The Making of a 100-Point Wine: A Napa Cab of Substance

Martha's Vineyard in Oakvilla, Napa
Martha's Vineyard/Photo courtesy Heitz Cellars

Giving a wine 100 points is not to be taken lightly. Since the day I began reviewing California wines for Wine Enthusiast in 2011, I never have.

I’ve come close: four 99-point wines, a couple dozen 98s and so on. But it can be a stretch to pull the trigger and declare to the world that there’s such a thing as a perfect wine.

Something was different during a tasting last December. The stars aligned. The angels sang. My senses took over and didn’t allow my brain to overthink.

We conduct blind tastings at Wine Enthusiast, which means the wines are set up in numbered black bags so that we don’t know producer names or price points.

As the reviewer for Napa and Sonoma, I know the producers source grapes from one of those American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), that the wines are a relatively recent vintage and, more or less, the variety I’m tasting. But that’s about it.

A flight of Cabernet is given time to open, and they’re tasted more than once over the course of the day if these youthful wines are particularly tight or closed off.

Some wines take time to figure out, to unwind.

The Making of a 100-Point Wine: A California Red with Depth and Finesse

There was something about the 2014 Heitz Cellars Martha’s Vineyard that spoke repeatedly to me over several tries in the blind flight.

Of course, I observed the aromas, the texture, flavor and balance. Of course, I tasted its complexity and structure, the beauty, the length, the longing for more. It inspired the confounding curiosity of just how fermented grapes can achieve such grace.

It wasn’t flashy, or overly engineered. It wasn’t a wine that hits you over the head, nor fades away. It tasted of history. Of substance. Of place.

The 100-point 2014 Heitz Martha's Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon

This Martha’s Vineyard vintage is undeniably Martha’s, and I find that remarkable. I wrote of the wine, “it has years to go to unfurl its core of eucalyptus, mint and cedar.” Heitz ages it three years in 100% new French Limousin oak, another year in neutral oak and an additional year in bottle.

The wine was made by Brittany Sherwood, alongside David Heitz, son of the late founder Joe Heitz, who died in 2000 at age 81. In 2018, Heitz Cellars was sold to agriculture billionaire Gaylon M. Lawrence Jr.

Martha’s Vineyard was not included in the deal. It remains in the hands of Martha May, the vineyard’s eponym, though a contract for the grapes remains.

When I unbagged the wine, it took me back to a summer’s day in 2016 at the Heitz property. I had the good fortune to lunch with Martha May and Alice Heitz. The 100-point wine was aging, unbeknownst, in barrels nearby. Martha was as gregarious and hilarious as Alice was quiet and reserved. There was much warmth and shared history between them.

Heitz 2014 Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley); $275, 100 points.
From the famous Oakville site, this aged wine spends three years in 100% new French oak, one in neutral oak and an additional year in bottle. Though it has had time to evolve, it has years to go to unfurl its core of eucalyptus, mint and cedar. It shows an unmistakable crispness of red fruit, orange peel and stone, all honed by a grippy, generous palate. Enjoy 2024–2034. Cellar Selection.

Older now, they have been dear friends since the 1960s. That’s when, with their husbands, Tom May and Joe Heitz, they turned Heitz Cellars Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon into one of the world’s most legendary wines, among the first vineyard-designates in California.

Joe had worked at Beaulieu Vineyard with André Tchelistcheff and taught enology at Fresno State before he bought a historic winery site in 1964 in the hills east of St. Helena. It became the main production site for Heitz Cellars, founded a few years earlier at the site of a Grignolino vineyard and small tasting room that remains along Napa’s Highway 29.

Meanwhile, Martha and Tom May bought the vineyard in Oakville that would become her namesake in 1963.

Back then, the Napa Valley was a small farming community with not much of a restaurant scene. Socializing took place in people’s homes. When Tom and Martha came to town, someone dropped off a bottle of Heitz Cabernet as a welcome. Impressed, they soon stopped by the Heitz sales room on Highway 29, where they met Joe and Alice. The Mays were invited to dinner, and the four became lifelong friends. The first Martha’s Vineyard bottling was made in 1966.

That history is what I tasted.

Published on March 23, 2020
Topics: Wine and Ratings