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06.02.2005

2001 Piña Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain, Napa

If one were to speculate on the wine market as a savvy investor might in the small-cap stock market, the game would be the same: follow people you know with good track records. In the wine world, we'd also have to include a corollary about betting on great vineyard sites, but that's beside my point. What I'm getting at is that good wines don't happen by accident. They're made by talented people, great vineyards sites or a combination of both. So my theory is that most of the time it shouldn't come as much of a surprise to stumble across small wineries with tiny production levels who happen to be making great wines once you figure out who's behind the wine.

Piña Napa Valley holds up this theory beautifully. There are lots of people making less than 1000 cases of wine in Napa, more than most people would think. So why should a little outfit that has some land on Howell Mountain attract our attention? Well, first is that they actually have land -- a 5.9 acre parcel on top of Howell Mountain with Southeast exposure. Not bad. Second and most importantly, the winery is owned and operated by the Piña Family, a name that will turn the head of anyone who is reasonably involved in growing grapes in Napa. In the current generation, the Piña Family, through their firm Piña Vineyard Management are responsible for farming some of Napa's most prestigious vineyards (Bryant, Pahlmeyer, Cafaro, Gemstone, Outpost, Showket, Sawyer, O'Shaughnessy, just to name a few), but the family has been making its home in the Napa valley since 1856 when their progenitor Bluford Stice led a wagon train into the valley from Missouri.

Only a few years after that wagon train, the family became involved in the wine business in Napa, owning a vineyard just south of St. Helena, and Stice's son became a prominent winemaker at Inglenook winery (now Niebaum-Coppola), and since then the family has been part of the fabric of the Napa wine business.

As early as 1979 the family had thought about making their own wine, even founding a company called Piña Cellars with that intention, yet somehow never found the time until they purchased this small property on Howell Mountain in 1996 and decided to do it once and for all.

The "Buckeye" property is a natural bowl and partially terraced hillside surrounded by Redwoods, Oaks and Madrone trees, and has neighbors who can testify to the excellence of the soil: Ladera and Beatty Ranch being two of the more well known. The vineyard is planted exclusively with Cabernet Sauvignon.

This wine is made from all estate fruit by winemaker Cary Gott (a longtime Napa wine veteran and consultant who has worked for more vineyards than are possible to list). Since this vintage, Ted Osborne (of Storybook Mountain Vineyards most recently) has taken over as head winemaker for Piña. The wine is aged for two years in 100% French oak (75% new) before bottling. Only 530 cases made.

Tasting Notes:
Dark, nearly opaque garnet in the glass, this wine has a heady nose of chocolate, black cherries, tobacco and raisins. In the mouth it has nice tacky tannins that envelop flavors of black cherry and candied orange peel with an injection of tobacco notes as the wine powers to a fairly strong finish. My only complaint about the wine is that it feels slightly thin in the mouth, and the flavors are good, but not quite as complex as they could be, perhaps due to the youth of these vines. I'm betting subsequent vintages will be knockouts.

Food Pairing:
I don't know why, but the slight orange characteristics in this wine point me towards more ethnic foods. I'd love to try it, for instance, with this Moroccan lamb tagine with raisins, almonds, and honey.

Overall Score: 9

How Much?: $54

This wine is available for purchase online.

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