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?
91 Points: 2010 Cornerstone Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley
A dark and full purple color. Aromas of sweet plums, blackberry jam, mocha, cinnamon and clove, a perfect aromatic accompaniment to winter. On the palate, plush texture from a combination of firm tannins, fresh acid and ripe fruits. Black currants and wild blueberry mixes with nutty, roasted coffee tones. Some clove and cinnamon, earth and roasted red pepper. Full and rich, but maintains freshness and vibrancy. Drinks well now, but I’d like to squirrel some bottles of this away for at least two or three years. (91 points IJB)
Find this wine: http://d.pr/n/4FEG
92 Points: 2010 Cornerstone Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain
A rich plum color. On the nose: roasted plums, currants, sweet violets, some tobacco leaf, cinnamon and clove. Fine tannins, but they’re really well structured, tamed by medium acid. The snappy black cherries, currant and tart plum skin flavors are really rocking, the fruit is so plush. A nice peppery, smoky, potting soil and iron combination. The oak influences are nuanced, like roasted nuts and a bit of toffee. I wouldn’t think twice about putting this down for 5 years, as it’s got a lot of unwinding to do. (92 points IJB)
Find this wine: http://d.pr/n/dpYd
Original article: http://www.terroirist.com/2014/01/wine-reviews-california-cabernet/
Click, click, click, click, click, click. The sound of my cycling shoes rachetting is unmistakeable. Gearing up to sell wine for the day I have one thing on my mind. Will San Francisco’s notorious wind be a friend or foe? In my backpack are 5 sample bottles. A selection of Cornerstone, the Stepping Stone Artistry Series, and a bottle of Rocks! Leaving the tasting room at 10:00 am, the morning chill still has yet to be replaced by our unseasonable afternoon sunshine. I look forward to the rays warming my arms while in the frigid city. I’ve got a big day ahead of me. Ride down to Napa to catch the route 29 bus which will take me to the Bay Link ferry. From there I head to San Francisco to visit a selection of restaurants and wine stores. Perhaps a stop for a late lunch and then back to the Ferry Building by 5:00 or face missing the 6:15 connecting bus to downtown Napa. I will say, selling wine on a bicycle in San Francisco is considerably easier and siginificantly more enjoyable than driving. The city is only 47 square miles. Any point can be reached within 30 minutes and an incredible advantage is gained by not having to scour the streets for parking.
Traveling out of state has yet be difficiult. I’m fortunate that all of my distributor partners have been extremely accommodating to my latest challenge. Getting to the Oakland Airport has been the largest test. Napa has a single airporter that leaves a few times a day and one needs to coordinate their flight so everything syncs. From the new airport to my hotel is not difficult at all. In larger cities, I’m looking at you Philly and New York, public transportation is easily navigated. When in doubt, cabs are easy to find. I’m also fortunate that our distributor’s sales reps have been great about driving to sales calls.
Is it possible to successfully conduct outside sales while not driving? Yes. Is it easy? Well I wouldn't say its convenient. That would be a stretch. It is fun though. Can one make new restaurant and retail placements relying only on their two legs and the use of various public transit systems? Absolutely. In the last three months I’ve made by the glass placements at the Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant, Larsen’s Steakhouse in Valencia, Redd here in Yountville, The Napa General Store, Vino Volo at the Oakland Airport, Fig & Thistle San Francisco, Eiko’s Restaurant in downtown Napa and Cole’s Chop House. What about other restaurants and their wine lists you might ask? Absolutely. Just a few of the places you can find our wines locally are Sens Restaurant in San Francisco and Ruth’s Chris Steak House. Redd Wood in Yountville has our 2010 Cornerstone Oregon Willamette Valley Pinot Noir. Just a mile up north, Mustard’s Grill is carrying our Cornerstone Sauvignon Blanc. On these "warm" winter days, if you’re looking for our award winning Corallina Rosé of Syrah, you need to travel no further than Brix.
The last three months conducting sales to the trade without personally driving a car has been interesting to say the least. My primary mode of transportation around the Napa Valley and the greater San Francisco Bay Area has been on my Cervélo. To go the distance, I’ve utilized BART, The VINE, and the Bay Link Ferry. Using a bicycle for transportation is nothing new; in fact, the German Laufmaschine built in the early 1800s was the first type of bicycle built. Outside of San Francisco, tell people you're riding a bike for recreation or exercise and no one blinks an eye. Ride your bike for work and everyone loses their mind. The looks on my customer’s faces when I pull a half case of wine off of my back can be priceless. Riding my bike is relatively quick and easy. The floor of the Napa Valley is flat. Over the 30 miles you’ll ride along the Silverado Trail from Napa to Calistoga, you’ll climb 1000 feet in rolling hills. If you take highway 29, the slope is even more gradual. As a cyclist, one only needs to battle the headwind traveling north to south after 2:30 PM.
Relying on my bicycle and various forms of public transportation has certainly been an eye opening experience. I used to take driving for granted. Now I truly look it as a privilege. I look forward to this experiment being over in just about a month’s time. Until then, if you see a cyclist on the road, be kind and give them plenty of room. We hate getting buzzed, at least while riding.