It’s Friday morning and a few minutes shy of 10 am. Susan and I have just made the beautiful drive on Napa Valley’s famed “road less traveled”, a.k.a. the Silverado trail. As we drive north past winery legends like Clos du Val, Stag’s Leap Winery, and Joseph Phelps, Susan reminds me that we need to keep a keen eye out for Deer Park Road, which could prove to be difficult due to the heavy morning fog blanketing the valley.
Well, we find it. At the well marked intersection of Deer Park Road and the Silverado Trail, we hang a right and begin our climb up, into and through the fog and into another vinous dimension. At around 1400 ft. above sea level, which is just about where the limit of the Howell Mountain AVA begins, we cut through the soupy mess and find ourselves bathed in a bright, crisp winter light.
We continue through the town of Angwin, take a couple more lefts, rights and arrive at O’Shaughnessy Estate Winery right on the dot. From the gated entrance up to the winery itself, it’s another three quarters of a mile of so, which is the perfect opportunity to take in the beautiful scenery: Madrone oaks, pines and cypress.
And of course vines, and lots of them. As we were soon to learn, O’Shaughnessy encompasses approximately 100 acres of Howell Mountain hillside set on two vineyard sites. The Del Oso and Ampitheater vineyards, which were planted between 1997-2002, include 29 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, and 6 acres are planted to the following blending varietals:
Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Merlot, Malbec, Carmenere and St. Macaire (a traditional Bordeaux varietal no longer cultivated in the region, but adopted in small measure in the US.)
At the cellar door we’re met by Sean Capiaux, who is the head winemaker and COO at O’Shaughnessy. A quick tour of the cellars, as well as a breakdown of the winemaking practices at O’Shaughnessy primed us for the tasting that was to follow.
Old world or New world? Bascially, the O’Shaughnessy winemaking ethos can be distilled or tweeted something like this: Neo-classic, using modern tools and analysis to make non-interventionist wine that is fermented naturally and bottled unfiltered and un-fined.
In addition to the modern stainless steel tanks, temperature control and automated pigeage, O’Shaughnessy boasts its own in house lab, which is ideal when timely decisions need to be made regarding the vinification and elevage process.
However state of the art is only one part of the larger picture at O’Shaughnessy. Make a sharp exit out the backside of the chai, and step back in time, to winemaking the way it’s been done for centuries..
This 11,000 square foot cavern was dug out of the hillside directly behind the winery. 26 foot ceilings, as well as the perfect ambient temperature for ageing red wine is where the O’Shaughnessy reds spend the better part of 2 years in French oak barriques undisturbed as they mature.
Now what’s that? Along the wall, and tucked away within a separate little grotto we spotted this imposing concrete egg. I had seen these amphor-esque “oeufs” in France, and was curious to know what vinous project the O’Shaughnessy egg was incubating.
This concrete “avocado” (“..afterall, we are in California.” Sean states) contained 150 gallons (approx. 560 liters) of Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc that had been vinified and was presently undergoing elevage in this vessel.
Sean pulled out the ladder, climbed up and retrieved a sample for us to taste. Bright and crisp citrus flavors, along with that requisite SB juicy bite of acid were matched by atypical minerality. Atypical for California SB at any rate. This avocado SB took me closer to the Touraine in France’s Loire Valley, where I a more often find a more flinty or chalky quality to their sauvignon blancs. I suspect a bit has to do with the unlined concrete interacting with the wine.
With a tour of the winery and caves behind us, it was now time to taste some wine!
First up, the 2007 O’Shaughnessy Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon.
Composed mostly of Cabernet Sauvignon (83%) with smaller amounts of Merlot (6%), Malbec (4%), 4% Petit Verdot and St. Macaire (3%) from largely volcanic soils.
Lovely crushed red berry fruits..raspberry..dark cherry, damson plum, vanilla and black tea notes, along with fine medium+ tannins make for a rich, yet balanced “neo-classical” wine. I suspect that a beef tenderloin would be a great food/wine pairing.
Across the valley and some 15 miles to the south, O’Shaughnessy’s Mt. Veeder vineyard turns out a slightly more dense and strapping rendition of 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. The 2007 vintage comes from vines grown on “Betty’s Vineyard” (named after co-proprietor Betty O’Shaughnessy Woolls), a steeply terraced site composed of largely sedimentary (ancient riverbed) soils.
Deep, black cherry, blackberry and smoked meat and a brambly quality along with coarser tannins make for a more rough hewn and less elegant wine (right now) than its more refined cousin to the north. Ideally, I would wait 3-4 years before enjoying this with grilled ribeye (more rustic and hearty than tenderloin).
We rounded out the tasting with this rich pinot noir from Capiaux Cellars.
Sean Capiaux established his eponymous winery back in 1994. Single vineyard bottlings of pinot noir throughout California are the focus here. Sean’s “neo-classical” winemaking ethos remains in play with the Capiaux wines as well. Indigenous yeast fermentations, no fining or filtering at bottling.
The 2008 Capiaux Pinot Noir from the Pisoni Vineyard (Santa Lucia Highlands) is big indeed, but in no way a bruiser. Admittedly, the 15.2% abv had me more wondering if this pinot would taste more like cough syrup than fine wine.
However my fears were more than assuaged upon tasting. Deep cherry notes, spice, cinnamon stick, a touch of black tea and a lushness that envelopes the mouth without seeming hot or syrupy. I suspect that this king size pinot noir would be pretty awesome with say roasted duck, filet mignon or a hearty mushroom risotto.
Many thanks to Sean Capiaux and O’Shaughnessy for such a great introduction to the wines of Howell Mountain and then some!
NEXT STOP: Ladera