As some readers know, I’ve only recently been able to dedicate more time to writing here on Vinography after a number of years of being an entrepreneur and small business owner trying to squeeze in some wine writing around the edges. By virtue of that struggle for time, I have not exactly kept up with new developments in California wine at the level to which I aspire. There was a time that thanks to an endless parade of large public tastings, I was almost sure to hear about new wine projects soon after they popped up.
Of course, gone are the days of 1000 people crowding into San Francisco’s Fort Mason to visit with and taste the wares of 200 different wineries. Who knows when we’ll get that opportunity again.
In the meantime, I wanted to see what I might have missed over the past few years in Napa. So I called up the folks at the Napa Valley Vintners Association and asked them if they would be so kind as to give me a list of all the wineries that had joined their ranks in the past 5 years.
When I got the list, which was impressively long, I went through and marked basically every name I had never heard of, and asked if the vintners would see if those folks wanted to show me what they were up to by way of some wine samples.
Of the 122 wineries that had joined the NVV since 2015, roughly 85 names were entirely new to me, and another dozen I had heard of but never tasted. As you might expect, some of these wineries were, in fact, brand new, while others had only recently gotten around to becoming members.
A while later, the boxes started arriving, and for the past few months, I’ve been tasting through the wines in batches, and those that I thought were notable based on my tasting, I have profiled below.
In case anyone is reconciling spreadsheets, I have also included a couple of wines that were sent to me independently in the past year or two that qualify as new names for me in the region.
Speaking of spreadsheets, since I’ve got the info, I found it somewhat interesting to run a few numbers on the roughly 75 wines that I evaluated for this piece that ranged in vintage from 2015 to 2018.
Average price for a Napa Cabernet or red blend: $113.50. Median price: $100.
This came as no surprise, but it still hurts.
It’s not safe to say that the bevy of wines I received are a statistically representative sample of every wine that carries Napa on its label, but as a representation of the fine wine market in Napa, it’s probably in the ballpark.
So what does this mean? Something that most people have already figured out.
Napa is largely pricing itself out of the average wine lover’s budget. And let’s be clear, when I say wine lover, I’m not talking about the average American wine drinker, who studies show spends around $15.66 on average per bottle. I’m talking about people willing to spend $25-$50 on a nice bottle of wine. Those folks can no longer afford to drink the average Napa Cabernet.
The least expensive wines that were sent to me were a $30 Cabernet a $45 Cabernet, and a $45 Merlot—all admirable prices—but the next three cheapest bottles were $55, $60, and $75 apiece. Interestingly and unfortunately, a number of those inexpensive wines didn’t make the cut for inclusion in this article because I didn’t think the wines were good enough to mention.
It’s hard to lay seriously prejudicial commentary about wine prices at the feet of most Napa producers. With land prices, labor prices, and water prices being what they are, it’s all but impossible to make a decent $25 bottle of Napa Cabernet without a level of scale that few possess in Napa Valley.
Having said that, it’s also hard to believe that any wine priced above $80 or $90 suggested retail (that doesn’t come from the notoriously pricey Beckstoffer Vineyards) is being priced purely based on a margin calculated above its costs of production.
Napa’s brand has simply become more and more valuable over the years, and that, coupled with the smaller production levels of many producers (i.e. perceived scarcity), drives producers to price their wines at increasingly eye-popping prices.
Looked at another way, if you’ve just spent a
pretty penny whopping boatload of cash for a vineyard and winery in Napa, and every one of your neighbors (or all of your other friends who have wineries in Napa) charge $175 per bottle for their wines, it takes a pretty strong stomach (and maybe a serious ethical point of view) to contemplate pricing your wine at only $80.
In Napa, the price of wine has become a signaling device that plays right into our psychology and creates a vicious circle of ever-inflated prices in which every new entrant to the market tries to position their wines, via price, against their perceived (or more accurately, their desired) competitors.
It’s a game that I believe ultimately hurts everyone, and if not curbed somehow, will ultimately result in lots of producers not being able to sell all their wines each vintage. Which is something that many industry observers say is already starting to happen (and one reason why the fire-driven crop reduction last year and in previous years may have just the slightest of upsides for the industry).
Average alcohol level for a Cabernet or Bordeaux variety: 14.65%
I’m surprised this number isn’t higher. As I tasted through these wines, I was delighted to see how many fell in the 14-14.5% alcohol range.
California seems ever on a pendulum swing of style, and right now we’re heavily into the swing away from higher alcohol levels, or more specifically, a swing away from the ultra-ripe approach that characterized the period between 1995 and 2008 or so.
I believe that the combination of critical opinions from tastemakers reacting against the ripeness trend, the angry protestations of growers who were literally seeing their revenues evaporate in extended hang-time, and the cool vintages of 2010 and 2011 that yielded very attractive wines have all combined to nudge Napa back from the plush, blowsy brink of over-extraction.
With the moderating of ripeness has thankfully also come a less prominent oak signature. I’m not prepared to say that less new oak is being used in Napa at the moment, but I can say with confidence that it is being used much more deftly as a rule. Ten years ago a sampling of 80 random Napa Valley Cabernets would have landed on the palate like a stack of freshly milled two-by-fours. There were only a few wines in this tasting for which I could say that the wood approached sore-thumb prominence.
Cabernet is still king in Napa
While some experimentation continues to happen on the fringes, through a combination of blank slate innovation and/or closer looks at historical trends (I got a bottle of Napa Valdiguié the other day) sheer economics continues to drive the prominence of Cabernet in Napa.
Cabernet is what fetches the highest price. Because Cabernet is what people seem to want. So therefore people plant more and make more Cabernet.
Unsurprisingly, when asked to send me “a bottle or two” of their wines, most producers chose to send a bottle of Cab or a Bordeaux blend.
A serious hobby proliferates
More than one Napa resident has repeated to me some version the phrase, “Napa used to be the province of millionaires, but now they’re being pushed out by all the billionaires.”
Like any stereotype or generalization, this certainly has a kernel of truth to it. Napa Valley is a pretty small place when you come right down to it, and does not possess vast swaths of land ready and waiting to be cultivated. There are very few new vineyard developments, but a lot of vineyards changing hands. Prices, not surprisingly, continue to skyrocket.
Practically speaking, this means that any new entrant to Napa likely falls into one of the following categories, all of which you will see represented in the winery profiles that follow.
1. A new brand in an existing portfolio
Large wineries and wine companies launch new brands. That’s what they do. Some of the new names in Napa are merely new product ideas by existing producers.
2. Real estate that comes with a new hobby
Plenty of people want a place in Napa, and frequently the nicer places come with a vineyard. Some people buy such properties with the dream and desire to make wine, and some develop that desire over time. Eventually, instead of selling their grapes to someone, these folks (who usually own just an acre or two of vineyards) hire a winemaker, lease out some space in a custom crush facility, and make their wine. These types of new projects can be intergenerational as well, as children inherit vineyard properties from their parents and find the inspiration to do something new.
3. Let’s buy some grapes and make some wine
Making wine is romantic and exciting, not to mention fulfilling, and the industry infrastructure exists to allow “estateless” wineries to get up and running pretty quickly. Meaning, if you can find a grower willing to sell you grapes, you can easily find a facility where you can make those grapes into wine, either on your own or with the help of a consulting winemaker. These types of wineries range from highly casual “lifestyle” efforts with little commercial ambition to strategically crafted businesses aiming either to build a successful brand, make serious quality wine, or both.
4. Go big or go home
Buying a larger vineyard (say 5+ acres) and either remodeling or newly constructing a winery and cellar now takes enough money to lend credence to the “billionaires” comment above. But no shortage seems to exist of individuals or wine companies willing to establish a foothold in Napa and make the next great Cabernet. If by individuals, these price-is-no-object efforts are usually accompanied by hiring a brand-name vineyard management company and well-known winemaker, often (but not always) pre-supposing that the resulting wine will be sold to an allocated mailing list at the upper end of wine pricing. If by corporations, they are usually wine companies that possess all the existing know-how and infrastructure to establish their new Napa outpost according to their established standards and strategies.
Buying blindly will lead to disappointments
Of the roughly 75 wines I tasted and considered for this piece, 25 of them were low enough in quality that I did not choose to feature them or their wineries. Seven of those wines rated below 8.5 on my scoring scale were all priced above $120 per bottle.
Just like every wine region around the world, there are still a lot of mediocre wines being made in Napa. Less discerning customers may be at lower risk of disappointment, but higher prices definitely do not correlate with quality in any way that is truly helpful to consumers.
To the extent that I can, through articles like this, I am quite happy to point you towards the efforts that I think are of high quality, letting you make your own judgments about value, given your personal circumstances.
The heavy bottles have got to go
More than a few producers still seem to believe that a primary way they can communicate the prestige of their product lies in the net weight of the damn bottle.
Let me be clear, then. A bottle that weighs 4.5 pounds when full says one thing and one thing only: you care more about your image than the environment.
Glass bottle manufacturing produces a lot of greenhouse gasses, in direct proportion to the amount of glass being made. Shipping bottles of wine around the country and around the world produces a lot more greenhouse gas. According to some studies glass bottles and their shipping can make up as much as 68% of the wine industry’s carbon footprint and at a minimum, likely makes up more than 40%.
That means quite literally the easiest thing a winery can do to reduce their carbon footprint would be to use lighter glass bottles.
So do it.
In this day and age of climate emergency there is absolutely no excuse for using such heavy glass. Whenever bottles are egregiously heavy below, I have made note of that fact.
* * *
I hope you enjoy this survey of some new names (to me) in Napa and their wines, listed in alphabetical order below.
One of the more exciting new wineries to appear in Napa in recent years, Acumen Wines focuses on one of Napa’s lesser-known appellations, Atlas Peak, where proprietor Eric Yuan has purchased 116 acres of vineyards. A developer from the Wuhan region of China, Eric fell in love with wine while studying abroad in Paris. With the help of both the late Denis Malbec and Henrik Poulsen, Yuan developed a portfolio of wines that were frankly some of the most impressive debut wines I’ve had coming out of Napa when they launched with the 2013 vintage. The wines are now the work of winemaker Phillip Titus, assistant winemaker José Rodriguez, and viticulturist John Derr, and they continue to offer an admirably restrained elegance.
2016 Acumen “Peak – Edcora Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon, Atlas Peak, Napa, California
Inky garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry and cassis with a hint of dried flowers. In the mouth, gorgeous black cherry, dried violets, and cola flavors are draped in a fleecy blanket of tannins that gain strength over time. Notes of licorice root and potting soil linger in the finish with dark cherry. Fantastic acidity and wonderful balance. 14% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $165. click to buy.
2016 Acumen “Peak” Cabernet Sauvignon, Atlas Peak, Napa, California
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of black cherry and cassis. In the mouth, juicy black cherry, black tea, earth and cassis flavors are shot through with a touch of cola nut. Fine-grained muscular tannins drape the core of dark fruit, but don’t overwhelm, while excellent acidity keeps the wine fresh and mouthwatering. Poised and nicely balanced, with a sophisticated restraint, as evidenced by its mere 14% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $115. click to buy.
Founded by painter Laurie Shelton and her late husband, Tom Shelton, who purchased a small vineyard in 2000, CAMi vineyards debuted in 2013 after Laurie Shelton decided to make wine instead of just selling the grapes. The wines are made by John Giannini, who has worked with Thomas Rivers Brown at Outpost for 15 years, the last two as winemaker. The vines are farmed by Davie Piña and Piña Vineyard Management.
2019 CAMi Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley, California
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of juicy golden and Fuji apples mixed with bright lemonade. In the mouth, flavors of golden apples and lemonade made with honey are positively zingy thanks to excellent acidity. Snappy, crisp, and delicious. 13.4% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $35. click to buy.
2016 CAMi Vineyards Red Blend, Calistoga, Napa, California
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of licorice, chocolate, and black cherries. In the mouth, rich and powerful black cherry fruit manages to stay just this side of “too much” largely due to excellent acidity. The tannins are relatively well restrained and supple, but this is definitely a significantly extracted bottle of Cabernet. A blend of 52% Merlot and 48% Cabernet Sauvignon. 14.9% alcohol. Extremely heavy bottle weighs in at 1.77 kg when full. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $150. click to buy.
2017 CAMi Vineyards Red Blend, Napa Valley, California
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of plum, black cherry, and tobacco leaf. In the mouth, juicy black cherry and plum flavors are shot through with cola nut and a bit of mocha. Well-integrated oak and good acidity are matched with velvety, mellow tannins. There’s just the faintest heat of the wine’s 15.5% alcohol on the finish. A blend of 53% Merlot and 47% Cabernet Sauvignon. Extremely heavy bottle weighs in at 1.77 kg when full. Score: around 9. Cost: $125. click to buy.
2018 CAMi Vineyards Red Blend, Napa Valley, California
Inky, opaque garnet in color this wine smells of black cherry and licorice. In the mouth, rich black cherry and licorice flavors have a nice juiciness thanks to excellent acidity. Dark, brooding, and powerful, the flavors are thick here, but the acidity and well restrained supple tannins make this easier to drink than I would have thought given the flavor profile. Massive and brawny but dressed in a very nice silk shirt. A blend of 52% Merlot and 48% Cabernet Sauvignon. 14.8% alcohol. Extremely heavy bottle weighs in at 1.77 kg when full. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $125. click to buy.
Gentleman Farmer Wines
Vintners Joe Wolosz and Jeff Durham met in 1999 and discovered a mutual love of wine and a common background in hospitality management. What started out as a tiny garage project with a half-ton of fruit has grown into a boutique wine label (less than 1000 cases) that sources fruit from a number of vineyards around Napa. Both Wolosz and Durham are hands-on with the production, along with winemaker Jérôme Chéry, a Burgundy-trained French winemaker who spent a good portion of his career directing winemaking at Saintsbury.
2017 Gentleman Farmer Wines Cabernet Sauvignon, Oak Knoll District, Napa, California
Very dark garnet in color, this wine smells of black cherry and cassis mixed with a dusty road. In the mouth, black cherry, cassis, herbs, and blueberries are wrapped in a fleecy blanket of tannins and enlivened by excellent acidity, which gives the wine a bright freshness that is commendable. The savory herbal and earthy notes emerge on the finish. Quite gentlemanly indeed. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $90. click to buy.
2017 Gentleman Farmer Wines Red Blend, Napa Valley, California
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of sweet black cherry and pipe tobacco. In the mouth, juicy plum and black cherry flavors mix with cola and hints of cedar as juicy acidity makes the mouth water. Muscular, fine-grained tannins wrap around the core of fruit, as notes of licorice and candied violets linger in the finish with just a whiff of alcoholic heat. A blend of 62% Merlot and %38 Cabernet Sauvignon. 14.8% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $65. click to buy.
Judy Jordan, a Stanford-trained geologist, has had a spectacular career in the wine industry. She founded, grew, and then sold J Vineyards, an early entrant and standard-setting sparkling wine brand that also went on to make some pretty killer still wines as well. But like some punchline about winegrowers and how they don’t retire, Judy is far from done with wine. Instead she’s launched Geodesy Wine, a philanthropic wine label focused on advancing the next generation of women in agriculture. Profits from the venture go to fund the WG Edge Program (Women Gaining an Edge), a leadership development organization that Jordan founded. Judy has assembled an all-star, mostly-female team to run Geodesy, including winemaker Megan Baccitich, who spent a decade as Director of Winemaking for Paul Hobbs. In addition to Napa, Geodesy also produces Pinot and Chardonnay from Oregon.
2017 Geodesy “Sage Ridge Vineyard” Red Blend, Napa Valley, California
Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cassis and black cherry with a touch of blackberry. In the mouth, juicy black cherry and blackberry fruit has a nice buoyancy thanks to excellent acidity. Notes of violets and licorice linger in the finish along with a darker potting soil earthiness that is quite compelling. Supple, fine-grained tannins flex their muscles but in the background. A blend of 73% Cab Sauvignon, 18% Cab Franc, 5% Merlot, 2% Malbec, and 2% Petit Verdot. 14.9% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $175. click to buy.
2016 Geodesy “Sage Ridge Vineyard” Red Blend, Napa Valley, California
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cassis and blueberries. In the mouth, juicy flavors of cassis and black cherry are wrapped in a sheet of taut, supple tannins. Excellent acidity keeps the fruit bright, as hints of green herbs emerge on the finish. There’s a high-toned quality to this wine, that makes me wish for a slightly deeper bass note to accompany the treble, despite my admiration for the juicy acidity. A blend of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Cabernet Franc, 6% Merlot, 6% Malbec, and 1% Petit Verdot. 14.9% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $175. click to buy.
Jon Nathaniel Wines
Another winery born out of significant success in the industry, Jon Nathaniel Wines is the next act of John Komes, the founder of Flora Springs Winery. John started Flora Springs in 1978, back when there were only 66 wineries in California. After selling Flora Springs to the Cathiard family, owners of Bordeaux’s Château Smith Haut Lafitte in 2020, John was able to focus entirely on Jon Nathaniel Wines, which was California’s 6,967th bonded winery when he started it as a personal label along with his son Nathaniel “Nat” Komes. The younger Komes serves as winemaker, with a heavy dose of collaboration from his father, who is referred to as “the fabulist” and serves as the inspiration for the winery’s red wine. Jon Nathaniel isn’t a new winery per se, but it was a new name to me.
2018 Jon Nathaniel Wines “Fabulist” Red Blend, Napa Valley, California
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of rich black cherry and cassis. In the mouth, black cherry, cassis and blueberries have a nice polished, round quality in the mouth. Good acidity and faint, billowy tannins round out the blend. Rich but without being heavy. A blend of 84% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Petit Verdot, 3% Malbec, and 3% Cabernet Franc. 14.2% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $100.
Few things are as symbolic of the winegrower’s efforts as the humble shovel, or “La Pelle” in French. La Pelle Winery is a new project from one of Napa’s superstar winemakers, Maayan Koshitzky (winemaking partner with Philippe Melka) and two of Napa’s well-known viticulturalists, Miguel Luna and Pete Richmond, who are partners in Silverado Farming Company. All the fruit is sourced from vineyards managed by Silverado, but farmed specifically for La Pelle. The winery has also recently released some single vineyard wines that I have yet to taste. Finally, it’s rare that I comment on a winery’s packaging or branding, but the overall branding of La Pelle is exceptional, and their labels are quite compelling.
2017 La Pelle “Reserve” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California
Very dark garnet in color, this wine smells of black cherry and cassis with hints of dried herbs. In the mouth, dried herbs suffuse flavors of black cherry and cassis that are enlivened with decent acidity. Muscular tannins mostly hang back and let the fruit do the talking, only flexing a bit in the finish as hints of bitter greens linger on the palate. 14.8% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $175. click to buy.
2018 La Pelle Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California
Inky opaque garnet in color, this wine smells of black cherry and cassis with a hint of green herbs. In the mouth, cassis and black cherry fruit have excellent juiciness thanks to zingy acidity. Notes of black pepper and blackberry linger with a faint bitterness in the finish as powdery tannins gradually increase their grip on the palate. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $75. click to buy.
Randy Wigginton was one of Apple Computer’s first engineers, back when Steve Jobs was just a young visionary that no one had ever heard of. Wigginton went on to work at a number of Silicon Valley’s most famous companies but he never forgot the exactitude that Jobs taught him—or what he likes to refer to as the Unwritten agreement that everything they were working on had to “be big and had to be done right.” Wigginton got into wine and eventually decided with four other friends to start a small wine label. With the help of winemaker Mark Porembski of Anomaly Vineyards, the partners made two barrels (50 cases) of wine in 2014. The label has since grown to about 350 cases, and sources fruit from some of David Abreu’s vineyards.
2017 Unwritten Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of bright sweet cherry fruit. In the mouth, juicy and bright cherry and cola notes are mouthwatering in their purity and freshness. Faint tannins and hints of floral and plum notes dance around the palate thanks to fantastic acidity. A little on the candied side of things, but it’s hard not to love the purity of the fruit and the absence of significant new oak influence. The acidity is so bright there’s even an orange-peel note in the finish. 14.8% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $150.
Magna Carta Cellars
David Choi got his start in the wine business through sales, specifically as the owner of one of the nation’s largest and oldest wine stores: Pearson’s Wine and Spirits of Washington, DC, which has been in business since 1933. Choi went deep into the wine world and was awarded the Merite Agricole by The French Ambassador and the Republic of France, as a result of his work with French wines. Magna Carta is a partnership between Choi and winemakers Peter Heitz (of Turnbull Wine Cellars) and Scott Palazzo of Palazzo wines. The three partners source grapes from Oakville, Stags Leap, and Carneros to make Bordeaux-style blends.
2016 Magna Carta Cellars “Magna Carta” Proprietary Red, Napa Valley, California
Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry and licorice with hints of dark plum. In the mouth, brooding and rich black cherry, cassis, and licorice flavors are draped in a heavy, weighted blanket of tannins. Decent acidity keeps the fruit fresh but there’s an overall weighty, rich darkness to this wine that feels a bit much. For fans of the brawny and powerful, however, this might be just the ticket. A blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc, 2.5% Malbec, and 2.5% Petit Verdot. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $100. click to buy.
2018 Magna Carta Cellars “Magna Carta” Proprietary Red, Napa Valley, California
Inky purple in the glass, this wine smells of blackberry and cassis. In the mouth, rich black cherry and blackberry flavors are wrapped in a muscular fist of tannins that squeezes tighter as the wine moves across the palate. Good acidity keeps the fruit fresh, but the tannins turn drying in the end, leaving a somewhat parched feeling as notes of licorice and black cherry linger in the finish. Massive and brawny, this wine needs a bit of time before enjoyment and may be overdone for those looking for more finesse. Nonetheless, it is a well-made interpretation of a certain style of Napa Cabernet. A blend of 72% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Merlot, 4% Cabernet Franc, 3% Malbec, and 3% Petit Verdot. 14.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $100. click to buy.
2014 Magna Carta Cellars Red Blend, Napa Valley, California
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cedar and cherry, forest floor, and graphite. In the mouth, graphite and cherry flavors mix with cedar and sawdust as hints of dried herbs and licorice root linger in the finish. Fine-grained tannins and decent acidity. There’s a nice savory quality to this wine at this point in its evolution. A blend of 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Merlot, 14% Cabernet Franc, and 3% Petit Verdot. 14.5% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $75. click to buy.
Metzker Family Estates
Michael Metzker is a successful geneticist and entrepreneur, having founded two genetics/genomics companies in addition to serving as Associate Professor in the Department of Molecular and Human Genetics at Baylor College of Medicine. During his undergrad years at UC Davis, Metzker fell in love with wine and eventually decided he needed to do more than just drink it. Metzker Family Estates was founded in 2014, and is run by Michael, his son Cameron, and winemaker Melissa Castro, most recently of Antica Napa Valley, the Antinori Estates project in Napa. The label sources fruit from both Napa and Sonoma for their wines.
2017 Metzker Family Estates Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain District, Napa, California
Very dark purple in the glass, this wine smells of blackberry and black cherry. In the mouth, black cherry and blackberry flavors are dark and earthy, with notes of graphite and wet soil. Tight, muscular tannins grasp the core of fruit in an increasingly tight squeeze, though they are fine grained and quite pretty. Brooding and dark, this wine needs some time to open up. Excellent acidity and very restrained oak presence. 15% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $125. click to buy.
On Q Wines
On Q Wines‘ homepage describes the project as “Small Production Boutique Ultra Premium Cult Wines,” so I’ll leave you to make what you will of that mouthful. Proprietor Steve Brady grew up in Napa and had a career as a Marine Engineer and “semi-professional” trumpeter before deciding to make wine in 2005. After encouragement from friends and neighbors on his initial garage efforts, he got serious in 2010, and brought on consulting winemaker Maayan Koshitzky, who now assists Brady in making several different wines sourced from sites in both Napa and Sonoma, with an emphasis on Coombsville in Napa.
2015 On Q Wines “Appassionata” Cabernet Sauvignon, Coombsville, Napa, California
Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry and tobacco. In the mouth, fantastic acidity makes flavors of licorice, black cherry and cola quite vibrant, and there’s a faint salinity to the wine that adds an extra kick of brightness. Muscular tannins flex and squeeze against the palate as notes of licorice and dried flowers linger in the finish along with hints of cedar. Massive, but with a certain grace. 15.1% alcohol. Offensively heavy bottle weighs in just shy of 2 kilograms (yes, almost 4.5 lbs) when full. 121 cases made. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $185. click to buy.
2016 On Q Wines “Appassionata” Cabernet Sauvignon, Coombsville, Napa, California
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry and licorice and a touch of niçoise olive. In the mouth, rich black cherry and cola and cocoa powder flavors are wrapped in a fleecy blanket of tannins and buoyed by juicy acidity. There’s a faint salinity to this wine, which contributes to the mouthwatering quality it has despite its power and heft. In addition to notes of licorice and dried flowers, a faint touch of heat in the finish betrays its 15.1% alcohol. 121 cases of horrifically heavy (1.96 kg) bottles made. Score: around 9. Cost: $185. click to buy.
2016 On Q Wines “Cadence” Cabernet Sauvignon, Coombsville, Napa, California
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of black cherry and cedar and a hint of dried herbs. In the mouth, juicy black cherry, plum, and cedar flavors have a nice lift thanks to excellent acidity. Notes of Mexican chocolate linger in the finish along with licorice and violets. Muscular tannins are well restrained. 14.8% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $85. click to buy.
2017 OnQ “Improvisation” Cabernet Sauvignon, Coombsville, Napa, California
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry and cedar. In the mouth, supple, velvety tannins wrap around a core of black cherry and cola nut. Excellent acidity keeps the wine fresh, as a touch of minty green herbs emerges in the finish along with a dark chocolate note that is quite pleasing. Very well-integrated oak. 14.8% alcohol. 175 cases made. Score: around 9. Cost: $85.
For a certain generation of wine lovers, the name Kornell should ring a bell. In its day, Hanns Kornell Champagne Cellars was quite a thing. Hanns Kornell is among the very few Jews who were sent to the Dachau concentration camp during World War II, but were allowed to leave. On the back of this small miracle, he made his way to California like so many other German Jewish immigrants at the time. Kornell would go on to start a massively successful sparkling wine brand and then have it repossessed by the bank after over-extending financially. Kornell’s daughter Paula would grow up in Napa and spend her entire career in the wine industry, working for Joseph Phelps and Robert Mondavi among others, as well as serving in leadership positions for Napa Valley Vintners and Oakville Winegrowers. After downshifting her career out of larger organizations to more of an independent consulting role, Kornell decided the time was right to follow up on a dream she’d had for years. And as of 2019, the Kornell name is back on the front of a sparkling wine bottle in the form of Paula Kornell sparkling wines. She produces a non-vintage Brut and a vintage-dated Blanc de Noirs, the first of which is the 2017 vintage.
2017 Paula Kornell “Blanc de Noir” Sparkling Wine, Napa Valley, California
A light to medium gold in the glass with a slight rosy hue and medium-fine bubbles, this wine smells of berries and white flowers and a touch of crushed nuts. In the mouth, forest berry and seawater flavors are borne across the palate on a fluffy mousse, leaving berry scents and a sour SweetTart aftertaste in the mouth. Quite pretty. Blind, I would have guessed this to be a rosé sparkling wine. 12.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $50. click to buy.
Dean Papadakis, a successful real estate lawyer and his wife Katie swear that they had no intention of ever becoming vintners. But this wouldn’t be the first time that a little vacation to the Napa Valley turned into a new chapter in someone’s life. Apparently, they were sitting around with their friend and well-known winemaker Mike Smith (of Carter Cellars, Becklyn, and others) and he happened to let drop the fact that a few rows of Beckstoffer Georges III Vineyard were soon to be available. A bit of conversation ensued, and before you know it, Dean and Katie had decided to take the plunge and become proprietors of a brand they call, quite appropriately, Perchance Estates. Mike now makes the wine for their 13 rows of Georges III, and, everyone is quite happy with the arrangement.
2018 Perchance Estates “Beckstoffer Georges III Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California
Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry, plum, and tobacco. In the mouth, gorgeously smooth cherry and cola and tobacco notes are juicy with bright acidity. Fleecy tannins hang in the background letting the lush fruit take the fore. Just the tiniest bit of alcoholic heat mars the finish which is dried flowers and licorice and dark chocolate. 14.9% alcohol. Comes in a ridiculously heavy bottle—weighing in at 1.98 kg when full—and that’s after I removed the wax cap. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $225. click to buy.
Post & Beam Winery
That label should look awfully familiar to a lot of people. While Post & Beam is a new brand, it is part of the long-standing Art Nouveau-branded Far Niente family of wineries along with Nickel & Nickel, Dolce, Enroute, and Bella Union. This new brand represents something of an entry-level approach to Napa Cabernet, insofar as a wine priced at $45 can be entry-level. As noted in my introductory remarks above, being able to offer a quality Cabernet at this price is no mean feat in Napa, and the wine no doubt fills out a crucial (and I would wager, extremely popular) spot in the Far Niente portfolio.
2018 Post & Beam Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cassis and black cherry. In the mouth, bright black cherry flavors mix with a touch of cola nut and black currant. Fine-grained, velvety tannins buff the edges of the palate. Excellent acidity. 14.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $45. click to buy.
Seven Apart Wines
Don Dady grew up in Sonoma but eventually made his home in Scottsdale, where he founded the financial firm Annexus. Partnering with former NFL long snapper Jason Kyle of the Seattle Seahawks, Dady purchased the Stags Ridge Vineyard, a rocky plot high on Atlas Peak planted in 1999. The two then hired famed winemaker Andy Erickson (of Screaming Eagle, Dalla Valle, Ovid, and Staglin fame, among others) and set out to take a money-is-no-object kind of approach to building a wine label they are calling Seven Apart, including a brand new, state-of-the-art winery and hospitality building that will soon finish construction. As one might expect, there’s a waiting list already.
2018 Seven Apart “Expedition” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California
Inky, opaque garnet in color, this wine smells of black cherry and tobacco. In the mouth, gorgeous black cherry and plum fruit are juicy with fantastic acidity. Muscular tannins grip the core of fruit as dried herbs and flowers mix with the dark berry licorice that is the core of this wine. Brawny but not overdone, and restrained in its expression of oak. Just a tiny hint of bitter wood on the finish. A blend of 98% Cabernet Sauvignon, 1% Cabernet Franc, and 1% Merlot. 14.1% alcohol. Comes in a massive, 1.78 kg bottle with a cork so long that because of the inset due to a wax cap, a Coravin needle couldn’t go all the way through. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $135.
There aren’t many wineries in Napa started by wine writers. Come to think of it, I can’t think of any, but Smith Devereux seems to qualify, as in addition to being a travel writer (working for Lonely Planet for many years) co-founder Ian White has also written for Wine Enthusiast, among other outlets. The road to the launch of the Smith Devereux brand is a bit of a tortured path of one wine venture leading to another, so suffice it to say that this newly launched brand is a collaboration between White, vintner John Anthony Truchard, and music agent Steve Smith, and it has already spawned collaborations with various musicians as well as extensions in to “merch” and other beverages.
2017 Smith Devereux “IBEX” Merlot, St. Helena, Napa, California
Medium to dark garnet in color, this wine smells of vanilla and fresh red fruits. In the mouth, juicy notes of cherry, plum, and the sweet toastiness of oak mix with a touch of espresso. Excellent acidity and the relatively low 14.1% alcohol make for a fresh mouthful, though there is a touch of heat on the finish. 417 cases made. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $45.
2016 Smith Devereux Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California
Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry, tobacco, and green herbs. In the mouth, cherry, cola, tobacco, and the toasty vanilla and charred espresso notes of new oak have a nice juicy brightness thanks to excellent acidity. The tannins are fine-grained but drying, parching the mouth and leaving a sandpapery feeling on the tongue. A touch too much wood here for my tastes, but still a pretty fresh and juicy wine. 14.9% alcohol. 500 cases made. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $55. click to buy.
Casey Stringer and his father Chip fell in love with Napa wine roughly at the same moment: when a trip to look at California colleges gave them an opportunity to take a drive through Napa. Even before he ended up back in California for college, Casey started working in a wine shop back in Wisconsin, where he grew up. After realizing he wanted a winemaking degree more than the photography degree he signed up for, Stringer worked harvests for a number of wineries, eventually ending up in New Zealand where he got the formal winemaking education he desired. After a brief experiment in making wine in Wisconsin by trucking in California fruit, Stringer convinced his wife to move to California, where, joined by his dad, he started his wine label Stringer Cellars. Casey makes the wine, his father oversees operations, his wife pours at tastings, and his two brothers help with marketing and sales. They source fruit on Atlas Peak and from around Napa and Sonoma for their wines.
2018 Stringer Cellars “Linda Vista Vineyard” Chardonnay, Oak Knoll District, Napa, California
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of white flowers, citrus pith, and a touch of melted butter. In the mouth, creamy white flowers, citrus pith, and cold cream flavors have a delicate, filigreed acidity that builds power as the wine finishes with hints of citrus pith and white flowers, with a slight tang of unripe apples. Quite pretty. 13.3% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $32. click to buy.
2017 Stringer Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, Oak Knoll District, Napa, California
Very dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry, blueberries, and flowers. In the mouth, intense cassis, blueberry, and black cherry flavors are cool and crunchy thanks to excellent acidity. There’s a brisk freshness to the wine as notes of minty green herbs mix with the aromatic fruit flavors. Faint, grippy tannins. This wine is quite primary yet, and will likely improve with a few years in the bottle. 14.1% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $65. click to buy.
Walter and Joan Teachworth bought an estate on Napa’s Diamond Mountain just as it was becoming fashionable to do so, but before it became purely the province of the super-rich. Their vineyards were planted in 1997, and their first vintage was in 2000. So Teachworth Winery is not necessarily a new name in Napa, but it’s definitely new to me. The Teachworths have passed away and the winery is now owned by their children and has been operated by young winemaker Taylor Berkley Boydstun for the past 2 vintages. Boydstun is early in his career, having spent a year as the cellarmaster at MacRostie in Carneros before leaving to join Teachworth and to start his own label T. Berkley Wines. Teachworth is a tiny operation making just a few barrels a year from its 2-acre jewel-box vineyard, and its earliest vintages seem to have each been made by different winemakers.
2016 Teachworth Winery Cabernet Sauvignon, Diamond Mountain District, Napa, California
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of bright cherry and tobacco notes. In the mouth, wonderfully bright and fresh cherry and tobacco flavors mix with cola and fresh herbs. Fantastic acidity combined with the tinge of green herbs makes this wine quite fresh and mouthwatering, with the coolness of peppermint patties lingering in the finish. The tannins are quite faint, and the overall medium-bodied quality of this wine is quite quaffable. Excellent. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $125.
2018 Teachworth Winery Pinot Noir, Carneros, Napa, California
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of sweet cherry fruit. In the mouth, sweetish cranberry and cherry flavors have a nice purity but definitely a candied quality. Many people will appreciate the bright purity of this fruit, kissed as it is with the vanilla of oak. Excellent acidity keeps the wine fresh. Ultimately a bit too candied for me, but quite pretty. 14.75% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $60. click to buy.
The Rutherford Wine Company began as an iconic vineyard property in Rutherford, the Rutherford Ranch, but it has now become something of a wine portfolio company. Family-owned by some of the investors who joined the historical family owners in building the business, it now makes a very large quantity of wine under a number of different commercial and private label brands, all overseen by Director of Winemaking Jay Turnipseed. Torcia Wines, then, is not a new winery in Napa, per se, but a new brand in their sizeable portfolio, one distinctively targeted at the luxury Cabernet market. Day-to-day winemaking for the brand is overseen by Associate Winemaker Kaitlyn Sulenski and her assistant winemaker Caylin Crivello.
2017 Torcia Wines “Abela” Cabernet Sauvignon, Rutherford, Napa, California
Very dark garnet in color, this wine smells of black cherry, cedar, and tobacco. In the mouth, juicy black cherry, cherry, licorice, and cedar have a wonderful deep resonance and are buoyed by excellent acidity. This is a rich wine but not over the top, and it is mercifully absent a massive dose of new oak. Doubtless, it saw some, but whatever it experienced, it has absorbed beautifully. 14.2% alcohol. An unforgivably heavy bottle weighs in at 1.98 kg when full. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $145. click to buy.
2017 Torcia Wines Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain, Napa, California
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of alcohol and bright cherry fruit. In the mouth, bright cherry fruit has a surprising buoyancy thanks to excellent acidity. There’s a touch of hollowness in this wine, which floats above the palate in a high-toned quality but lacks some grounding element, as fruity cherry and plum flavors seem to soar off into the finish. 15.5% alcohol. Massive 1.97 kg bottle. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $135. click to buy.
Trois Noix may not roll off the tongue that easily, but the wines it makes are certainly designed to. This cleverly named brand (literally “three nuts” in French, after founder Jamie Araujo and her brother’s combined three kids) is Araujo’s new venture after the sale of her parents’ eponymous winery to the Francois Pinault, the owners of Chateau Latour, in 2013. Araujo is now the sole owner and has built a small wine brand sourcing fruit from biodynamic, organic, and sustainably farmed vineyards in Napa. She recently brought on winemaker Trevor Smith (formerly of Antica Terra and Screaming Eagle) who will be making the wines beginning in the 2021 vintage.
2018 Trois Noix Chardonnay, Napa Valley, California
Light yellow-gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon curd and buttered popcorn. In the mouth, juicy rich flavors of melted butter, lemon curd, and a hint of candied grapefruit have a nice balance between richness and nervosity. Excellent acidity. Hints of oak and butterscotch in the finish. 14.2% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $50. click to buy.
2018 Trois Noix Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley, California
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of golden delicious apples, warm hay and grapefruit pith. In the mouth, pink grapefruit, citrus pith, and golden apples have a nice bright tanginess and a touch of floral aromas as the wine finishes with a pithy astringency. A blend of 53% Sauvignon Blanc and 47% Sauvignon Musque. 14.1% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $40. click to buy.
2016 Trois Noix Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of black cherry, tobacco, and crushed nuts. In the mouth, cool, earthy, restrained notes of black cherry and cola are shot through with the espresso notes of new oak. Toasted oak, cocoa powder, and that nice earthy note linger in the finish along with the green hint of freshly chopped herbs. Excellent acidity keeps this wine quite fresh and faint tannins grip the edges of the palate. 14.1% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $120. click to buy.
The aptly named Work Vineyard has been doing its job now since 1976, when it was first planted in the northwest corner of Calistoga, just down the street from Chateau Montelena. The vineyard’s latest owners, Lamya and Sam Malhotra, purchased the property from its original owners in 2007, and after some experimentation and replanting, brought on winemaker Kari Auringer in 2012 to oversee the winemaking for their 5 acres of vines as well as fruit they purchase from Sonoma County, for a total production of about 500 cases per year.
2017 Work Vineyard “Lamya’s” Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, California
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cassis and blackberries. In the mouth, bright cassis and black cherry flavors are wrapped in a supple, muscular sheaf of tannins. Excellent acidity keeps the fruit bright, and a darker earthier licorice note makes its way into the finish. Pretty nicely balanced overall, but may need a year or two to show its full potential. 14.7% alcohol. 67 six-packs produced. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $130. click to buy.