2009 Ladera Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain, Napa

I’ve been drinking wine for nearly 50% of my life at this point, taking notes on wine for almost 20 years, and writing this blog for nine, but despite that fact, it’s not exactly common for me to be able to say with certainty that I’ve tasted every vintage of a particular wine made by any one winery. Even those wineries whose inaugural vintages debuted since Vinography became a going concern I am generally not able to taste their wines with regularity every single year.

But there are a few wineries whose wines I have been buying and tasting since I found out about them, and Ladera Vineyards is one of them. I’ve been continually impressed with the quality, consistency, and personality of the wines since day one.

Ladera means “hillside” or “slope” in Spanish, and in this single word you will find captured the essence of Ladera’s wines. Owners Pat and Anne Stotesbery farm a hillside estate on the top of Howell Mountain with a single-minded focus on producing wine that speaks of its origins.

Tucked in the folds and creases of the mountains and protected by sick-inducing winding roads that lead far from the safety of the valley’s main highway corridor, the mountain winegrowing regions of Napa are quiet refuges from the hustle and bustle of the valley floor. And that goes for grapes as well as people. High up above the traffic, vines and wine lovers alike will find cooler breezes, long shadows and lingering sunsets, and special wines that have bright, clear fruit and often beautiful intensity.

Capturing this intensity has been the Stotesbery’s focus since they sold their Montana ranch and embarked on a new career as winery owners. The quite literally acquired the foundation of this new career in the form of a set of vineyards atop Howell Mountain nestled around the ruins of an ancient stone winery. It’s 30-inch-thick walls, now restored into the main winery building at Ladera are a testament to longevity that the winery and its wines strive to achieve.

The estate’s vineyard dips and rolls between 1600 and 1800 feet of elevation high above the Napa Valley floor (and its fog) on the forested hillsides of Howell Mountain. Like much of the top of Howell Mountain, the soils are the product of eroded basalt — iron-rich clay loam studded with lots of gravel.

Ladera has recently gone through its first serious change of leadership since the winery’s inception. As of the 2012 vintage the original and long-time winemaker Karen Culler has stepped aside into a consulting role, while new winemaker Jade Barrett takes over the day-to-day operations of the cellar. Barrett, a New Zealander by birth, comes to Ladera after spending six years as winemaker at Jericho Canyon, and two years as assistant winemaker at Lewis Cellars before that.

Culler, who has long had her own label, Culler Wines, will be advising Barrett and ensuring a smooth transition for a year or two, while Barrett gets a feel for the property.

Despite the change in winemaker, the estate has no intention of changing the way it makes its wines, which is about the sort of of winegrowing and winemaking you might expect of a small family-run operation that makes about 12,000 cases of wine each year.

The grapes are babied at every stage of the picking process by vineyard manager Gabriel Reyes and his team who have been working this vineyard since 1986. The winemaking process is completely gravity based, aided by the hillside construction of the old winery, which was set up with three levels even in 1886 to allow everything to happen without the need for pumps. Of course, such pumps didn’t exist in 1886, which meant gravity-flow winemaking was the only way to go.

The wines are almost always made with native yeasts, and undergo fermentation in a variety of large and small tanks before being transferred to their French oak barrels, where they spend close to two years before spending one more in the bottle before release. The oak program at Ladera rarely exceeds 50% new oak, which lets the fruit shine instead of the wood. The red wines are never fined or filtered.

This particular wine, which was made by Culler, saw only 45% new oak barrels for the 22 months that it aged. It is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, from 12 different vineyard blocks that, because of the variable terrain and microclimates, were picked as early as September 30th, and as late as October 12th. About 2000 cases of this wine were made.

Full disclosure: I received this wine as a press sample.

Tasting Notes:
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of rich black cherry, wet earth, and hints of new oak. In the mouth wonderful acidity keeps flavors of cherry, wet dirt, cedar, and leather bright and zingy on the palate. Faint tannins seem to dust the mouth, and a bright cherry quality lingers in the long finish with only a whisper of the oak that the nose suggests. A baby of a wine, this will evolve beautifully for some time, despite being quite accessible now. 14.1% alcohol.

Food Pairing:
How about some porcini-dusted tri-tip on grilled bread?

Overall Score: between 9 and 9.5

How Much?: $75

This wine is available for purchase on the Internet.