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10.07.2009

Bond Estates, Napa: A Retrospective Tasting

bond_vecina_06.jpgLike the saying goes, if I had a nickel for every time I'd heard or read about a winery "sparing no expense" to get the "best possible fruit" to make the "best wine they could," I'd be a rich man. Winery owners and winemakers are like proud parents -- they see the best in their operations, and if they are aware of their flaws or shortcomings, when company is over, they put on their best face. After all, they're ultimately trying to sell wine.

As someone who has spent a lot of time visiting wineries, and hearing the owners and winemakers give these spiels about a dedication to quality, I have begun to tire of the same story I hear repeated over and over again. Yes, a certain amount of cynicism arises over time, because, frankly the wines themselves tell a story that is is sometimes at odds with the amount of money, and pride that winery owners bring to the table. If I had a nickel for every time some winery owner walked me through their custom, gravity-fed winery, and then proceeded to show me some wines that were average at best, I'd still be a rich man.

It is exceedingly rare for a winery to have the vision, the facility, the fruit, the winemaking, AND all the money it needs to make world-class wine. And it is even more rare for a winery to truly spare no expense to make the best wine possible.

While rare, such wineries do exist, and perhaps the best example I know of in this country is BOND Estates.

I should make clear that I don't think it is necessary to spare no expense to make truly great wine. While some things might improve in direct proportion to how much money you throw at them, wine is not one of them, as evidenced by all the nickels I might have earned in my past. I don't hold BOND up as an example of how someone can spend the most amount of money to make a wine. Rather what this winery represents to me is the possibility of what you can do when the money is spent the right way, for the right things, with the right standards, under the guidance of the right people. Call it the perfect marriage of philosophy and means.

BOND is owned by Bill Harlan, whose Harlan Estate is itself a pinnacle of Napa Valley -- one of the most sought after and expensive wines made in Napa. While the two projects are separate, their origins are intertwined. Harlan Estate began as a project in 1984, as Bill Harlan and winemaker Bob Levy began to work with their estate vineyards to prepare them to make the wine that Harlan planned to carry his name. In addition to the estate vineyards, he and Levy were working with around 60 other vineyards to find fruit that would match the quality of what they were able to produce in their estate vineyard. Harlan Estate was always to be modeled after the great chateaux of Bordeaux, which meant that they would make a single primary wine from the estate, perhaps along with a secondary label.

But in the course of working with these 60 vineyards, making wine from them, and narrowing them down to the ones that would be blended into the estate wine, Levy began to feel like a couple of the vineyards were distinctive enough to bottle on their own, as single vineyards, but that did not fit with the model of Harlan Estate, and Harlan nixed the idea. But, as he does with everything, Harlan wrote it down on his yellow legal pad, and thought long and hard about it, while Bob Levy persisted in making his case for these two vineyards, year after year.

And then, one day Harlan showed up at the winery with a stack of legal pads, each page of which is filled from top to bottom with his loopy handwriting in #2 Ticonderoga pencil and presented Levy with the 100 year plan for a winery called BOND estate, dedicated to making six, and only six, single vineyard wines of exceptional quality. And no, I'm not kidding about the 100 year plan. That's just the way Bill Harlan works.

Where Harlan Estate is the Bordeaux model, BOND estate is the Burgundy model. Using what general manager Paul Roberts calls "jewel box" vineyards, BOND is dedicated to producing wines that highlight ultra-specific places in Napa Valley.

But not just any place can be a BOND vineyard. They have to be the equivalent of grand cru, and you can't tell a grand cru vineyard even if you're standing in the middle of it. You have to taste it. And to do that, you have to make the best wine you can from it.

BOND began with 27 vineyard sites in 1997 including Levy's two favorites from the Harlan project. A wine was made from each of the 27, and kept separate. Lather, rinse, repeat. Every year. By 1999, only Levy's two favorites seemed worthy of carrying the name BOND, which Harlan chose for its description of the bond between man and the earth, between the winery and its growers, and the secondary meaning as a certificate for payment at a future date.

After four years of making dozens of different wines, only four vineyards seemed to have the distinct character and quality that Harlan and Levy were looking for, but still only one more merited joining the lineup of released wines in 2001. And that's the way it has gone for more than 12 years. Wines must get made for several years before they can be released as a BOND wine. Levy has made wine from one particular vineyard for 9 years and it has still never quite gotten to the point where it can become one of the six BOND wines. This despite being made as if it might be the best wine BOND has ever produced, just like the rest of its fellows that either go into the second label, Matriarch, or are sold off in bulk.

This mind-boggling, driven, meticulous, even obsessive approach to making the best wine possible is not confined to the cellar. The vineyards themselves are farmed and picked with a level of detail and attention that few can claim. There are 55 full time vineyard workers (shared with Harlan Estate) many of whom have been with the winery for more than a decade. These workers farm these small 8-10 acre vineyards organically, and by hand, especially given that some of the vineyards have slopes approaching 30 degrees.

When it comes time for harvest, only perfect clusters are removed from the vines. Then when they are brought to the truck, three specific guys, each with a pair of shears, pick up every single cluster and cut off anything that is not a perfect berry. The clusters then go to the winery where (keeping every vineyard separate) they are destemmed and the individual berries are again picked over before they drop, mostly whole, into the fermenters. By the time the fermentation starts, nearly half the harvested fruit has been removed from the mix.

Financially, this is a winery that makes no sense. From the cost of sorting away half the harvest, to making dozens of wines as if they will be released as $275 wines only to sell them off in bulk, to the $3 that each label costs (because it is made by a company that makes paper bill currency for many different countries and it contains watermarks, RFID tags, and other anti-counterfeit measures), there is not an ROI model that can justify the standards to which everything is done at BOND. Unless of course, what you are trying to get out of the effort is not a financial return, but a philosophical one.

Today, BOND has five of its planned six vineyards, and is working with 4 more, one of which will eventually make the cut, and fill the last remaining space in the winery's circular six-zone cellar. These five wines are each remarkable, and while I do not have the pleasure of tasting each of them every year, I usually get to taste one or two, and they are frequently the best Cabernet Sauvignons I taste all year long.

I had the remarkable luck and privilege to attend a retrospective tasting of a number of BOND wines at the Aspen Food & Wine Classic in June. Lucky not only for the opportunity, but also because the wines were poured out of magnum bottles, of which a precious few dozen are produced of each wine every year.

These wines, made in quantities of several hundred cases apiece, are sold exclusively to mailing list customers, at a release price of $275. While in the past they have sold on the secondary market for higher prices, these days they are available for about that price or sometimes a slight discount.

TASTING NOTES:

2005 BOND Melbury, Napa Valley
Inky garnet in the glass, this wine has a gorgeous nose of tobacco, wet earth, and black cherry aromas. In the mouth it is silky smooth with wonderful balance and flavors of tobacco, wet dirt, cola, and a fantastic smokiness that lingers into the finish. One of the two original vineyard sites released in 1999, Melbury is a vineyard on the north side of Lake Hennessy and its fossil-ridden sedimentary soils are said to resemble St. Emilion. Score: around 9.5. Where to buy?

2004 BOND St. Eden, Napa Valley
Deep, inky garnet in color, this wine has a sweet nose of cola and floral notes under which a soft bed of pipe tobacco aromas rests. In the mouth it is incredibly silky, with flavors of chocolate covered dried cherries, cassis, and what I can only describe as blue velvet tannins that have an aromatic sweetness to them that is quite compelling. Perfectly balanced this wine achieves the rare dichotomy of power without heaviness, residual sugar, or excessive alcohol. Fantastic. St. Eden became a BOND site in 2001 after 8 years of being discarded. The vineyard is next door to Rudd and shares its volcanic hillside soil (that slid down onto the valley floor about 2 million years ago). Score: between 9.5 and 10. Where to buy?

2005 BOND Vecina, Napa Valley
Inky garnet in color, this wine has a lovely nose of cedar, cocoa powder, and stony, mineral aromas. In the mouth it is a monster of rocky, mineral, earthy qualities married with a core of cherry and cocoa powder. Incredible acids and powdery tannins wrap like taut sinews around this core of fruit that is welded to a wet, crushed stone quality that continues through a very long finish. Distinctive and outstanding, this wine will almost certainly be even better with 5-10 years of age. One of the two original vineyard sites for BOND, it sits south of the Harlan estate in Oakville, carved into the side of a hill. Only two inches of soil separate the vines from bedrock. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Where to buy?

2005 BOND Pluribus, Napa Valley
Inky garnet in the glass, this wine has a piney, herbal quality to its nose that I eventually find myself describing as arugula. In the mouth it is somewhat austere, with flavors of bright cherry fruit, crushed green herbs, granite, and slightly drying tannins that give the finish a black tea quality. From a rocky knoll on the side of Spring Mountain planted with vines for the first time in 1998, it is surrounded on all sides by a conifer forest. Pluribus became a BOND wine in 2003. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Where to buy?

2004 BOND Vecina, Napa Valley
Inky garnet in the glass, this wine smells of roasted figs and dried cherries, with hints of leather and herb aromas. In the mouth it is smooth and expansive with broad shouldered, huge tannins that are drying in quality. Flavors of leather, black cherry and licorice give the wine a slightly baked quality that suggests it is not aging with as much grace as it could. A nice dried fennel note emerges on the finish. Score: around 9. Where to buy?

2003 BOND Vecina, Napa Valley
Inky garnet in color, this wine smells wonderfully of both rich, blue, cassis and black cherry fruit, as well as rich mushroomy forest floor aromas. In the mouth it is mellow and elegant, with gorgeously satin texture and smooth tannins that wrap around a code of dried and ripe cherries sprinkled with a crushed stone minerality that s disarming. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Where to buy?

2002 BOND Vecina, Napa Valley
Inky garnet in the glass, this wine has a drop-dead nose of gorgeously sweet cherry and plum fruit aromas that immediate start the mouth watering. On the palate the wine has an otherworldly texture, matched only by the juicy brightness of its black cherry and sour cherry core. Swirling about this perfectly balanced center of fruit are dried herbs and orange oil flavors that also linger into one of the longest finishes I've tasted in recent memory, lasting several minutes. Incredibly vibrant and dynamic, this is a truly amazing wine. Score: around 10. Where to buy?

2001 BOND Vecina, Napa Valley
Inky garnet in color, this wine has a deep rich nose of pipe tobacco, forest floor, and according to my notes, chocolate covered figs. In the mouth it is dark, rich and intense, with voluminous tannins that provide a skeletal structure for a massive frame of black cherry muscle. Coiled around this deep dark core are rich flavors of spicy incense, cedar, and an aromatic sweetness that lingers through a powerful finish. Outstanding. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Where to buy?

2000 BOND Vecina, Napa Valley
Inky garnet in the glass and still looking quite youthful, this wine has a crystalline nose of bright cherry and plum fruit mixed with earthier tones of forest floor, cedar boughs and chocolate. In the mouth it is lighter in quality than more recent vintages, with more redcurrant and bing cherry fruit, mellow tannins and a phenomenal acid balance that makes it incredibly quaffable. Gorgeously textured and intense in flavor, it is quite mouthwatering and delicious. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Where to buy?

1999 BOND Vecina, Napa Valley
Dark garnet in color, looking no worse for wear after 10 years, this wine smells like a huge boulder of granite in the middle of a redwood forest after a rainstorm. In the mouth it is... elemental in its deep stony quality. With flavors of steel, iodine and crushed stones along with red berry fruit, this wine has evolved into a Bordeaux like creature that is arresting and delicious. Incredibly well integrated tannins and wonderful acidity carry a mineral-laden finish through several subtle minutes. Poured from one of only 35 magnums produced. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Where to buy?

Comments (14)

Dylan wrote:
10.08.09 at 6:35 AM

Reading this actually makes me excited. I'm excited because this is proof that great commitment makes great wine possible. While everyone might not require a hundred year plan to achieve the same results, I do believe in many of the technical aspects applied here. And while some techniques mentioned require larger financial resources than most have (the ability to plant multiple vineyards and taste from them only to know which ones to cut from their production)--I consider it a case of, given the resources, why wouldn't anyone do the same for their production.

Maybe it's the spirit of competition, or something else I can't explain, but when I read about a winery like this performing as well as it does, it makes me want to perform better. It's certainly an energy and story which I will pass along to our team today--warning them we'd prefer to make you a richer man for the experience rather than from adding another nickel.

10.08.09 at 8:06 AM

Great write-up, Alder. I used to order BOND and Harlan Estate every year. But with the downturn of the economy, it's hard to justify paying those $$, and the latest offer of BOND seemed to be even more pricey than before. But I must say - had the 02 Matriarch the other day - the lowlier of the line-up - and it was impressive (including acidity, which I find lacking in most Cali wines).

Roger wrote:
10.08.09 at 9:08 AM

I can relate to the marketing hype we hear routinely the "spare no expense" line. When the wines do not fit the description, it is tempting to tell them they are wasting good money.

In the age of homogenization, this is what makes Bill Harlan stand out from the rest of the crowd. It helps that his legend allows him to access the best fruit but I don't know of many wineries who would sell off wines of this caliber to the bulk market. I would love to find out who was bottling the seconds since they are most likely better than many winery's firsts.

Great writeup.

10.08.09 at 9:56 AM

I am so glad you wrote this. We've been receiving offers in the mail for Bond, and I really had no idea what it was all about. Next time I get one, I'll be sure to take a closer look.

10.08.09 at 9:59 AM

Ditto what Roger said ("...would love to find out who was bottling the seconds..."). Thanks for the great article.

John wrote:
10.08.09 at 11:52 AM

All I can think of is that this is more over the top California at work. At those prices, the wine better be damned good!

PS who is buying this stuff???

Alder wrote:
10.08.09 at 12:03 PM

John,

These prices do put the wines out of the reach of 99% of wine consumers, for sure, myself included. But they are tremendous wines and shouldn't be dismissed as "over the top" because of their price, and they are certainly not made in a confected "over the top" fashion.

The question of who is buying this stuff is a good one. I don't claim to have an answer other than that, generally, fewer people than before.

Danny Burkes wrote:
10.08.09 at 1:01 PM

I got my first offer from BOND this year (not surprising), and ordered the '05 Matriarch. It is beyond good- outstanding. And, at $75, not a bad bargain. I'm a fan, albeit one who's sitting in the bleachers right now rather than on the third base line. Maybe next year? :-)

10.09.09 at 7:39 AM

Great inside view of Bond. There website doesn't give much info. I have carried the wines on our list but have had a sip of only one. It was remarkable.
Now I can speak about them with a little more knowledge

Troy wrote:
10.13.09 at 11:27 AM

People seem to always slight second wines, but my experience with Matriarch and Maiden have been positive and I think they give good bang for the buck. It's what I look forward to buying each year.

Tavydog wrote:
10.19.09 at 5:07 PM

I was lucky enough to taste at Bond over the summer and was stunned at their attention to detail and lust for quality. The thing that really blew me away was a huge selection of differently sized vessels used for topping up as the "angels share" disappears from the barrel. When I inquired more about this, they said they needed so many and such variety because they top up the barrels with the same wine from the same row. When I'm making wine at home, sometimes I don't even top up with the same varietal. Truly, a class organization.

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