A certain amount of hubris might be expected from the representatives of some of Napa Valley’s most famous wineries. Surely the Californians, who flew into Japan last month to show off their wares at Tokyo’s American Club, would not miss the opportunity to brag a little about the big impact their wines have had on the world? Not a bit.
“Our owner, Francis Ford Coppola, believes that he is a custodian of the land. He just wants to bring forth the qualities that are unique to the site,” says Larry Stone, general manager of Rubicon Estate. And yes, before you ask, Stone is referring to that Francis Ford Coppola, acclaimed director of the “Godfather” trilogy.
“Maybe in the ’70s and ’80s and really into the ’90s, you could see the rise of the artist — the notion that the great winemaker and blender was going to be the beginning and ending of everything,” says Russell Weis, general manager of Silverado vineyards. But now, Weiss explains, the idea of the artist winemaker is giving way to a kind of modesty: “We’re in a different notion now — and you see it more and more with the great estates, with the single- vineyard estates — we’re in the notion of the dirt telling us what to do.”
This modesty is in line with the rising interest in organic farming, which lends itself to a more hands-off approach to winemaking. “Each little block has its own special characteristics, and when we do a blending we really take into account how that particular block was affected by that year’s weather and other changes. That’s half the fun of it, putting all the pieces of this puzzle together,” says Maryanne Wedner, assistant to the president of Grgich Hills Estate, a winery that, like Rubicon, is certified organic.
Grgich’s founder, Mike Grgich, has had a huge hand in putting Napa on the world wine map. In 1976, he made a Chardonnay for Chateau Montelena that beat competition from France in a Paris blind tasting of Californian and French wines and won the number one spot, shocking the French wine community to its core.
What’s so special about Napa is that, along with possessing a climate suited to wine- growing, it is also home to small pockets of soil that produce exceptional wines. Grgich and Rubicon both own vineyards in a prized area called the Rutherford Bench. The soils there are a mix of gravel, loam, sand and volcanic deposits that have been left behind by an old stream. The secret of the exceptional Cabernet Sauvignons made there is mostly down to the excellent drainage on the site.
“These gravelly loamy soils also drain faster so they don’t retain water, and if you have a climate as dry as Napa Valley’s, a little water tension can actually be good for the vines. You see the quality of the vines, and those older vines in the back — you just get much more intense and complex fruit from these sites,” explains Stone.
Silverado have their own little patch of land, which they carefully mine for liquid treasure. “It’s a far different kind of soil type than you would find on the western side of the valley, this fabulous bench in Rutherford. We have a tendency to have more delicate fruit, a little bit less robust in terms of texture, very deep, stone-fruit quality, less berry fruit and more plum and cherry,” says Weis, whose Silverado Stag’s Leap vineyards are on a steep slope where the soils are made up of gravelly loam and clay.
In Napa, Cabernet is king of the grape varieties and when you couple these soils with the grape, you get wine that can age indefinitely. Founded in 1880, Rubicon estate is the oldest of the three wineries and enjoys an enviable collection of wines that go back to 1892. At a recent tasting at Pebble Beach wine festival, Stone brought along a 1959 estate-bottled wine to taste.
“I always knew it to be good,” Stone says, “but when you also saw what it stood up against — you know we were tasting first-growth Bordeaux and Domaine de Romanee-Conti — the ’59 really impressed so many people because it was still fresh, fruity and intensely vibrant.”
While these wines rival Bordeaux for longevity and taste, when it comes to alcohol, they tend to be on the rather heavy end of the scale. For example, the 2006 Rubicon was a whopping 14.5 percent.
“Alcohol sensitivity is somewhat in the eye of the beholder. In California and in the rest of the United States, where most of our wines are sold, people enjoy wines that are very ripe. They love a wine that is 14.5 or 15 percent alcohol,” says Stone. “Obviously alcohols have risen and that’s not a matter of the climate necessarily, that’s a matter of taste and getting the ripeness.”
What the winemakers are trying to avoid is a certain “greenness” that comes with harvesting too early. “What you’re really looking for as a winemaker is balance,” says Grgich Hills’ Wedner.
Second to Cabernet in Napa comes Chardonnay. As with Cabernet, Napa Chardonnays are typically made with high alcohols and have a buttery, oaky flavor. But interestingly, some winemakers are moving away from tradition here, and Grgich make a Chardonnay that has not undergone malolactic fermentation, which makes the wine retain an unusual crisp and fresh acidity.
Another interesting development in winemaking techniques in Napa is the use of American oak for aging. Traditionally, most winemakers favor French oak, but Silverado is trying out something new.
“We’re not really fond of the Missouri forest, but in Minnesota they have this Chinquapin oak, which is a really tight grain, very slow-growing oak, and not as aggressive as we’re used to with American oak. It has this lovely cocoa-powder quality to it. So, lately — it’s kind of new for us — we’ve snuck a little bit of that in,” says Weis.
Ultimately though, Weis explains that the whole approach at Silverado — and indeed the same applies to Rubicon and Grgich — is to allow nature to take its course. “The challenge for us is not to follow the whims of fashion, but to make wines that are beautiful expressions of our sites and then to find the people who love them,” he says.
Excellent soils, coupled with a modest approach to winemaking, makes it hard to resist the charms of these top-class wines.