The Successful Collector – By Julian Hitner ~ Napa Sub-Appellations II – case studies in respect for terroir ~ Saturday, January 21st, 2012

Julian Hitner

Julian Hitner

Wineries with a track record:

Back in October, I published a column on all fifteen sub-appellations of the Napa Valley, from ones as famous as Oakville and Rutherford to the lesser-known ones of the Oak Knoll District and Chiles Valley. The point of this exercise? To introduce wine collectors and enthusiasts to the idea that the notion of terroir—i.e. soil, geography, climate, and human intervention—does, indeed, have a place amongst the mindsets of Napa Valley winegrowers; that growing attention is nowadays being heeded to the well-proven concept that far better wine can be produced from specific regions, even single vineyards, than those crafted from anonymous Central Valley sources.

Diamond Hill Vineyards

And so, for the second part of my series on Napa Valley sub-appellations, I thought it worthwhile to examine three prestigious Napa-based wineries that seem to endorse the ideal(s) of terroir on a greater level than their peers, specifically within the framework of the existing sub-appellation system. The first one on my list? Diamond Creek Vineyards. Established by Al Brounstein (d. 2006) in 1968, the winery is effectively made up of four separate vineyards based out of the Diamond Mountain AVA. They are Volcanic Hill, Red Rock Terrace, Gravelly Meadow, and Lake. The speciality for each is Cabernet Sauvignon, accompanied by dollops of Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Merlot, and Petit Verdot. What I like most about these wines is how different they taste from another, with soil content playing a pivotal role in reflecting the remarkable diversity of terroir to be found in just a single sub-appellation. In fact, they are so different that it is virtually impossible to come up with generalizations when referring to them, other than that they are all powerful, well balanced, characterful, and insanely delicious. At the same time, they also seem to perform according to their origins; in the case of Spring Mountain, which seems to possess remarkably varied soils (volcanic in predominance), this means inescapable differences in texture, structure, and flavour profiles. FYI: Diamond Creek is currently represented in the Ontario market by Lifford Wine Agency, and the latest vintage of 2007 is nothing short of fabulous. True collectors’ wines, each bottle fetches $250 per bottle, but will reward proper cellaring like few other Napa bottlings.

Dunn Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon

The next winery is Dunn Vineyards. Founded by Randy and Lori Dunn in 1979, only two wines are made at this modest establishment. For our purposes, the one of note is the Cabernet Sauvignon-blend crafted entirely from Howell Mountain AVA grapes. Consistently one of the greatest wines produced in the Napa Valley year after year, it is unmistakably Bordelaise: elegant, moderate in alcohol, and sophisticated yet ‘upright’ in both breed and stature. Truly, to produce such a wine, one might be considered compelled to have respect for terroir, which, in the case of Howell Mountain, means taking advantage of the cooler conditions to allow for better balance and acidity—both hallmarks of Dunn wines. In Ontario, Dunn Vineyards is represented by The Small Winemakers, with the ’07 fetching $96.95. A wine that almost seems underpriced when considering the quality.

Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cask 23

Finally, the last Napa-based winery I wish to discuss is none other than Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, one of the most well-known premium wineries in Napa. Founded in 1970 by former political science professor-turned sage winemaker Warren Winiarski (who sold in 2007), there are few other wineries in Napa whose bottlings reflect the terroir of their sub-appellation so adroitly: silky, powerful, with wonderfully fragrant aromas. In large part, the wines are crafted from two vineyards within the Stags Leap District AVA, arguably the most elegant valley-floor sub-region in Napa: the S.L.V. and Fay Vineyards (both have their own bottlings), with the flagship Cask 23, a profoundly refined, powerful Napa Cabernet Sauvignon-blend, constituting the best grapes from both. In Ontario, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars is represented by Profile Wine Group, with an asking price of $275 for the 2005 Cask 23—costly, though a stunning collector’s wine no matter which way you look at it.

Heitz Cellar Cabernet Sauvignon

Of course, there are many other premium-oriented Napa wineries embodying a firm commitment to, though perhaps in various degrees, the ideals of terroir, ones that have continuously and successfully crafted collectors’ wines worth seeking out. Why, just off the top of one’s head, one can think of a few: Araujo, Dominus, Harlan, Heitz, Opus One, Pride Mountain, Screaming Eagle, Shafer, Spottswoode, and Viader. Granted, each of these wineries will have their own take on exploiting terroir, yet all of them have consistently demonstrated a knack for creating wines emblematic of their origins, of their place in the Napa Valley.

Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon

The question remains, however, is have such wineries yet to outnumber their counterparts, wineries that pay only ‘token heed’ to terroir. In my opinion, the answer is no; the wineries mentioned here are still in the minority. But things are changing fast. And what with climate change, combined with the desire for ever-more powerful, concentrated wines, such change cannot come soon enough. After all, even a über-concentrated, mighty Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, tastes better with hints of its Oakville origins (91% To Kalon Vineyard)—quite happily, the ’06 tastes precisely that!

Click here for a few gems from the 21 January 2012 Vintages Release along with several others