To say there are “undiscovered” areas of Napa Valley may be overstating the case a bit, but there are certainly a few areas of California’s most famous wine valley that most wine lovers have never heard of, let alone visited, no matter how many times they’ve been to Napa.
The small, shallow valley of Coombsville is one such place. Literally off the beaten path, this area of Napa Valley that lies east of the city of Napa cannot be found by traversing Highway 29 or the Silverado Trail, the two main arteries of Napa. Instead one must strike out east before the valley is even reached. Traveling through the quickly suburban streets east of Napa, the inquisitive will come upon the innocuously named “Third Avenue.” A right hand turn at this point will shortly lead to one of my favorite “secret” quiet spots in all of Napa wine country, and not coincidentally to one of my favorite secret wine producers, Farella Vineyards.
As I composed this post in my head over the last couple of days, I’ve been struggling to figure out the best way to describe Tom Farella. The best thing I can come up with is Renaissance Man. He seems to successfully embody all the romantic notions that we have about the most traditional of small winemakers while remaining very firmly planted in the present of the 21st century. Talking to him about wine (which isn’t hard — the guy loves to talk) invariably involves a journey through philosophy, botany, geology, and the wide history of the wine world. It’s impossible not to see that this is a guy who thinks and feels deeply about what he’s doing as a winemaker, and someone who is most comfortable when he’s out among the vineyards of his small farm, checking on his vines and plucking fresh chanterelles from the roots of his oak trees after the winter rains.
Farella is a second generation vintner, following in the footsteps of his father, Frank Farella, who had the foresight (or the stubborn singlemindness, it seems) to buy 26 acres of land on the outskirts of Napa and make a go of being a winemaker in the mid-Seventies. By the time he was old enough to make the decision, Tom Farella found that there was really no other one to make: he would become a winemaker just like his father.
They say that talents peak at different ages. Gymnasts seem to be at their finest in their late teens. Mathematicians seem do their best work in their mid twenties. And as a friend pointed out to me last night, Alexander the Great and Jesus both did their best work by the time they were 33 (and dead).
It’s unclear when exactly winemakers hit their stride, but after 27 vintages, Tom Farella really seems to be in the zone. His education at UC Davis and subsequent gigs at Neyers and and Flora Springs eventually led him to winemaking duties at Preston Vineyards in Sonoma from 1983 to 1989. After some time spent there, he made wine at Ponzi Vineyards in Oregon, and for one intense harvest at Domaine Jacques-Prieur in Burgundy (Meursault). After this tour of duty, not unlike the adventures that young men have sought for centuries as they go out to “make their own way in the world,” Farella returned home to take over the family farm (which had been, and still does sell much of its fruit to the likes of Pahlmeyer and Shafer Vineyards) and to begin making the Farella wines an expression of everything he had learned. Sixteen years into that effort, he feels the wines are starting to express the vision he has long held for them, a feeling embodied by the creation of new top-tier wine named “Alta” in the 2001 vintage, a blend of 70% Cabernet 30% Merlot.
In addition to this top wine, Farella also produces estate grown varietal wines under the Farella Park Vineyards label. Farella’s winemaking philosophy tends towards the minimalist, eschewing fining and filtration for his red wines, and offering restraint in the use of new oak — only 75% new for the Alta, and as little as 20% new for his Merlot. The wines are also unusual in this day and age for their remarkably sane alcohol levels which rarely rise above 14%.
Farella makes around 1200 cases of wine each year with no real plans to increase that amount. That’s just enough for him to feel like he has crafted each wine personally to the standards of quality he requires. And after tasting through his wines, it’s pretty easy to see how high those standards are.
Full Disclosure: I received some of these wines as press samples.
2005 Farella Park Sauvignon Blanc, Napa
Pale green-gold in color, this wine has a slightly yeasty nose with hints of citrus and pineapple aromas. In the mouth it offers flavors of golden apples and light tropical fruits. While it possesses a nice texture, the wine lacks a little zippiness that would make it more dynamic, with a greater range of expression. Still, it’s a solid example of the form, and pleasant to drink. 8.5. Cost: $14. Where to Buy?
2002 Farella Park Merlot, Napa
Dark garnet in the glass this wine has an alluring dark nose of wet earth, ripe black plums, and something I can only describe as wet tree bark — a deep soothing aroma of forest. Extremely Bordeaux-like in the mouth, this super smooth, balanced wine offers flavors of slate and other mineral undertones nicely married to dark plum and cherry fruit. Excellent acidity and a supple, understated tannic structure buoy the wine along the palate through a nice finish, and speak volumes about its aging potential. A keeper. 9. Cost: $24. Where to Buy?
2002 Farella Park Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa
Inky garnet in color to the point of opacity, this wine has a rich nose of black cherry and cassis aromas, with a hint of cedar. In the mouth it epitomizes smoothness, like Bogart in a fedora, with flavors of black cherry and forest floor sculpted by perfectly integrated tannins and excellent acidity. Definitely one of the undiscovered gems of the Cabernet variety from Napa. 9/9.5. Cost: $32. Where to Buy?
2001 Farella “Alta” Red Table Wine, Napa
Medium ruby in the glass, this wine smells of dirt, wet stones, and pure cherry fruit. In the mouth it is incredibly juicy, with fantastic acidity lifting flavors of cherry tobacco into an aerial ballet of ethereal flavor that tumbles dynamically across the palate and lingers for a long time in the finish. This wine achieves a brightness and lightness that so few California Cabernet’s are interested in pursuing these days, instead opting for darker, deeper richness. This wine hearkens back to the old world (and old California) style of Cabernet — lighter, more food friendly, and designed to age with beautiful bouquet. 9.5. Cost: $50. Where to Buy?
The last time I stopped by the winery, I also had the opportunity to taste a library wine that starkly highlights the ageability of Farella’s wines.
1995 Farella Park “Orchard Block” Merlot, Napa
Medium garnet in the glass, still holding excellent color for its age, this wine has a heady mysterious nose of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cedar, with the hints of the plum fruit that once must have dominated the nose. In the mouth it is gorgeously textured with flavors of figs, cassis, and chai tea spices wrapped around a hint of cherry and plum. This wine has blossomed into something beyond fruit that just wants to linger and chat with the back of the throat as long as you’re willing to pay attention. Wow. 9.5. Cost: $45. Where to Buy?
I also had the opportunity on a recent visit to taste the following barrel samples which indicate great things to come from this little winery in the next year or two:
2004 Farella Park “West Face Block” Cabernet, Clone 7, Barrel Sample
Medium ruby in the glass, this wine has a luxurious nose of cherry and cassis aromas. In the mouth it offers a nice balance of light herbal flavors wrapped in cherry and hints of toasted oak. Great length on the palate. (9/9.5?)
2004 Farella Park “Rockpile Block” Cabernet , Clone 7, Barrel Sample
Medium ruby in color, this wine smells of cherry, green peppercorn, and spices. In the mouth it is cola driven with flavors of vanilla, cherry, and spice, excellent length and complexity. Will be gorgeous. (9.5?)
2004 Farella Park Cabernet, Clone 4, Barrel Sample
Medium ruby in the glass, this wine has a sweet nose of pure cherry fruit. In the mouth it is expansive and broad with great texture and excellent billowy tannins that carry the core of cherry fruit to great lengths of flavor. Stunning. (9.5?)
2004 Farella Park Syrah, Barrel Sample
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of blackberry. boysenberry, and well-worn leather. In the mouth it tastes of fresh mud, blackberry fruit and spiciness that rides on the back of excellent acidity. There’s a uniqueness of personality in this wine that if possible to maintain into the bottle will make this one of the best Napa Syrahs I have ever had. Period. (9.5/10?)