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05.25.2014

Building a Foundation The Right Way: The Wines of Cornerstone Cellars, Napa

I first met Craig Camp in Oregon, where he was running Anne Amie vineyards, and where he had already proven to be one of the most internet-savvy individuals I had ever seen in the wine business. An early industry blogger, Craig was just as earnest in person as I found his writings to be online. I got to know Craig in fits and starts, as online interactions and occasional meet-ups in Oregon migrated from acquaintance to friendship.

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And then one day, Camp announced he was coming to Napa. I must admit to being slightly shocked at the news, so deeply did I associate Camp with the Willamette Valley. But having gotten to know the dedication and passion that Camp brings to his work, I trusted that whatever he was doing, it was going to be interesting.

Sure enough, a few months later Camp let me know he was now managing a label in Napa called Cornerstone Cellars, which had been around since the early Nineties, but which I had never come across. A few weeks after that, and every few months since, samples from Cornerstone have shown up at my doorstep. As a result, I've been able to both watch the evolution of this winery under Camp's leadership, as well as taste its progression towards the vision that Camp has for its success.

After spending a college semester abroad in Salzburg, Austria, and as he describes it "drinking my way through Austria and France," Camp got his start in the wine business on the sales side, first working for auction house John Hart, and then soon after co-founding the Direct Import Wine Company in 1979. He represented a large book of business ranging from Becky Wasserman's Burgundy portfolio to Neil Empson's Italian wines to California stars such as Shafer, Spottswoode and Calera. When that company was sold to Paterno, he packed his bags for Italy.

"I stayed there for three years. I hung out in Barolo doing dirty work, working the cellars, translating, doing anything I could do to learn winemaking," recalled Camp when I sat down with him this winter to talk about where Cornerstone was headed.

After his three year ramble through Northern Italy, Camp returned to Oregon where he joined Anne Amie Vineyards for several years before moving to Napa. While in Oregon he happened to meet Jeff Keene, a New Zealander who at the time was working for Havens winery in Napa, specializing in cooler climate wines with an unusual amount of restraint for their New World origins.

"When I landed at Cornerstone and decided to look for a winemaker, Jeff was an easy choice, because I already knew that we spiritually agreed," said Camp.

Keene, a self described "military brat" grew up mostly in Auckland and trained as a food scientist. He worked in a lab in New Zealand for eight years doing research on many things, including Sauvignon Blanc.

"I got bored of working in a lab," recalled Keene. "Two years before I got to that point my boss had left and set up the first postgraduate program at Lincoln Univeristy outside of Christchurch. I thought to myself, 'well, I've got a science background, why shouldn't I go learn winemaking and viticulture?'"

A year later, Keene had finished that postgraduate degree and was getting his feet wet at Dry Lands Estate in Marlborough.

"I was in my mid twenties and I wanted to get where I wanted to get quicker. I was on the fast track," said Keene. "I always wanted to work at places where I could get exposed to everything. At Dry Lands I did the night shift. There were only a handful of us there, so they taught us everything."

Keene then looked overseas, and thanks to a classmate, got an introduction to Havens winery, where he started as an intern and over eight years eventually rose to be the winemaker. From Havens he made the easy jump to Peter Franus winery, whose wines were made in the Havens facility.

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In 2008 Keene got the call from Camp, and he joined in time to help finish the blending for the 2007 vintage. Keene arrived to find a winery undergoing serious change.

Cornerstone Cellars was founded in 1991 by two doctors from Memphis Tennessee, one of whom, Michael Dragutsky, now owns the winery. An accomplished physician and professor of Internal Medicine, Dragutsky built his Gastroenterology practice into something of an empire. He now runs the 12th largest GI group practice in the country, and somehow in his free time he also started a company that does high-end system integration for custom home entertainment systems.

A lifelong wine lover, Dragutsky came to Napa following a dream of having his own tiny wine label. From its founding in 1991 to about 2007, Cornerstone's production grew from about 300 cases to 1500 cases. As with many such projects, making the wine was the easy part. Selling it was another thing entirely. Dragutsky finally realized he needed to bring in some outside help, and found his way to Camp through a "friend of a friend."

Cornerstone's production now sits comfortably around 10,000 cases, and bears almost no resemblance to the winery's earliest incarnation. No longer just a boutique label owned by absentee proprietors, Cornerstone has become a well-recognized brand, and a consistent producer of high quality wines across a spectrum of price points.

More importantly, and much more interestingly, Camp and Keene have gradually and carefully been dialing the winery into their vision for what Napa's next generation wine might look like.

"First and foremost, I wanted to make wines I could drink," said Camp, who freely admits his palate is Euro-centric. "We're looking for balance, finesse and elegance. We want acid, structure and lift, and playfulness on the palate."

"This is a challenge in Napa," added Keene. "We want, when you taste the wine, for it to come alive in your mouth. But we've got lots of extremes of weather to deal with here, so we're finding vineyards that work for the style of wine that we're making."

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The two have settled on about 5 core growers that supply most of the fruit they work with, as well as the teams to manage them. Camp and Keene continue to work with these growers to refine their approach, and feel that with the 2010 and 2011 vintages, they finally have wines that represent what they are trying to achieve.

And what might that be? Well, to my palate, these are wines that have a buoyancy to them, and a brightness that can sometimes get lost in the thick richness of dark power that comes with many a Napa Cabernet in particular. Keene's cool climate background certainly shows through, as the wines have excellent acidity and don't shy away from an herbal savory component. Many of the wines also tend to have quite restrained oak signatures.

Rather than just a single proprietary cuvee, the winery now has a broad portfolio of wines across a large number of price points, and from many different grape varieties. This variety has, at times, seemed somewhat confused.

"This is an evolutionary process," said Camp in his defense. "We have been willing to go where the wine takes us. I didn't want to write a business plan based on specific grapes and wine profiles. We simply decided we were going to grow and explore and see when we get to a set of wines that fit our vision for what we want to make and sell."

For what it's worth, that vision seems to be settling towards a solid portfolio of Bordeaux grape varieties, with an expected emphasis on Cabernet Sauvignon, along with an increasing focus on Syrah.

Oh, and then there's the Willamette Valley Pinot Noir.

You can take the boy out of Oregon but apparently you can't take the Oregon out of the boy. Shortly after he took over the reigns at Cornerstone, a series of conversations with winemaker Tony Rynders led to the creation of a set of Cornerstone Pinot Noirs and a Chardonnay, which continue to be made by Rynders each year.

Cornerstone continues to evolve, but like the rapidly shortening line of a tether ball accelerating towards the pole, the wines of Cornerstone are beginning to gravitate towards a quality and consistency that is quite admirable, and the equal of any of Napa's stalwart producers. Camp and Keene seem to be laying the foundation for becoming a fixture in the valley. Their Yountville tasting room has already become one of the town's most visited, and thanks to Camp, the winery has quickly become among the most successful industry players in social media and new internet technologies such as geofencing.

It has been a great pleasure watching Cornerstone Cellars coalesce over the past few years, and it will be even more fun watching it shift into high-gear now that it has seemingly settled into a comfortable groove. If you don't know these wines, I highly recommend you find some of the 2010s in particular.

Full disclosure: some of the tasting notes below were made from press samples I received from the winery.

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CURRENT RELEASES:

2012 Cornerstone Cellars Sauvignon Blanc, Napa, California
Pale gold in color, this wine smells of golden apples, and candied lemon rind. In the mouth, bright juicy lemon rind and a hint of wheat and golden apples mix with a beautiful bright acidity and good length. Aged in 2-3 year old used French oak barrels. 900 cases made 14.1% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $30 click to buy.

2011 Cornerstone Cellars "Stepping Stone" Syrah, Napa, California
Medium to dark garnet in the glass. This wine smells of beautifully aromatic black pepper, cassis, and crushed dried flowers with a hint of red apple. In the mouth, lean cassis and black cherry fruit have a nice herbal brightness to them mixed with a bit of green wood. Faint, leathery tannins linger on the finish along with that woody character. Includes 5% Merlot from Carneros. 40% new French Burgundy barrels. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $35

2011 Cornerstone Cellars "Stepping Stone" Cabernet Franc, Napa, California
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of crushed hazelnuts, dried flowers, and dusty farm roads. In the mouth, gorgeously bright cherry, tobacco, cocoa powder, and crushed green herbs have perfect balance, and wonderfully silky texture. Poised, and elegant, with excellent acidity, this is a characterful and delicious rendition of Franc from Napa. Outstanding. 50% new French oak. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $40

2011 Cornerstone Cellars "Stepping Stone" Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa, California
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of wet earth, tobacco, and bright cherry fruit. In the mouth, beautifully bright cherry and tobacco flavors mix with cocoa powder and a hint of black licorice as the wine finishes. Excellent acidity and very good length, with notes of dried herbs on the finish. Delicious. Wonderfully light on its feet and eminently drinkable. Faint dusty tannins. 50% new French oak. 14.3% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $40

2010 Cornerstone Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, Napa, California
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of wonderfully bright cherry and tobacco and cedar notes. In the mouth the wine has a wonderful claret brightness and fantastic acidity, delivering flavors of cherry, crushed green herbs, tobacco, and cedar. Juicy notes of cherry, with hints of fennel seed and wet earth linger in the long finish. Comes from fruit on Howell Mountain and Oakville. 65% new French oak for 22 months. Includes 13% Merlot and 2% Cabernet Franc. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $54 click to buy.

2010 Cornerstone Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain, Napa, California
Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dusty earth and dark black cherry. In the mouth powdery muscular tannins wrap around a core of black cherry and bing cherry fruit tinged with cedar and cocoa powder. Rich and dark without being overripe or thick. Burly but not fat, this wine will do nicely with a couple of years in the bottle, though it is quite tasty now. Includes 10% Merlot from Carneros. .75% new French oak for 22 months. 14.7% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $69 click to buy.

2010 Cornerstone Cellars "The Cornerstone" Red Blend Napa Valley, California
Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dusty earth, bright cherry fruit, and wonderful floral notes weaved in between the dark fruit and hints of tobacco. In the mouth violets and licorice mix with dark cherry fruit and gorgeously supple tannins that caress the palate, shifting like a gauzy veil across the face of the bright fruit. The wine has an effortlessness to it that is quite juicy and delicious. There's a stony quality to the wine that is quite compelling. A blend of 82% Cabernet from the Oakville Station. 11% Merlot from Carneros, and 7% Cabernet Franc from St. Helena. 100% new French oak. 14.9% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $150 click to buy.

2010 Cornerstone Cellars "Corallina" Rosé of Syrah, Napa Valley, California
Pale coppery pink in the glass, this wine smells of candied orange peel, dried berries, and dried herbs. In the mouth it is silky and juicy with bright strawberry jam and cherry flavors. Dry and crisp and just what you want from a rosé. 13.9% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $13 click to buy.

2010 Cornerstone Cellars Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Light ruby in the glass with purple highlights, this wine smells of raspberry and cherry with hints of cedar. In the mouth, wonderfully bright raspberry and cherry flavors have a green herbal note that seems tied to the supple, rippling tannins that firmly grasp the edges of the mouth. Excellent acidity and notes of forest floor and citrus peel linger in the finish. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $50 click to buy.

2010 Cornerstone Cellars "Stepping Stone" Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Light garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and cranberry with hints of cedar. In the mouth, excellent acidity brings flavors of cherry and raspberry to life, wrapped in a fleecy blanket of fine-grained tannins. Bright flavors of citrus peel linger with raspberry in the finish. Tasty. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $32. click to buy.

2010 Cornerstone Cellars Chardonnay, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Light greenish gold in color, this wine smells a little of the mineral waxiness of Chapstick mixed with lemon pastry cream. In the mouth wonderful grapefruit and cold cream flavors mix with a stony underbelly of the wine that is prickly thanks to excellent acidity. Lean and cool, with a slick silky feel, this wine has a wonderful reserved quality about it. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $40 click to buy.

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OLDER VINTAGES:
Here are some of the tasting notes from my archive of tasting notes on Cornerstone wines made in the last three or four years.

2007 Cornerstone Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California
Medium to dark ruby in color, with a hint of purple, this wine smells of cherry fruit and candied violets. In the mouth flavors of cherry cola and cassis mix amidst bright acidity and faint but muscular tannins. The cassis is the dominant flavor in the finish, which is nice and long. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $50. click to buy.

2009 Cornerstone Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California
Very dark garnet in color, this wine smells of rich black cherry fruit and cassis. In the mouth, dark cherry, cassis, and licorice notes mesh with a creamy coffee quality that is tied to the very well integrated new oak flavors in the wine. Muscular but not bulky tannins ripple beneath the dark surface of this wine, while cocoa powder lingers in the finish. Excellent acidity. 14.9% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $65. click to buy.

2009 Cornerstone Cellars "Stepping Stone" Cabernet Franc, Napa Valley, California
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and violets with hints of green herbs. In the mouth the slightest hint of green bell pepper mixes with cherry, plum, and lightly tacky tannins. Good acidity makes this wine quite drinkable, as cocoa powder and plum linger in the finish. 14.25% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $34. click to buy.

2009 Cornerstone Cellars "The Cornerstone" Proprietary Red Wine, Napa Valley, California
Inky garnet in color, this wine smells of black cherry and tobacco. In the mouth, smoky flavors of black cherry and tobacco are gripped by thick, drying tannins while scents of sweet new oak ride somewhat roughshod over the fruit. The oak dominates the finish as the tannins dry out the mouth. Good acidity. Seems like it would have been a nice wine with a bit less oak. 14.9% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $250. click to buy.

2009 Cornerstone Cellars "Stepping Stone" Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dark black cherry fruit and a hint of licorice. In the mouth black cherry fruit and black licorice flavors mix with cocoa powder and muscular tannins. Good acidity, but the fruit and tannins are quite powerful. 14.5% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $65. click to buy.

2009 Cornerstone Cellars Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, Oregon
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of brown sugar, raspberries and cedar. In the mouth, the wine offers strong raspberry flavors with juicy acidity and a hint of earth to keep the wine from being too fruit driven. Long finish. Very pretty. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $50

2006 Cornerstone Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of black cherry, wet dirt, and pipe tobacco. In the mouth it has excellent acidity, lightly drying tannins, and flavors of wet dirt, black cherry, and hints of fennel seed that linger in the finish. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $50. click to buy.

2005 Cornerstone Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain, Napa, California
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of rich black cherry, wet earth, and cassis. In the mouth it is broad shouldered and burly, with aggressive, leathery tannins that wrap around a muscled core of black cherry and leather. Notes of cedar and a light sense of candied lavender emerge on the finish. Score: around 9. Cost: $75. click to buy.

2007 Cornerstone Cellars "Stepping Stone" Grenache, Red Hills, Lake County, California
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of cherry, raspberry, and cedar. In the mouth it is velvety with nice acidity and soft tannins that grip flavors of cherry, wet earth, and chocolate. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $35

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