All 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 have time, the two sons pitch in as well, but mostly they help drink the wine.
The Lang and Reed vision for what Cabernet Franc should be is unique not only for its singularity — up until last year’s 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 two primary bottlings — 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 will soon be making small quantities of a Bordeaux blend called “Right Bank,” which was produced only for charity auctions in the past, and has been some of my favorite barrel sampled wine over the last couple of years.
Careful readers will also note that the 2005 wine below has an appellation designation of North Coast, which is the AVA that includes all the winegrowing counties north of San Francisco (Marin, Mendocino, Napa, Sonoma, and Solano). The reason for the change in 2005 was simple — some great fruit sources that fell outside the Napa valley boundary.
Full disclosure: I received these wines as press samples.
2005 Lang and Reed Cabernet Franc, North Coast
Medium ruby in the glass, this wine has a juicy nose of plum and blackberry aromas. In the mouth it is lively and round with a nice balance, imperceptible tannins, and expectantly juicy flavors of cherry, redcurrant, and spicy notes that merge with faint flower essences that linger into a long finish. This is Cabernet Franc as only California can make it. 2290 cases produced. 9/9.5. $20 Where to Buy?
2004 Lang and Reed Cabernet Franc, Napa
Medium ruby in color, this wine has a shifting nose of mixed red berry compote that at times smells like cherries, raspberries, and even for a brief moment, strawberries. These aromas are underscored by a faint scent of flowers that manifests more strongly in the body of the wine, which is a nice combination of cherry, plum, and wet dirt flavors that bounce on a backbone of great acidity and mix with the floral high notes through the finish. 1924 cases produced. 9 $20 Where to Buy?
2003 Lang and Reed “Premier Etage” Cabernet Franc, Napa
Medium ruby in color, this wine has a more classic Cabernet Franc nose of cherries and violets. In the mouth it offers pure, linear cherry flavors that are bursting with acidity, and incorporate floral and other red fruit flavors, mixed with an oddly pleasant grapeyness. This fruit high-note, if you will, is married to deeper, richer flavors of dirt that make for an interesting taut dynamic that lasts in an impressive finish. A unique and immensely pleasurable wine, that grabs you (gently) by the lapels and insists you have another glass. 366 cases produced. 9.5 $36 Where to Buy?
2002 Lang and Reed “Premier Etage” Cabernet Franc, Napa
Medium ruby in the glass, this wine has a nose of tobacco, cherry, and fresh violet aromas. On the palate it is juicy and dynamic with cherry, tobacco, cedar and spice flavors that make for a mélange of great finesse. Medium bodied, this wine manages to have the richness of Napa without the weight and the tannic baggage of many of its peers. Delicious. 334 cases produced. 9/9.5 $36 Where to Buy?