Tag Archives: Cabernet Sauvignon

Winemaker Interview – Sally Johnson-Blum of Pride Mountain Vineyards

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On your next trip to NorCal Wine Country, please make the picturesque drive to the top of Spring Mountain and visit Pride Mountain Vineyards. It will be well worth the effort to plan ahead and arrange the required tasting appointment. The winery and vineyards are beautiful. The attendants are friendly and engaging and the wine is amazing. Of the true “super-premium” Napa wineries, Pride has consistently produced top quality wines at comparatively good value. This winery is definitely on the higher-priced end of the Napa scale. So, join them if you are comfortable in the $75+/btl. range. My wife and I have a special connection to Pride. The winery represents more than one epiphany in our lives’ wine experience…

Our first visit many years ago commemorates our initial understanding of value in this price category. The absolute commitment to quality is demonstrated in every level of these organizations and the sensory experience brings your enjoyment of wine to an entirely new level. If you are ready to take the plunge and begin your research into this price range, you will soon come to understand why Pride holds a special place among these producers.

That same visit initiated our palate’s introduction to “mountain fruit” wines (red varietals grown in steep vineyards at higher elevation). It was a match made in heaven and we have consistently sought out similar producers since. If you are looking for complex, highly structured Cabernet Sauvignon with black fruit flavors, look for estate wineries on the mountain ridges overlooking Napa Valley. Pride is one of the very best of these producers.

That trip also introduced us to “ultra-premium” Merlot. Previously, we had thought of Merlot as cheap, easy drinking wine. We spent a half-day at Pride on that visit. I won’t go into all the details, but the attendant made sure we wouldn’t forget the experience. The Pride Vintner’s Select Merlot represents the very best of the Merlot that the United States has to offer. Plum and blackberry in front, luscious amazing mouth-feel with high acidity and tannins… drink one of these 6-8 years after release and be prepared for something special. We had an experience that day that my wife and I still talk about. That trip celebrated our introduction and graduation to a category of very special wines.

A Game with Your Friends

There are a couple of outstanding Merlots made on Spring Mountain and I really enjoy converting our friends…. I hear from so many Cab Sauv drinkers the mantra of how terrible Merlot is… then I break out my Coravin and give them a taste of the way U.S. Merlot can taste. Proud to say, I am batting 1000 with conversions. Merlot CAN be excellent outside of Bordeaux, France.

The Interview

I had been looking forward to interviewing Sally for months. It was difficult to coordinate our schedules, but in the end I am glad we were able to settle on a date at the winery, rather than an interview on the phone. The setting brought back good memories of our several enjoyable visits in the past. Sally was very welcoming and she was kind enough to give us more than an hour of her time.

I struggled a bit with how to approach this piece and finally arrived at the answer… skip the typical qualifications and background. Sally is a classically trained winemaker and all that brings with it. I decided to explore the story of the 2011 vintage year in Napa that she shared with us that day.

2011 Napa Vintage: The Gamble

I found this story fascinating and an insight into the stress some years can bring to farmers/growers with any crop. 2011 was an unusually cool year in Napa. The fruit was not ripening on schedule and the producers in Napa were bracing for a sub-par year. Syrah, Zinfandel, Merlot and Cabernet Franc can produce fairly good fruit in cooler years, but Cabernet Sauvignon has specific needs and tends to require hitting just the right conditions to produce a high level of quality. So, it was a real nail-biter for producers focusing on this varietal that year.

2011 Napa Harvest

The typical harvest timeline was approaching and across Napa producers were starting to agonize over the decision to come…

This story requires a little background on the importance of harvest timing in a cool vintage year. Red grape varieties in particular are very dependent on total hours of sunshine for development of not just sugars, but also flavors and structure. If you pick too early, Cab Sauv can be thin, vegetal and very rustic. If you pick too late, it can be too alcoholic, flabby and taste like grape juice. If a grower waits too long, they also run the risk of the rainy season coming early to Napa. What happens if it rains during harvest? First, the berries actually absorb the water and the rain affects the concentration of flavors in the wine. Second, (and the scary one) the moisture can induce the propagation of mildew. Mildew can easily destroy half of an entire year’s crop.

The Pride Mountain Decision

Other growers started harvest… but Pride decided the fruit in their vineyards didn’t meet their standard of quality… yet. Everyday, the decision had to be made to harvest early and suffer a poor vintage, or wait and potentially experience the financial pitfall. Then it started to rain. The forecast was for continuing rain and fog that week. Sally and the Pride team took the gamble and made the decision to wait it out.

After a couple days of rain the clouds cleared on the mountain top, while fog continued below in the valley. This reprieve gave them enough sunshine to dry the grapes and add more ripeness to the crop. Unfortunately, many growers below made the wrong call and suffered the consequences. Some wineries settled for fruit harvested too early that year, or sourced fruit from outside the area. In addition, many growers and estate wineries suffered crop loss, due to the rain and fog.

Gutsy Call

I tasted their 2011 Cab Sauv on that trip. It wasn’t their best vintage, but Sally worked with the fruit (instead of fighting it) and produced a high quality wine. Compared to many other Napa Cab Sauv’s we tasted from this difficult vintage, it was a masterpiece of winemaking. I was very impressed. Sometimes a little luck (and a well thought-out gamble)… makes you look awfully smart!

Pride Mountain Wine Selected to Accompany this Post:

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2002 Pride Mountain Vineyards Merlot Vintner Select Cuvee Mountain Top Vineyard

Tasting Note:

The nose is full of rich, plummy aromas and a touch of alcohol. Still fruit-forward, with candied plum and black cherry in front with rich dark chocolate dominating the mid-palate and finish. The tannins were almost completely resolved, but there was still good acidity. The mouth-feel was soft and velvetty. The wine held-up well for 13 years in the bottle and was a pleasant accompaniment to the braised short ribs in balsamic reduction. This Merlot was a couple years past its prime, but still very enjoyable. The structure supporting the wine had started to weaken with age, confirming my past experience with well-made Bordeaux Blends from Napa hitting their prime drinking window in the 7-10 year range. A beautiful well-made wine, with the fruit holding-up, after so much time in the bottle.

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Winemaker Interview – David Ramey of Ramey Cellars

Ramey Logo

Winemaking Aristocracy

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David Ramey, his family and staff were tremendously welcoming.  Hospitality is one of those seemingly inconsequential things, but a little goes a long way…  This visit was about more than the wine and more than the education.  I will remember the interview, because of the way my wife and I were greeted, made to feel at home and offered a real opportunity to know the winery, its product and the people.  I came away from the nearly two hours spent together, with a rather in-depth understanding of the philosophy and style of winemaking at Ramey Cellars.

Personal History

David has been working in wine production for decades and today he is one of the most well-respected elder statesman of the Northern California Wine Industry.  He received his MS in Enology from UC Davis in 1979, before it had developed its reputation as one of the leading wine science institutions in the world.  David then did his harvest internships with Jean-Pierre Moueix in Pomerol (Petrus) and later Lindemans in Australia.  His career began with a position at Simi Winery, where he would become winemaker, as with Matanzas Creek, Chalk Hill, Dominus and Rudd later, before starting Ramey Cellars.  David leverages almost 40 years experience in producing premium and ultra-premium wines in the product he brings to market today.

Winemaking Philosophy

David and I discussed many winemaking strategies.  He helped me to understand how a consumate winemaker can begin with a vision and use it to drive the final product.  I found his viewpoint fascinating. Let me provide a peek into contrasting David’s approach with current trends…

Younger winemakers looking to make premium wines seem to be gravitating towards small production estate wineries.  They are trying to emulate the classic “winegrower” concept that is seen often in Europe. I like the word “winegrower”.  It acknowledges the role of terroir, and fruit quality WITH winemaking experience and skill.  As a Sommelier trained in the last five years, this seems to be the current direction formal wine education is taking us.  After speaking with David, I am not so sure this is entirely the correct path.  For those that have been following my blog, in a previous post, I explained the three primary philosophies I have identified in winemaking:  1) Focus on growing the BEST fruit,  2) Focus on the Chemistry,  3) Focus on the winemaking technique (see more at this link: LINK).   David is both feet in with #3.

Focusing on Winemaking

David works with the viticultural consultant Daniel Roberts to partner with his fruit producers.  He and Daniel source the fruit from several of the oldest farming families in the Napa-Sonoma area, depending on the quality they produce.  This is to ensure he can spend his time focusing on the winemaking, rather than the vineyards.  Initially, I was trying to reconcile this thinking with my training, then I tasted through the wines and it became clear, but more on that later.

Without pulling any punches, David gave me a run-down on fact versus fiction – Ramey style.  In his mind, the current winemaking trends in the area were nothing more than recycled techniques and old-world ideas being introduced again as new.  We walked through a long discussion reviewing them, such as:  extended maceration, automated spray pump-over, extended aging on the lees.  It was hard to argue with his interpretation, after the historical perspective provided.  He also was very dismissive of the “better wine through chemistry” concept, although he does utilize some of the technology.

The success of his approach is completely driven by his vision for the final product.  When you have as much experience as David, deciding how to accommodate vintage variation is a challenge, but not a show-stopper.  In 2011, Napa had late rains and a very cool year causing many vineyards to either fail to fully ripen, or mold. I tasted a few of the Ramey 2011’s and they were very good.  This was unlike some other prestigious Napa estate producers (like Shafer) that did not fair as well in 2011.

A conversation with David is a lesson in winemaking.  Tasting the result is his validation.

Ramey Wines

The approach is classic and very Old World. The emphasis is on finesse and balance.  The result is exceptionally refined wines.  The red Bordeaux varietals and Chardonnay stand out.  The couple of others seemed a bit awkward.  David focuses on natural yeasts, extended contact with the lees and a soft touch with the wine during production.  He has very traditional ideas about oak aging.  The result is very classically beautiful wines with great mouth-feel and structure.

Ramey Cellars is also very traditional in other ways.  The majority of their production is sold through the 3-Tier Distribution System…  less than 15% is Direct-to-Consumer.  Another major difference from current trends in premium Napa-Sonoma wineries.  Although, they are currently planning to build a Consumer Tasting Room that is due to open in 2017.  Perhaps an indication that wine & spirits distribution has been increasingly ineffective at promoting individual wine labels?

The Tasting Experience

Tasting so many well-made wines was an amazing experience.  I won’t go through each individually, but try to hit on the highlights.

Chardonnay

The latest releases of his single vineyard Chardonnays were all excellent, in the Burgundy style, with good structure and fabulous mouth-feel.  The Hudson Vineyard was a richer style, better as an aperitif.  The Ritchie Vineyard was more acidic and would be excellent with salads and seafood.  We tasted a couple of the 2005 Chardonnays.  Wow, did they age well.  The Ritchie Vineyard was down right gorgeous.

Cabernet Sauvignon and Blends

The 2012 Cab Franc was a beautiful surprise, soft and spicy with great lift.  The Pedregal Vineyard Cab was the best of the 2011’s in my opinion.  All of the 2005 Cabs tasted were excellent.  The bottle-age produced a 2005 Oakville Cab that was rich and beautiful, without losing its elegance.  David offers an Old-World approach to his reds, with just enough fruit on the attack to make the wines a fusion of Old and New World wine styles.

Conclusion

If the opportunity arises, try these wines.  Many were very good, but David’s Chardonnays are truly exceptional.  Make the effort to seek them out… if you are interested in sampling what the Napa-Sonoma area can produce when a complete focus on balance and elegance is applied.

I hope I have been able to convey how special the whole experience was and how appreciative I am of having had the opportunity to engage a truly inspired classical winemaker!

(Click on the image below to view a full-size version)

Ramey Tasting R1.jpeg

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Winemaker Interview – Todd Anderson of Anderson’s Conn Valley Vineyards (ACVV)

Winemaking: a Lifestyle, or a Profession?

Spending a brief hour with Todd Anderson introduces you to a world that spans decades of Napa Valley winemaking history, introduces you to big personalities, samples a unique view of the industry and paints the Napa wine scene with the broadest of brush strokes.  This interview produced so much material, I found it challenging to capture in one piece.

World from Todd’s Window

Todd relishes his reputation as an industry “bad boy” and fashions an anti-hero image in a world of successful traditionalists.  He shrugs off the big money and stiff, formal world of European influenced wine culture and views himself as the ambassador to the every-man… spreading the idea that wine can lead to a richer, fuller life.  In Todd’s world, life is all about good food and wine, sharing it with good people and enjoying the lifestyle that accompanies it.  Grasping how this view affects his perception of the industry is a key to understanding him.  He is a complete contradiction, as he maintains an unpretentious, down-to-earth persona amidst the culture of big-money clients… tagging along to share his “wine provides the best life has to offer” experience.  Todd has taken up the gauntlet, determined to convince the average wine drinker to justify a personal wine cellar and teaching them how to build it… with the idea that wine can add fun to your life until the day you die.  You don’t hear the word “fun” very often associated with wine.  I thought it was an interesting choice of words.

Formative Years

Todd was introduced to fine wine by his father, learning to appreciate Bordeaux and Burgundy from his collection.  Although he developed a palate for these wines during his younger years, it didn’t occur to him that it could be a profession until much later.  He began his career out of college as a trained geologist working in oil and gas exploration.  After being promoted to a desk position, he found himself longing for the outdoors and the idea of farming occurred to him.  He had grown up on a farm and understood the profession and the lifestyle.  So, finding 40 acres of prime Napa Valley land 32 years ago, Todd took the plunge.  With a 7 year interest only loan, he planted vines and started growing wine grapes, planning to farm only.  As the vineyard matured, he made the decision to produce wine and fortunately, his first Cabernet Sauvignon release was a critical and financial success.  As the financial pressures began to ease, he began to hit his stride.

Early Napa Years

According to Todd, those early years were the golden age of Napa winemakers.  The big growth in U.S. wine consumption and Napa’s quality reputation was just building.  Many of these wine personalities are considered iconic today, but during this earlier period, they were just fellow winemakers building the Napa brand.  Todd reached out to many of the early Napa winemakers for advice, crediting Robert Mondavi with a major role in his development.  In those early days, Napa had not yet found its soul and most winemakers were imitating the best practices from Bordeaux, France.  Todd felt the Napa wines produced back then were more austere, lower in alcohol and the fruit was consistently harvested (in his words) “under-ripe”.  He made the decision to ignore these French sensibilities and credits himself with being one of the first few to start embracing the big extracted fruit, high alcohol Napa style that has become typical of California.  We discussed Robert Parker championing this style and how a few early Napa winemakers and a single critic succeeded in changing the wine world forever…

Winemaking Style

As a geologist, Todd’s first approach was to evaluate the soil and determine the effect on the vines at root level.  He found his acreage to have roughly 5 different soil types.  This led to the planning for five separate vineyard blocks. As he experimented with the vines, he developed the optimum trellising strategies and vine orientation (to the sun), while choosing the appropriate dry-farming versus irrigation approach needed for each block to produce premium fruit.  Later he came to understand, vineyard management was only one piece of the puzzle to producing premium wines.

Todd’s description of winemaking reminds you of a conversation with a race car driver, or pro hockey player – literally, whatever it takes.  I had a difficult time accepting this thinking initially.  Modern wine training walks you through a kind of formula, based on historical evidence and the wine chemistry being taught in recent years at UC Davis.  Todd’s approach had me thinking back to my training quite a bit.  I came to understand his view: producing the best quality in any industry will eventually be recognized.  Todd has a personal philosophy about life he calls the 50-40-10 rule: 50% of people are happy skating through life, 40% are satisfied with no personal motivation… it is the final 10% that are driven to succeed.  The commitment to competition with that 10% is what generates success.  This attitude requires constant experimentation and examination, searching for strategies and techniques that produce superior quality.  He feels the flavor profile of any vintage can be adjusted through vineyard block blending and winemaker manipulation.  This winemaker-centric view of wine production focuses on the winemaker’s experience and knowledge as the key to understanding how to produce the balance, structure and mouth-feel consistent with a superior final product.  Todd spends very little time in the lab, although he admits to doing some testing, he says it rarely dominates his decision making.  He never makes the harvest timing decision solely based on brix, or acidity level.  He sets wine conventions on its ear by harvesting at pH levels of 4.0, or higher in some years.   Extremes (low, or high) don’t faze him, if he can taste the potential for balancing the fruit extraction, acidity, alcohol and texture in the final product.  Todd attributes two secrets to the success of the ACVV and Ghost Horse labels:

  1. He is always tasting… from harvest to barrel aging. That is, tasting with the experience and knowledge to work with each vintage, making the right decisions at each step along the way…
  2. The key to a successful wine is focusing on mouth-feel.

I would agree that industry standards for lab data as a justification for harvest timing too narrowly confines the wine style of the finished product.  Taste a vertical of Anderson’s Conn Valley Cabernet Sauvignons.  You will experience this philosophy in action.  When I asked Todd about the importance of allowing vintage variation in the wine, he said it is only important in how it impacts the winemaking decisions that follow.  This led to the topic of the much-maligned 2011 Napa Valley Vintage and a surprising discussion…

Wine Distribution

Todd’s description of his experiences with the 3-Tier Wine Distribution System in the U.S. amazed me once again.  The extent to which our politicians feel the need to interfere with wine and beer sales is hard to fathom.  2011 as a cooler year in Napa, produced a difficult vintage and horrible press.  The critics were all publishing “no buy” recommendations for 2011 Napa Wines and driving weak demand in the marketplace.  As a result, spirits wholesalers with exclusive contracts to distribute ACVV wines to specific regions (by state statute) were passing on the 2011 Napa vintage, but would not allow the sale of product through alternative distribution partners.  How do you run a business when an entire year’s inventory is sitting in storage?  I understand that demand drives our economy, but for a winery, survival depends on customer loyalty to work through these more difficult years.  2006 in Napa was characterized as another poor vintage year by the critics and I loved many of the wines produced that vintage… if the winemaker was willing to adjust their style and work with what the fruit could provide.  I have tasted many lighter, elegant and silky textured wines from that vintage – Ladera’s Cabernet Sauvignon from 2006 comes to mind.  Unfortunately, I have not tasted ACVV wines from 2006…  This whole discussion leads to the importance of the Direct to Consumer (DtC) Channel for many wineries.  Wine clubs and email lists are the life blood of wineries selling in this $50 – $100 per bottle range.  One of the important benefits of the DtC channel is the loyalty and personal investment in the brand these customers tend to have.  If the 3-Tier System does not change, Todd may be forced to distribute all his wine via the DtC channel someday.  I would guess many other wineries are facing a similar decision…

Another of Todd’s passions is the super-premium category.  He felt the need to prove that he could succeed in this top-end price range.  For many years, he disagreed with the “old guard” in the Valley regarding accessibility to these “cult” wines by the public. He was of the opinion that these producers did no service to the Napa Valley area wine community.  While the exclusive nature of these wines is understood and all are on supply allocation at a cost that is prohibitive for most… he believes the public should still be able to taste them on-premises.  This viewpoint eventually gave rise to the motivation for establishing the super-premium Ghost Horse label.  Its success was a surprise for many in the industry, but for Todd, he never had a doubt.

This idea of public accessibility to super-premium wines pushed our conversation to the wine bar business model.  His frustration with this segment of the industry was very evident.  How can the industry graduate mid-tier buyers to the premium wine category, if these wines are not available to taste?  I agree whole-heartedly.  If I could taste Sassicaia, Mouton-Rothschild, Margaux, Harlan Estate, etc. at $50 – $100 for a 2 oz. pour…  I would do it on special occasions and I think many others would too.  The misguided idea that wine bars and restaurants need to cover their bottle cost with the first glass is idiotic…  It was then that I brought up the Coravin.  Todd says ACVV was one of the first wineries Coravin approached to test the device.  We both agreed, the Coravin solution should be changing the wine service industry and were perplexed by the slow adoption.

Wine Marketing

Todd is all about people and the wine experience.  He does not just make wine, he lives the wine lifestyle.  He enjoys making friends and opening his world to different experiences and ideas and of course, all of this is enhanced by the shared enjoyment of wine.  He offered an impassioned justification for spending a percentage of income on wine and the importance of buying at least a ½ case at each purchase (sampling as it ages).  He then stepped up the intensity a notch and spoke of the life-changing affect a well-stocked cellar can have on quality of life.  I have to admit, this guy is a very effective spokesman for the wine lifestyle.

He enjoys travel promoting his wines and meeting people at the winery.  Todd insists wine tasting appointments at the estate be friendly, welcoming and make wine accessible to the general public.  He has had visitors cancel their plans and spend the day at the winery, getting caught up in this “life is better with wine” experience.  Having been to one of these tastings, I highly recommend a visit. It is well worth your time.  The wine is very good AND Todd is an interesting fellow.  If you enjoy Todd’s approach, he recommends David Arthur Vineyards as another winery in Napa Valley that embraces a similar approach to the public.

Reputation to Uphold

He admits to playing up the reputation a bit, but mostly this is just who he is.  The flamboyant style is enhanced by his big toys inclination, the car racing and penchant for long hours of partying.  In fact, he touched on an obscure group of winery owners that decided to drop out of the Napa Valley Vintners Association, because it promoted exclusivity and a high-brow image.  They call the group GONAD, an acronym for the “Gastronomic Order of the Nonsensical and Dissipatory”.  One day soon, I need to do more research on this group (future piece?).  Drop GONAD into Google and you will get a few tid-bits…  Todd has a high regard for this rebel cause and frowns on the stuffy, French aspirations of many of the producers in the valley.  Providing a relaxed, unique wine experience is his goal at the winery and is also his view of the American Wine Experience.  He absolutely loves the fact that his name has been the title of some of the longest running threads appearing on Robert Parker’s bulletin board.

Conclusion

There was more.  I didn’t dip into the stories much…  One day, I will have to sit with Todd, sample his wines, discuss more of his past and explore his passion for wine in greater depth.  Todd, keep up the good fight!  Someone should be changing the perception of wine in the U.S. – wine is NOT only for special occasions and formal dinners!

P.S. – As I do more of these interviews, I have come to learn, it is the people who market wine that create the aura surrounding the product.  Many winemakers in Napa are also growers and ultimately farmers at heart: down-to-earth people missing the pretentiousness of the service side of the industry.  I really enjoy these people and look forward to meeting many more!

 

An Anderson’s Conn Valley Wine Selected From My Personal Cellar to Accompany the Interview

I popped this to coincide with the interview and here is my tasting note:

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2007 Anderson’s Conn Valley Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon

California, Napa Valley

Wine Tasting Note:

Drank over a four hour decant.  Nose after pour was full of menthol and alcohol that almost masked the other more subtle notes of black plum, currant and tobacco.  The acidity was very high… a definite food wine, needing the accompaniment of red meat, or ribs.  The texture filled the mouth with chewy tannins that were soft, but a touch rustic.  The wine was definitely a good candidate for an extended decant.  After one hour, it was still showing big alcohol and menthol – overpowering a black cherry and raspberry palate peaking through.  After three hours, the alcohol had blown off and subtler notes appeared.  The fruit had moved forward and the plum and currant were now dominating.  The menthol became just a subtle after-taste.  The mid-palate was full of tobacco moving to a long finish of dark chocolate that was a touch bitter and lasted forever…  This was a premium Napa Cabernet showing its chops.  For those that love the Napa Cab experience, this is an excellent example of one of the best.  Another 1-2 years in the bottle and this wine will be hitting its peak.  A suggested optimum drinking window: 2016-2018.

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Winemaker Interview – Jim Duane of Seavey Vineyards

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.

Hillside Vineyards

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.

The Experience

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.

History

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.

Interview

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.

Winemaking Style

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:

128020

 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.

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