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 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 were younger, the two sons pitched in as well, but now that they’re off having their own lives, mostly they just help drink the wine.
Skupny’s vision for what Cabernet Franc should be is unique not only for its singularity — up until their recent 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.
Lang and Reed wines, while they draw inspiration from the Loire Valley, are distinctly Californian, though without falling into the traps of over-ripeness or extraction. Instead of an almost metallic minerality that I enjoy in Loire Cabernet Francs, these wines have a more plush fruit and earth character, while still remaining unmistakably Cabernet Franc.
This particular wine is the second vintage from a very special vineyard, the only place in California where the Etay 214 clone of Cabernet Franc (directly from the Loire) has been planted. Like its predecessor, the 2007, it has a wonderful finesse and has instantly become the top bottling from the winery.
Full disclosure: I received this wines as a press sample.
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of chocolate, lightly vegetal green bell pepper, and violets. In the mouth velvety tannins wrap around a silky concoction of cherry, chocolate, and wonderfully floral qualities. Dynamic and complex, with an underlying earth tone, this is a beautiful wine. Nice acidity and a long finish. 14.5% alcohol.
The wine has enough acidity to be versatile with many foods that lean toward the meatier end of the spectrum. I’d love to drink it with beef daube.
Overall Score: between 9 and 9.5
How Much?: $36
This wine is available for purchase on the Internet.