There is no single recipe for greatness when it comes to Napa wine, but starting with a great plot of land can take you a long way. The only problem is, a lot of people don’t necessarily know a great plot of land when they see one. Sometimes these plots of land can be hidden in plain sight until the right person comes along to notice.
When Jeff Smith’s father moved the family to St. Helena in 1964, he wasn’t thinking about wine, he was thinking about real estate development. He was also thinking about the tiny trickle of tourists that were making their way up from San Francisco to visit Napa and then turning right around at the end of the day and driving back home since there weren’t really any nice places to stay. Without any real idea of whether it would work, he turned a beautiful old home into the Wine Country Inn, and very quickly learned the meaning of “build it and they will come.” The Inn ran at around 95% occupancy the first year it opened.
When the neighboring parcel of land came on the market, Jeff’s father snapped it up with the idea of building a home on it, and because he liked Zinfandel, he planted a bit of it on the hillside behind the building site in 1977. His way of thinking about the 4-acre vineyard was “landscaping that could pay for itself.” He gave most of the grapes to friends in exchange for bottles of wine made from them in return, and sold the rest.
Jeff’s father passed away in 1990 and within a year, the vineyard succumbed to phylloxera, and had to be pulled out. Jeff’s mother was making ready to sell the property just as Jeff was getting interested in the wine business, but his entreaties to keep the property and replant to see if they could start a small winery weren’t convincing. As a last ditch effort, Jeff talked a buddy who was in school at U.C. Davis to get their top viticulture professor to come down and take a look. He did, and in the process of telling Jeff, his friend, and his mother that this was quite possibly one of the best Cabernet vineyard sites he had ever seen, he also pointed out that it sat at the narrowest point of the hourglass-shaped Napa Valley.
The vineyard, needless to say, was not sold. It was replanted to Cabernet Sauvignon, and enlisting the help of a family friend, winemaker Bob Foley (also of Pride, Switchback Ridge, among others), Jeff launched Hourglass Wine to nearly instant acclaim.
From that 4-acre vineyard, Hourglass produces about 600 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon that are snapped up the moment they are released to the mailing list, and thousands of people wait patiently for their chance to get on that list.
After a few years, Jeff and his wife Carolyn started thinking about buying another piece of land, but faced the difficulty of needing a vineyard that could both compete at the level of quality they already had, and that would be distinctive enough to merit being bottled on its own, as they had no intention of diluting Hourglass.
Over the years, they nearly bought several properties, but backed off each one when they got the feeling it wasn’t quite right. They looked pretty hard for almost three years, and gave up. Growing up in the valley, Jeff knew that the kinds of vineyards he wanted were not common, and all the examples he knew about were unlikely to be sold anytime soon, or for a price anywhere near what he could afford to pay.
But then one day, on his way to the dump in early December, he saw a For Sale sign on a piece of property he had driven by thousands of times without a second thought, and something clicked. Across the street from the famed Three Palms Vineyard, this piece of property sits at the neck of Dutch Henry Canyon, and defines the transition zone between valley floor and the hillsides above. Covered in alluvial gravel and cobble, the property is essentially an overlap of two alluvial fans created by the wanderings of the two blue line streams (year-round streams that are marked with blue ink on topographic maps) that drain the hillsides above.
With the help of some investment from friends and family, the Blueline Estate was born, giving Hourglass its own winery facility for the first time, and offering a distinctive new set of vineyard designated wines, of which this is the very first release.
The Blueline Estate Cabernet is made by Bob Foley in exactly the same way that Hourglass has always been made. Incredibly rigorous fruit selection in the vineyard, and then again in the winery, temperature controlled maceration and fermentation, and then a lot of time in the barrel. The wines are aged for 22 months in French oak, of which only about 30% is new — an incredibly low amount among this wine’s peers in Napa.
The Blueline vineyard is being replanted in stages, which means that for now only about 10 of its 20 acres are in production. For now that means this wine is being produced in quantities of about 450 cases, and will be joined in this vintage by about 150 cases of Cab Franc, and 350 cases of Merlot. When producing fully, the winery will be producing about twice that much wine.
Tasting an inaugural vintage of a wine represents the opportunity to taste the aspirations of the people behind the bottle. Jeff and Carolyn Smith were looking for a vineyard that could produce wines that would rival their already stupendous track record. While I’m not prepared to say definitively after tasting the first vintage that Blueline is as good as Hourglass has been in the past, I can say without qualification that it is definitely in the ballpark.
There are some Cabernets that are worth paying more than $100 for, and there are a lot that are not. There are still fewer that I personally would ever pay more than $100 for. This wine, like every wine I have tasted with the Hourglass label, is absolutely in that final category.
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine has a simply gorgeous nose of tobacco, sweet cherry, and the barest hints of toasted oak aromas. In the mouth it is velvety soft and slippery on the tongue, with full rich flavors of juicy cherry, candied violets, and cola. Great acidity seamlessly marries with light, smooth tannins as the wine finishes with a zingy, peppy quality that makes me smile. Rich, profound, and quite delicious, this wine is definitely young and will likely benefit from 3 to 5 years of age.
I wish I had been drinking a bottle of this tonight with my short-rib pot-au-feu with horseradish cream, instead of the unremarkable Cotes-du-Rhone I had instead.
Overall Score: around 9.5
How Much?: $125
This wine is due to be released to the Hourglass mailing list in September. Since the new property will effectively triple or even quadruple Hourglass’ currently tiny production, a lot more people will be able to get their hands on a bottle than ever before. That, combined with the current recession, means that it would be a very good time to get on the Hourglass mailing list.