Indeed Cornerstone Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon tastes curiously like cabernet, or, at least like cabernet used to be. Used to be as in the wines that made the Napa Valley great like those that won the famed Judgement of Paris in 1976. Perhaps the most important aspect of the Judgement of Paris was not that the California wines won both the white and red judging, but that the judges themselves could not discern which wines were French and which Californian. Such a confusion is not likely to take place today as Californian wines have increased in girth, dominated by sweet oak, overripe fruit and alcohol. The fashion for big wine with big flavor, promoted by certain critics, erased the character of the noble cabernet sauvignon variety as well as any sense of place the vineyard itself. The resulting wines showcased winemaking technique instead of treasuring the character of variety and vineyard.
There have always been producers that ignored fashion to make elegant wines which honored the true flavors of Cabernet. Wineries like Corison, Dunn and Ridge have carried that flame for decades. I am proud to say Cornerstone Cellars has joined that group of wineries making wines that taste curiously like Cabernet Sauvignon.
What does Cabernet Sauvignon taste like? First of all it does not taste jammy, sweet, flabby or like oak barrels. Classic Cabernet is bright and alive with a herbal tingle that wakes the tastebuds. Most of all, everything is brought into sharp focus by a fine tannic structure that makes Cabernet Sauvignon the most intellectual of wines. Pinot noir may be the most sensual, but Cabernet is the most thought provoking.
We are now releasing several new wines that taste curiously Cabernet, now that’s something to think about. For us it’s something that makes us very proud.
- Craig Camp
So although we had been in the Napa Valley for two decades when we decided to make Pinot Noir we knew we had to look somewhere other than our home. After all, it is more important where the vine puts down roots than where we had put down our roots. Our vision is to go where the variety loves to be, not to force the variety to grow in a place just because we were there. After all, nothing is more important to a wine than the soil that gave life to the vines. That essence flows from the soil through the roots to be mixed with sunshine to create wine.
Cabernet and Pinot need just the opposite things, as for that matter do Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. Cabernet Sauvignon is a slow ripener you need to speed up and Pinot Noir is a fast ripener you need to slow down. The Napa Valley is just not a great place to grow Pinot Noir and the Willamette Valley is no place to try to ripen Cabernet Sauvignon.
Cornerstone Cellars is famous for our distinctive Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon, a wine of great longevity and breed, and I wanted our Pinot Noir to be equally distinctive. That goal could only lead us to Oregon. In Oregon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay have found a home as regal as their home in Burgundy, just as Bordeaux's Cabernets, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc brought their blue blood to the Napa Valley.
Then there was Tony Rynders. How could I pass up the opportunity to work with one of the most dynamic winemakers anywhere? Tony’s talents led Domaine Serene to fame during his decade as winemaker there and before that he made his mark as red winemaker at Hogue Cellars in Washington. When Tony left Domaine Serene to strike out on his own I knew the time was right for Cornerstone to follow our dream to make Pinot Noir.
We make three wines at Cornerstone Oregon. Our Cornerstone Oregon, Willamette Valley Chardonnay is a lean, mean fighting machine type of Chardonnay. No sweet oaky fruit bombs for me. If you love classic Chablis, you’ll love our Oregon Chardonnay. The Cornerstone Oregon Willamette Valley Pinot Noir is a classic, ageable Pinot Noir with great structure, depth and breed. Our newest Cornerstone Oregon wine is the Stepping Stone Pinot Noir by Cornerstone Oregon Willamette Valley. As we taste through the barrels each vintage, certain ones just seem so pretty and drinkable right now so we figured why resist them? Our Stepping Stone Pinot Noir is a barrel selection of those charming wines, while our Cornerstone Oregon Pinot Noir is a barrel selection of wines destined for greatness. One is pure charm and the other a true aristocrat.
Now as we approach our seventh vintage in Oregon our roots have grown deep in both the soils of the Napa and Willamette Valleys where, with each vintage, they get deeper every year. Soon they will be as deep as our roots on Howell Mountain. Great wine comes from deep roots.
Taking the Road Less Traveled
Sometimes you come to the fork in the road and you must make a choice as you can't travel both. We've made ours. We decided to take the path less traveled.
The choice was simple: quality or price. There was no hesitation in our choice as quality was the only answer. The market is price obsessed, but we believe there are those that understand you get what you pay for from wineries whose ego is based on what's in the bottle instead of on the ego of the owner. For many there is a deeper understanding that in wine, true quality is not in a label, but in the hearts of the people who craft it. Ninety-five percent of the wine in the world is an industrial product, manufactured based on market research, and the rest is divided between charming country wines and people with a passion to let nature express its beauty through their wines. Oddly enough, many of the world's most expensive wines fall into the first category, not the latter.
Our decision was to move forward and to let something old and comfortable fade away. As comfortable as Stepping Stone was to everyone as the wines got better and better, there comes a point when you have to forgo comfort to obtain excellence. This is especially true in the narrow confines of the Napa Valley, which is a mere 30 miles long and 5 miles wide. This small valley is one of the world's most distinctive vineyard regions and such distinction does not come cheaply.
Our vision is to make dramatic, elegant and complex wines from great vineyards. This means that the value in our wines is not that they are inexpensive, but that they have such an expressive personality, combined with our singular character, that their value is not on their price tag, but on your palate.
So we have decided to take the path less traveled and give up a less expensive line of wines and to introduce a new range of wines made with no concessions in the tradition of our iconic White Label Cornerstone Cellars wines. The one thing we have not left behind is our obsession with offering exceptional values. However, we are a small company and can't do everything. To produce this new group of exciting wines something had to go by the wayside. So this is both the end of an era and and new beginning as we could not travel both paths.
With the 2010 vintage we say goodbye to Stepping Stone and with great pride introduce you to Cornerstone Cellars Black Label selections. Our first release of our Black Label wines is from the 2011 vintage and includes Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Syrah. These are not wines declassified from our White Label Reserve wines, but wines produced from specially selected vineyards. While our White Label wines are unabashedly made to cellar for decades, our Black Label wines are selected from vineyards that naturally produce a more forward style of wine that can be enjoyed in it's youth, but will gain complexity and depth with shorter term cellaring.
The roads between price and quality diverged, but not the one between price and value. So we took the one less traveled by, quality, and that has made all the difference. While the reception to raising prices can be frosty, we know that once these new wines are tasted that other path will soon be forgotten.
We are proud and honored to introduce you to a totally new range of wines: Cornerstone Cellars Black Label Selections.
As a winemaker your mind is in the future building, always building, on past vintages. Vintages are experiences, part of a voyage, not just end results. Winemakers have no favorite vintages just treasured experiences and the pain and pleasure of continually second guessing yourself.
The vines are now being pruned in the vineyards and the cycle that is agriculture begins again. In many ways it is comforting to work in a world governed by such a precise metronome. You know how you got here and where you're going.
There are always frustrations though as winemaking is slow motion business - you only get one 'iteration" per year.
What are some of my current frustrations?
- Alcohol levels continue to challenge us. While we have reduced them by more than 1% over previous vintages, we're not quite there yet. I think the sweet-spot for Napa Valley Cabernet is between 14 and 14.5% and for Oregon Pinot 13 to 13.5%. this gives you the depth, complexity and mouthfeel we hope for while still letting terroir show through. It's a tightrope, but we'll get there - we are getting there.
- The cost of doing making wine in the Napa Valley continues to increase and will force wine prices even higher.
- Too many wine reviews are published without ever tasting the wine with food. This is like tasting only the sauce and then writing a review of the whole dish. You can never understand how it all works together.
- The fact that so many sommeliers do not have an open mind when it comes to California and, in particular, Napa Valley wines. They are not all the same.
What makes me happy?
- The limitless potential of Oregon makes it one of the most exciting wine regions in the world. This is a region where you can argue the best vineyards have not even been planted yet. It's a brave new world with no where to go but up.
- The growing appreciation of wines with a more balanced, restrained style is exciting. While for the most part this reawakening of taste has not enlightened old-school wine media yet, new wine media is all over it. The old guys better wake up or get left in the dust.
- The growing recognition and excitement around rebel, back-to-your-roots winemakers in the staid world of the Napa Valley.
- The exciting, exploding community of wine lovers on social media. Finally small wineries can actually have a marketing edge over corporate wineries. After all, real people are a lot more fun to have a conversation with.
- What I am happiest about is how far we've come with our wines. They are so, so much better. Uplifting wines that are refreshing and elegant.
While I know I will always think we can do better no matter how great the vintage, these are wines I am proud of sharing with anyone.
Do over? Not really, each vintage is a new beginning. How lucky are we?