Author Archives: Lyle W. Norton

About Lyle W. Norton

Lyle is a freelance writer who specializes in “lifestyle” issues like wine, food, travel, music, film and memoir. He currently writes “On The Vine,” a weekly wine column for the San Francisco Examiner.

Seghesio Family Vineyards: An Immigrant’s Legacy

 

Today, Sonoma County’s Seghesio Family Vineyards is well-known for the production of fine zinfandel and other Italian varietals and enjoy a large following who appreciate exemplary crafted releases, vintage to vintage.

However, Seghesio has been entwined into the fabric of Sonoma wine culture for nearly 125 years, since Italian immigrant Edoardo

Seghesio settled in the Alexander Valley and began producing grapes and bulk wine for large wineries.

Seghesio is among a select few of today’s California wineries that successfully persevered through Prohibition. Surviving a Century and

reaching their current status required an ongoing philosophy that avoided complacency by continually striving for something new and better.

Seghesio’s watershed moment began in the 1980s when fourth generation family winemaker Ted Seghesio began bottling wine under the Seghesio Family label.  In the early

Home Ranch Vineyard in the Alexander Valley

1990s, the family decided to lower their annual production and focus solely on the grapes from their estate vineyards.

With the transformation from bulk to fine wines complete, the only goal was to get better with each vintage.  Currently, Seghesio produces wine from nine estate vineyards on over 300 acres in north Sonoma County.

Recently, I entered the beautiful grounds of their tasting room near downtown Healdsburg intent to discover new current releases from winemaker Andy Robinson.

We began with an Italian white varietal, the 2017 Vermentino ($22) from a Russian River Valley vineyard, that was crisp, well-structured, bone dry with expressive fruit flavors.  Seghesio also produces another rare Italian white, the 2017 Arneis ($22)

From this country’s oldest Sangiovese vineyard in Rattlesnake Hill, the pure 2015 Venom Sangiovese($50) is aged in new French oak, concrete eggs and lengthy time in the bottle resulting in flavors that are rich and integrated.

A flight of four zinfandel releases clearly revealed the impact of terroir beginning with my favorite, the spicy 2015 Dry Creek “Cortina” Zinfandel ($40), from vines planted over three decades, that exudes pepper and eloquent red fruit on the palate.

The Rockpile appellation consists of a series of higher elevation vineyards separated by rugged terrain and known for wonderfully stressed zinfandel vines. Although the flavors of the 2015 Rockpile Zinfandel($50) are more savory, the mouthfeel is lavish and uninhibited.

Seghesio’s designation of “old vines” begins at fifty years and the highly rated 2015 Old Vine Zinfandel($40) blends grapes from vineyards in three different appellations on vines planted 50 to 125 years ago. With small amounts of petite sirah added, this release is well-structured with more restrained flavors than the last zinfandel.

The “old vines” for the 2015 Home Ranch Zinfandel($58) were planted in 1895 by Edoardo Seghesio on his original property. They were combined with grapes from younger vines that are, surprisingly, credited with pushing flavor to the forefront in this highly praised wine. 

People consume and enjoy wine at varying levels, but petite sirah is universally acclaimed because of its structure and accessibility to most palates. The full-bodied 2012 IL Cinghiale Petite Sirah ($38), dubbed the “wild boar,” has a opulent bouquet and demonstrative deep, dark berry flavors. A true value. 

Native to southern Italy, aglianico is a grape that develops highly tannic and complex wines that need time to mature. The tasting concluded with the full-bodied 2010 Aglianico($38)that delivered savory spice, mushroom and red fruit flavors.  This wine can need a decade to fully open.  Although the current release is a 2010 vintage, our host suggested decanting for 24-36 hours before serving. 

Seghesio provides a beautiful setting and amenities like picnic facilities and bocce ball courts designed to enhance the tasting experience.  They boast that their wines are food-driven and have developed a wine pairing kitchen where Executive Chef Peter Janiak prepares regular weekend pairing programs as well as many seasonal special event dinners throughout the year.

In 2011, Seghesio was sold to a large investment company that owns other wineries in the Napa-Sonoma region.  However, family members are still involved daily in all facets of production and operations.

While the history and sustainability of Seghesio Family Vineyards is impressive, the real story is their diverse estate vineyards and the ability to consistently produce well-crafted, complex wines.  Their zinfandel releases are among the best in California.

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The allure of Los Olivos as a wine country getaway

 

Years ago, we discovered the charm of Los Olivos when it was still a hidden gem.  The film, “Sideways,” and the surrounding vineyards exposed it to more people, but the authentic appeal is still there with many more culinary options.  Today, it offers a perfect getaway for those seeking rustic charm and access to extraordinary wineries and restaurants.

Los Olivos, population 1,000, is one of five small communities within the Santa Ynez Valley, forty minutes north of Santa Barbara and a

Downtown Los Olivos

few miles east of Solvang.  It sits in the middle of the warmer Santa Ynez Valley AVA, east of Highway 101, but is a short drive to the cooler Santa Rita Hills AVA where pinot noir and chardonnay vineyards extend west from Buellton to the Pacific Ocean.

Historically a stagecoach and railroad stop, Los Olivos remained concealed within oak-studded foothills for decades, seen only from cars passing along Highway 154 that connects with Santa Barbara via the San Marcos Pass.  Today, even with more tourists, the quaintness remains along with the old flag pole that sits in the middle of the town’s main intersection.

Where to Stay

Fess Parker’s Wine Country Inn and Spa is the only hotel in the downtown area.  Actor Fess Parker, who brought Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone to life for many baby boomers, was a long-time resident, property and business

Fess Parker Wine Country Inn

owner in the Santa Ynez Valley and purchased this luxury hotel years before his death. Pricy, but convenient, the inn is steps from everything the town has to offer.

The Ballard Inn/Restaurant is another property located minutes from town and there are ample hotel rooms in nearby Solvang.  Additionally, vacation rental properties, some associated with local wineries, are readily available for large or small groups.

Where to Taste

The appellations of north Santa Barbara County are among the best in California and there are copious opportunities for wine tasting.  Two of the areas finest producers of syrah, Tensley and Stolpman Vineyards, have downtown Los Olivos tastings rooms across the street from each other on Alamo Pintado Avenue.

Joey Tensley has earned accolades and recognition in recent years for his syrah and other varietals including the 2017 Colson Canyon

Tensley Syrah

Vineyard Syrah ($42) and the 2017 Santa Barbara County Syrah ($28) while the Stolpman Vineyard, one of the largest in the region produces many fine wines like the co-fermented sangiovese/syrah blend, La Croce 2016 ($66) and the Hilltop Syrah 2016 ($42). 

A few miles west of town, I recommend stops at Lincourt, part of Foley Family Wines specializing in pinot noir and chardonnay and Rusack Vineyards who produce pinot noir, syrah, chardonnay and other varietals in Ballard Canyon, outside of Solvang as well as on Santa Catalina Island.

East of Los Olivos, along the Foxen Canyon Wine Trail, visitors will find a plethora of tasting rooms including the Fess Parker Winery estate and one of my favorite experiences, well worth the effort to find it.  

View of vineyards at Demetria Estate

The relaxed and hospitable Demetria Estate, on a secluded mountaintop further up the trail, features fine Rhône and Burgundy style wines such as the “North Slope” Syrah ($44) with five percent viognier, the “Eighteen” Chardonnay ($49) and a grenache-based blend called “Pantheon” ($47).

Where to Eat

Although its reach was broadened, foodies discovered the Los Olivos Cafe long before it was featured in the film, “Sideways”.  A diverse menu, exquisitely prepared food, great wine selections, pleasant atmosphere and perfect location make it a must when visiting.

As the local dining scene has matured, Los Olivos Cafe has been joined by restaurants like Side’s Hardware and Shoes (lunch only), the upscale casual Bear and Star, Greek cuisine in Petros and the historic Mattei’s Tavern, all located within steps of each other.

For a more casual lunch, try Pannino, in the heart of town, the landmark Los Olivos Grocery minutes

Los Olivos Cafe

down the road or The Doggy Door, a sweet little stand that features both vegan or beef hot dogs plus gourmet sandwiches.

To work off the food and wine, I suggest a casual walk  around town to enjoy the unique garden sculptures at J. Woeste, western goods at Jedlicka’s Saddlery, the labyrinth at St. Marks-in-the-Valley church or a refreshment at Corner House Coffee.  They truly reveal the genuine rustic charm of Los Olivos.


Sauvignon Blanc has evolved onto the global stage

 

Sauvignon blanc, a varietal with roots in both the Loire Valley and Bordeaux regions of France, has also adapted well to the expanded “New World” wine regions like New Zealand, Chile, South Africa, California and Washington State.

Vineyards in Sancerre

It had an auspicious beginning in California as a step-child to chardonnay, then received a boost after Robert Mondavi change the name of his sauvignon blanc to Fume’Blanc, a marketing ploy with obvious references to Pouilly Fume’ in the Loire Valley.

All wines from Pouilly Fume’ are exclusively sauvignon blanc and, along with nearby Sancerre, located on a promontory to the other side of the river, are identified by region, not varietal. The local terroir, with moderate temperatures and soils abundant in limestone,

Clement Marchand, winemaker in Pouilly Fume’

produces a dry, crisp, palate-cleansing wine with citrus flavors and their trademark “smoky, gun-flint” aromas.

During a recent visit to the Pouilly Fume’ region, I had an opportunity to enjoy a special release with local winemaker, Clement Marchand, whose family has made wine at their village site since 1650. The Clement Marchand “Kimmeridgian” Pouilly Fume’ 2014 ($35), named after a local fossil-laden soil, had a round texture and creamy mouthfeel with nice stone fruits on the palate.

Chateau d Yquem 2005

Sauvignon blanc is still a major Bordeaux grape, whether it is blended with semillon, infected with the Botrytis cinerea fungus in the southern regions of Barsac and Sauternes or sitting on its laurels as the mother of cabernet sauvignon.  Few people know that cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc parented one of the most popular and abundantly planted varietals on the planet.

Sauternes and Barsac are known, by name, for producing the world’s finest and most expensive dessert wines. Arguably, the best Sauternes wine available today is the Chateau d’Yquem 2005 ($550), a Premier Cru Superieur blend of  semillon (75%) and sauvignon blanc (25%) that is a sensory treat with fresh vanilla aromas and rich flavors of crème brûlée and gingerbread. 

Ironically, the first sauvignon blanc cuttings that arrived in California, during the late 1800s, came from the Sauternes vineyards of Chateau d’Yquem. They have flourished here, adapting to both warm and cooler climates. 

The two best examples of California sauvignon blanc, in my mind, are both produced by women, one from the cool Russian River Valley and the other from the warm Santa Ynez Valley in north Santa Barbara County.

Merry Edwards is an icon in the wine industry, producing fine pinot noir, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc from vineyards near

Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc Russian River Valley

Sebastopol.  As with earlier vintages, the 2017 Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc Russian River Valley ($36), with added Sauvignon Musque from Sancerre, exhibits spirited floral aromas, a creamy mouthfeel with herbal flavors and some zest on the finish.

Ms. Edwards recently semi-retired and sold Merry Edwards Cellars to respected Anderson Valley sparkling wine producer, Roederer Estate.  Heidi von der Mehden, the new winemaker and staff will be retained and Edwards will consult for a year so, I expect being able to enjoy her sauvignon blanc in the future.

Winemaker Kathy Joseph of Fiddlehead Cellars in Lompoc speaks passionately of pushing pinot noir and sauvignon blanc toward their potential, either paired with food or not. Of her five sauvignon blanc releases, my favorite, as with other vintages, is the 2018 Fiddlehead Sauvignon Blanc “Goosebury” Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara ($38), sourced from warmer climate and described by Joseph as “zingy like a New Zealand wine, juxtaposed with the elegance of a Sancerre.” I find it to be a perfect pair with fresh scallops

Fiddlehead Cellars “Goosebury” Sauvignon Blanc

or chèvre.

Sauvignon blanc has become so prominent in the southern hemisphere that the term “New Zealand-style” is synonymous with aromatic wines and flavors of fresh-cut grass and grapefruit.

Each vintage, one of the most popular sauvignon blanc wines from New Zealand is the 2018 Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough ($30) that maintains the “green characteristics” while adding a touch of tropical fruit flavors.

Boasting recent high ratings, the 2016 Greywacke “Wild Sauvignon” Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough ($30) has an austere savory character that doesn’t sacrifice complexity in the flavor profile.

Sauvignon blanc, no longer an alternative white wine, is charging into the future with a global presence that highlights expressive bouquets, intricate flavors and the textures in a wine that belongs at the dinner table.

  


The Women of Domaine de Mastrot

 

Elsa Martrot and moi

Adele and Elsa Martrot are eighth generation winemakers from the Meursault village in Burgundy.  They are the daughters of seventh generation Thierry & Pascual Martrot.  Females have dominated the most recent offspring and it does not appear that this trend will change in the future.  Elsa delivered a baby girl three months ago and Adele is expecting a baby girl in December, almost assuring that, if the will is there,  the ninth generation will be lead by women.

Winding through backroads that connect small villages of Pommard, Volnay and Monthelie in the Cotes de Beaune region, we arrived at the Domaine de Martrot estate which consisted of old stone buildings, farming equipment and a cellar beneath the house.

Those who are familiar with Burgundian wines have most likely experienced their releases.

They began exporting wines to the states in the 1950s and, today, seventy percent of their production is exported, mostly to the United States, Japan, Norway, Denmark and, more recently, other parts of Asia.  

Although records were destroyed during the French Revolution, they know that their family has produced wine in Burgundy since the late 1800s. Their total production is 150,000 bottles or 12,500 American cases per vintage.  The wines originate from 24 hectares of estate vineyards (60 acres) located throughout Cote de Beaune’s best appellations.

The only AOC permitted grapes in Burgundy are chardonnay and pinot noir with one small exception.  Beaujalois had a few gamay vineyards grandfathered in.  The weather is much like Sonoma County, the Carneros and Santa Rita Hills, California appellations that produce our finest Burgundian varietals

In 2016, there was an April frost from Chablis to Macron and they lost 60% of their grapes which resulted in 80% less yield. Adele explained that the moisture left from the frost combined with the heat from the sun can burn the buds.  At times, to save their vintage, they are forced to burn hay bales to create a smokey haze that filters the sunlight.

Less quantity usually results more highly concentrated wines.  When weather creates hardships for the producer, Mother Nature and the consumer are often the winners.  Hence, we tasted selections from the 2016 vintage.

Domaine de Martrot produces about twenty wines per year, evenly split between rouge and blanc.  French wines are always identified by the region and appellation and we tasted a diversity of terroir, each with its own identity.

To begin, Adele poured the 2016 San Romain, a blanc from northern Cote de Beaune.  Because it is warmer and the days are longer, the grapes mature faster and are picked in August. There was a clear minerality to the young wine that will become rounder within four to five years.   

The 2016 Meursault/Blagny 1st cru (premier growth) from a nearby appellation had a healthy acidity that was balanced throughout.  Adele described it as a good pairing with spicy Asian food, specifically  sushi.  They are increasingly exporting their wines to the Japan market.

For me, the white that stood out was the 2016 Meursault-Charmes !st Cru, a wine recently awarded 94-points by Wine Spectator.  Musky, stone fruit and minerality aromas preceded  complex, rounded stone fruit flavors with hints of honey and vanilla.  This wine is
available in the Bay Area for $90.  My bottle cost 55 euros, purchased and enjoyed in Burgundy.

Another 1st Cru release, the 2016 Puligny-Montrachet Les Chalumeaux was a stunning blanc with very clear floral notes on the nose and palate.

The 2016 Monthlelie, an elegant village wine from low-yield vines, was more medium-bodied than the other red wines that we tasted. The result of an early Spring hailstorm was lower quantity and higher quality.

I questioned Adele on how and by whom the grapes were harvested.  Because of how the vines are planted, the chardonnay is done by machine and the pinot noir by hand.  Migrants from French West Africa, including Senegal, Chad and other countries as well as Spain augment locals from the area.

Our last wine was a 2014 Blagny Le Piece Sous le Bois 1st Cru, expressing significant black cherry and spice aromas, reminiscent of fine pinot releases from top California appellations.  The dark berry flavors were round and fruit forward, lingering on a long finish.

As we celebrate our granddaughter’s first birthday next week,  I will imagine her developing a palate for Burgundian wines and, maybe someday, crossing paths with two young cousins making wine under the roof of a stone building in Meursault.


Sonoma County wineries lead the way in direct to consumer shipments

 

Recently, for a friend’s birthday gift, I phoned a local Sonoma County winery, selected a few favorite wines and had them shipped directly to his home in Los Angeles. Within three days, he had received them. A growing number of consumers are taking advantage of the convenience and easy access to fine wines through this process that eliminates the retail and shipping middle man.

One of fastest growing trends in the wine industry is something called direct to consumer (DTC) shipping.  In 2018, consumers spent $3 billion purchasing wine that was shipped to them directly by the winery, a 12% increase from 2017.  

Representing a nine percent increase from the previous year, wineries, in 2018, shipped over six million cases directly to consumers throughout the country except Utah, Kentucky, Mississippi and Alabama, four states that still prohibit it.  Oklahoma lifted their ban on direct to consumer shipments in 2018 and received $4.3 million worth of wine.

The recently released 2019 Direct to Consumer Wine Shipping Report sponsored by Sovos and Wines Vines Analytics revealed some interesting insights into what now accounts for ten percent of all off premises sales of wine domestically.

The research in the study is based on two major factors:  the volume or number of cases shipped and their value.  California is the most common destination representing 30.2% of the volume and 32% of the value of all wine shipped. Beyond California, Texas is, surprisingly, second in number of cases received at 8.2% followed by New York (6.0%), Washington State (5.4%) and Florida (5.0%). 

Sonoma County experienced the largest increase, 19% in number of cases and 18% in value, surpassing Napa County as the region with most wine shipped by volume at 1.8 million cases. There is also demand for wines from the Pacific Northwest as Oregon and Washington State enjoyed increases in volume shipped of 19% and 18% respectively.

Sonoma County’s advancements in both volume and value of shipments included an average per bottle price of under $30.  Napa County’s modest gains in both categories was accompanied by the highest average per bottle price of over $67, leading some to question if they have reached their price ceiling.

The report also detailed what size wineries are shipping the most with some surprising results.  Of the  9,997 wineries in the United States, 80% are small or limited in size, producing under 5,000 cases per year. These smaller wineries, along with large ones producing over 500,000 cases, experienced the biggest increase during 2018 in both volume and value.

The larger wineries had a 28% increase in volume and a 37% increase in value of their shipments with an average per bottle price of $17.28.  In contrast, the smallest low-production wineries experienced 17% more volume, but a 32% increase in value with an average per bottle price of $72.22. Overall, the value of direct to consumer shipments has more than doubled during the past decade.

The descending order of top shipped varietals are cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, red blends, chardonnay and zinfandel.  Pinot noir took over the second spot in 2017 which seems to correlate with the increase of shipments from Sonoma County and the plethora of small “pinot-focused” wineries that exist there.

In 2018, rose’ shipments grew 24% in volume and 29% in value, indicative of the popularity of the light wine, now created with purpose and not as an afterthought.

It was a pleasant surprise to find that the volume of under-appreciated cabernet franc shipments rose 19.1%. Having recently tasted some fine releases and talked, over the years, with many winemakers who prefer the varietal, I often wonder why cabernet franc is not more prolific in California.

One explanation is that cabernet franc cannot compete with cabernet sauvignon, the popular grape that is abundantly produced and sold in California as a single varietal wine.  Actually, cabernet sauvignon is a relatively new grape, the result of an accidental blend of

Cabernet franc vines

cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc nearly three centuries ago.  Call me daddy.

 

With increased membership programs and more awareness, the sustained growth of direct to consumer wine shipments will be an interesting trend to follow in future years.  However, it’s always more fun to pick up your wine at the source and do some tasting.


Monochrome Wines puts color and creativity into unique white blends

 

Experimentation is a distinctive characteristic of wine makers who began, as hobbyists, making wine in their garages.  They embrace trial and error out of necessity and, as a result, learn to think out of the box. Such is true with Dave McGee, founder of Monochrome Wines, the only Paso Robles winery that focuses exclusively on white varietals and unorthodox blends.

Aside from a few fine white Rhone blends, the Paso Robles region is known for world-class red Rhone blends and zinfandel which begs the question, “Why the focus on whites here?”

Half joking, Dave explained that it gets very hot during Paso’s summer season and he and his wife prefer to drink cooler white wines.  They are also weary of the myth that white wines are simplistic, lacking in-depth and beneath most serious wine drinkers.

Dave McGee, founder and co-winemaker at Monochrome

To prove his point, Dave decided to take his focus on avant-garde white blends and plant it in the middle of red wine country. I wonder if the property values have begun to fall?

McGee is a transplant from the Bay Area and after three degrees from Stanford and a long career, he fled the rat race for the green hills of Paso Robles wine country.  When asked if wine was his second career, he said, “Actually, it’s my fifth or sixth.” 

After years of planning, tracking California weather patterns and comparing them to the noted European regions, the McGees founded Monochrome Wines in 2016, intent on changing faulty perceptions of white wines.

From the first taste, the 2017 Monochrome “Barrel Distortion” ($35), a 100% albarino sourced from the Plum Orchard Vineyard in the nearby Templeton Gap AVA, challenged my perceptions and became a new paradigm.

The albarino grape is typically aged in stainless steel to highlight its crispness and vibrancy.  The “Barrel Distortion” is aged in stainless steel and on the lees in neutral French oak, giving it a unique soft and rich mouthfeel without sacrificing the flavors and aromatics. 

McGee understands that the creation of captivating wines begins with the best fruit.  To that end, he has secured grapes from known sources in the central coast and north Santa Barbara County including the Zaca Mesa Vineyard in the Santa Ynez Valley and the nearby Happy Canyon Vineyard, a long-time producer of quality sauvignon blanc. 

Having spent much of this decade avoiding red meat and eating more seafood and vegetables, I enjoy complex white wines that pair well with food such as the 2017 Monochrome “Neither Here Nor There” ($38), a distinct blend of sauvignon blanc and chenin blanc, both with origins from different parts of France’s Loire Valley. 

Sancerre and the nearby Poiully Fume’ region produce extraordinary sauvignon blanc that is, by nature, very dry.  Chenin blanc is produced to the south and is more versatile in its flavor and texture profile with different regions like Vouvray or Anjou. 

Origins aside, “Neither Here Nor There” claims its identity from California terroir and is barrel, not stainless steel aged, hence the name.

The individual varietals in Monochrome wines are fermented separately, then carefully blended later under the close scrutiny of Dave and consulting winemaker, Riley Hubbard, resulting in inventive wines like the 2017 Monochrome “Altered Images” ($40), a blend of chardonnay and chenin blanc and the 2016 Monochrome “Analogue in a Digital Age” ($38), a blend of marsanne (81%) and chardonnay (19%) that is aged separately in earthenware amphoras, used 8,000 years ago and oak barrels, in use for only 2,000 years, to achieve a contemporary result.

Monochrome currently produces about 500 cases per vintage but looks to expand to 2,000 cases and has many new releases on the horizon.

A growing trend among smaller production wineries, the easiest way to access Monochrome wines, aside from a few local restaurants, is by direct to consumer shipments through their growing two-tiered membership program that guarantees seasonal releases. 

Monochrome also has a small tasting room south of the town of Paso Robles where Dave McGee personally pours current vintages and provides insights into his passion of create complex, memorable white wines. 

Whether a connoisseur or someone who simply enjoys white wines, Monochrome’s mission to explore their intricacies is something not to be overlooked. They have certainly made me a believer.


Clos du Val Winery continues to make history

 

It is the perfect scenario for a Hollywood movie. A dream come true for a man who settled in the Napa Valley to produce world-class cabernet sauvignon and watched his first vintage become a part of history, the kind of history that changes things forever.

Clos du Val began in 1972 when John and Henrietta Goelet, after years of searching, purchased a parcel in the what is today the Stag’s

Clos du Val Winery in Napa Valley’s Stag’s Leap District

Leap District and set about making great cabernet sauvignon.  Working with French trained winemaker Bernard Portet, the inaugural release, the 1972 Clos Du Val Cabernet Sauvignon, was a part of the California contingency of wines that outscored the French wines in the venerable 1976 Judgement of Paris blind tasting.  In fact, the same vintage was the overall winner in a 1986 rematch.

If your first vintage helps to change the wine world and catapult California to the forefront, what’s next.  Well, Bernard Portet stayed at Clos Du Val for other 40 years, continued to produce top Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon and both became icons in the industry.  

Still owned by the Goelet family who reside on the East Coast, Clos du Val has, for over 45 years, succeeded through high-end consistency, stability among their staff and a focus on relationships, both with the customer and the surrounding community. They are also not willing to sit on their laurels.

In 2014, with new winemaker Ted Henry at the helm, Clos Du Val made the decision to dramatically reduce production, from 90,000 to 35,000 cases annually, and focus solely on making wines from their estate vineyards in the Stag’s Leap District, Yountville and the Carneros.

The 126-acre Hirondelle Vineyard, that surrounds their Stag’s Leap property, is the main source for cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, petite verdot and malbec, all native to the Bordeaux region. The State Lane and Riverbend Vineyards add more fine cabernet sauvignon clones, cabernet franc with sauvignon blanc and viognier.

Under Henry’s tenure, Clos Du Val is returning to where they started, to the principles on which they were founded. He realizes that they can’t be everything to everyone and that the experience starts with people first, then the wine.

With the change in focus came the construction of a spacious, retro-modern tasting facility with indoor and outdoor spaces overlooking the Hirondelle Vineyard, furnishing comfortable enhancements to the experience.  Designer Erin Martin used the outside of old barrel staves as paneling and the inside of the staves for the ceiling to create history in the architecture.  Glass walls open to the West and bring in the outdoors with elegant patio furniture and water features. To the East, there is another glass door that opens to the barrel room and production facility.

We sat in a cozy nook with Ted Henry and members of the staff to taste some current releases that began with classic aromas of spice and red fruit in the 2016 Estate Pinot Noir, Gran Val Vineyard, Carneros, Napa Valley ($65).  Aged in 100% new French and Hungarian oak, the cherry and red fruit flavors were concentrated and lingering.

The next three wines were all sourced from the estate Hirondelle Vineyard beginning with the lush 2015 Estate Merlot, Hirondelle Vineyard, Stag’s Leap District ($65).  There were complex, earthy aromas of baked fruit and spice with integrated berry and fruit flavors and hints of espresso on the finish.

Cabernet franc, with tremendous heritage, is one of the most overlooked reds varietals in California.  The mineral and menthol hints on the nose of the 2015 Estate Cabernet Franc, Hirondelle Vineyard, Stag’s Leap District ($100) foreshadowed the full-bodied herbal

Clos du Val tasting room

flavors and elegant velvet finish.

The 2015 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Hirondelle Vineyard ($120) with merlot and cabernet franc added and the 2014 Three Graces Cabernet Sauvignon ($175), named for a sculpture that modeled the label design, were both exceptional wines that exemplify the grandeur and history of the Napa Valley.

As a special treat, we opened a 1996 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from the library and found it to be surprisingly pristine and fruit-forward, an acknowledgement of how well Clos du Val wines age.

The rich legend of the 1972 vintage will be preserved in perpetuity as the contemporary Clos Du Val winery continues to create great wines, ambiance and memories for a new generation.