Feature Story

Napa Valley Cabernet
Built to Age with Grace

In 2007, I rolled into Napa, a UC Davis grad who had dabbled for a few post-university years in the Seattle sommelier scene, and still fresh faced and earnest in my mid-twenties. My goal was full immersion into harvest life: to roll out of bed, bleary-eyed, before sunrise, my hands stained by cabernet, my skin dusted by long strolls through the vineyards. The subsequent five years did provide me ample opportunity to do just that; however, as anyone knows who has ever worked a day of harvest in vineyards or in a winery, the grind turned out to be much more monotonous and laborious than what I had imagined. Working in varying capacities in the lab, cellar and vineyards at Mondavi, Araujo and Abreu, I picked up some technical knowledge and appreciation of the wine-making process. But what really broadened my scope of vision was the wine that I tasted during the off hours, at home and with friends and colleagues.

The iron-rich soils of Diamond Creek’s Red Rock Terrace (foreground) face the white volcanic ash across the creek on Volcanic Hill. The iron-rich soils of Diamond Creek’s Red Rock Terrace (foreground) face the white volcanic ash across the creek on Volcanic Hill.
I can trace the beginnings of my Napa Valley cabernet bias back to one such tasting, when I found myself at a table with several open bottles of 1997 cult cabernet. These were the wines that changed the course of Napa cabernet sauvignon. The proverbial Helen of Troy wines that “launched a thousand ships,” all destined to land 100-point scores. These wines had been buoyed by volatile acidity and just enough residual sugar to soften the edges on release. With ten years of age, they were falling apart in front of us. It was more than disappointing—we had been expecting beautiful wines, but we were tasting zombie wines, flabby with bruised fruit, driven into the ground by volatile acidity and alcohol. More than one person in the room that day worked with producers who were actively pursuing this winemaking style, and suddenly the room became uncomfortably silent.

For many of us who grew up in California, Napa Valley cabernet was our first encounter with wine. There’s a mythology surrounding the giants in the industry, the first families of wine and the icons of cabernet. And the wines themselves are front-loaded with fruit, with muscular tannins and velvet-Elvis plushness. It’s easy to see how this style of cabernet has leapt to the forefront over the past 20 years. But after that tasting, and after I moved to Los Angeles and took a job at Spago, I became disenchanted with these wines. At Spago, Master Sommelier Chris Miller encouraged me to focus, instead, on Burgundy and riesling, and I was happy to assent.

Now on a new team, in the LA office of Wine & Spirits, I recently found myself facing down several long flights of current-release cabernet sauvignon from Napa Valley. Armed with pen, paper and a tiny bowl of crackers, I took a deep breath and sighed. It was 78 degrees outside and the last thing I wanted to do was take on a lineup of broad-shouldered and bruising cabernets. But over the course of eight weeks, 1,500 wines (150 of those cabernet sauvignon) and many, many tiny bowls of crackers, I came face to-face with wines that both supported and shattered my bias against Napa Valley cabernet. So I decided to drive north and test some theories about what was going on in the vineyards, wineries and minds of the winemakers behind the wines that made me do a double take.

Classicists present Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon without excess or artifice. Grown well, it can live for decades, though it may not have the “wow” factor of often short-lived cult wines.
Arriving at the Robert Mondavi Winery, on the west side of Highway 29 in Oakville, there’s a sense of quietness to the property despite the constant stream of visitors who pass under the Mission-style arch and peer into the rows of vines. The view to the south and west is all prime benchland, and it may be the winery’s most remarkable asset—440 acres of the historic To Kalon vineyard.

It had been almost ten years since I last saw Geneviève Janssens, Mondavi’s director of winemaking. Still, she greeted me warmly, with a kiss to each cheek and a heartfelt smile that made my visit feel like a homecoming. I knew this property well, having spent the 2007 harvest in the lab, running analyses, pulling samples and sneaking out to the To Kalon Vineyard whenever possible. I’d gotten to know how the old vines interact with the gravelly clay-loam soil and appreciated the reverence with which Janssens’s team tends to their future.

Janssens uses fruit from those vines to make wines that might not have the knock-you-over-the-head “wow” factor of her neighbors’ cabernets, but hers will last at least ten years (or longer) in bottle, thanks to lower alcohol and higher acidity. Back in the cellar, she poured me her 2015 To Kalon Reserve. You know that feeling when a certain smell or a few notes of a song snap you back to a time and place? A second or two with that 2015 brought me instantly back to a 1998 Mondavi Reserve I tasted in 2007. Both wines shared a sense of delicacy and brightness, with red fruit and lilac aromas, and a silky freshness in the balance of tannins and acidity. Classic, direct and a stark contrast to the languishing 1997 cult beasts of the aforementioned tasting.

I had a similar reaction visiting Heitz Cellars, tasting wine from another classic Oakville bench vineyard—though the Heitz Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet is distinctive in a completely different way. It shares the same bright line of acidity, here with aromas marked by eucalyptus and mint, and flavors of black currant and raspberry leaf. Joe Heitz made his first vintage of Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet in 1966, becoming a pioneer for the movement of single-vineyard bottlings of cabernet in California. At the time, the May family was farming 12 acres in Oakville, and has since expanded to 34 acres (the vineyard, like many in the valley in the 1990s, was afflicted by phylloxera and replanted). May’s small-berried cabernet vines grow on an alluvial fan flanked by towering eucalyptus trees, just west of Highway 29 in Oakville.

Joe Heitz passed winemaking duties on to his son, David, in the late 1970s, who later trained Brittany Sherwood, the current winemaker. Though the family recently sold their interest in the winery, Sherwood remains committed to maintaining Heitz’s style—fermentation in stainless steel, a year in large, neutral American oak casks followed by three years in French oak barriques. The wines do not undergo malolactic fermentation—an unusual omission in red winemaking—which helps account for their sense of freshness as they age. The May family still owns and farms the vines for this wine, the vineyard a scant six-minute drive from To Kalon. Though the eucalyptus trees have some impact on the scent, Martha’s Vineyard cabernet shares similarities to Robert Mondavi’s Reserve: both present cabernet without excess or artifice, allowing the site to show through.

My first experience with Diamond Creek’s wines was a taste of the 2007 Gravelly Meadow. Standing in the cellar at Spago, Chris Miller handed me a glass of a mystery wine. I’d expected something European, but it was clearly Napa cabernet sauvignon in its deep ruby color and full-throated tannins. Even so, the sleekness of its brambly fruit and woodsy structure rattled some of my preconceived notions of how Napa Valley cabernet “should” look and taste.

The Diamond Creek wines came into existence at least 30 years ahead of their time, thanks to the radical and single-minded vision of Al Brounstein. In the 1960s, cabernet sauvignon had not taken hold as the King of Napa Valley, and wineries and vineyards were largely contained on the valley floor. In 1967, a 47-year-old Brounstein arrived in Napa Valley, semiretired from his career in pharmaceutical sales; he was armed with a healthy obsession for all things French and the conviction that cabernet’s true potential could be found in the hills.

That same year, Brounstein purchased 80 wild acres along Diamond Creek, and with the help of 20-year-old Sergio Canchola, proceeded to clear a portion of the land on Diamond Mountain. In doing so, he discovered three distinct sites that would become Diamond Creek’s estate vineyards.

Brounstein’s stepson, Phil Ross, showed me around the vineyards, including Red Rock Terrace, seven acres of dusty red soil laced with iron that face north towards Volcanic Hill, a stark contrast of fluffy white-grey volcanic ash (its eight acres are remnants of an eruption at Mt. Konocti eight million years ago). A short walk around the bend brought us to Gravelly Meadow, five acres of vines nestled into the stony soils of an ancient riverbed. The scent of the air at Gravelly Meadow is brambly and dusty, with the creek bringing a fresh, wet leafiness to contrast the grit and earth of the sun-warmed soil. Though I’d not been here before, I recognized the scent. It smells exactly like the 2007 I had fallen in love with at Spago. In fact, I could find traces of each of the Diamond Creek wines just by standing in the middle of their respective vineyards.

I later sat down with Boots Brounstein, Al’s feisty widow, who recalled how once, when asked why he didn’t just blend his fruit into one wine, Brounstein quipped that he would “maybe” blend his vineyards when Domaine de la Romanée-Conti blended theirs. She told me how, when it came time to plant his vineyards, Brounstein smuggled budwood from three of the five Bordeaux first growths into the country by way of Rosarita Beach, Mexico. When I ask her which first-growth plant material landed in the Diamond Mountain soil, all I get in answer is a coy smile and gentle admonishment that she has promised to take that secret to her grave.

Robert Mondavi Winery’s arch frames the To Kalon Vineyard, on the western benchlands of Oakville Robert Mondavi Winery’s arch frames the To Kalon Vineyard, on the western benchlands of Oakville

Consistency is a driving force for Diamond Creek. Canchola, now in his seventies, still works on the property, and Phil Steinschriber has been making the wines since the early 1990s. It’s not that there haven’t been changes to the style of winemaking throughout the years—Steinschriber has taken the fundamental brilliance of Al’s rustic, artisanal approach and polished it into a richer and more modern version of the Diamond Creek wines. Nonetheless, these wines still speak clearly of the soils from which they come: Diamond Mountain fruit has a lot to say when crafted by thoughtful hands.

Standing on the porch at Diamond Creek you get a clear view of what used to be the Von Strasser Estate Vineyard. Adjacent to Volcanic Hill heading east, composed of the same white volcanic soil, this south-facing slope currently looks starkly naked as its new owners prepare it for replanting. Rudy von Strasser is now based on the east side of Calistoga, where I drive to meet him at his new winery and tasting room. He arrives sporting the dirt-battered and sun-tanned armor of a vigneron, flanked by his two-year-old chocolate lab, Huckleberry.

Von Strasser doesn’t particularly want to talk about the 2015 sale of his estate vineyard—he sold it to a foreign investor who is building an uber-luxury resort and winery; the 2016 vintage will be its last bottling. He shakes his head and explains that he isn’t the type to look backwards; after all, he has several other vineyards that he will continue to use for his cabernets (he owns one of them; the rest are under long-term contracts).

In 1985, von Strasser worked the harvest at Château Lafite-Rothschild, an experience he credits with showing him that Bordeaux varieties can be powerful and long-lived without sacrificing elegance. In this spirit—and having farmed a range of parcels on Diamond Mountain—von Strasser developed a preference for picking early (around 23 degrees Brix, when possible), to preserve freshness in his wines and keep alcohol levels manageable.

Von Strasser cites another Bordeaux influence in his work with consulting winemaker Michel Rolland. He recalls how Rolland taught him to look for ripeness of tannins, isolated from ripeness of the fruit or elevated sugar levels. “Our palates have gotten trained to like certain sugar levels,” explains von Strasser. “More sugar is always going to taste better, so winemakers are missing out on making wines at lower Brix.”

Von Strasser was one of the earliest and strongest voices in creating the Diamond Mountain AVA, and though he now makes wines from other regions under a separate label, all of his von Strasser wines grow within the Diamond Mountain AVA. It is the shallow volcanic soils and the blue-fruited characteristics of the grapes here that keep him loyal to the location.

Tasting through the 2015s brings this loyalty into focus: vibrant shades of blue and red (tart cranberry, crunchy blueberry, fresh-off-the-vine marionberry) along with dark velvet tannins —the kind that come from being harvested at just the right moment. Savage, perfumed, savory and pretty—they are all impressions that keep coming up in my notes as we taste through the wines. These cabernets are remarkable for the balance they strike between mountain fruit and mountain tannins: elegant, strong and muscular without being hulking or huge.

My last stop in the valley is at Cathy Corison’s Kronos and Sunbasket vineyards, on the west side of St. Helena, halfway between Mondavi and Diamond Creek. When I arrive, the air is dusty and warm and the sounds of a bottling line are clink-rattling out the barn doors of Corison’s winery. Inside, the cool cellar is abuzz with activity, of which Cathy is the center. Corison began making wine in the late 1980s, but it wasn’t until 1995 that her dream of having land of her own became a reality.

“I want wines that can grace the table, speak of whence they came, and live a long and interesting life.”
—Cathy Corison
She and her husband found a seven-acre benchland parcel, destined, like so much of the rest of the valley, to be ripped out and replanted. So she made an offer based on the value of the land. It wasn’t until the deal was in escrow that she learned the vines had been planted on St. George rootstock. Many Napa Valley growers had shifted to AxR-1, a rootstock that “fruited much better and made great wines,” recounts Corison, “but it died.” On the other hand, St. George, as meager and uneven as its fruit set might be, has a much stronger resistance to phylloxera. Vineyards planted on St. George rootstock (such as Corison’s 1995 acquisition, which she named Kronos, as well as Diamond Creek and the “I” block in To Kalon, to name a few) survived and continue to thrive today.

In 2015, Corison purchased the Sunbasket Vineyard, clone 7 cabernet sauvignon planted in gravelly loam soil, located a stone’s throw from the Kronos Vineyard. André Tchelistcheff had planted Sunbasket in the early 1950s, and Corison had been purchasing fruit from the vineyard for close to three decades.

At the time of my visit, Corison had already been through the vineyards five times, suckering, tucking and pulling some leaves to create air and light in the canopy and fruiting zone. “It’s an infinity task,” she says, gesturing to the vines, “but controlling vigor affects flavors and ripening.”

Corison could replant Kronos to a higher yielding rootstock, get three tons an acre (still meager) and continue to make great wine. But that isn’t the point. The 1.25 tons that she culls from her old vines creates a vibrant cabernet, buzzing with energy as it unfolds in tones of red fruit and rose petals in the glass.

In a sense, Corison and these other producers stand outside of time in contemporary Napa Valley. There is no doubt that there are lovely wines being made with a modern “wow” factor: They come across as broad and seamless, their statuesque tannins reinforced by elevated alcohols. Many of these contemporary cabernets are harvested when the grapes have ripened past 28 degrees Brix, their extract tempered by the halting of fermentation just a touch shy of dry.

Corison’s intention is different. “I want wines that can grace the table, speak of whence they came, and live a long and interesting life,” she told me. Like Mondavi, Heitz, Diamond Creek and von Strasser, her wines share a classical intention. They don’t have to shout. Instead, they say, “Look at this. Stay and think on me for a while. I have things to say if you ask, and I will continue to have things to say for many years to come.”

Napa Valley Cabernet
Tasting Notes by Joshua Greene, W&S California wine critic

Corison 2015 St. Helena Sunbasket Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon
André Tchelistcheff originally planted this vineyard for Beaulieu and, three decades ago, Cathy Corison began working with fruit from the site, just north of her winery on the west side of Highway 29. She purchased the vineyard in 2015. This wine has the coolness of deep-rooted cabernet harvested at the right time. It’s full and lush, the flavors extending into a savory, red-fruited finish, meaty and rich rather than sweet. Its concentration doesn’t get in the way of its dynamic energy, which brings out fl oral notes and cool spice, lasting with gentle grace. (95 points, $175; 200 cases)

Diamond Creek 2007 Diamond Mountain District Gravelly Meadow Cabernet Sauvignon
The five acres at Gravelly Meadow are part of an ancient river bed, the coolest site of Diamond Creek’s three main vineyards. It produced a heady 2007, almost off-putting in its power at first. The flavors progress from the richness of new oak toward a grape-and-soil expression similar to the fruitiness of black mushrooms. It’s sleek, juicy and dark in tone, the finesse of the wine already making it delicious while the tightness of the underlying structure suggests years of development ahead. (95 points, $175)

Heitz 2013 Napa Valley Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon
This is a powerful vintage of Martha’s Vineyard, a huge wine following a graceful line, so it’s neither overwhelming nor oversaturated. It has the structural elasticity of 2013 in its tannins, a salty umami note that highlights the dark currant and green fig flavors. Joe Heitz made the first Martha’s Vineyard cabernet in 1966, from the May family’s vineyard in western Oakville, with a small-berried selection of cabernet that gives the concentrated fruit for this wine. (92 points, $250; 2,900 cases)

Robert Mondavi Winery 2014 Oakville To Kalon Vineyard The Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon
Supple and heady with the richness of Oakville cabernet, this is a plush, espresso-scented red. One taster described it as an “oak rocket with dark fruit inside,” the oak propelling the fresh raspberry and blackberry flavor. Winemaker Geneviève Janssens selects this wine from the vineyard that surrounds the winery, working with a range of blocks for this Reserve, including vines dating to 1974. (92 points, $172)

Von Strasser 2014 Diamond Mountain District Estate Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon
Rudy von Strasser sold his estate vineyard in 2015, a southwest-facing slope just east of Diamond Creek’s Volcanic Hill. And, as if the wine could share the wistful beauty of a swan song, my notes on the initial taste read “coffee and chocolate in heaven…red currant glow…” That’s not to say the wine isn’t powerful and intense, but it moderates that strength, detailing a stony mineral flavor, with freshness to shift the dark blueberry-skin chewiness of the tannins toward glowing red transparency. (95 points, $80; 768 cases)

This feature appears in the print edition of the Fall 2018.
Like what you just read? Subscribe now