By the time Susan and I wrapped up our visit at O’Shaughnessy, lunch was calling..as was our friend Melissa, who was to meet us down the mountain in St. Helena. Melissa, who also works at K&L Wine Merchants, was up for the day visiting several wineries too.
After a quick lunch “in town”, the 3 of us headed back up Deer Park Road for our afternoon appointment at Ladera Vineyards.
After our initial photo op in front of the winery, we were greeted by Jerry Baker, Ladera’s Vice President of Sales and Marketing. Jerry’s 30+ years in the wine business, including 15+ here in Napa definitely qualified him as a resource and authority on the wines and history of Napa Valley.
Speaking of history, this particular winery certainly has an illustrious one. In 1877, two Frenchmen, Jean Brun and Jean V. Chaix, found themselves enchanted with the land and potential of Howell Mountain. Brun & Chaix quickly set about planting Bordeaux varietals and named their winery Nouveau Medoc Vineyard. With approximately 115 acres under vine, Brun & Chaix became California’s 13th licensed winery.
Yes, the engraved stone above reads: 1886.. the year that the beautiful stone winery of Brun & Chaix was completed. By California / Napa Valley standards this domaine definitely qualifies as “Old School”.
An Italian stonesman by the name of Frank Guigni, along with a team of Chinese workers (most of whom had immigrated to California during the state’s gold rush of the mid 19th century) built the Brun & Chaix winery with rock from a quarry located on Howell Mountain.
The sweat, determination and ingenuity that went in to completing the stone structure is very evident as we toured the building. Not only are the stone walls a formidable 30 inches thick, (how’s that for sweat and determination) but the entire winery was constructed such that the entire winemaking process would utilize gravity flow.
More specifically, grapes would arrive by horse on the top level of the building. Vinification would take place on the second, or middle floor, and ageing would take place on the lower or first floor. At every step of the winemaking process, the wine would naturally flow downwards to the next level, thereby avoiding the use of pumps to transfer wine from one vessel to another. Not only was this less damaging to the wine, but gravity flow also proved to more cost effective.
Fast forward to 1980, when the property (which endured a tumultuous 100 years of social, viticultural and political history) was purchased by Francis and Francoise DeWavrin. As former owners of Bordeaux’s Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion, the DeWavrin’s knew a thing or two about wine.
They renamed the property Chateau Woltner, replanted much of the acreage, this time including Chardonnay, and released their first vintage in 1985. When the DeWavrin’s decided to retire at the turn of the century, the domaine was sold to it’s present day owners, Pat and Anne Stotesbery.
ENTER THE NEW SCHOOL:
Under this new ownership, the Stotesbery’s made several significant changes. First, the chardonnay vines were replaced with traditional Bordeaux varietals, most of which included cabernet sauvignon, along with merlot, petit verdot and malbec.
Second, the Stotesbery’s decided to both preserve and continue the tradition of the Howell Mountain property by giving the original Jean & Chaix cellar a complete renovation. Today the building as been rightfully restored to its former magnificence, and looks pretty much just as it did 100+ years ago.
Third property was to be re-named Ladera, which translates to hillside or slope..naturally in reference to the topography of Howell Mountain itself.
Enlightened with this detailed history of the winery, it was now time to taste some wine! Jerry took us through a selection of Ladera’s current releases.
First, Ladera’s 2009 Howell Mountain Sauvignon Blanc, which is grown on several of the cooler sites on the property, where red varietals such as cabernet sauvignon, merlot and petit verdot will not ripe adequately.
However these cooler sites are perfect for the production of crisp and brisk whites like this SB. Ladera practices about 15% barrel fermentation (the rest in stainless steel) in order to impart a bit of mid-palate richness to the wine.
Grapefruit, a bit of green melon and a hint of vanilla spice make this a great choice for folks in want of a crisp white that is not as stridently mineral or grassy as a Sancerre of New Zealand SB. $25
Next, Ladera’s entrée du gamme, or entry level so to speak, is their 2007 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Although comprised of 100% estate grown fruit, the vineyard sources include the property’s Howell Mountain (57%) as well as their Lone Mountain (43%) vineyard down at the foot of Mt. Veeder.
Lots of rich dark berried fruits and plum shine here, along with hints of dark chocolate and spice. Fine, ripe tannins and only a modest amount of noticeable oak make this cuvee ideal for enjoyment now and over the next 4-5 years. At under $40 a bottle, I think that it represents on the top values in Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. .not trying to be too big for its britches (not over ripe, over oaked), just a delicious and balanced representation of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.
Ladera’s two flagship wines come from two distinct locations at opposite ends of the Napa Valley. Tasted together, they represent a great exercise in the subtle differences that location or terroir will often impart to a finished wine.
The 2006 Ladera Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon comes from volcanic rich soils grown on gently sloping hillsides at an elevation of 1,600-1,800 feet above sea level. As they vineyards sit well above the fog line, the growing season is (relative to Napa Valley floor) a relatively long one. Fruit for the 2006 was harvested between late September and the first of November.
Ladera’s rendition of Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon is big, deep and full-bodied. Described as such, I still found it to possess a fine elegance..perhaps even gracefulness about it. Dark berried fruits, black tea, dried lavender and a very fine mineral note running through the wine are for me characteristics point to a mountain wine grown on igneous soils like volcanic or granitic rock. (like the northern Rhone). $70.
In contrast, the 2006 Ladera Lone Canyon Cabernet Sauvignon hails from a steep vineyard site approximately 15 miles south Howell Mountain. Here, largely sedimentary soils composed of clay and loam provide the backdrop for Lone Canyon’s 75 acres of vineyards. In addition, the steep vineyards lie at an elevation of 1,100 feet above seal level.
Bigger, broader and a bit brawnier than its Howell Mountain cousin is how I would describe the 2006 Lone Canyon. In addition to blackberries and plums galore, there’s a dried fig nuance to this wine as well. In addition, it’s structure is definitely more rough and tumble. The texture/mouthfeel is not as refined as the Howell Mountain, and the tannins are more strident to boot. $65
I would suggest hanging on to both of these wines for several years before enjoying them. I suspect that at point the subtle differences that I picked up will be even more evident and enjoyable..hopefully with a beautiful herb grilled steak or roasted leg of lamb!
Thanks to Jerry Baker and Ladera Vineyards for the great tour and tasting!
NEXT: A visit to Dunn Vineyards