Having just returned from California, Mark Bedini (Founder and Executive Chairman) shares his adventures in Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley including an incredible visits to Vérité and Harlan Estate.
4th & 5th May: The Adventure Begins…
Departed San Francisco to visit my friends from Norfolk, Rowan and Jenny Gormley. They’d spent the day visiting producers and reviewing a range of wines, but even now their work was not done. As we tucked into a delicious BBQ at Rowan’s rented home-from-home other producers were showing their wines to these amateur critics.
The following morning, after an al fresco breakfast in the Napa farmers’ market, I took my leave and headed out to the Kistler vineyards. I’d not come across their wines before, but my neighbour on the flight to San Francisco from New York happened to be Todd Ziemann, the wine maker for Mondavi’s Woodbridge range and enthused about the particular Chardonnay specialities that Kistler are renowned for and I was now madly eager to taste, and have them explained. Despair! The gate was locked and the intercom remained stubbornly unanswered.
It had been such a beautiful, cloudless California day that my wife and I decided to drive on to Calistoga by the more scenic route that took us through stunning landscape and the ‘petrified forest’. Perhaps we will have time to revisit Kistler before we leave….I’m hoping so.
6th May: Tasting 299 Points
Another cloudless day backdropped a picturesque drive out from Calistoga to Lytton Springs, headquarters for Ridge. Renowned for its Monte Bello Cabernet dominated Bordeaux blend this winery has expanded through acquisition of vineyards with old vine parcels. Its wines very much reflect what’s growing in the vineyards; referred to as ‘field blend Italian’ the reds we looked at, aside from Monte Bello, are generally dominated by old vine Zinfandel (Primitivo), Carignan and Petit Syrah.
Arriving at the Vérité premises we were warmly introduced to the genius winemaker, Pierre Seillan and his charming wife Monique. Both had only arrived 24 hours earlier from France and upset by the demise of President Sarkozy. We felt doubly honoured since this was a Sunday.
Without much ado Pierre launched into a passionate and whirlwind explanation of how his focus begins entirely on the soil make up of each plot in the vast Kendall Jackson holdings. By some magic of a meeting of minds, he and his visionary employer, the legendary Jess Jackson, set about creating wines to properly rival and beat the greatest from Bordeaux – but from Sonoma vineyards, not Napa – in itself a highly controversial proposition.
With total freedom to cherry pick from any of the Kendall Jackson vineyards to create his dream cuvees, Pierre set about identifying his preferred plots. Pointing excitedly at a baffling array of jars of different coloured soils on display he makes the point of terroir and micro-sites being the absolute starting point. He then launched into a high speed and detailed explanation of access to his own particular choices of French oak from 20 different forest, degrees of toasting and stave shapes to best suit the elevage of each of his creations.
The flood gates were opening and we hadn’t even touched on viticulture and vinification, but we had wines to taste, lunch to eat and a flying tour of the vineyards and topography of Sonoma and Napa to squeeze in.
While we’d been talking, beguiling aromatics were rising from the 3 glasses in front of each of us. We were looking at Pierre’s colossally successful trilogy of 2008 La Muse, La Joie and Le Desir; 299 out of 300 points between them.
Pierre explained how his very first vintage, the difficult 1998, was simply called Vérité and represented Jess Jackson’s and Pierre’s meek intention to out-Pomerol Pomerol. Today this wine stands as a testament to that ambition. I know, because we tasted (drank) it. Showing some browning in the still very deep colour the wine is easily still in its prime with great depth of sweet, ripe fruit and a long complex finish and indistinguishable from top class Pomerol. 1-nil
Back to the 2008’s:
La Muse replaced the original Vérité and remains the ‘Pomerol’ of the family. A big sensory experience on the nose yielding to a mouth filling, rounded, ripe dark fruit palate of great depth and complexity and a wondrous finish.
La Joie is the ‘Pauillac’ sibling and spookily reminiscent of Latour: cool, measured and completely confident. This beautifully elegant and noble wine is commanding, powerful, graceful with wonderful balance. The blackberry and saddle leather, cinnamon and cedar combine with ripe tannins with a long, complex finish.
Le Desir is the ‘St Emilion’ and Pierre’s particular passion to prove how brilliant Cabernet Franc can be. Violets and truffles on the nose – almost Burgundian aromatics and amazing allure. Exquisite and subtle expression of spice and red fruit mid palate with an underlying minerality extending into a very long finish.
These wines stand out among the giants of California partly because they have gone against the trend out here of big, ripe and alcoholic – they are more restrained and subtle – but also because, frankly, you know where the value lies when you drink or taste them; they deliver a real sense of place and personality.
Lunch was a delicious selection of cold platters eaten under an immense and sprawling oak tree. We freshened our palates with a delectably plump and fresh fruited Rose made from the run off juice of the red grapes.
Pierre then introduced the 2nd wine from recently acquired Ch Lassegue, a St Emilion Grand Cru property with vineyards abutting Pavie. Les Cadrans de Lassegue 2008 showed a beguiling purity, ripe red fruit and a very decent finish. Quite a climb down from the Vérité trilogy, but offering excellent drinking at this level. (Cepage roughly 60% Merlot, 30% Cab Franc, 10% Cab Sauvignon.)
We drank the 2007 Ch Lassegue with lunch (65% M, 20% CF, 15% CS); Some lively spicy flavours within a very pure, rounded mouthful of red fruits, prunes and notes of cedar. Supple and perfectly in its early drinking phase it finished with reasonable length. It goes without saying that Pierre has great ambitions for what he can achieve given the terroir and exposition of the vineyards at this Chateau.
Next in line is the Chianti project, somewhere near Felsina, which promises highest quality Chianti, Chiant Classico and, of course the real excitement, a Super-Tuscan.
Now for the helicopter ride: Pierre’s passion to explain how the Pacific creates a special climate across the Sonoma vineyards is best seen from the air he insists (and it is!). We circled high over the valley and then flew out to the coast to briefly spot a passing whale. Pierre’s narrative on the many vineyards we passed was often too detailed to follow, but his point that the coastal mountain range, creating the west side of Sonoma Valley, was well made. His original gamble had been to ignore Napa, believing it to be too hot for the style of wines he wanted to create, in favour of the cooler climate of Sonoma. His stunning wines prove him right.
The choice of which sites to cherry pick for his blends was then down to his own passion for understanding soil types, aspects, micro-climates, varietals etc. This was even before he got to winemaking!
But none of this would ever have been possible without the complete support and free reign given him by the remarkable Jess Jackson, who sadly passed away in April 2011, just a few short months before the Wine Advocate ratings for the 2008 Vérité wines triumphantly confirmed his long held ambition.
Pierre Seillan is not a Prima Donna, he is a man of passion, focus and (most importantly) of vision. He now carries the legacy of his past employer, mentor and good friend, Jess Jackson’s own vision with projects in California, Bordeaux and Tuscany. You can still see in Pierre what made him a good hooker on the rugby field; ready for a scrap, determined and tough – qualities that stand well alongside his artistry and imagination.
7th May: Another Fairytale Success Story
The winding drive off Highway 128, unmarked except for a ‘private road’ sign, took us up to higher altitudes overlooking the Napa valley, lined with mature native oak forest at first, yielding to olive trees bordering Harlan Estate vineyards.
Arriving at the reception building, which had remarkable views over the vineyards, we were warmly welcomed by Don Weaver, the charming and elegant Estate Director, who lays claim to being Bill Harlan’s second ever employee from back in the day.
We stood awhile on the terrace, with a glass of Krug to sip, overlooking Harlan’s vineyards and the valley beyond. Don then led us into the cool of the building where he talked us through Harlan’s history – another fairy tale story of vision, passion and drive, and a large slug of happenstance.
Harlan Estate has always kept itself to itself, preferring to quietly get on with producing great wines comparable to the first of the firsts and eventually achieving a reputation for something very special – as Robert Parker put it, “Harlan Estate might be the single most profound red wine made not just in California, but in the world.”
All good things come to those who wait and it was indeed so for the Estate who had first to deforest suitable parts of the hillside, plant the Bordeaux varietals, then wait for the years to go by until the vines were old enough to make the maiden commercial vintage, 1990. The first release for sale was eventually ready in 1996. A wait of 12 years from purchasing the property in 1984!
Since these early years the Estate has never wavered in its relentless pursuit of quality and while the production has remained relatively stable at just 2000 cases per annum, it’s reputation has quietly grown to iconic status.
With less than a third sold into the Trade outside the loyal private fan club, this wine is maddeningly hard to find, but worth every penny, or pound when it turns up. Harlan Estate is another rare example of a Californian wine that buyers can feel confident of. Made only from the best berries harvested from its own vineyards it delivers a powerful sense of identity and place. The wines from a finished blend of around 75 to 80% Cabernet Sauvignon with Merlot and Cab Franc making up the rest, are profound and long lasting.
The 1998 we tasted with Don was, unusually, 100% Cabernet Sauvignon (due to the peculiarly cool Winter, Spring and Summer seasons that year) and in its early prime. A handsome beast showing prunes and leather on the nose, then a rich palate of coffee, walnuts, cinnamon, truffles and forest floor (not in that order!) with a long and firm finish indicating plenty of drinking life ahead of it.
A delight and a rare treat to taste such a wine. Harlan now has a special place in my heart and mind.