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Corison Winery, Napa: Current Releases

It's hard to get attention in the world of wine. Many wineries and winemakers struggle their entire careers for recognition, both deservedly and some, not quite. In the days of big marketing budgets and cult wines that are only corison_logo.jpgfiguratively on everyone's lips (and literally on the lips of very few), it's easy to overlook wineries that have quietly been doing their thing for decades.

I can't tell you how many times I've driven by the understated Corison Winery on Highway 29 without ever going in. The number must literally be in the hundreds. While I've still not actually stopped to pay Cathy Corison a visit, I've had a chance to taste her wines (and chat with her) on several occasions and under different conditions, from barrel samples to cellar aged verticals, and it's clear that for being in plain sight amidst all the glossy wineries on Highway 29 in Napa, she is one of the more under-appreciated wineries in the valley.

Cathy Corison fell in love with wine as an idealistic and romantic college student in Biology at Pomona college. Fascinated by the "living" microbiology of wine, she went on to get a degree in Enology in the hallowed halls of U.C. Davis. After graduating in the Seventies and starting her career in winemaking at a time when Napa was just coming into its own again as a major wine producing region, she worked at a number of major wineries in the valley, including York Creek Vineyards, Yverdon Winery, Chappellet Vineyard, Long Meadow Ranch, and Staglin Family Vineyards.

Getting started in winemaking at that time afforded Cathy the opportunity of realizing a dream that many new winemakers will never achieve: to own their own vineyard in Napa. It took her 12 years, but eventually in the late 1980's, Corison Winery was born. Since its first vintage in 1987, the winery has been a labor of love and life's work for Cathy and her husband William Martin, who wears most of the hats that Cathy does not, including barn builder, back-office manager, and system administrator.

Cathy's roots in Cabernet Sauvignon run deep. Inspired by the old world wines of Saint-Julien, Bordeaux, she has spent decades learning everything there is to know about growing and making Cabernet in the Napa Valley with a single-minded, quiet intensity. Apart from a small production of Gewurztraminer, and occasional dabblings in other varietals for second labels, Corison winery makes only two wines, both of them Cabernet Sauvignon from her 10 acres of alluvial vineyards on the sloping west side of the Napa Valley between Rutherford and St. Helena.

Even at a time when it was harder to find reasonably priced land in Napa, the Corison property was a diamond in the rough. In an interview a few years ago in the San Francisco Chronicle, Cathy noted that the property was passed over by many buyers because of an old, likely-to-be-condemned farmhouse on the property and a Cabernet vineyard that most believed needed to be ripped out and replanted. It turns out that neither supposition was quite true, and both the farmhouse and the vineyard continue to fulfill their original purposes today.

Cathy's Kronos Vineyard, as she named it, has been dutifully producing her vineyard designated Cabernet for almost two decades now. I have had the good fortune to taste nearly every one of the last ten of fifteen years of this wine and I find it to be one of Napa's most expressive single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignons -- expressive of both its individual vineyard characteristics, but also of the particulars of the vintage. In an age when technology and vineyard management practices allow winemakers to make highly polished wines that are remarkably consistent between vintages, Corison and her wines seem bent on expressing a bit more of the personality of the each year than many of her neighbors.

Not unrelated to this expressiveness, I find Corison wines undergo quite an evolution in the bottle over time. In short, they seem to age incredibly well, developing wonderful aromatics and more finesse over time. Quite possibly the best Corison wine I have tasted was the 1996 Kronos I tasted several years ago at a public tasting. I had appreciated the Kronos vineyard before that taste, but I had not taken it seriously enough. Corison's wines, like the ancient pottery shards that grace the labels, are of another time and place, even as they are firmly and undeniably some of the best of what's available in Napa today.

Full disclosure: I received these wines as press samples.

2006 Corison Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of tobacco, wet dirt and perfectly ripe black cherries. In the mouth it is beautifully restrained, with flavors of black cherry, mulberry, and wet wood -- sort of like untreated redwood decking in the rain -- making for an elegant, complex flavor profile. Excellent acidity is what helps Cathy's wines age so well, as this one undoubtedly will. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $70 Click to buy.

2005 Corison "Kronos Vineyard" Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of black cherries, wet earth,and tobacco leaves. In the mouth it is rich and layered with cherry, tobacco, and cola flavors mixed with a darker cassis or blackberry quality that has a gorgeous aromatic sweetness to it. Faint powdery tannins remain in the mouth along with a bright fruit essence in the finish. Lovely. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $98. Click to buy.

Comments (8)

scott wrote:
12.30.09 at 10:51 AM

I appreciate your post on Corison. I have followed her and her wines over the past several years and I like that she does her own thing.

One thing I can’t understand about the US wine market, particularly at the high end, is why do wineries want to make consistent wines year-in year-out as you mention? What do you think? I read one article about a high-end ($150+/bottle) Napa cab producer and they said straight out that they strive not to have vintage variation and they use one of those CA tech consultant labs to help them achieve it. Seems ludicrous to me. Isn’t that one of the unique beauties of wine – it can capture a finite time and place making each year unique. There is nothing more captivating and valuable than something with true uniqueness.

Alder wrote:
12.30.09 at 12:54 PM


Tough question. Here's my opinion. Vintage variation is a loaded term. It can simply mean differences in flavors from one year to the next, but it can also mean better or worse wine. I think when people say they are trying to eliminate vintage variation, mostly what they're talking about is trying to take steps to make better wine in years when nature is not as kind. It's hard to fault people for that, especially when most consumers will buy a wine in subsequent years expecting it to taste like it did the previous year.

Pretty much every winemaker I've ever met makes at least some changes in the vineyard and in the cellar depending on what nature has handed them each year. These can be as subtle as dropping more fruit, removing more leaves, or letting the grapes soak in contact with the skins a bit longer.

Certainly the differences between vintages and the impact that makes on wine is one of the great pleasures of a more advanced and knowledgeable appreciation of wine. But there is a fine, fuzzy line between "making the best wine you can" and "eliminating vintage variation." At the end of the day, winemaking is a business, and people strive to make products that people will buy.

With that understanding there are winemakers who will tolerate more differences from one year to the next than others. Cathy is obviously in the first camp.

Jack wrote:
01.04.10 at 3:14 AM

Dear Alder,
Thanks for this article on Corison. While here wines are great while young, they really blossom in 6-10 years to something that are world class. And she makes wonder wines in "difficult" years. She is a Napa treasure.

Eric C wrote:
01.04.10 at 7:55 PM

I believe the struggle for any winery or especially the boutique producer, is "brand". We struggle with making a great wine AND brand recognition. If folks like what you produce, they assume your next vintage will be, at a minimum, along the same line. As a boutique producer we struggle with your exact comments. Our solution has been to have at least 1/2 of our wine from the same vineyard, year to year, and blend in strategically located vineyard fruit to maintain the highest quality and brand reputation. That's the hope and the struggle as we strive to establish ourselves and our ‘brand’.

BaroloDude wrote:
01.05.10 at 10:10 AM

Thanks for the review Alder. My favorite Napa cab producer, who has many of their grapes in the same neighborhood as Corison, has become a bit to expensive to follow now... I have been looking for a more affordable substitute/replacement.
I will stop in and try these wines during my next visit to Napa! I too have driven by so many times but never stopped in (yet!). Happy New Year!

Jose wrote:
01.07.10 at 2:04 PM

I had the chance to pop-in and taste Corison's wines this past September.
I must say they were quite delicious. My girlfriend and I were the first and only folks there when we arrived. We purposely went in there because we'd not heard of the winery before.

Tai-Ran Niew wrote:
09.24.10 at 8:06 PM

I have just been, and Cathy was kind enough to pour us a vertical flight going back to 2000. Stunning. Truly stunning. Her 2001 is exquisite.

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