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 that would bear their family name, and nearly 300-year-old family crest.
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-shawn-dee) trained as a chemical engineer, spent some time in the military, as a pro football player, 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. Lou has amassed a wine cellar of approximately 18,000 bottles, heavily skewed towards Bordeaux, with treasures dating back into the 19th century.
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. Kapcsándy didn’t hesitate.
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.
It didn’t take long for everyone in Yountville to breathe a collective 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 estate’s roughly 4000 case production safely from field to bottle.
The Kapcsándy Family Winery initially 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 Denis Malbec (former cellar master of Chateau Latour). The vineyards are managed by the Piña Vineyard Management 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).
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 16.5 acres of 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 about his vision for 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 have a brightness and an aromatic sweetness that demonstrates a California soul.
After entering the market with only a couple of reds and a rosé the Kapcsándys have begun to expand their portfolio a little, both strategically and experimentally as their inclinations and the vintage allows.
One recent addition comes in the form of a less expensive wine bottled under the name of “Endre,” which happens to be Lou’s middle name. This wine is made from mostly press juice (as opposed to the free-run that is reserved for the winery’s top wines), and will never see more than 50% new oak, an increasing percentage of which is from Hungary. The wine features fruit from mostly the estate’s younger vines, some of which are recent replantings. Endre is the only wine that is filtered in the portfolio. It’s worth noting that while this wine is technically a second tier wine, it puts many flagship Cabernets to shame.
The Kapcsándys have also been playing with their rosé, and have decided to try making one from Cabernet Sauvignon and one from Merlot in years where the fruit seems particularly suitable (2011 was not one of those years).
I’ve watched and tasted the evolution of Kapcsándy wines since their inaugural vintage, and I couldn’t be more impressed. Both Lou and Louis are deeply enmeshed in their appreciation for and stewardship of their vineyard in the devoted fashion of Old World vignerons. It’s hard not to sound patronizing or simply obvious when suggesting that the Kapcsándys are clearly learning more about their vineyard every year, but tasting the wines clearly prove that to be so.
Kapcsándy wines have always been excellent, as the 2004 that Lou and Louis opened for comparison on my recent visit clearly demonstrated. But tasting that wine next to the current releases, provides a somewhat stark contrast. While their earliest wines were perhaps the sort that many top Napa winemakers would have been proud to make, the current Kapcsándy wines are wines that could be made nowhere else and by no one else in the valley.
With their remarkable finesse, lower alcohol, incredible aromatics, and stunning textures, Kapcsándy’s wines are now clearly among the very best wines made each year in Napa. In short, they are among my very favorite California wines, and I would buy a lot more of them if I could possibly afford to. For anyone that can manage the somewhat steep tariff, they carry my highest recommendation.
2011 Kapcsándy Family Winery Rosé, Yountville
Light peachy pink in the glass, this wine smells of rosehips and watermelon rind with hints of orange peel. In the mouth, tart rosehip and red berry flavors mix with candied and spiced orange peel flavors. Bright mineral notes lay under this tart citrusy fruit, and the wine has a long finish. Nice texture. A blend of 53% Merlot, 39% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Cabernet Franc, and 4% Petite Verdot 14.1% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $26. click to buy.
2010 Kapcsándy Family Winery “Roberta’s Rosé” Rosé of Merlot, Yountville
Light ruby in the glass with a hint of orange color, this wine smells of oak and maraschino cherries. In the mouth the wine is quite smooth and silky, with cool cherry and raspberry flavors shot through with the vanilla of new oak. The wood is somewhat too present in the complexion of the wine for me, but good acidity makes the wine quite drinkable. 14.4% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $45. click to buy.
2010 Kapcsándy Family Winery “Grand Vin Rosé” Rosé of Cabernet Sauvignon, Yountville
Light ruby in the glass this wine smells of cherry and tobacco. In the mouth cherry and tobacco flavors mix with hints of oak and wet stones. The wine has an unusual quality of tasting just like a Napa Cabernet but without the weight and tannic density. As if someone had just stripped the tannins out of a big juicy Napa Cabernet and replaced them with rainwater. Very interesting. A blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon and 30% Merlot. 14.2% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $45. click to buy.
2009 Kapcsándy Family Winery “Endre” Red Blend, Yountville
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of cassis, black cherry, violets and pencil lead. In the mouth flavors of graphite and black cherry mix with espresso and dried flowers. Faint powdery tannins hang in the background, while deeper earth and smokier flavors linger on the palate. Juicy acidity, but a deep mysterious character. 51% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot, 6% Cabernet Franc, and 3% Petite Verdot. 1700 cases made. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $85. click to buy.
2010 Kapcsándy Family Winery “Endre” Red Blend, Yountville
Inky garnet in the glass, this wine smells of gorgeously sweet black cherry fruit and wet earth. In the mouth, the wine has a sensuously plush quality to it with flavors of ripe plum, black cherry, cassis and wet earth. Fantastic acidity and just an overall bright juiciness that makes this quite gulpable. 14.1% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $85. click to buy.
2009 Kapcsándy Family Winery “Estate Cuvee” Cabernet Sauvignon, Yountville
Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of crushed fennel seed, graphite, violets, and black cherry fruit. In the mouth, gorgeously supple and smoky tannins envelope stunningly bright flavors of black cherry and cassis that have been filtered through wet earth. Incredible acid balance. Forest floor lingers in the finish for minutes. Phenomenal. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $165. click to buy.
2010 Kapcsándy Family Winery “Estate Cuvee” Cabernet Sauvignon, Yountville
Inky garnet in the glass, this wine smells of violets and black licorice with deep cassis fruit backing it up. In the mouth powdery tannins have a tightly wound quality and they wrap around flavors of cola nut, cocoa powder, and wet earth that has been soaked with cassis and black cherry juice. Excellent acidity and a wonderful cool, stony minerality to the wine. Incredibly long finish.13.6% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $165. click to buy.
2010 Kapcsándy Family Winery “Rapszodia” Red Blend, Yountville
Inky garnet in the glass, this wine smells of bright cherry, cassis, and floral notes. In the mouth gorgeously nutty flavors of cocoa powder, cherry, and plum, mix with earthy redwood bark and hints of cinnamon. Plush powdery tannins coat the mouth and linger with a cocoa and carob quality that is quite charming. 50% Cabernet Franc, 50% Merlot. 14.1% alcohol. 125 cases made. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $175. click to buy.
2009 Kapcsándy Family Winery “Roberta’s Reserve” Merlot, Yountville
Inky garnet in the glass, this wine smells of ripe plum, graphite, and black cherry. In the mouth cola flavors are wrapped in black cherry and plum and dusted with velvety tannin. Incredibly bright acidity makes the fruit electrically juicy in the mouth, while earthier notes of nutmeg and forest floor add a deeper resonance to the wine. Impeccably balanced, with an incredible finish. 96% Merlot, 4% Cabernet Franc.14.1% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $350. click to buy.
2010 Kapcsándy Family Winery “Roberta’s Reserve” Merlot, Yountville
Inky garnet in color, this wine smells of bright cherry fruit with deep stony wet earth blown on a breeze behind it. In the mouth gorgeous plum and cherry fruit flavors also have the tanginess of the tough plum skin that bursts with bright acidity. Gorgeous plush velvety tannins provide a near weightless cloud of billowing texture underneath the picture-perfect ripe fruit. Incredibly long finish. Outstanding. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $350. click to buy.
2009 Kapcsándy Family Winery “Grand Vin” Cabernet Sauvignon, Yountville
Inky garnet in the glass, this wine smells of pine duff, fennel seed, and sweet cassis and cherry fruit. In the mouth the wine delivers gorgeously sweet aromatics — cedar, pine duff, anise and violets — meshed with fantastically bright juicy cassis and black cherry fruit. Supple, muscular tannins gently but firmly grasp the palate in a velvet glove as the cherry, dried flower and cedar aromas of the wine linger for a long time through the finis. 13.7% alcohol. 480 cases. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $350. click to buy.
2010 Kapcsándy Family Winery “Grand Vin” Cabernet Sauvignon, Yountville
Inky garnet in color, this wine smells of bright black cherry and cassis mixed with wet earth and forest floor and just a hint of green herbs. In the mouth gorgeously bright cassis and black cherry fruit are wrapped in a tightly coiled spring of taut, muscular tannins that have a smooth, velvety texture. Fantastic acidity and real depth, this is a wine that will blossom over time, and despite being delicious now, should wait 2-3 years before being consumed. 13.6% alcohol. 275 cases made. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $350. click to buy.
2009 Kapcsándy Family Winery “Vino del Sol” Red Blend, Yountville
Opaque dark purple in the glass, this wine smells of cassis, candied plum, raisins, black cherry and chocolate. In the mouth rich black cherry, raisin, and dark chocolate flavors have a wonderful coolness and stoniness. Rich, chocolatey and quite tasty. Moderately sweet. 17.4% alcohol. 98% Merlot, 2% Petit Verdot. Score: 9-9.5 . Cost: $110. click to buy.
And then for old times’ sake, Lou and Louis opened up a library wine so we could see how things were evolving.
2004 Kapcsándy Family Winery Red Blend, Yountville
Inky garnet in the glass, this wine smells of sweet bright cherry and plum fruit. In the mouth, flavors of nutty new oak mix with lush roasted nuts, cocoa powder, and bright black cherry fruit. Hints of mint and dark chocolate linger on the finish along with faint wisps of fruit. Hints of cedar and incense as well. 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot. 14.7% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $225. click to buy.