Duckhorn Vineyards Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2017

Duckhorn Vineyards was co-founded by Dan and Margaret Duckhorn in 1976. On their first vintage, 1978, they released 800 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon and 800 cases of Merlot. Partly due to a wonderful growing season that year, 1978 turned out to be an excellent first vintage, one that buttressed Duckhorn’s belief that great wines begin in the vineyard, “It was a great year,” he reminisced. “We could have made wine out of walnuts.” Sauvignon Blanc was added to the list in 1982. In 2005, the San Francisco Chronicle proclaimed Dan Duckhorn its “Winemaker of the Year” and named four of his wines to its list of “Top 100 Wines of 2005.”

Dan Duckhorn

Early on, the Duckhorns decided to focus on the production of Merlot. At the time, few Napa Valley producers were exploring the potential of this varietal as a standalone wine. But, Dan Duckhorn became a great fan of Merlot during his travels in the mid-’70s to St. Emilion and Pomerol. He felt that this varietal was underappreciated in North America. “I liked the softness, the seductiveness, the color,” says Dan, “the fact that it went with a lot of different foods; it wasn’t so bold, didn’t need to age so long, and it had this velvety texture to it. It seemed to me to be a wonderful wine to just enjoy. I became enchanted with Merlot.”

Soon after establishing his winery, Duckhorn met up with Ric Forman. He was the winemaker at Sterling Vineyards at the time, and when he heard that Duckhorn was looking for some Merlot, he gave him a call, “I’ve got a vineyard you have to see.” Forman took Duckhorn up to the Three Palms Vineyard in Calistoga. Forman also recommended a winemaker by the name of Tom Rinaldi. When Rinaldi rolled up to the winery on a motorcycle looking like “a flower child,” as Margaret Duckhorn called him, they had no idea what they were in for. But, it worked out because Rinaldi ended up as the Duckhorn winemaker for the next 20 years.

Margaret Duckhorn

From the first vintage, Margaret took an active role in the day-to-day operations of the winery, hand-sorting the fruit and working alongside Rinaldi during blending. Later, she began focusing on marketing and international public relations to promote Duckhorn Vineyards. Over the years, she also helped to articulate Duckhorn Vineyards’ philosophy and core values. “We recognize the importance of taking care of this remarkable place, and of giving back to the community that has given us so much. In addition, we make certain that our practices at the winery and in our vineyards are sustainable.”  After the Duckhorns divorced in 2000, Margaret pivoted to advocating for the Napa Valley wine industry, working both locally and globally to protect and promote the region.

The first few years were simple, with only three stainless steel tanks under a big oak tree and hand-cranked basket presses. For the first vintage in 1978, they only harvested 28 tons of grapes into apple lug boxes, half Cabernet Sauvignon and half Merlot. Everything was hand-picked and sorted extensively. Duckhorn’s trip to France had also introduced him to the Nadalie family who were barrel builders, and he decided that brand new French oak was the way to go. Those first few vintages were cellared exclusively in Nadalie coopered barrels.

The Duckhorn Visitor Center (bottom photo: Zaiya Mikhael)

In 1982, Duckhorn made its first white varietal wine, Sauvignon Blanc. With the expansion of the winemaking program came a need for more fruit; this is when Duckhorn began acquiring some of the properties that are still important today. Two of the first vineyards purchased were Patzimaro Vineyard in 1989 and Monitor Ledge Vineyard in 1992. Today, the winery’s seven estate vineyards are located on 168 acres (68 ha) in alluvial fans of the Napa Valley and on the slopes of Howell Mountain. There are an additional 153 acres (62 ha) of four estate vineyards in the Anderson Valley in Mendocino County.

Two of the valley vineyards (bottom photo: Phil Guertin)

The mountain has distinctly different grape-growing conditions than the valley floor. Often during summer months, the maritime fog seeping into the Napa Valley below will not reach the mountaintop, giving Howell Mountain more sunlight and moderate temperatures.  The shallow and rocky soil drains easily, forcing the vines to send roots deep in search of water. And, the rocks retain the day’s heat, protecting the vines during cold spring mornings and foggy summer nights.

Duckhorn’s current winemaker, Renee Ary, has numerous vineyard blocks to choose from, each offering markedly different flavor profiles. She strives to understand the needs and opportunities presented by each specific terroir and microclimate. By approaching each vineyard block individually, Ary’s goal is to harvest when the flavors have reached their peak and the tannins are at their softest. Grapes are hand-picked and hand-sorted prior to crushing, as they have been since the beginning. In addition, some vineyard sites are even harvested several times, selecting only the ripe fruit with each pass through the vineyard.

In the winery, Ary blends from almost 200 distinctive lots using taste and instinct, not formula. Wines are barrel-aged separately by vineyard lot, utilizing an extensive barrel program that sources 25 different types of oak from 13 separate cooperages. The majority of the barrels are made from French oak in the Bordeaux Chateau style. These barrels breathe easier, encouraging the wines to develop. Duckhorn also employs many water-bent barrels, a process which removes harsh tannins from the wood, bringing about toasty, caramelized flavors.

In July 2007, a controlling interest in the company was sold to GI Partners, a private equity firm, at a price believed to be over $250 million. The company was sold to another private equity firm, TSG Consumer Partners, in 2016. The operation continues to expand under this ownership. In addition to Duckhorn Vineyards, Duckhorn Wine Company also operates Goldeneye [1996], a maker of Pinot noir in Anderson Valley, and Paraduxx, a blend of Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon made at a winery on the Silverado Trail between Yountville and Oakville, California. The company also produces second wines under the names Decoy [1985], made from Alexander Valley fruit not included in Duckhorn, Migration [2001], made with grapes from Anderson Valley and the Sonoma coast, and Canvasback [2012] a maker of Cabernet Sauvignon in Washington state’s Red Mountain appellation.

Duckhorn also controls Greenwing, which makes Cabernet Sauvignon in Washington’s Columbia Valley, and Postmark, a maker of Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from the increasingly reliable Paso Robles region.

Finally, two formerly independent wineries are now also under Duckhorn’s wing. Calera, founded in 1975 by Josh Jensen, is known for their Central Coast Pinot Noirs. Kosta Brown, dating back to 1997, is one of Sonoma’s premier producers of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Duckhorn Vineyards Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2017

A blend of 87% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Merlot, 0.5% Cabernet Franc, and 0.5% Petit Verdot, from Duckhorn’s estate vineyards and top Napa Valley growers, this wine was aged for 16 months in French oak barrels, half of them used, that restrained the oakiness.  This dark purple selection begins with moderate aromas, primarily vanilla and rich dark fruit, especially berries.  These continue in the mouth, backed up by black currant, tart cherry, and an earthy finish that has a hint of bitterness.  1,600 cases were produced, and the ABV is 14.5%.

Orin Swift Cellars Palermo 2018

I have been aware of Orin Swift wines for some time, especially The Prisoner, but had never had the chance to try any of them, so I was intrigued when a friend brought over this selection.  He is adamant that “all wines from California are inferior to any wine from Europe, especially Spain!” so I looked forward to his evaluation of this one, as well as my own.

Orin Swift Cellars is a relative newcomer on the California wine scene, having been established in 1998, but not by “Orin Swift,” as I had long assumed. Rather, it was by the now iconic, and iconoclastic, winemaker David Phinney. Orin is Phinney’s father’s middle name and Swift is his mother’s maiden name.

Phinney, a native Californian, was born in Gilroy, the son of a botanist and a college professor. However, within a week he was in Los Angeles, where he spent his childhood, and finally an adolescence in Squaw Valley. He enrolled in the Political Science program at the University of Arizona, with an eye towards a law degree, but before long became disillusioned with both. At this juncture, a friend invited him on a trip to Italy, and while in Florence he was introduced to the joys of wine, and soon became obsessed.

Back in the States, he began his career by working the night-shift harvest at Robert Mondavi in 1997. Encouraged by Mondavi, remarkably he started his own Napa Valley brand the very next year with the purchase two tons of some Zinfandel, though he wasn’t sure what he was going to do with it. Predictably, there were some false starts. Orin Swift’s first vintage was okay but not noteworthy, with Phinney confessing that he made an error in sourcing average fruit from the ‘wrong part’ of a great vineyard. Eventually he figured it out though, creating a rich, seductive, runaway best-selling wine called, surprise!, The Prisoner (an unusual blend of Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petite Sirah, and Charbono).

Since making his first wine in 1998, Phinney has bee guided by two  criteria; “find the best fruit from the best vineyards and don’t screw it up” and if you do screw it up “experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want.”

David Phinney.  Photo: Margaret Pattillo.

In a controversial move in 2016, Phinney sold Orin Swift to E&J Gallo (yes, that Gallo) for nearly 300 million dollars, but he shrewdly negotiated to remain in charge of production and winemaking for them. “I have access to their amazing vineyards; after the harvest in 2016 – the first year – I threw a barbeque for all the rest of the [Gallo] winemakers, some of who I knew, some I didn’t, to apologize for stealing their grapes because I knew we were getting access to stuff we probably shouldn’t have!”

While some observers saw it as a canny and natural business move, there were also whispers of criticism about Phinney ‘selling out.’ He is sensitive to the complaint, but stands by his decision. “It was a very natural, organic coming together, I’ve known and worked with the Gallos since 2005 and it was just kind of a conversation that was spurned because our growth curve was like a hockey stick, and that’s when you become attractive to bigger wineries,” he says.

Such financial independence has allowed Phinney to also produce wines from vineyards he owns in California and four European countries (France, Italy, Spain, Greece).

Many of the wines Phinney makes are blends. This is by design and not circumstance, so having access to a huge number of vineyards and parcels in sought-after areas of Napa Valley and beyond makes his job more interesting, and his quest for producing great wines arguably easier, as he is always striving for balance in his products. “For me the easiest way to achieve complexity is through geographic diversification, and that can be county-wise, valley-wise, country-wise,” he says. “I was told many years ago, and I believe it, that if you put a lot of good red wine together you often make a great red wine, so having that – and I hate this phrase – ‘spice rack’ of different things to play with can really work. You still have to be a custodian of each wine so that when you add them together the finished wine is better than the sum of its parts, that’s where I think blending really works.” And although he admits it’s a cliché, he believes that 90% of a wine is made in the field, so vineyard selection is the key to success.

Phinney also creates all the of the wine labels, and he is always looking for inspiration, much of which comes from his extensive travels around the world. “They all start and end with me, whether I like it or not. I grew up in LA in the 1980s very much in the punk/skateboarding/surfing scene, so there’s definitely a street art aspect to it. The flipside of that is that my parents were both professors, so we basically travelled the world and wherever we went we always had to go to a fine art museum. so there’s always been this relationship with art either by proxy or by design.”

Orin Swift Palermo Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2018

Instead of a blend, for which Phinney is better known, Palermo is the entry-level Orin Swift Cab (still about 50 bucks, though).  It was aged for 12 months in French and  American Oak, of which 33% was new.

It is a rich, inky purple, with plenty of dark stone fruit and raspberry on the nose.  This is accentuated by cassis, blackberry, and vanilla on the palate.   The presentation is in excellent balance, a Phinney hallmark.  The ABV is a robust 15.5%.

Even my European-leaning friend grudgingly enjoyed it.  Perhaps predictably, since Phinney confesses that although his prestige wines come from California, his heart is in Spain.  As for me, I really liked it.

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Maroon Wines Napa Valley Special Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2013

Like not a few winery owners of his generation, Paul Maroon came to the industry after a long successful career elsewhere.  Of Lebanese descent, he was born in 1947 in Pennsylvania, where his father owned a produce business.  His first exposure to wine came when he started as a teenager helping his uncle make wine. “It was terrible,” Maroon laughed years later.

Maroon graduated from college back east, and then migrated to California to pursue his MBA.  After that, he started selling medical supplies, including pacemakers. He worked closely with hospitals and doctors, and ultimately started his own company, specializing in new types of medical devices.

In the late 1990s, he felt wine and his ancestral agricultural roots pulling him more strongly than ever, and he moved up from the San Jose Bay area to the Napa Valley.  There he purchased the 37 acres that would become Maroon’s permanent home, in what is now part of the prestigious Coombsville Appellation in the Napa Valley AVA. Today, about 17 acres of this land is planted with Cabernet Sauvignon, which produce Maroon’s estate wines.

For the first ten years, Maroon was a grower only.  He sold his Cabernet Sauvignon grapes to Joseph Phelps, among others, for their famous (and now quite expensive) Insignia blend. During that time, he became friends with Chris Corley, who is the second-generation winemaker for Monticello Winery.  With assistance from Corley, Maroon made about two barrels of wine for himself, and eventually realized the quality that the fruit of his vineyard could achieve as a single-varietal, single-vineyard wine.  He ended the Phelps contract, and the first commercial vintage of 500 cases of Maroon wines was produced in 2009 with Corley as winemaker. His philosophy is to introduce as little winemaking manipulation or intervention as possible from the vineyard to the bottle, and to focus on 100% varietal wines (no blending).

A staunch advocate of the wine industry, Maroon helped form the Save the Family Farms initiative, which aims to preserve Napa Valley’s small family vineyards so they can continue to thrive and be passed on to future generations.  He was also active in the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the Knights of the Vine.   Paul Maroon died in late 2019, but his widow Renée is committed to continuing the operation of the winery.

Maroon was a firm believer in terroir-driven wines. “Everyone in the business knows that it is the earth and the combination of drainage and minerals that make the difference,” he was once quoted as saying. “We at Maroon Vineyard are blessed to have everything we need in one particular place.”

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Planted at an altitude of between 200 and 600 feet, Maroon’s estate vineyard in Coombsville is located in a bowl-shaped depression topped by Mt George, an extinct volcano. The grapes benefit from slower and more even ripening due to the location in the southern end of Napa Valley. Here, the fog burns off later in the day and frosts are less likely to occur.  The land is composed of rocky volcanic soil and rich gravely loams, which provide both easy drainage and water access for the vines.  A next-door neighbor was Robert Craig of Robert Craig Winery.  Craig was Maroon’s friend and mentor, and he always insisted that Craig be given a great deal of credit for the successes of Maroon Wines.

Maroon’s total current production hovers around 10,000 cases of primarily Cabernet Sauvignon, with small lots of Chardonnay, Zinfandel, Merlot, Malbec, and Sauvignon Blanc.  “This level is perfect for us, for here we can control all aspects of the wine from the beginning to the end,” Maroon often said. “If we were much bigger, this probably wouldn’t be the case.”

Maroon Napa Valley Special Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2013

Fruit for this Special Reserve 100% Cabernet Sauvignon originated in Maroon’s estate vineyard in the Coombsville Appellation of the Napa Valley AVA. It was aged for 24 months in all new French oak.

This wine is violet/black in color. Aromas of leather and blackberry join with dark chocolate, vanilla and a hint of espresso on the palate. The lingering finish features creamy oak tones and bracing tannins.  ABV is 14.4% and 476 cases were produced.

www.maroonwines.com

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