The wine world is a funny place. So many people act like they have a monopoly on tradition, deliberately ignoring the continuity of human experience while glorifying the past. That’s not to say that things always improve in the inexorable march of progress, but those who idealize an unchanging moment in history blind themselves to one of life’s great lessons: impermanence.
Three years ago, investor Charles Banks bought Mayacamas Vineyards, one of the most quietly revered and least modernized wineries in the Napa Valley. When Bob Travers, its sole proprietor since his purchase of the estate in 1968 announced the sale, some were wistful about the end of an era. When Banks announced he was bringing in winemaker Andy Erickson and Andy’s wife viticulturist Annie Favia to help him run the winery, many reacted on social media with what can only be described as horror.
The excitement, if you can call it that, had to do with what people perceived as the gap between what Mayacamas has been for nearly 50 years (the antithesis of everything modern in Napa wine) and the reputation of Andy Erickson, who might be one of three or four people you’d choose as a poster child for the epitome of everything modern in Napa wine.
Imagining the guy behind Screaming Eagle, Arietta, Dalla Valle, Ovid, and a handful more of Napa’s cult-iest wine projects continuing the work of a winemaker whose wines were the polar opposite of those brands seemed something of a stretch for most people, myself included.
In part, that’s why I reached out to Banks shortly after the purchase and asked him some questions about his plans for the property. I recorded that interview in a post entitled “Charles Banks, the New Man Behind Mayacamas” about 2 years ago.
During that interview, Banks professed a deep love for the wines of Mayacamas, for the property itself, and somewhat convincingly maintained he had no desire to take the wines in a different direction. Yet, at the same time, he said that clearly there would need to be some “cleanup” about the place.
I left that conversation encouraged, but far from convinced that what many, including myself, have appreciated about the Mayacamas wines would emerge under new ownership with all their admirable characteristics intact.
So I decided to pay a visit and see if the wines themselves might hold the truth.
Mayacamas Vineyards sits high on the shoulder of Mount Veeder, on the southwestern edge of Napa Valley. The rugged landscape of redwoods, madrones, manzanita, and pine emerges from steep rocky draws. And stone buckled meadows peek green between slopes of trees. It feels like an entirely different planet than the Napa Valley floor. In years before the steady creep of global warming, snow fell regularly at this altitude in the Mayacamas Mountains where grapes, it was thought, had no business being grown.
The winery was built in 1889 by an ambitious German immigrant named John Henry Fisher, who dug a shallow cave out of the brittle basalt rock of old lava flows and grew Zinfandel that he would tend on weekends before returning to his pickle factory in San Francisco during the week. Like many, Fisher lost everything in the devastating 1906 earthquake, and the winery was sold to pay his creditors. After passing through one more set of hands, and hosting some bootlegging activity through the decades of Prohibition, the winery was purchased in 1941 by Jack and Mary Taylor, who christened the winery Mayacamas and planted Chardonnay and Cabernet.
High on the mountain, the winery’s remove made it easy to resist progress, and the Taylors were content (and financially constrained) to leave it largely unimproved. When they sold it to Robert and Elinor Travers in 1968 the winery had only recently acquired electricity, and remained largely unchanged from the state in which the Taylors purchased it, save an additional 27 years of wear and tear.
Bob Travers was a petroleum engineer by training, but had most recently apprenticed with Joe Heitz, one of the pioneers of post-Prohibition winemaking in Napa. Travers felt ready to strike out on his own, and so he and Elinor moved up onto the mountain, where they would stay for nearly the next four and a half decades.
Travers, in keeping with his engineering background, was a methodical winemaker and winegrower. He replanted most of the vineyards as soon as he could, and slowly improved the estate as his energy and meager funds would allow. Having gained some recognition by placing 7th in the field at the famous Judgment of Paris tasting in 1976, the winery generated enough cash to allow Travers to introduce small oak barrels to the winery for the first time, and to plant some entirely new sections of the remote hillsides in order to increase production.
Beyond these improvements, however, Travers continued a tradition of what you might charitably describe as primitive winemaking processes: hand harvesting at very low (compared to the valley floor) ripeness, short macerations, fermenting in cinderblock and redwood tanks with native yeasts and no temperature control, and then aging in a combination of large oak casks and small (increasingly old) barrels.
The 50 acres of vineyards he tended by hand and farmed relatively conventionally, as would be required in order to be manageable by a guy, his wife, and a few extra pairs of hands willing to make the trek up the mountain to help travers with his annual production of around 4000 cases of wine.
If this all sounds like the wine equivalent of the Old Man and the Sea, you’d have it pegged about right, and the spare brilliance of Hemingway’s prose might also serve as a metaphor for the wines that emerged from this older-than-old-school cellar. Tight, tannic, acidic, and sometimes more than a little rustic, the Cabernets and Chardonnays of Mayacamas continue to be some of the longest-lived wines to be made in Napa. More magically, when encountered at 15 or 20 years of age, the wines blossomed into crystalline expressions of rock, and redwood, fruit, herbs and spice. To many drinkers encountering the wines early in their years, they could appear somewhere between enigmatic and unforgiving (with occasional bummer bottles of fungal nastiness), but anyone with an Old World sensibility chancing upon an older bottle would likely find themselves arrested by an expression of place, distinctive and compelling.
After 45 years, Bob Travers decided it was time to retire, and agreed to sell the property to the guy who had been asking him about it for years. Unlike most of his other winery purchases, made under the aegis of his investment firm Terroir Capital, Banks (along with partners Jay and Joey Schottenstein) paid his own money for the property, and brought in a hand picked team to carry the legacy forward.
“Before the purchase, I’d been going up there for years with Charles,” says Andy Erickson. “I was very familiar with the wines, especially those from the 70x. I think they’re the best examples of California wine in existence, period.”
“When we first got up there [after buying the property] I had a lot of improvements in my mind that we could make to the property,” continues Erickson. “We tasted every single vintage that we could find in that old cellar. Bob had at least a few bottles of almost everything back to mid Sixties and even late Fifties. You can learn a lot by tasting wines. And where else in California can you find a place where just one person was making wines for that long? The conversation as a team was always, and still is, about what are the defining characteristics of Mayacamas, what is the house style, how do we preserve that, and how do we think we might be able to make it better. ”
As animals like any other, we humans fear change. The most devoted Mayacamas fans might hear that phrase “make it better” and shudder in fear for the loss of a tradition they have come to believe in. Yet Travers himself brought significant innovation to the winery in the form of Bordeaux-style barrels and, for the 1960s, so called “modern” winemaking equipment such as pumps.
“Anyone who had been up to the winery recently would understand it was time for some modernization,” says Erickson, “and when we talk about modernization, we’re not talking about micro-oxygenation. We’re talking about upgrading a 1920s electrical system to current standards. We’re talking about adding some refrigeration to the cement tanks to keep the ferments cooler. The first year was basically just like a giant spring cleaning project. We basically completely disassembled the winery, and then put it all back together.”
“For anyone that’s worked with me,” continues Erickson, “you’d know that I’m the quality control guy. When I go into an existing winery as a consultant or a new winemaker, my first order of business is always how do we improve this thing we have, it’s not about putting my fingerprints on the wine.”
Yet even the idea of upgrading something as basic as the barrels can have an outsized impact on the wine.
“We dug through the cellar and found barrels dating back to the 1980s. You have to understand that this is completely the opposite of the winemaking world I grew up in,” laughs Erickson. “We culled through the cellar and decided to replace only the ones that weren’t holding wine well anymore. And you know what? The new oak barrels didn’t work at all. They were awful.”
“The whole aging program is part of the formula there. It adds a special character, something like an antique character to the wine. You pull wine out of a 75-year-old cask and it has a totally different sort of personality than a new barrel. And when you’re harvesting grapes at such low alcohols, it turns out you just can’t use new barrels.”
Consequently the aging cellar will look about the same to someone who might have visited the winery forty years ago. The barrel cellar and the bottle library are two areas that were off limits to the scrubbing brush of the team’s Spring cleaning. There are a few barrels that look like new arrivals, but they are slowly gaining the patina of age, and feeling the creep of the black mold that covers the rock and most of the older casks.
There won’t be a new oak program at the winery. There won’t be a new aging program. As far as winemaking goes, Erickson says apart from temperature and maceration time, nothing else is changing either. Thoughts of bringing in a sorting table at harvest were entertained briefly, but then scrapped because that’s not what Bob would do. He never did any sorting.
I ask Erickson what kind of changes he’s making to the maceration. “We’re going from about twelve days on average — I’ve got forty years of Bob’s notebooks on that — to about fifteen to twenty days thanks to the lower temperatures,” laughs Erickson, and it strikes me that he’s laughing as much at the relative insignificance of the change as he is the utter departure from every winemaking protocol that he’s ever followed in his career.
“But do you know something?” asks Erickson, “Bob was working with us through that first harvest, and so I got a chance to ask him about maceration. I said ‘Bob, so why do you do this 12 day maceration, why not longer, is that one of your secrets’ and he said, ‘Absolutely not. I’d do it longer, but I needed the tanks.’ It turns out there’s not a lot of voodoo there, he was just making wine.”
As we talk, it’s clear that Erickson is delighting in this exercise.
“For me this is about protecting what’s there at Mayacamas. It would be a complete mistake to make these wines modern, ripe, and extracted. I’ve always thought that,” he says emphatically. “I’ve been making wine in Napa for twenty years, and the chance to do something different like this is really exciting. These wines almost don’t fit into Napa Valley. I think its’ pretty apparent when you go up there. It’s almost coincidence that it’s considered Napa.”
So if the winemaking isn’t changing, what about the farming? When I ask Erickson if he’s ever harvested a red grape below 24 brix before his time at Mayacamas, he laughs again, and says “almost certainly not.”
“We’re harvesting the fruit much earlier than I ever have in the past,” says Erickson. “Initially I had a very hard time evaluating the grapes in the vineyard. I’ve never made a harvest decision that early. The grapes are very acidic, the tannins are strong, and you have to embrace that.”
“I mean I grew up with the mindset — and I still do have this with all the other wines I make — you’re looking for seeds to be mature and the acid to be in balance and so those are the parameters you’re looking for. That doesn’t happen at 23 brix. If you want to harvest at 23 brix then that’s where you gotta harvest, no matter what the grapes taste like.”
So how did he do it once Travers was no longer working at his side?
“Well, I have 45 years of notebooks from Bob — he was meticulous — and so we looked at what things looked like when he harvested in a normal year, and we just did that. It’s been three vintages now, and so I’m settling into just how different it is.”
Perhaps the most expensive and most challenging change that is underway at Mayacamas now involves the vineyards themselves. The vintage following Banks’ acquisition was 2013, an all-around great vintage for California, but a bit smaller than the record breaking 2012 harvest in terms of average volume around the state.
In 2013, the amphitheater block, a sweeping terraced bowl open to the southwest sky and the shadow of a forested mountain peak yielded less than 7 tons across its 9 acres of vines. Yields in other vineyards were similar. The estate’s vine material, much of it old and diseased, was due for some serious work.
“No one was aching about the replant as much as we were,” says Erickson, “but vines have a lifespan even when they’re disease free, and these certainly weren’t. They just weren’t doing their job anymore at the end of their life. A lot of them were still planted on AXR [a rootstock once thought to be resistant to phylloxera that once seemed the savior of Napa, but has since been all but completely ripped out].”
Erickson’s wife drew up plans for replanting, and because she had full-time obligations running her family winery, brought in viticulturist Phil Coturri to oversee both the replanting, and the ongoing farming at the estate. Coturri selected the rootstocks and sourced vine material for the grafting. And perhaps most importantly, the vines are being replanted as they were found, not on trellises with vertical shoot positioning, but as head-trained California sprawl.
“Unfortunately we couldn’t use the existing vines as a source for grafting,” says Erickson, “but Phil found heritage selections that he says were likely the same ilk as when these plots were planted. He’s got a whole program for that.” Additionally Coturri immediately transitioned the estate to organic farming
“At first we were as terrified as everyone else about ripping these vines out of the ground. We didn’t want to mess this thing up,” says Erickson, “but we talked with Bob, and that’s what he did when he first came in, and he also told us that’s what he’d be doing if he had the energy and money anyway. So I’ve sort of come around to being at peace with the fact that there are just things that need to be done, and it’s our turn to do them, and the soil isn’t going to change. The wines will still have the same character. The site always comes through.”
It was a foggy winter morning when I made my way up the mountain to visit Estate Director Jimmy Hayes and have a look around the property and the cellar, but around every corner of the treacherous road leading to the winery a break in the fog let through a shaft of sunlight to illuminate the freshly green carpet of grass sprung up in the wake of recent rains.
After a wrong turn thanks to a GPS failure, I arrived to find the winery in an impressive state of repair. Banks and crew have clearly spared no expense in restoring the property to a state of rustic glory. Olive trees have been planted around the repaired stonework of the driveway, and the interior of the winery has been lovingly and tastefully upgraded with lighting and furniture. Care has clearly been taken to preserve, rather than replace, the soul of the building, while at the same time making it a lot more comfortable.
I spent a good two hours tooling around the remote hillside vineyard sites, and poking about in the cellar, but the entire visit came down to one essential moment: when Hayes climbed the rickety 100-year-old ladder on cask T-9 with a wine thief in hand to pull out a sample of the 2014 vintage, the first harvest made without Travers’ supervision since the purchase.
The juice spilled into my glass, bright purple and crystalline. Picked at 21.8 brix (12.8% potential alcohol) from the Paradis block and aged in ancient oak, it is angular, with fine but very stiff tannins that have a familiar hardness to them. Phenomenal acidity sears bright mulberry fruit into my palate, lingering for a long time in a mouthwatering finish. To say this wine is young yet would be a tragic understatement, but even in its youth, it screams its heritage with pride. One taste of this stuff will be enough to dismiss any fears that Mayacamas is coming off the rails.
The next barrel sample, from a different vineyard block has some more of the earthy quality I associate with Mayacamas, seeming darker and more cherry than mulberry in character. Dense, powerful tannins play tug-of-war with crushed stone minerality that sings through the long finish.
The third, this time out of a smaller oak barrel, was picked slightly later (it may add up to a whopping 13.2% alcohol) and has a wonderful sweetness to its fruit along with a hint of tobacco that might be the tiniest kiss of wood influence in the fruit. The tannins are fleecy and more plush than the other samples, but the wine is no less bright and mouthwatering. Notes of dried fennel seeds linger in the finish, and I can’t help swallowing in a moment of what you might call professional weakness coupled with nostalgic relief.
Mayacamas is going to be fine. Really.
The wines, it seems to me, will be a touch cleaner, and a bit more consistent. They will have their rusticity, but it will be slightly more refined. They will be perhaps ever-so-slightly more drinkable in their youth, but will still show best after 15 or 20 years.
Will they be exactly the same? No. That would be impossible. Will they be more expensive? Almost certainly. Banks is not in the charity business, and he has just poured a ton of money into this property, and will need to see a return eventually.
But the juice slumbering in those barrels still speaks of the place it was born. As if it could do any other.
When I ask Erickson what he’s taken away from this new experience, he doesn’t hesitate.
“If I hear another winemaker say they’re waiting to pick for flavor, I’m going to smack them in the face,” he says. “The danger of waiting for flavor is that the acid gets too low and the sugar gets to high and then you have to intervene. I’m picking earlier now for every single wine that I’m working on. That doesn’t mean as early as Mayacamas, but I can tell you that in 2015, pretty much in every appellation I worked in, we were the first ones picking in every appellation. And I thought that was pretty cool.”
People were worried about Andy Erickson changing Mayacamas, but instead it’s changing him.
In addition to tasting in the barrel room, Hayes and I sat down to sample a few bottles from the past 20 years of the winery’s history.
2012 Mayacamas Vineyards Chardonnay, Mount Veeder, Napa, California
Pale gold in color, this wine smells of wet stone, white flowers and grapefruit pith. In the mouth, lean and juicy pink grapefruit and lemon zest flavors sizzle with electric acidity, stretched taut over a bed of wet chalkboard and mountain stream water. A wonderfully bright lemon kick lingers in the finish. 13.25% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $44. click to buy.
2007 Mayacamas Vineyards Chardonnay, Mount Veeder, Napa, California
Medium gold in color, this wine smells of bee pollen and lemon curd. In the mouth stunning buttered popcorn and lemon curd flavors are electrically bright and dense on the palate. Stunningly bright and juicy with phenomenal stony minerality. White flowers emerge on the finish which builds an almost tannic density over time. A surprising and very ripe 14.75% alcohol. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $90. click to buy.
1989 Mayacamas Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Mount Veeder, Napa, California
Medium ruby in the glass, with chunky sediment, this wine smells of mushrooms, cedar, dried cherries, and forest floor. In the mouth, gorgeous cedar, mushroom, and forest floor flavors are shot through with a muddy but faintly sweet red fruit haze, like looking at the sunset through a bank of trees. Truffles emerge on the finish with a little tang of funk. Thick, chalky tannins add to the wet chalkboard sense of the finish. Not the most spectacular bottle, but pretty darn tasty. 12.5% alcohol. Score: arou