Napa Valley floor. The second you drive up, you get that family winery feel. Appointments are necessary, but anyone can call to join them for a paid tasting and potentially get a chance to meet Jim, or Art & Dorie – one of the current second generations owners.
The founders of the winery and first owners were Bill and Mary Seavey. The original vision for this property purchased some 30 years ago was to create a semi-retirement ranch/farm escape destination. Bill was a corporate lawyer out of San Francisco looking to slow down. Having done some legal work for a local Napa winery, he arrived at the idea of purchasing some land in a scenic spot where they could raise a few animals and grow wine grapes. When you visit the property now, it still reflects some of that original founding idea. This is a very down-to-earth organization, at a very rustic and scenic site.
Quality vs. Quantity
Seavey produces less than 5,000 cases of wine per year. Tiny production compared to the big brands, but in the world of commercial wineries, this means an opportunity to focus on premium quality. When the focus is not on vineyard yield and volume of wine produced, each vintage can dictate its own best vineyard management and harvest strategy. This allows Jim to follow his passion… focus on the vineyards, improve the quality of the fruit and help nurture the wine to express not only location, but also reflect the quintessential, big Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon the winery is known for.
Jim and I had an opportunity to discuss winemaking, the winery and his life recently and this is the story.
Jim’s Background Before Seavey
Jim is one of those lucky people who had a pretty clear picture of where he was headed at an early age. Growing up in Utah, he was exposed to an outdoor lifestyle and was taken by it. So, when his father encouraged him to follow his passion, it moved him toward a profession that would allow him to work outdoors. His love of plants and botany then led him to a BS in Biology from Gonzaga. The undergrad years had him immersed in a party lifestyle and experimenting first with brewing his own beer and then later homemade wine. Conveniently, this pursuit also seemed to be of great interest to the women in his life at the time. It offered plenty of motivation to continue exploring winemaking as a profession. It was during these years, that Jim also came to realize winemaking could offer him the path to the outdoor life he coveted.
After graduating, he escaped for a few years, enjoying some youthful adventure working in the vineyards down-under in New Zealand – before returning to buckle-down and complete his degree in Viticulture and Oenology at UC Davis. Jim credits Alan Tenscher (winemaker at Franciscan) as being his first real inspiration and mentor. His time spent assisting Alan with research on Pierce’s Disease was where he found his passion for vineyard management. Jim spent his winemaking internship at Robert Mondavi and then a lengthy apprenticeship at Stags Leap Cellars, before accepting the position as head winemaker at Seavey.
Seavey has been producing big, bold Napa cabs since their first vintage exactly 25 years ago. Jim joined the team as Head Winemaker in 2011 and has been committed to maintaining that reputation with a very specific eye on improving quality through improved vineyard management. Personally, I am a big fan of this kind of thinking. Jim is constantly tinkering with ideas to improve fruit quality. His current focus is canopy management. Pruning each individual vine to achieve just the right amount of leaf structure to shade the grape clusters. This is labor intensive, time-consuming work and one of Jim’s favorite activities at the winery. Jim’s fanatic attention to perfect sunlight conditions for each block of vines is what ensures the proper ripening of the Cabernet Sauvignon fruit and the development of varietally correct flavors. This is the same idea that led Galileo to coin his famous phrase 500 years ago: “Wine is sunlight held together by water” – or the similar title of this piece: Wine – Liquid Sunshine. Managing the leaf canopy differently in cooler, or more shaded areas and consequently adjusting harvest time for individual vineyard blocks can be a powerful tool in developing varied flavor profiles in the fruit. A similar diversity in flavors can also be achieved by managing the canopy differently in vineyard blocks with poorer soils, or those with varying water availability. Blending the fruit and/or wine made from different blocks can add complexity, but equally as important, it can also allow a more consistent profile from vintage to vintage. This technique can allow the winemaker to develop a “house style” for the winery by identifying individual characteristics of each block and blending the fruit each year to achieve the complexity and structure required. Seavey has 19 different blocks of Cabernet Sauvignon vines, all in varying growing conditions. Some wineries that perform this kind of block blending will call the resulting wines a “cuvee”. This is a departure from the “vineyard designate” philosophy that other wineries may employ.
Jim works hard to coax more concentration out of the fruit. When you are making a wine intended for bottle aging, one of the challenges is to create a fruit profile that can balance the high acidity and tannins needed for that kind of structure. Personally, I prefer wines where the winemaker pays special attention to texture during the “building” of a wine profile. Tannins can present in coarse, or fine profiles and have a big impact on whether a wine has the potential to be either velvety, or silky in texture as the tannins resolve in the bottle. I really appreciate that Jim has this in mind and is shooting for a “milk chocolate” consistency. According to Jim, Seavey is producing wines that should achieve their best presentation when bottle aged for 10 years, or more. Jim works with the well-known winemaker Philippe Melka as a consultant to the winery.
Marketing & Sales
Marketing is critical for small family wineries. When like Seavey, 80% of your sales are direct-to-consumer (source – Jim Duane), finding your audience is critical to success. Some small wineries struggle with this effort. Seavey was fortunate enough to be one of the early small production Napa producers, building a following with early big scores from Robert Parker, Jr. Although, today’s Napa has twice the competition compared to those early days and it has become even more important to understand the demand and continue to tailor product to capture it. Many wineries succumb to the allure of “popularizing” their flavor profile to improve marketability. Most that make that decision, do not succeed in changing their identity. Seavey has done a good job of understanding their core customer, but it will be important for them to stay in touch… 25 years of making wine represents generational changes and feedback will become more important than ever.
A Seavey Wine Selected From My Personal Cellar to Accompany the Interview
Caravina is Seavey’s second label. Intended to be somewhat more fruit forward, but still structured for aging. This wine was bottled before Jim became winemaker. I popped this to coincide with the interview and here is my tasting note:
2006 Seavey Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Caravina
California, Napa Valley
Wine Tasting Note:
This is a monster cab. If you are a big Robert Parker fan, this is his kind of wine. Initially, the nose was hot and a bit funky with a very closed flavor profile. For an 8-year-old cab, this wine is STILL drinking very young. After 3 hour decant… Much of the alcohol has blown off now, but is still present. The nose has plum, blackberry, a touch of herbaceousness and menthol. It has a very complex palate of typical Cabernet Sauvignon flavors – black fruit, leather, tar, graphite, dark chocolate and oak. The wine shows a very long bitter chocolate finish. The age has resolved the tannins somewhat and they are now medium-high, but still a bit grainy. The wine is very acidic and would be best drunk accompanying a rare steak. The texture is full, fleshy and soft. This needs more time in the bottle to come together. I am looking forward to popping the next bottle after several more years. This wine has plenty of structure to hold up into the next decade. A suggested prime drinking window might be 2017-2020.