2008 Ovid Proprietary Red Wine, Napa Valley

I’ve learned a lot about many things in the course of meeting with Napa winemakers and writing about Napa wines for more than eight years. But I tell you, few lessons have been beaten into my head more than the dangers of looking for a vacation home in Napa.

If you have the means to buy a nice place in the Napa Valley you are already imperiled. If you start looking, however, you expose yourself to supernatural forces whose breadth and depth have yet to be mapped. Much like the famed Bermuda Triangle, the Napa Valley chews you up and spits you out in a way I never hope to experience.

If I had a hundred dollars for every person or couple I’ve met who went shopping in Napa for a home without any intention of ever owning a vineyard, and ended up with a vineyard or a plot of empty land, often even without the house they were looking for, I might just be able to afford to do it myself.

Those who haven’t spent much time in the valley might chalk this phenomenon up to overly aggressive real estate agents, but the truth is far more sinister. Napa gets under your skin, into your lungs, and in your brain, and before you know it, you own a piece of the dream.

Mark Nelson and Dana Johnson have long since reconciled themselves with the bizarre reality they now find themselves in. Back in 1998 they were just a successful husband and wife who had sold their software development business and were toying with the idea of a vacation home. Living in New York, they weighed the six-hour drive they’d have to make to get somewhere they really liked with the six-hour flight to the San Francisco Bay Area, and there wasn’t really a contest. They started looking for a small home in the Napa Valley.

Not only that, they had just finished renovating a home in New York, and knew the last thing they wanted to do was deal with construction, or renovation, or anything of the sort. No, what they needed was a pristine, turn-key, move-in condition place that would let them relax.

A few days later, they owned a piece one of the most spectacular views that exists in the Napa Valley, and one of the most exquisite chunks of terroir in California. The only problem was, it contained only rocks and scrub brush.

“There was just something remarkable about the whole environment up here,” says Johnson, “it was so spectacular — the wind, the view, and the land itself, where there was basically nothing.”

The couple saw the property on Sunday, and agreed they would think about it. Two days later Mark walked into the living room and said to Dana, “You know that property we were looking at? Well I just put in an offer.”

See what I mean? How could a rational, intelligent, high-powered, business-minded couple like these two know exactly what they wanted in a house, and then end up with a really, really, really expensive piece of bare land instead?

Well, standing on the front porch of their gorgeous, compact winery, gazing out on the lower half of Napa Valley as the sun sets and a gentle breeze ruffles the vineyards, the lavender, and the fruit trees, you begin to get an inkling of the spirit that touched them.

And while all of their business savvy didn’t translate into the home they wanted, it has almost certainly helped them build one of the most successful new wine brands to emerge in Napa in the last 10 years. Ovid Napa Valley is among a select few new winery projects that have made me stand up and take notice instead of yawn over Yet-Another-Napa-Cabernet.

Johnson got interested in wine in college after befriending a French couple who ran a bar and restaurant in downtown Portland that offered inexpensive, good wines from all over the world including places like Hungary and Romania.

“When I met Mark,” she says, “He only drank Champagne, mostly because he’d never really had good wine.”

Mark Nelson is an entrepreneur who started a very successful software company in the Nineties called CD Plus, focused on searching medical and scientific databases. Johnson, who had a degree in Library Science and good technical chops, came to work for him after being poached from a competitor. When the company transitioned from CD-ROM based software to Windows, they decided to rename the company, and they chose the name Ovid as appropriate to the company’s metamorphosis.

Over the years, Johnson introduced Nelson to wines he liked, and the two fed on each other’s excitement for wine, subscribing to Robert M. Parker, Jr’s The Wine Advocate, and making trips to Napa to visit wineries and discover more of their passion.

They took the company public, and then in 1998, Nelson sold the company for $200 million (right on the cusp of the Internet’s complete transformation of the industry) and the couple decided they wanted a break. And that vacation home….

But instead they got the land. A stunning 300-acre parcel on the top of Pritchard Hill, facing west across the valley.

By this time Nelson and Johnson knew a thing or two about Napa wine, and so once they owned the property, they reached out to superstar vineyard manager David Abreu and asked him if he’d come take a look at the property and give them his opinion as to whether it made sense to grow grapes there. In 1998, there weren’t nearly as many vineyards on Pritchard Hill, though the couple already knew they loved Dalla Valle‘s wines

Johnson describes Abreu’s reaction to seeing the property: “He went running around from place to place excitedly, telling us where to dig soil pits, and basically gushing about this piece of land, saying it was one of the last great undeveloped pieces of the valley that would make incredible wines.” His enthusiasm was catching, and Nelson and Johnson decided that if this place was, as Abreu insisted, meant to grow world class wine, then they would do it and do it right.

And as luck would have it, they could both afford to do it, and had the sensibilities required to produce a quality result. The same cannot be said for all such ventures in the Napa Valley.

Nelson and Johnson give great credit to their third partner Janet Pagano, who got involved in 2003. Her deep industry experience at Jackson Family Wines with brands like Cardinale, Artesa, and Stonestreet, as well as her handy degree in fermentation science has rounded out the couple’s already deep capabilities.

After hiring Abreu to plant 15 acres of grapes in 2000, the couple set about building a winery and hiring a winemaking team. John Kongsgaard introduced the couple to Andy Erickson, who was just leaving Staglin Family Vineyards and about to become one of the valley’s most sought after consulting winemakers. On a trip to Bordeaux, the couple reached out to Michel Rolland and arranged for him to come pay a visit, which resulted in him signing on as a consultant.

With all the pieces in place, all that remained was finding a name for the winery. Says Johnson, “We avoided Ovid for a long time. He was our favorite ancient poet, but we thought we were done with the name. But everyone else was telling us how great it was. And so we started reading him more, and realized just how much the idea of Metamorphosis fit with what we were doing here. Let alone the winemaking process itself. We spent almost two years trying out other horrible name choices. There was another one that was good, but it sounded like a venereal disease, so eventually we came back around to Ovid. And it turns out he was crazy about wine and agriculture. So we tapped a rich vein.”

The winery’s first vintage was 2005, and it debuted to great critical acclaim. In 2006, the three partners hired a 23-year-old kid named Austin Peterson, who had wine running in his veins. Peterson grew up in the wine business (his father, Tom Peterson, was a winemaker for many years in Santa Rosa) and had made his first wine before he turned 15. He subsidized his college years by making wine on the side, and his first official job was working as a cooper at age 19. By the time he was introduced to the folks at Ovid, he had made wine in South Africa, Argentina, New Zealand, and France, where he worked at Le Bon Pasteur in Pomerol.

The position of Assistant Winemaker at Ovid was Peterson’s first gig as a winemaker, and within three years he was basically running the show. Erickson was still involved, of course, as was Michel Rolland, but Peterson showed remarkable abilities, and in 2011 he was promoted to Winemaker. Rolland shows up three times per year, and Erickson a few more times than that, but Peterson is, at the ripe old age of twenty-nine, fully responsible for one of Napa’s hottest Cabernets.

Ovid produces approximately 650 cases of its proprietary red wine, from its densely planted selections of Bordeaux grape varieties. The vineyards are CCOF certified organic, and the winery is taking steps towards some of the more systemic approaches to viticulture that characterize practices like biodynamics, including the planting of orchards and flowers to encourage pollinators, and the like.

The grapes are harvested by hand, of course, and meticulously sorted and destemmed, and sorted again at a berry level before ending up in the small, custom cement tanks that are used for fermentation, which Pagano convinced Nelson and Johnson to employ after a number of visits to France. Fermentation takes place with native yeasts and the wines are aged in a combination of cement and French oak, of which 80% is new. The wines are never fined or filtered.

While Ovid now has barreled six vintages, they began selling their third, the 2008, at the end of last year. The winery is young, but the folks involved all seem to have a settled, clear sense of who they are and where the winery is going.

Says Johnson “We’re simply after making the best wine we can make from this piece of land, and we’re not interested in doing anything else. We want to make sure that every component that goes into the wine is of utmost quality, and over time we’ll slowly make a little more wine if we can keep that quality where we want it to be.”

“The blend of our wine will be a little bit of a moving target for a while,” continued Johnson, “because we’re looking for a layered, expressive wine that has a certain level of exuberance, and this area can produce wines that have a special combination of texture and joyous expression. When you get it right, you can really taste it.”

If that is Ovid’s goal, then I’m happy to say they’re well on their way to achieving it. The wine, of which I have only tasted this vintage, the previous, and a special auction lot for Premiere Napa Valley, is tremendously good, and will only get better as the vines producing it mature. And if Austin Peterson is this good a winemaker now, I shudder to think what this guy is going to be capable of in five or ten years.

If you can afford this wine and you love Napa Cabernet, I think you’ll find it quite rewarding.

Tasting Notes:
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cedar and cherry, with a hint of chocolate and new oak. In the mouth the wine has a bright sweetness to it, with gorgeous cherry and chocolate flavors. Good acidity and beautifully fine grained tannins are wispy around the edges of the mouth. Ripe but not overly so, with just a touch of sweetness, this is a classically profiled big wine that will please many who look for lush fruit. A real pleasure to drink. A blend of 59% Cabernet Sauvignon, 26% Cabernet Franc, 11% Merlot, 4% Petit Verdot. 14.8% alcohol.

Food Pairing:
I’d love to drink this wine with a classic Florentine-style rib-eye steak — grilled rare in olive oil and fresh rosemary.

Overall Score: around 9.5

How Much?: $195 on release to mailing list, sells on secondary market for about $210.

This wine is available for purchase on the Internet but pretty much sells out to the winery’s mailing list each year.