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07.06.2009

Lang & Reed Wine Company, Napa: Current Releases

lang_and_reed.jpgAll of us wine lovers inevitably discover, in the course of our explorations, our own secret wineries. These are the wines that we hold close to our chest, revealing them to those with whom we share only our choicest of morsels, which often include such things as parking spaces, hole-in-the-wall restaurants, and great movies and books.

As I'm in the business of sharing great wine with readers all the time, I can't really afford to hold much back. But I'd be lying if I told you I had reviewed or written about all my most favorite wineries around the world. Some of them I've just not gotten around to yet, and others are just easier to put off writing about with the excuse of wanting to come up with just the right way to talk about them.

But as I'm a blogger, rather than a print journalist, I lack the luxury of thoughtfully composed, well researched, professionally edited prose. The conceit of a considered essay is a blogger's fantasy, for the most part. Instead I scrape an hour or two of my day together out of 15 minute snippets and toss out raw thoughts about the things I care most about, including those secrets that a better writer might spend months deciding how to frame.

Lang and Reed Wine Company is simply one of those labels that represents everything I wish Napa might become over time. Or perhaps put another way, they are something I hope Napa never manages to lose.

Run by John and Tracey Skupny, Lang and Reed winery represents the culmination of a love affair with Cabernet Franc that is perhaps outlasted only by John and Tracey's own romance, which began back when both of them were just teenagers in Missouri, and carried them on adventures together on shoestring budgets throughout Europe after they both graduated from college. From the Midwest to the Loire and many places in between, the Skupnys finally settled down in the town of St. Helena in the Napa Valley to raise a family and to slowly cultivate the idea that maybe, just maybe, someone could survive making wines that contained solely Cabernet Franc. Yeah, they thought that was a pretty insane idea, too.

John Skupny had the length of a whole career in Napa to consider the possibility. Over the past twenty years he has worked for more than twenty five vineyards in the Napa Valley in some capacity or other, but perhaps most notably, he served as the Marketing and Sales Director for Caymus, the President of Clos du Val, and the General Manager of Niebaum-Coppola winery.

It was during his tenure at Niebaum-Coppola that his obsession with Cabernet Franc finally took hold in a way that was impossible to ignore. Plantings of the varietal in the valley were solid and mature, and many vineyards were turning out some great fruit, which everyone promptly blended back into their Cabernet Sauvignon almost without a second thought. But John, with a soft spot in his heart for the Loire wines of Chinon and Bourgueil (and probably some great memories of romantic evenings with Tracey in Angers, France) decided that Cabernet Franc deserved a voice of its own -- a little solo gig in a town dominated by big acts like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and their various ensembles.

So in 1996, John and Tracey began arranging contracts for small amounts of grapes from at first, one or two, and then later, close to a dozen of the best growers of Cabernet Franc in the valley. Their goal was simple: to make a wine that showed what their favorite varietal was capable of in California, and that they would love to drink themselves. They named the wine after their two sons, J. Reed and Jerzy Lang, and did everything themselves, from grape sorting to slapping the labels on the bottles.

And for the last ten years, they've pretty much been doing the same thing. John, an art school graduate who got into the wine business on the bottom run of the ladder (retail), and climbed his way up, takes care of the winemaking, while Tracey takes care of the sales and marketing. When they were younger, the two sons pitched in as well, but now that they're off having their own lives, mostly they just help drink the wine.

The Lang and Reed vision for what Cabernet Franc should be is unique not only for its singularity -- up until their recent first ever bottling of a Bordeaux blend, the label made only Cabernet Franc -- but also for its approach to the varietal. One of the reasons that Cabernet Franc is most often used as a blending grape is that it can very easily be turned into a wine with great aromatics, excellent texture, and completely unremarkable presence on the palate. In describing this phenomenon, John will sometimes refer to the "mid-palate hole" that can occur when Cabernet Franc is treated like Cabernet Sauvignon and dumped into exclusively brand new French oak barrels.

Lang and Reed's approach to the varietal is to treat the grape delicately, almost as if it were the thin skinned Pinot Noir: picking carefully to avoid over-ripeness, fully destemming, fermenting whole berries, gently pressing, and aging in mostly neutral oak. The result is a wine that trades the leathery, stiff tannins that can be typical for the Cabernet Franc for a juiciness and accessibility that make Lang and Reed's wines a pleasure to drink. A certain amount of age-worthiness is probably sacrificed for this approach, but the wines retain an acidity and a subtle tannic structure that will certainly keep them evolving for some time.

The winery produces around 2500 cases of wine each year in three primary bottlings -- a North Coast designated Cabernet Franc, a Napa designated Cabernet Franc, and a reserve bottling named "Premiere Etage" which gets a slightly more traditional winemaking regimen (extended maceration, etc.) and is aged for at least 24 months in mostly neutral oak, but with an occasional new barrel thrown into the mix.

The winery occasionally produces a tiny amount of rosé, and much to my delight, has just started making small quantities of a Bordeaux blend called "Right Bank," which they have, until this point, only made for charity auctions.

Full disclosure: I received these wines as press samples.

TASTING NOTES:
2007 Lang & Reed Cabernet Franc, North Coast
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of wet wood, hazelnut skin, black cherry, with a sweet balsamic note to it. In the mouth it is beautifully velvety on the tongue with pungent plum and black cherry flavors that despite deep in tone, have a lightness to them. This wine is medium bodied and elegant and quite tasty. Notes of dark roasted coffee beans enter the finish, which also has a wet wood quality to it. Delicious and only 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $20. Where to buy?

2004 Lang & Reed "Premiere Etage" Cabernet Franc, Napa Valley
Medium to dark ruby in color this wine has a bright nose of hazelnut skin, black cherry,violets, and a tiny hint of green bell pepper to keep things real and the nose true to this varietal. In the mouth it is gorgeously smooth, like a baby's skin on satin sheets, and lush with flavors of black cherry, dark plum, violets, and lavender. With little or no trace of oak influence to be found, this wines tannins are quite airy and light, and not likely to be noticed by most, who will be too busy loving the gorgeous fruit and lengthy finish. Outstanding. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $37. Where to buy?

2004 Lang & Reed "Right Bank" Bordeaux Blend, Napa Valley
Medium to dark ruby in color with thick chunky sediment that speaks to no fining or filtration, this wine has an incredible nose of black cherry, tobacco, and cedar. In the mouth it is gorgeously light on its feet (think Fred Astaire at his best), with soft velvety tannins and dry, earthy flavors of cherry, tobacco, and wet slate that swirl into a gorgeous, sexy concoction that forces a smile. The long finish has an airy sweetness to it, and the acid balance of the wine makes it very difficult not to follow one mouthful after another. Fan-@#$%ing-tastic. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $80. Where to buy?

Comments (55)

Dylan wrote:
07.07.09 at 3:40 PM

High school sweethearts turned winemaking family. It's a lovely story. Unfortunately, a rare one, too. Personally, I can't look forward to any such stories developing from my own friends--most of the high school romances fizzled out early into college and even the "we'll-show-you" couples were shown the way out by graduation time. I'm curious if you know the answer, what changed their minds to offer their Bordeaux Blend outside of charity auctions? Thank you for introducing their story, Alder.

Alder wrote:
07.07.09 at 4:56 PM

Dylan,

I'd like to think that the answer to your question was me telling John and Tracey repeatedly that they would be insane not to sell a wine this good to the public, but I'm sure they came to the decision for reasons other than my ravings.

Bill Ward wrote:
07.08.09 at 10:26 AM

You nailed it here, Alder. This is choice stuff.
At the Premiere Napa barrel tasting, the blend of Lang & Reed cab franc and Pahlmeyer merlot was fabulous (I can't remember what score you gave it). I'd dearly love to see folks who really know what they're doing take a stab at a California version of Cheval Blanc; sounds like John's "Right Bank" is an excellent move in that direction.

Allyn wrote:
07.08.09 at 4:08 PM

Dylan, John and Tracey have an excellent example of a long lasting marriage in John's parents Kate and Bob, they have been married at least 60 years. Vintage marriages run in the family, I married my high school sweetheart and we have been married 40 years. I'm their cousin, great wine and even better family what more could you ask for?

Don Clemens wrote:
07.13.09 at 9:14 AM

Alder: I've known John and Tracey since John and I worked together at Vintage Wine Merchants in the late '70's and early '80's. It has been a singular joy to watch them "live the dream". Like you, I am a fan of their vision of Cabernet Franc. It's nice to know that you don't have to confine yourself to the Loire Valley to find great Cabernet Franc!

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The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson The Taste of Wine by Emile Peynaud 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 World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson The World's Greatest Wine Estates by Robert M. Parker, Jr.