Galloni 96+ Points: “The 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon is gorgeous. Above all else, I am impressed with how much freshness the 2015 shows. Racy red cherry, plum, rose petal and lavender notes fill out the wine’s sumptuous frame. Bottled just a few months ago, the 2015 is a bit reticent, but it is nevertheless impressive. Time in the glass brings out the wine’s natural radiance.”
Vine Hill Ranch 2015 “Estate” Cabernet Sauvignon
FREE SHIPPING on 3 or more
Use code SHIPFREE3 during checkout
by David Rosengarten, Forbes Lifestyle
In the fame-drenched Napa Valley, there is a tremendously important vineyard, growing Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, that is not famous at all. When you read the history of this vineyard, in the dramatic decades of the 60s, the 70s, the 80s, the 90s, right up to the modern day—what you find is a record of the most important changes that shook Napa Valley, pushed it into its modern superstar status. The vineyard of which I sing — VINE HILL RANCH — quietly, surreptitiously, played one of the most central roles of all in the rise of California’s most iconic wine region.
Pick a “famous” Napa wine from the 20th century. Let’s say the historic 1968 Beaulieu Vineyard Georges de Latour Private Reserve. A classic—made by the classic winemaker of the day, Russian-born André Tchelistcheff. What grapes did he choose to crush into this wine? Many of them were from Vine Hill Ranch, which sits in a beautiful southwestern corner of Oakville, rolling up over gentle hills into the east side of the Napa/Sonoma border (the Mayacamas Monutains). The elegant, almost European ’68 BV Georges de Latour made the kind of waves in the wine world that puts a wine region on the map….though it was not an era of “vineyard identification”…so it did nothing for the fame of the vineyard that grew the grapes
Another historic wine from the 20th century? How about its opposite, in a way: the much richer, much chunkier 1997 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, Robert Mondavi…grown almost 30 years after the ’68 BV Georges de Latour? You guessed it: same vineyard source, Vine Hill Ranch. BUT…a very, very different wine.
In fact, from the 1950s, when Vine Hill Ranch was established…Napa Valley Cabernet has been on a roller-coaster, style-wise. Vine Hill Ranch has seen it all. Its flavorful fruit has been used by many Napa winemakers for many decades to craft wines that were “of the times”—elegant sometimes, but at other times more forward and boisterous. Following the history of wines made from Vine Hill fruit is a way of following the history of Napa: Cakebread, Chappellet, Etude, Duckhorn, Lail, Bond, Araujo, and, right up to today, the great group at Favia Erickson Winemakers (Andy Erickson was the famous winemaker who fermented Screaming Eagle into mind-blurring fame).
Most happily, once and for all, I hope….Vine Hill Ranch, in 2008, decided to start using some of its own grapes to make its own wines, wines identifying “Vine Hill Ranch” on the label as the producer. And the establishment of the brand came right in the middle of one of Napa’s greatest stylistic eras (which is still going on): the era of the Modern Napa Wine, which is much less weighty, much more ethereal than the Napa wines of the 1980s-1990s. A perfect vineyard source (Vine Hill Ranch), found a perfect winemaker in 2008 (Francoise Peschon), to make elegant wines, through this day, that are the best possible expressions of Vine Hill fruit.
Intriguingly, almost ten years later, they are still not so well-known
The contemporary Vine Hill wines are like a memoir of another era. Back in 1956, when an architect from Point Reyes, California, named Bruce Kelham, decided to buy a large vineyard in Napa Valley, and to move north to Napa, and to become a grape-grower…Napa Cabernet had an almost Old World aesthetic going on. The wines were gentler, lower in alcohol, somewhat like the European reds that were their historical grandparents. Tchelistcheff’s ’68 BV Georges de Latour was such a wine.
But then… May 1976 happened. In Paris!
Some of California’s best Cabernet producers.. in most cases, producers of rich wines…were asked to compete in Paris, in a blind tasting that set up French Cabernets (from Bordeaux, of course), and California Cabernets, for a duel. The judges were French. Staggeringly, the Californians came out with a first-place victory for the 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon (from Napa Valley), as well as big honors for other 1970s Napa Cabs from Heitz, Clos du Val, and Chateau Montelena. You can only imagine the shock throughout the world–and the frenzy in California.
Until the 1976 victory, the traditional, more restrained style was in full force in Napa. According to Dan Berger, wine columnist at the time for the L.A. Times, Cabernet-making was relatively buckled up before the Paris victory: “no excessive ripening (22 to 24 Brix was the standard), no excess alcohol (13.5% was considered too high), almost no new wood.”
But “the judgment of Paris” had its effect. The heads of California winemakers swelled, as did their wines. “If the richer, chunkier style of California Cabernet beat out the more elegant first-growth Bordeaux,” they wondered… “shouldn’t we go richer still?”
And they did. And they came in droves to do it, emboldened by California’s great international victory. “The consumer,” Berger says, “was inundated in the 1980s by brand after brand of new Napa and Sonoma Cabernets.” Soon-to-be classics like the Shafer Hillside Select were inaugurated (first vintage: 1983), as well as lots of smaller-scale wines and wineries. And the use of new oak was rampant; sarcastic tasters at the time spoke of pulling splinters out of their palates.
Well, this was fine and dandy for Vine Hill Ranch; if the pickers harvested their grapes later in the season, the grapes provided superb material for this over-the-top kind of Napa Cabernet.
And the wines got bigger still before the pendulum started swinging back twenty years later. A famous writer contributed a lot to the fattening up. The consumer was overwhelmed by all this up-sizing activity—and needed a lodestar, a voice, to help select these new California Cabernets. Wine writer Robert Parker emerged—who put the final kibosh on the elegant California Cabernet tradition; Parker had a predilection for big, densely fruity, heavily extracted wines, with lots of tannin, alcohol and new oak. “We had in California,” Berger recalls, “the first indications that high scores could sell wines. And because high scores went to fat wines, that changed everything.”
The spectacular 1990 vintage itself sealed the deal. Pushed by this warm year, and by the growing knowledge that making wine that’s bigger and bigger predictably leads to higher and higher scores, a new type of California Cabernet emerged: the expensive bottle (wineries were flirting with $100 per at this point, soon to rise), containing sweet-ish, ripe, concentrated wine, whose price was ostensibly justified by the 97, 98, 99-point scores the wines were receiving.
Throughout the 1990s, the push was towards Cabernets like these. “What became the norm,” Berger says, “were wines not for the dinner table, not for the cellar (because alcohol and pH were too high for aging)… but ‘walking-around wines,’ show-off wines, trophy wines.” This is the era in which the California cult wines became all the rage: Harlan, Screaming Eagle, Bryant Family Vineyard, Staglin, anything made by Helen or Larry Turley, with prices for a single young bottle rising absurdly close to $1000. “These were egocentric wines,” notes Bob Millman of Executive Wine Seminars, a prestigious tasting group in New York City, “centered around the egos of the proprietors, or the flying consultants flown in from across the globe to assist them.” The wines, according to Steve Tanzer, of the top wine publication Vinous, became “urban indoor sporting events.”
As if this weren’t enough basis for change, the ’80s had brought another startling development: the discovery of phylloxera in northern California’s vineyards, the same root louse that had nearly wiped out the vineyards of Europe in the late 19th century. This horrific plague threatened the end of Napa Valley wine. Yes, Napa Valley was riding the Cabernet rocket–but the rocket was about to explode, if something wasn’t done about the vineyards.
Having no choice, many wineries pulled out their old, phylloxera-susceptible vines—as they did, in a major way, at Vine Hill Ranch—and planted new rootstock that was much more resistant to the disease. The changes wrought by this were unexpected–and enormous. The new vines produced massive amounts of sugar easily; it soon became apparent that you could have much more concentrated wine than ever before, with higher alcohol and a greater impression of sweetness. A lot of the newly re-planted vines came with new trellising systems…..bringing even more sunshine and ripening to the grapes. Plus….modern yeast strains that came into vogue at this time were better at converting sugar to alcohol.
“Intriguingly,” says Bruce Phillips, grandson of Bruce Kelham, and current co-owner of Vine Hill Ranch—“another trend was taking hold at the time of the post-phylloxera re-planting: the identification of vineyards on the labels.” Robert Mondavi, a long-time buyer of Vine Hill Ranch grapes, started identifying his wine made from Vine Hill grapes as Robert Mondavi Winery Vine Hill Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon.” Before the phylloxera epidemic, Phillips pointed out, “almost all vineyards were planted in a way to maximize volume. But at this time—the re-planting of quality producers started to emphasize individual plots.” This was an important new phenomenon in California that lasts to this day—mirroring the age-old practice of wine in, say, Burgundy, where the most prominent thing on the most expensive labels has always been the name of the vineyard, not the producer. Vineyard-identification in Napa accompanied the rise of richer, more expensive wines.
So… they didn’t. Starting in the mid-2000s, after taking much international ribbing about “monster” wines…and just about at the time that Vine Hill Ranch was starting to make its own wine, in an elegant style…Napa Cabernet went on a diet.
“While heightened alcohols and fruit concentrations dominated the wines of the late 90’s and early part of this century,” says Bruce Phillips, ”Napa inevitably moved towards grapes being harvested at balanced maturity…resulting in wines that are uniquely expressive of their individual vineyard sites and the subtle nuances informed by each individual growing season.”
Phillips made a great contribution to ths trend. When a guy whose family has been growing grapes for fifty years starts making wine himself, people notice. Neighbors notice the kind of wine he’s making. And right from the VHR get-go, in 2008, Francoise Peschon has been making Napa wine in a decidedly French direction.
Easy question: where is Vine Hill Ranch wine going from here? To ever-greater quality, I suspect. Peschon, is still in place, at the height of her skills. Many of the blocks of Vine Hill Ranch that are used for the winery’s own wine are getting older—a good thing, in viticulture! And a very good thing, in this case! I had the opportunity recently to taste through barrel samples of the most recent vintage, the 2017. There were six samples, each from a different block of the 70-acre vineyard; each of the blocks had had its own planting date.
Intriguingly, my two favorite barrel samples were from the two youngest blocks! One of these blocks was five years old, and one was six years old. They seemed much brighter, even deeper, than the blocks averaging around 20 years of age.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that the younger vines are better vines; Peschon uses different barrel treatment for wines from blocks with different ages—typically choosing more new oak, and longer stays in oak, for wines from older blocks. But the careful tracking that she does—and constant experimenting—will inevitably lead to adjustments that improve the quality of the wine. When I asked her about her criteria in choosing barrels, she said “we look for barrels that enhance the quality of our vineyard, rather than make a statement.” Brava! Exactly what a winemaker in Napa Valley in 2000 might not have said!
I also had the chance to taste a range of recent vintages already in bottle. Brava again! I especially liked two: the 2010, a luscious wine, with pretty eucalyptus notes, and very little wood influence; and the 2015, a wine that’s becoming available in retail, elegant, with good acid, and with touches of vanilla and camphor in the very pretty nose. Complex, high-quality wines, the both of them.
These wines are not inexpensive, of course…like so many wines before them that came out of this very special vineyard. The 2015 has just appeared in California wine shops at around $200 a bottle. But if you compare that to other first-rate, better-known Napa Cabs—at Wally’s Wine and Spirits in Los Angeles, you can find yourself a nice 2015 Screaming Eagle for only $2500—I’d say $200 is quite a bargain.
Grapes in the same family since 1956, wines from the same winemaker since 2008—both of these things encourage me to break the piggy bank (it’s only a fracture, really!) for this enormously consistent wine from VINE HILL RANCH.
Click here or on the links above to order!