Scouring the Globe for Greatness and Finding it in Our Own Backyard
April 29, 2011, by: Stephen George
At Montesquieu Winery, we love the thrill of the chase, the adventure of exploration, the romance of hot pursuit. And we know that the best wines – the wines that offer the most profound experiences – are often the most difficult to find. That’s why we dedicate ourselves to scouring the globe for the most exciting, rarest vineyards and wines, and bringing them in for our clients to enjoy.
Recently we were doing just that in Argentina, meeting new producers, discovering some of Mendoza’s oldest vines and best terroir, and tasting the region’s top wines. Before that we were in Bordeaux. And our quest has taken us to places like Burgundy, Champagne, the Rhone, Piedmont, Tuscany, Germany, even Turkey.
But believe it or not, sometimes the rarest finds are right in our backyard.
Napa Valley may not seem as exotic as Argentina, since it’s so close to home. But there’s no denying that Napa is the source for some of the world’s greatest wines. And although too many Napa wineries have gone the route of high-production, there are still some amazing vintners doing fascinating, unique, artisanal projects – the kind that promises not only a taste to die for but also a wine experience that literally cannot be replicated.
That’s why we attend Premiere Napa Valley every year – to seek out truly singular wines. Wines that express the full creative powers of Napa’s best winemakers. Wines that express the full range of Napa’s top terroirs. Wines with soul and meaning and power. Wines that can’t be found anywhere else.
Premiere Napa Valley is built around this entire concept. For this annual sold-out auction open only to those trade fortunate enough to score tickets, 200 of the top Napa producers craft five or ten cases (twenty at the most) of a special wine that’s meant to be utterly distinct from their normal portfolio.
Of course not all wines at Premiere Napa Valley are created equal – far from it. Some wineries use the event to peddle a variation on the same old tired thing. But others realize that this is a forum where they can show off their best plots, their top barrels. And the most fascinating lots – the ones we gravitate towards – are those where the winemaker has embraced the opportunity to make something really unique, something that pushes the envelope and moves Napa forward to new creative heights.
It takes focus to find these gems, because there are so many wines to wade through. But when we taste it, we just know somehow.
I remember working my way through the 200 lots being poured at last year’s Premiere Napa Valley and encountering a lot that stopped me in my tracks. As we sampled the wine, all of us from Montesquieu Winery felt it – a conviction that at last we had found what we were looking for, something both delicious and utterly unique.
It was the 2008 Judd’s Hill/Salvestrin/Schweiger Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon – 240 bottles of sheer delight. And oh, was it a wonder to taste! The wine had this minty, savory, elegant quality, coupled with deep, fresh red fruit and alluring tannins, that hearkened back to a Napa of old, when Cabernet didn’t have to be plodding and over-extracted and weighed down with oak. You know, when Cabernet could express the beauty and refinement and complexity of its terroir. When Napa Cab was beating the pants off of First Growth Bordeaux in blind tastings. The wine stood out like a shimmering star – like Audrey Hepburn in a room full of Spencer Tracys – and we couldn’t help but fall in love.
But even apart from the intoxicating taste, this lot stands alone in the distinctive way it was made. It’s a labor of love from three different family-owned and operated wineries, each of whom offered for the project Cab Sauv grapes from their most prized estate parcels from Spring Mountain, Howell Mountain and St. Helena. There’s Judd’s Hill, the tiny winery where the Finkelstein family handcrafts fewer than 3,000 cases annually from some of Napa’s best vineyards, each with love and care. Then there’s Salvestrin, a boutique winery dating to Prohibition, where three generations of Salvestrins live and work on the property. And there’s Schweiger, located 2,200 feet above the Valley on Spring Mountain, offering spectacular views and profound mountain fruit cultivated by the Schweiger family, who tend to every detail themselves.
These families collaborated to create a wine that we thought was not only show-stopping in its elegance and beauty, but also about as unique and rare as you can find – exactly the sort of thing we love to discover.
Here’s another example: the moment I sniffed the 2008 Sterling “Three Palms Vineyard” Cab Franc. The aromatic pleasure that leaped from the glass – the pure fruit and gentle spice, the floral lift and mineral presence – delighted my senses, offering an experience unlike any other I’d had that day. Our entire Montesquieu Winery team was entranced. And when we finally tore ourselves away from that intoxicating bouquet and tasted the wine, we knew we had to have it.
You need to remember, of course, that we’re a little bit obsessed with Cabernet Franc. And we think there’s good reason for that. As we’ve argued on this blog in the past, we think Cabernet Franc is the next big thing in Napa. Still today, only a very few single-varietal Cab Francs are being made out of top terroir, but that’s changing before our very eyes. We’re seeing an increasing realization that, when made properly from the right parcel, Cab Franc can provide an unparalleled wine experience.
When we tasted the Sterling lot last year, we knew that they had a similar vision. They were stepping out of the Napa Cab Sauv box to show the world that a grape they believed in deserves more attention. Sterling doesn’t make a straight Cab Franc in their ordinary portfolio, so this was truly a singular offering. And to ensure the highest quality, they used grapes from one of Napa’s most prestigious terroirs, the coveted rocky soils Three Palms Vineyard. Only 10 cases were in existence of this profound expression of single-vineyard Cab Franc – and we wanted them all.
Between the rarity of the lot and the sensual way it drank, we were all-in. In acquiring the Sterling lot – and in winning an intense bidding war for another Cab Franc lot at this year’s auction, the 2009 Levy McClellan, which set the record for highest non-Cab Sauv lot – we’d like to think that we’re playing some small part in the emergence of Cab Franc as one of Napa’s rising stars.
After waiting over a year to take possession of our 2008 Premiere lots while they aged in barrel, we finally received the finished lots this past week. The bottles are beautiful. Each is hand-signed by the winemaker – or, in the case of the Judd’s Hill/Salvestrin/Schweiger lot, all three winemakers. Each bottle is hand-numbered, showing the kind of winemaking care that’s possible when you lavish all your attention on only 120 bottles!
But most importantly, when I tasted them again, I was reminded afresh of what caused us to seek them out in the first place. I was reminded of the power and beauty of experiencing something totally unique in the wine world.
In our commercialized culture, that’s rare. But it’s well worth pursuing.