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02.08.2009

2005 Ladera Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain, Napa

ladera_howell_05.jpgI've been drinking wine for more than 30% of my life at this point, taking notes on wine for ten years, and writing this blog for five, but despite that fact, it's not exactly common for me to be able to say with certainty that I've tasted every vintage of a particular wine made by any one winery. Even those wineries whose inaugural vintages debuted since Vinography became a going concern I am generally not able to taste their wines with regularity every single year.

But there are a few wineries whose wines I have been buying and tasting since I found out about them, and Ladera Vineyards is one of them. I've been helped by the fact that the release of their first vintage corresponded roughly with my deep dive into the wines of Napa (that cost more than $25). But most importantly, I've been continually impressed with the quality, consistency, and personality of the wines since day one.

Ladera means "hillside" or "slope" in Spanish, and in this single word you will find captured the essence of Ladera's wines. Owners Pat and Anne Stotesbery farm two vineyards, one at either end of Napa Valley. The Lone Canyon vineyard on Mount Veeder and an estate vineyard that was most recently Chateau Woltner, but has a history dating back to the Brun & Chaix Winery in 1886. The word "ladera" describes and unites both of these sites, characterized as they are by the steep slopes and dynamic micro-climates that make mountainside vineyards so special.

Tucked in the folds and creases of the mountains and protected by sick-inducing winding roads that lead far from the safety of the valley's main highway corridor, the mountain winegrowing regions of Napa are quiet refuges from the hustle and bustle of the valley floor. And that goes for grapes as well as people. High up above the traffic, vines and wine lovers alike will find cooler breezes, long shadows and lingering sunsets, and special wines that have bright, clear fruit and often beautiful intensity.

Capturing this intensity has been the Stotesbery's focus since they sold their Montana ranch and embarked on a new career as winery owners. The quite literally acquired the foundation of this new career in the form of a set of vineyards atop Howell Mountain nestled around the ruins of an ancient stone winery. It's 30-inch-thick walls, now restored into the main winery building at Ladera are a testament to longevity that the winery and its wines strive to achieve.

The Stotesberys, their winemaker Karen Culler (formerly of Vichon winery, and her own label Culler Wines), and their vineyard manager Gabriel Reyes practice the sort of winegrowing and winemaking you might expect of a small family-run operation that makes about 12,000 cases of wine each year. The grapes are babied at every stage of the picking process, and the winemaking process is completely gravity based, aided by the hillside construction of the old winery, which was set up with three levels even in 1886 to allow everything to happen without the need for pumps. Of course, such pumps didn't exist in 1886, which meant gravity-flow winemaking was the only way to go.

The wines are almost always made with native yeasts, and undergo fermentation in a variety of large and small tanks before being transferred to their French oak barrels, where they spend close to two years before spending one more in the bottle before release. The oak program at Ladera rarely exceeds 66% new oak, which lets the fruit shine instead of the wood. The red wines are never fined or filtered.

This particular wine saw only 50% new oak barrels for the 21 months that it aged. It is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, from 17 different vineyard blocks that, because of the variable terrain and microclimates, were picked as early as October 4th, and as late as November 3rd. About 2000 cases of this wine were made.

Full disclosure: I received this wine as a press sample.

Tasting Notes:
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a rich nose of cedar, black cherry, and espresso aromas. In the mouth it is bold and beautifully textured, with strong flavors of black cherry, cedar, sawdust and a hint of black pepper making things spicy as the tight young tannins begin to grab the edges of the tongue. A long finish completes the elegant and dynamic package. A little time for the tannins to mellow will make this even more enjoyable, but the impatient drinker will be rewarded as well.

Food Pairing:
Give me a bottle of this and a hefty braised beef shortrib over grits and I'd be a happy camper for a few hours.

Overall Score: between 9 and 9.5

How Much?: $65

This wine is available for purchase on the Internet.

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