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2004 Erba Mountainside Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa

erba_04_cab.jpgIn Isaac Asimov's Foundation series of science fiction books, the main character has invented a science called Psychohistory for predicting the behavior of large groups of people. And by large groups, I mean the entire galaxy. Based partly in sociology, partly in history, and heavily in math, the psychohistorians have developed algorithms that can be used to figure out what big groups of people will do in any situation.

I'm not so sure there isn't some sort of algorithm that we might be able to construct to figure out the kind of person (apart from trained winemakers or wine business veterans) who ends up starting a winery in Napa. The path to owning a wine label in Napa seems to required a certain set of formative experiences, the right personality, just a little disregard for risk, and enough money to make it possible.

I don't think I can find a more textbook example of the required ingredients than the story of Dr. Paul Erba.

Erba got into wine during college in the Seventies. Medical students don't have a lot of time on their hands, but when they need to unwind, they need to unwind. Erba and his roommate and a bunch of friends got in the habit of going out and buying a lot of wine, mostly Bordeaux, and getting together to drink and talk about it. "This was back when you could get Petrus and Lafite for $19.99 a bottle," says Erba. "We also made sure to check out what was going on with California wine as well."

What started as a social hobby gradually grew into an obsession. Erba began collecting as soon as he was earning enough to do so, and gradually fell deeper in love with wine. He and his wife started taking all their vacations to Napa -- once, twice, even three times per year. And as he built up his own practice in Radiation Oncology on Oklahoma, he started squirreling away money for a dream that he wouldn't even really admit to himself that he had.

That dream, like so many, started small -- the idea of buying a little plot of vineyard land already planted with grapes -- a couple of acres to make some wine for himself and his friends.

Eventually Erba saved enough to maybe, just maybe, be able to afford a few acres of Napa vineyard. He knew by this point that he really wanted hillside vineyards, as he felt those made the best wine. And so he went shopping, and entered the strange world of Napa real estate.

I say strange, because buying land in Napa is like entering some Twilight Zone, where odd things happen to those who enter. Erba's experience was not untypical. He went shopping for a couple of acres of planted grapes, and ended up with 140 acres of prime hillside land on the back of Atlas peak, and a two year project to put in a 20 acre vineyard, and three more years to wait until the first fruit was ready to be made into wine.

The technical term for this situation is getting in deep. Napa has a habit of turning small dreams into big projects.

Erba dove headfirst into viticulture with his hired consultants and before he knew it, he had a prime vineyard that many have since said is one of the best sites they have ever seen. He didn't know it at the time, but Pahlmeyer had just bought the piece of land next door, and before his grapes had matured, he had folks like Phelps, Cornerstone, and Orin Swift Cellars interested in the fruit.

Much of the fruit is now sold to these labels, but with the help of winemaker Kristof Anderson (formerly at Saddleback and Lewis, and the current winemaker at Gargiulo) Erba makes about 1000 cases of wine split between this Cabernet, Merlot, and Syrah.

Erba Mountainside Vineyards
is already way bigger than Erba expected it to be, and that has come with its challenges. Erba still has his day job in Oklahoma. "Gotta pay for those barrels," he says.

When he first started out, everyone told him that the hardest part of the whole operation would be selling the wine, and it turns out they were right. Marketing and sales take a lot of time, energy and money that have been hard to drum up, which is why Erba Mountainside Vineyards continues to fly very much under the radar. Which may not be so great for Erba, but is definitely great for his customers. The wines are reasonably easy to get ahold of, and they're priced well below their quality level, in my humble opinion.

This Cabernet is made from fruit taken from some of the steepest blocks of the vineyard, which approach a twenty degree slope in places. In addition to Cabernet it has small percentages of Merlot, Petite Verdot, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec. It was aged in 80% new French Oak for about 18 months before being bottled. While many producers are currently releasing their 2006 wines, this 2004 represents the current release of the Cabernet, though the 2005 is likely on its way soon.

Tasting Notes:
Inky garnet in color, this wine has a rich nose of cherry and floral aromas. In the mouth it is a lovely, balanced concoction of earth and plum flavors wrapped around a core of solid cherry fruit. Nice acids and sandpaper-like tannins lift the wine into a very pleasant finish.

Food Pairing:
The restrained oak signature on this wine is a welcome invitation to pair it with anything you might like to serve a robust red wine with. I'd certainly recommend trying it with braised shortribs or beef daube or something of the sort.

Overall Score: between 9 and 9.5

How Much?: $55

This wine is available for purchase on the Internet.

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The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson Wine Grapes The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson to cork or not to cork by George Taber reading between the vines by Terry Theise adventures on the wine route by Kermit Lynch Love By the Glass by Dorothy Gaiter & John Brecher Noble Rot by William Echikson The Science of Wine by Jamie Goode The Judgement of Paris by George Taber The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil The Botanist and the Vintner by Christy Campbell The Emperor of Wine by Elin McCoy The Taste of Wine by Emile Peynaud