Napa has a way of turning modest dreams into major productions. Lou Kapcsándy and his wife Bobbie decided to retire to Napa mostly out of nostalgia for the picnics and wine tasting they used to do as a young married couple living in Sausalito. Forty years after the first of these romantic escapes, their retirement dream included only a little cottage with at most an acre or so of vines, so Lou could putter in the garage and make a barrel or two of wine from his backyard fruit.
Three years after the family, including their son Louis, made the first tour of the small cottages for sale in the valley, the family was harvesting fifteen and a half acres of Cabernet and Merlot to make the first vintage of what will undoubtedly be one of Napa’s top wines for the decades to come.
Perhaps Lou Kapcsándy’s shrewd eye for a good piece of ground can be blamed for turning a simple retirement dream into an entirely new career and a family obsession. Born and raised in Hungary, a young, immigrant Kapcsándy (pronounced cap-CHAN-dee) trained as a chemical engineer, spent some time in the military, as a pro football player, as a mechanical engineer, and finally as an entrepreneur and, for 20 years, a commercial contracting magnate, of sorts. Nearly a billion dollars in annual revenue later, Kapcsándy knows a thing or two about sizing up land for development.
And when it comes to wine, Kapcsándy knows a thing or two as well, thanks to a near 40 year obsession with Bordeaux. Kapcsándy and his wife (and later his son, too) have been traveling to Bordeaux for decades.
All of which might explain why, when the Kapcsándy family happened upon a plot of land known as the State Lane vineyard, they quickly realized that the dreams of a simple cottage in the valley were about to be replaced by something much bigger.
The State Lane Vineyard sits at the corner of State Lane and Yountville Crossroads in Napa, and was made famous by the Beringer Winery decades ago as the source for some of Beringer’s most prized vineyard-designated fruit, and a part of some of the most important wines in the history of Napa Valley.
In 1999 vines on the property succumbed to the predations of Phylloxera. The vineyard was being prepared for redevelopment in anticipation of renewing its contract with Beringer when the family learned that the owner might be interested in selling. It represented an opportunity too good for the Kapcsándys to pass up.
Whenever someone takes over an historic vineyard, like State Lane in Napa, there’s a period of time when those familiar with it hold their breath. Like a new family buying an old, majestic house on the block, you never know whether they’re going to replace it with some modern monstrosity or refurbish it to the height of its glory.
By now, everyone in Yountville has breathed a sigh of relief. With the precision and aggressive timeline that no doubt characterized his work for decades before, Lou Kapcsándy ripped out all 15 acres of the beleaguered, Phylloxera infected rootstock and replanted the property in several blocks, each with rootstocks carefully matched to the several types of soil found on the property. In 9 short months, a brand new winery was also constructed, capable of shepherding the roughly 3000 cases the estate expects to produce safely from field to bottle.
The Kapcsándy Family Winery enlisted the help of Helen Turley and her husband John Wetlaufer to oversee the replanting of the vineyards and the first couple of vintages. Starting in 2005 the winemaking was transitioned to the team of Denis Malbec (cellar master of Chateau Latour) and Rob Lawson who spent 14 years as the head winemaker for the Napa Wine Company. Despite the caliber of their hired help, Kapcsándy Family Winery is run almost entirely by the family. Lou and his son Louis jointly make nearly every decision about all aspects of the winery’s operations (a natural extension of the partnership they began in 1999 when they started a wine importing business together), and Louis is gradually taking over more and more of the winemaking responsibility.
Like many of Napa’s top vineyards, the winegrowing and winemaking regimen at Kapcsándy is extremely rigorous — from the dense precision spacing of the vines, to the strict yield reduction and canopy management, to the dogmatic insistence on harvesting the grapes only at phenolic maturity (a measurement of the presence and concentration of compounds like anthocyanins and tannins). Grapes are hand picked, block by block, in multiple passes through the vineyard, and are completely destemmed before being sorted, painstakingly, berry by berry into the fermentation tanks. During this sorting process, which involves dozens of people, up to 15% of the grapes are removed due to imperfections. Fermentations take place with minimal fuss or intervention. The wines are bottled completely unfined and unfiltered after aging in 100% new French and Hungarian oak for approximately 20 months.
“I have no interest in fruit bombs. No interest in huge, in-your-face wines that lack a mid-palate or structure,” booms Lou when asked what he’s trying to do with his wines. “I’m trying to make great wines, which means wines that are distinct, approachable in their youth, but fundamentally structured to age for a long time. We’re not trying to imitate any specific wine, but we are inspired by the great vintages of Bordeaux, all of which — ’61, ’64, ’70, ’75, ’78, ’82 — were good when they were young.”
The influence of Bordeaux is clear in Kapcsándy wines, even from first sight of the atypically broad shouldered bottle (made from a mold that the French sold to the Italians and which somehow made its way to Mexico) that reminded Lou and Louis of Haut Brion. Yet while these wines are remarkable in their European styling, they also bulge with an intensity that can only come from Napa, and are all the more compelling for it, not to mention some of the best wines being made in Napa today.
I had a chance to sit down recently and taste through their current releases, as well as get a peek into the upcoming 2007 vintage, which is spectacular. The family has started to make a port, just for fun, and will likely also be producing a less expensive wine under a secondary label. Stay tuned.
2006 Kapcsándy Family Vineyards “Estate Cuvee” Red Wine, Napa
Inky garnet in the glass, this blend of 48% Cabernet Sauvignon, 48% Merlot, and 4% Cabernet Franc has a nose of violets, cedar, and anise aromas. In the mouth it is suede smooth with beautiful tannins, and lush black cherry fruit. Great acidity makes for excellent balance and promises of longevity in the dark undertones of wet dirt that wax loamy into the long finish. 750 cases made. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $125. Where to buy?
2006 Kapcsándy Family Vineyards “Grand Vin” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa
Inky garnet in color, this blend of 91% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Merlot, and 1% Cabernet Franc has a fantastic aroma of violets, lavender, and sweet tobacco. In the mouth, soft, velvet, beautifully sweet tannins caress dark brooding flavors of graphite, wet dirt, tobacco, and a ripe core of black cherry. A hint of cola flavor emerges in the tremendous finish. 650 cases made. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $175. Where to buy?
2006 Kapcsándy Family Vineyards “Roberta’s Reserve” Merlot, Napa
Opaque garnet in the glass, with aromas of espresso, bitter chocolate, and dark fruit, this wine has a texture that makes you want to take your clothes off. Satin textured, sexy black cherry flavors are juicy with beautiful acidity and swirl with complex espresso and earthy flavors for minutes in the mouth. Long into the finish the tannins, smooth as butter, begin to emerge, like the memory of a final caress. 94% Merlot, 6% Cabernet Franc, this is almost unquestionably the best Merlot made in Napa Valley, with a stature likely to get it confused with a First Growth Bordeaux. 265 cases made. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $190. Where to buy?
2007 Kapcsándy Family Vineyards Rosé, Napa
Light ruby in the glass, this wine smells of strawberry jam and crushed herbs with a nice meaty, savory quality as well. In the mouth it is bright and light, with tart cherry and bright strawberry flavors, buoyed up with enough acidity to ensure it goes down clean and refreshing. Blended from 49% Cabernet Sauvignon, 41% Merlot 7% Cabernet Franc, and 3% Petite Verdot. 300 cases made. Score: around 9. Cost: $30. Where to buy?
2007 Kapcsándy Family Vineyards “Estate Cuvee” Red Wine Barrel Sample
Opaque purple in the glass, this blend of 54% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc, and 1% Petite Verdot has a lovely nose of candied violets and bright, black cherry aromas. In the mouth it skitters across the palate with satin-like smoothness, bulging with soft, rich tannins that open to reveal flavors of cassis, pencil lead, and perfectly ripe black cherry. Rich, dark chocolate flavors emerge in the languorous finish. Outstanding and utterly compelling. Score: around 9.5.
2007 Kapcsándy Family Vineyards Cabernet “Grand Vin” Barrel Sample
Inky purple in the glass, this wine has a gorgeous nose of cassis and graphite aromas. Explosively juicy in the mouth, the wine has incredible balance, while maintaining an amazing dynamic range of flavors that modulate between chocolate, black cherry, cassis, and a deep wet dirt quality that makes the whole experience like plunging a straw into the sweetest bit of chocolate sod you could ever dream up. Phenomenal. 92% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Merlot, 1% Cabernet Franc, 1% Petite Verdot. Score: between 9.5 and 10.
2007 Kapcsándy Family Vineyards Roberta’s Reserve Barrel Sample
Inky purple in the glass, This wine has an incredibly sweet (in a good way) nose of violets and ripe cassis. The floral qualities of this wine’s aromas are really astonishing. On the palate it is exceptionally smooth and poised with fantastic finesse and with rippling muscles of black cherry and dark plum wrapped in velvety tannins. The wine conveys a sense of dramatic purity, even as the incredibly long finish brings in mocha and spice flavors. 92% Merlot and 8% Cabernet Franc. Hot damn. Score: between 9.5 and 10.
2007 Kapcsándy Family Vineyards Port
Inky garnet in the glass, this wine, made from 100% over-ripe Merlot grapes, has a nose of baked apples and black fruits. In the mouth it is light in body with smooth, grapey, chocolate, caramel, flavors that linger into a nice finish that takes on a roasted fig quality over time. The wine has been fortified with unoaked grape brandy, and so has a clean quality to it that lets it hover somewhere between port-ness and late harvest quality, with the sweetness and acidity of the latter, and the flavors of the former. I’m not a huge port fan, so take my rating with a grain of salt. Score: between 8.5 and 9.