Who are the winemakers on the crest of the next wave of Napa Valley chic? Which names should wine enthusiasts—those with deep pockets, broad connections and the willingness to cellar wines for many years—look for?
Napa Valley’s reigning red winemakers continue to hold consumers spellbound. Even in an economic downturn, bottlings from Harlan, Colgin, Screaming Eagle, Dalla Valle and Araujo are still highly allocated and sales are still strong. Their arrival at the top tier pushed established frontrunners like Mondavi, Chateau Montelena and Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars into more competitive positions than the ones they had previously enjoyed.
|Today, a new crop of wineries is striving for a position among the current cabal of Napa Valley’s elite Cabernet producers. The challenge for these newcomers is to make great wine, and make great wine consistently. These new contenders will need to show they’ve got the staying power of their predecessors.|
And the key to that power? Terroir. “Consistency of quality is only possible when you own your own vineyard and have complete control of the way it’s farmed,” says Jayson Woodbridge, who made a splash earlier this year with the initial release of his wine, Hundred Acre 2000 Cabernet Savignon (95 points, $100).
|Above, Steve and Linda Goldfarb, whose fortuitous acquisition of prime vineyard acreage led to their well-received Cabernet |
The 39-year-old vintner owns 10 acres of vines in St. Helena. He works with winemaker Philippe Melka to produce a wine of uncommon elegance and intensity.
“It’s not only about consistency of quality, but also of style,” Woodbridge says. “I could conceivably make great wine every year from different vineyard sources. But to create a wine style that exemplifies my property’s terroir from year to year, I need to work with grapes that always come from that vineyard.”
Vintner Jeff Smith echoes Woodbridge’s sentiment. He makes Hourglass Cabernet Sauvignon (2000 vintage, 95 points, $85) from grapes grown on his 4-acre vineyard a few miles south of Hundred Acre. “I used to think that the concept of terroir was overplayed,” Smith says. “Now I know that even 10 or 20 feet of distance between various vine rows can make a big difference. Because of the lay of the land, we get very uneven ripening. Last year, we had to pick in four different stages from September 17 through October 20.”
About five miles north of Hourglass, you need to know where to look in order to spot Switchback Ridge’s gnarly Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petite Sirah vines, which are tucked into a slight rise at the foot of the Vaca Mountain range just off the Silverado Trail. Some of the Petite Sirah vines were planted 50 years ago, but the Cabernet and Merlot are only 10 years old. However, each variety produces wines of extraordinary intensity—a testament to both terroir and winemaker Bob Foley’s renowned abilities in the cellar. (Foley also makes wine for Hourglass, Pride Mountain and his own label, Robert Foley Vineyards.)
“I’m not sure why our wines taste the way they do,” says John Peterson, 59, who, with his 34-year-old daughter, Kelly, co-owns Switchback Ridge. “I think it’s the rocky, light soil. We also a get good airflow at the mouth of the canyon, which draws a breeze in the summertime that cuts down on the heat.” Peterson’s vines seem to find a natural balance, producing a modest three tons of grapes per acre without the need for crop thinning.
|“A little piece of real estate can go a long way,” says Hourglass co-owner Jeff Smith. “Our zip code is Cabernet Central.” With neighbors such as Grace Family, Colgin and Duckhorn, Smith’s 4-acre vineyard is indeed blessed with a prime location.|
The 40-year-old vintner’s family moved to Napa Valley when he was one year old. In 1975, Smith’s father built the Wine Country Inn, next to the Hourglass vineyard. The senior Smith also bought an adjacent parcel and planted Zinfandel grapes, which were sold to Caymus and Dunn.
Smith worked in various marketing capacities at Robert Mondavi Winery in the late 1980s. When his father died in 1989, his mother wanted to sell the vineyard, but the budding vintner prevailed upon her to let him manage it. Unfortunately the Zinfandel vines succumbed to phylloxera two years later.
“We brought in Dr. Mark Kliewer, who was then dean of viticulture at U.C. Davis, to look at the property,” Smith recalls. “Mark told us we had a unique microclimate in the ‘pinch’ of the Napa Valley hourglass, where the valley is narrowest. That’s where we got the name.”
Cabernet Sauvignon replaced the old Zinfandel vines. “I didn’t start off trying to make a cult wine,” Smith says. “I just wanted to make a wine that didn’t suck!” To that end he prevailed upon his old friend Bob Foley (who also makes Pride Mountain and Switchback Ridge wines) to help him out. It was not their first collaboration; the two men played in a rock band called The Primates in the early 1980s.
|Since 2000, Hourglass has produced about 600 cases annually. Smith hopes to make as much as 800 cases in future. He’s still got a day job, however, as a founding partner of Sweden’s Precis vodka. Smith runs sales from an office just a few miles away from his St. Helena vineyard. Smith’s wife and partner in Hourglass, Carolyn Duryea-Smith, runs daily business operations for their wine endeavor from a corner desk.|
Some winemakers acquire premium terroir through serendipity. Vintners Steve and Linda Goldfarb found their niche by purchasing a vacation home at the edge of the famous 60-acre Hayne Vineyard. Their home site came with a half-acre of Cabernet Sauvignon, which first inspired their home-winemaking project. That first barrel, made in 1997, ultimately led to the construction of a beautiful stone winery in their backyard. More importantly, a lot-line adjustment with a neighbor offered the budding winemakers an opportunity to buy five acres of coveted land directly next to the Hayne vines.
“We know from a century of winemaking history that this area produces outstanding wines,” Steve Goldfarb notes, “and we intend to nurture our vineyard in such as way as to bring out its best qualities.” They did just that with the initial release of the Anomaly 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon (93 points, $65), made by winemaker Amy Aiken.
You can see Anomaly’s compact vineyard from Terra Valentine’s 35-acre perch on Spring Mountain several miles to the north. Terra Valentine’s vineyard hugs the hillside in a conical embrace that offers sun exposure from three different directions during the course of the day.
“Being perched on this knoll at 1,000 feet altitude gives us more afternoon sun than some other mountain vineyards,” says Terra Valentine winemaker Sam Baxter. “It’s also cooler here at night than it is higher up the mountain.” The vineyard offers 14 different microclimates; the fruit is picked separately and produces distinctively different results after fermentation. These differences are easily recognized when the young wines are in barrels prior to blending and bottling.
|“They still make wine in Iran,” says Khaledi. “It’s kind of like the way it was in the United States during Prohibition. The best wines are made from the Shiraz grape and grown in the Khollar region just outside the city of Shiraz. A Shiraz from Khollar is kind of like a Cabernet from Napa.” In a nostalgic gesture, Khaledi has named his Shiraz vineyard block “Khollar.”|
Trained as an engineer, Khaledi had a career in construction until, in 1976, at age 30, he emigrated from Iran. He rebuilt his life in Los Angeles, where he and his brother-in-law bought a small grocery store. To say the store prospered is an understatement. Today Khaledi owns KVMartco, a 22-store Southern California supermarket chain with some 1,500 employees.
Even when he lived in Iran, the vintner had a passion for wine, which he literally brought with him to America. He still has bottles from his original collection that include Chateaus Lafite Rothschild and Latour from 1906 and 1920. Ten years ago, his love of great Bordeaux led him to look for a winery property of his own in France, but the French tax and inheritance laws made it difficult for Khaledi to buy property. He shifted his search to Napa Valley, where, three years later, he met vintner George Altamura, who was ready to sell his winery and vineyard. The deal was done in one meeting.
After extensive renovations and replanting, Khaledi has now created his own signature winery. As he shows a visitor around his vineyards and winery construction project, the vintner can hardly contain his excitement and enthusiasm. “Today I’m walking in my dream,” he says.
In the cellar, he was fortunate to hire Steve Devitt as winemaker. Devitt had made wine directly next door at Signorello Winery until a year prior to Khaledi’s purchase of George Altamura’s property. Devitt left Signorello to work in the Central Coast, but the long-time Napa Valley resident missed his home and decided to return to Napa. “The timing was right,” Khaledi recalls. “Steve was making Darioush wine in 1998 when we were still in escrow.”
The collaboration between Khaledi and Devitt has yielded a series of exceptional wines. Unlike most of the other contenders featured here, Darioush wines are available in over 30 states throughout the nation as well as in a handful of nations overseas. Production of the winery’s first-tier wines currently hovers around 7,000 cases.
|Everyone who visits Darioush’s tasting room is struck by its exotic air. French pop music plays softly and bottles of Shahpar, a late-harvest Sauvignon Blanc, line the tasting counter, which also is set with little bowls of salted pistachios.|
“In Iran, we always offer pistachios to our house guests,” says Darioush Khaledi, the soft-spoken, genteel owner of Darioush winery. “Shahpar,” which means “reigning butterfly,” is also his wife’s name. Indeed, Khaledi has imprinted much from his native Persian culture onto his winery in Napa Valley. Within a year the new pyramid-like winery, constructed from an orange-hued Iranian stone called straw travertine, will be finished. It is the same stone used to build the renowned Persian Persepolis, the palace and capital of King Darioush some 2,600 years ago.
Most of the 100 acres farmed by Khaledi are dedicated to red Bordeaux grape varieties. However, he is also committed to Shiraz, which he says is the true Persian name for Syrah. He has planted 15 acres of that variety, and the resulting first release looks very promising.
Also perched at vertiginous altitude are the grapes that go into Vinoce wines. Vinoce owners Lori and Brian Nuss farm a 24-acre parcel of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc at the north end of Mt. Veeder. “Our little valley sits between 1,400 feet and 2,000 feet [above sea level],” says Lori. “As the crow flies, we’re actually closer to Spring Mountain than we are to the other wineries on Mt. Veeder.
“It’s an unusual location,” she adds. “The soils of the upper and lower vineyards are quite different, but all the vineyards are terraced, with a southeast exposure.” Yet neither Lori nor Brian knows exactly why the Cabernet Franc that makes up the majority of Vinoce’s blend is so outrageously rich and complex. “I guess that’s the magic of terroir,” the vintner offers.
At the southern end of the Napa Valley floor, a few miles north of the city of Napa, Darioush Khaledi is making exceptional wines. A work in progress, his 19,000-square foot winery is currently being renovated. Cabernet is king at Darioush, but Khaledi also makes Shiraz, Viognier and Chardonnay.
Khaledi has planted 15 acres of Shiraz on his property. The vineyard is planted on shallow soils that lie atop solid bedrock, which Khaledi feels is a key determinant in his wines’ quality. Unlike his Shiraz, Khaledi’s Cabernet Sauvignon is grown not only on his valley floor vineyard, but also on Mt. Veeder to the west and Atlas Peak to the east. The blend of mountain and alluvial soils may be the key to his Cabernet’s great complexity and elegance.
Regardless of their vineyard locations, all of the contender vintners benefit from a common asset: consistent terroir. Without it, a skilled winemaker can still make good wine—perhaps great wine. But for collectors, a sense of place leads to long-term interest in the bottles that fill a wine cellar.