What’s So Special About East Oakville? Soil.
In Napa Valley’s most distinctive wine subregion, dirt makes the difference.
The taste of blood. That’s how Kristof Anderson describes the saline, minerally tang that the red, volcanic soils of East Oakville give to Cabernet Sauvignon. He’s winemaker at Gargiulo Vineyards, whose vineyard is just west of the Silverado Trail.
You can see this dramatic landscape 500 feet up in the mountains at Dalla Valle, where the dirt is red, as are the rocks and boulders. You can see it next door, at Joseph Phelps’s Backus Vineyard, and much higher up the mountain, at Oakville Ranch’s estate.
Lower down the hill, it colors Tierra Roja’s little vineyard, just east of the Silverado Trail. Across the Trail, red earth and stones grace the vineyards of Harbison, Screaming Eagle, Rudd, Bond St. Eden and Gargiulo before coming to an end at PlumpJack, where an ancient avalanche of dirt ceased. There, you can see the soil change to the more alluvial browns of the Napa Valley floor.
The dozen or so wineries whose estate vineyards boast these red soils feel they have a special story to tell, but it’s not a story of unsought cult stereotyping, allocations and closed mailing lists. It’s dirt, beginning with how the red dirt came to be.
Jonathan Swinchatt and David G. Howell, in their book The Winemaker’s Dance (University of California Press, 2004), propose this theory: Millions of years ago, a catastrophic geologic event approximately 1,500 feet up in the Vaca Mountains caused a massive earthen collapse, which sent hundreds of feet of iron-rich debris cascading down the slopes.
As the hill leveled off at the valley floor, they suggest, the debris flow lost momentum and eventually halted, but not before littering a few square miles with coarse material that eroded into red clay loam. The color is the result of oxidized, or rusted, iron, a prime constituent of volcanic basalt.
The soil fascinates those who deal with it. “An interesting dirt! I never dealt with soil of that color,” says Armand de Maigret, Screaming Eagle’s estate manager. On a sunny day, the red glows with incandescence.
“When we cut the terraces for our vineyard and the fresh dirt was turned over, you could see this blazing, volcanic red [soil] from across the valley,” says Linda Neal, Tierra Roja’s proprietor. The Mexican field hands who helped develop her property gave Spanish names to the local vineyards they called ranchos. “They called ours Rancho de la Tierra Roja,” she says, which translates to red dirt ranch. Neal says that they decided to adopt the name in homage to the people who worked the ground.
Since at least Roman times, red dirt has been considered beneficial for wines, although exactly why is a bit of a mystery. “I don’t know if there’s a tie-in between red soils and vine quality,” says John Piña, a vineyard manager who has worked on many of the area’s vineyards, “but when you look at all the places with red soils, they’re my favorites for drinking red wine.”
A word on the wines
To see how East Oakville’s red dirt influences the wines’ character, it is instructive to look at Dalla Valle’s 20-acre vineyard, which resembles the inside of a glowing crater, surrounded on three sides by the collapsed Vaca ramparts. Dalla Valle’s winemaker, Andy Erickson (who resigned as winemaker for Screaming Eagle back in December 2010), believes the soil’s high iron content lends the wines “great minerality and good natural acidity.”
You can taste the minerality in Dalla Valle’s 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, from barrel. It provides a firmness, a groundwork for the fruit. And while the winery’s 2009 Maya Bordeaux-style blend, also tasted from barrel, is lusher, sexier and sweeter, that same firmness remains detectable.
In general, you’ll find East Oakville Cabernets and blends marked by luscious early drinkability, ripe fruit and tannins, savory minerality and alcohol on the high side, but not too high. Specific fruit flavors are, of course, dependent on the blend. More Cabernet will bring more blackberries and cassis. Cabernet Franc is very popular on the east side due to the extra heat, which the red rocks and soil accentuate. When it’s grown in overly cool locations, Franc can have a leafy green note that’s undesirable. The east side’s warmth keeps a touch of that herb, but fattens it up with cherries. Combined with caramelized new oak, the flavors can include chocolate.
That mineral taste and texture, what Anderson calls “blood,” is hard to put into words. De Maigret shies away from specific associations with iron, much less blood. However, he says the red dirt brings “a specific grain in the tannins,” grain being a good thing because it implies textural finesse.
Some wines, such as Bond St. Eden, are more overtly tannic than their neighbors. That’s partly attributed to house style, and also because the St. Eden vineyard faces north, “so it’s cooler than the surrounding area,” says estate manager Paul Roberts. Still, the typical East Oakville Cabernet will exhibit enough of that graininess to make it smooth and round, right out of the bottle.
In the early afternoon on a warm June day, Erickson and I are walking through Dalla Valle’s vineyard when, abruptly, a cooling breeze kicks in from the south. It comes up from Carneros via the Stags Leap District fairly consistently around this time every day. “If it was perfectly clear, you could see the [San Pablo] Bay from here,” Erickson says.
That cooling breeze is vital to counterbalance the second most significant terroir factor that marks East Oakville: heat. “It gets real hot over here, with the direct afternoon sunlight,” says Anderson. East Oakville catches the full brunt of the late-day sun, even as the cooler slopes of West Oakville (Harlan Estate, Futo, Far Niente, Bond Vecina) begin to be shaded by the wall of the Mayacamas.
“The difference east to west is dramatic,” says Heidi Peterson Barrett, who’s been the winemaker for five Oakville wineries, including Dalla Valle, Screaming Eagle and Showket, which was bought by Peter Michael in 2009. Its first new wines will be released in 2013.
In a heat spike, the results in the east can be catastrophic. “We lost 50% of our crop during last year’s  August heat wave, when the temperature hit 115 degrees,” says Tierra Roja’s Neal. The extreme heat was one reason (the infertility of the soil was another) why Napa Valley vintners historically settled the west side and avoided the unwelcoming east. “To farm over here would have been considered crazy 50 years ago,” says Anderson.
East-siders try various things to mitigate the heat, such as misting (Rudd) and changing row direction from north-south to east-west to shelter grape bunches from the afternoon sun (Dalla Valle).
Another strategy is draconian grape selecselection. If you ever wondered why East Oakville’s wines are so expensive—good luck finding anything below $100—a big reason is that vintners ruthlessly cut off shriveled grapes, further reducing crop yields that are miserly to begin with. What doesn’t get dropped in the vineyard is hand-sorted at the winery by professional teams that add to the cost of labor.
The heat, however, may bring an advantage. Since east-side vineyards ripen earlier than those on the west (Joseph Phelps Winemaker Ashley Hepworth says Backus is always the first of the winery’s vineyards to ripen), the grapes will be in before early rains can strike, as they did in 2008. The heat also is a good thing in cool vintages, which California notably has experienced since 2005, and especially in 2009 and 2010. “We do great in cold years,” Rudd’s winery director, Kenny Koda, says. “The sugar slows down, so we can get great flavor development at very acceptable alcohol levels.”
Still, the occasional East Oakville Cabernet can be excessively ripe and hot, as Oakville Ranch’s 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon, with 15.6% alcohol by volume, shows.
The question of blends
Joe Harbison planted his vineyard solely to Cabernet Sauvignon “because in this dirt, it has to be Cabernet,” he says. Yet, most of the wines of East Oakville are blends.
The decision of whether to craft a blend or a 100% Cabernet, as always, is based on house styles and individual preferences. Linda Neal’s Tierra Roja 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon is somewhat more austere and masculine than, say, Dalla Valle’s Maya (62% Cabernet Sauvignon, 38% Cabernet Franc), or Gargiulo’s flamboyant 2007 OVX G Major Seven, a blend of the two Cabernets with Petit Verdot, but it’s still a mighty good wine.
Hepworth, at Phelps, adds Petit Verdot to the Backus blend “for color and backbone,” but adds, “We don’t really need it,” because the Cabernet by itself has good color and plenty of structure.
The quintessential East Oakville wines on the market now include Oakville East’s 2008 Core Stone, a blend that’s ripe and showy. It’s not dissimilar to the Joseph Phelps 2007 Backus Cabernet Sauvignon, the Maybach 2008 Weitz Vineyard Materium Cabernet Sauvignon or, for that matter, the Gargiulo 2008 OVX Cabernet Sauvignon. All are awesome in fruit, with a mouthfeel of pure velvet and the tangy minerality that gives the richness a kick. Many, if not most, were aged in 100% new French oak, or something close to 100%. But they have such intense fruit that the wood doesn’t feel overpowering.
And all are ageable. Dalla Valle’s 1994 Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, is still firm and tannic, while the 1994 Maya has years ahead. Tierra Roja’s 2003 and 2004 Cabernet Sauvignons are just at the beginning of their journeys. Of course, alcohol levels were lower in the past than now: The 1994 Maya had 13.5% alcohol by volume, while the 2009 clocks in at 14.8%. One can legitimately question whether the new Dalla Valles will last as long as the old ones. Still, 10 years at a minimum seems a lock.
It’s hard to go wrong when you start with such blessed fruit. Linda Neal says it best, when asked why she planted the Tierra Roja vineyard entirely to Cabernet Sauvignon: “Because this is magical ground for Cabernet.”