Cassidy Dart, Director of Wine, and James Clark, Associate Director, headed out to California to visit our Principals and see them in the wake of the devastating wild fires and learn more about the challenging 2017 harvest.
The fires started on Sunday 8th October and over the course of 8 hours spread from 200 acres to 20,000 acres. However, we were relieved and reassured to see that our agencies had been some of the more fortunate and escaped largely unscathed, with some very promising vintages ahead.
First stop; Abreu Vineyards
A tasting of 2017 vintage out of barrel revealed customary structured, intense wines with typical Abreu focus and finesse.
Despite the fires, 2017 was a generally wet vintage, with Napa receiving over 70 inches rain compared to average of 40-50 inches. A heat wave started on Labour Day weekend (2nd-3rd September), with harvest starting on 8th September.
Abreu parcel harvest, picking grapes when they believe they are at optimal ripeness, based on tasting the fruit. Multiple varieties are often harvested at once and then co-fermented, which they believe increases integration of the blend, adds vibrancy, freshness and structure.
Abreu’s vineyards and winery were untouched by the fires, however winemaker Brad spent 4 nights sleeping on the floor in the winery with wet towels to block up the doors in case smoke came in!
Second stop; Dalla Valle Vineyards
2017 is a relatively small vintage, given the climatic issues of wet weather followed by heatwaves. Naoko believes that heat is now the biggest threat during the growing season, with extremes of 105-115F for prolonged 5 day periods and cannot recall previous vintages with such continuous high temperatures.
During the fires, the estate was evacuated because the front line got within 2 miles south of the estate. Fortunately, all fruit had been harvested before the fires hit.
Third stop; Staglin Family Vineyard
We enjoyed tasting the 2016 Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon out of barrel with winemaker Fredrik Johansson, who has been at Staglin for 10 years. The 2016 vintage is looking to be very good, with vibrant fruit concentration and tension. It was also apparent that the style of their estate Chardonnay has been gradually changing since 2012, moving to a more restrained, mineral, fresher style, which Fredrik explained was due to work in the vineyard to ensure slower ripening.
The fires got to within 0.5 mile of the estate on the ridge behind the winery when the decision was made to evacuate the team from cellars. Fortunately, the fires did not encroach any closer and the estate was spared any damage.
Fourth stop; Robert Sinskey Vineyards
A barrel tasting of the 2017 Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc with winemaker Geoff Virnig, who has been at Sinskey for 29 years, revealed classic Sinskey style with fantastic purity of fruit yet structured and fresh.
However, 2017 will be a small vintage for the estate because, of all our producers, they were the worst affected by the fires. Forced to evacuate from winery on the evening the fires started, they could see the fires progressing over the hill and assumed the worst. Maria and Robert Sinskey imagined that the winery had been burnt to the ground and began discussing redesign options. Fortunately, firefighters managed to save the winery with fire-suppressing foam however when we arrived, 20 days later, the neighbouring vineyards were still smouldering.
The worst hit was the iconic ‘Stag’s Leap’ Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard, losing 50% of the vines. The majority of the vines were 30 years old, so there is a long journey ahead in order to return to the former quality. Following the fires, they didn’t harvest any fruit due to the risk of smoke taint and had to leave 65 tons of fruit on the vines in Carneros.
However, we found the Sinskeys in typically high spirits and enjoyed a fantastic meal cooked by Maria with some perfectly matched wines; food and wine pairing is at the heart of the Sinskey philosophy. It was particularly interesting to taste library vintages of 2003 Abraxas which was deliciously honeyed and rounded but with fresh melon fruit remaining as well as the Vineyard Reserve 97 (the predecessor to Marcien) which highlighted the ageing potential of their wines boasting leather, soy, spice, dried fruit flavours with resolved, elegant tannins and velvety texture .
Final stop; Gallica
We were very pleased to be able to visit the latest agency to join the Portfolio, Gallica. We were welcomed with a delicious lunch prepared by Rosemary Cakebread, overlooking her gnarled, old petite sirah vines in Oakville. We enjoyed the 2016 Albariño, 2013 Oakville auction lot Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2015 Sonoma Coast Grenache.
Gallica thankfully managed to pick all of their 2017s before the fires but Rosemary did express her concern for the entire industry, growers and producers alike, of what the implications would be following the worst fires in the region’s history.