Sometimes a pat on the back also gives you a kick in the butt. It never hurts to have some fuel tossed on the the fire of the passion you are pursuing. That is how I feel about Alder Yarrow's article about me and Cornerstone Cellars on Vinography.
I knew going in it would be a challenge to market Napa Valley wines made in a more elegant style. Certainly it would have been easier to just make a massive wine, slathering on oak and alcohol in a style many critics adore, but where is the pleasure in making wines you don't like to drink?
When we started releasing our more restrained style of Napa Valley wines we took our lumps from Laube and Parker, which, proudly puts us in a sort of elite club with some very fine winemakers whose vision we share. However, rejection by the old boys club has been more than countered by the likes of this exciting article in Vinography and excellent reviews in Connoisseurs Guide to California Wines, Stephen Tanzer and a host of wine bloggers.
It's easy to make wines that get big points from the old guard, you can hire a consulting company that guarantees results point-wise (do they charge by the point?). But is it really easier? Does scamming the system just to get those points really bring you satisfaction? Maybe for some, but not for me.
What brings me satisfaction is tasting a wine we created and having it excite and thrill, well, me. What brings me even more satisfaction is seeing someone else have that experience too.
It also brings true satisfaction to have someone I respect as much as Alder write such a, for me, moving article on the work we are doing at Cornerstone Cellars. Please take the time to read his article at the link below.
"Cornerstone continues to evolve, but like the rapidly shortening line of a tether ball accelerating towards the pole, the wines of Cornerstone are beginning to gravitate towards a quality and consistency that is quite admirable, and the equal of any of Napa's stalwart producers. Camp and Keene seem to be laying the foundation for becoming a fixture in the valley. Their Yountville tasting room has already become one of the town's most visited, and thanks to Camp, the winery has quickly become among the most successful industry players in social media and new internet technologies such as geofencing.
It has been a great pleasure watching Cornerstone Cellars coalesce over the past few years, and it will be even more fun watching it shift into high-gear now that it has seemingly settled into a comfortable groove. If you don't know these wines, I highly recommend you find some of the 2010s in particular."
There is a lot of pink wine out there, but there seems to be fewer and fewer real rosé wines. Just because you’re pink does not mean you’re a rosé.
There are several pretenders to the rosé title out there. The ubiquitous white zinfandel is the domaine of industrial wine production conjured up out of centrifuges and chemistry. Residual sugar provides the only flavor in an otherwise flavorless beverage. Certainly white zinfandel has its role as a starting place for many consumers, who then graduate up to real wine. Unfortunately because it’s pink (or kind of pink anyway) too many people think that all pink wine is sweet plonk. Also, it’s a problem as you can actually make a lovely real rosé from zinfandel.
Then there is the elegant sounding saignée, which when translated sounds less so as it means to bleed. However, it accurately describes this wine making process where juice is removed from a fermenter after a very short time. The original need for this was in cooler regions, where in lighter vintages the technique was used to help concentrate their red wines. A common practice in Burgundy, where they called the resulting wines vin gris as, I guess, the French just have too much respect for real rosé. While this is a good and useful idea in a place like Burgundy, it challenges the imagination as to why someone would feel the urge to actually need to increase the concentration of their red wines in a warm place like California. The down side of producing a pink wine in this manner is that you are harvesting your grapes at ideal ripeness levels for red wine, but not for pink wine. When done in a warm climate you get the candied flavors, higher alcohols and odd neon colors that you see in so many pink wines.
Then there is real rosé. Wines made in the classic tradition of Bandol and Tavel. Vineyards are selected to be for rosé from the start and farmed to create ideal fruit for this type of wine. The grapes are picked when the flavors are fully ripe, but you don’t have to wait for the skin tannins to ripen like you would when making red wine. This means you can pick at higher acids and lower sugars that will give you a balanced, elegant and complex rosé. With a very short contact with the skins to give just a hint of color, real rosé often can be a very light pink, but don’t let that fool you as you’ll find an explosion of flavor waiting for you. The lower sugars mean you can ferment to absolute dryness without excessive alcohol levels to mar the fresh fruit flavors. The best of these real rosé wines then spend a short time on the lees in mature oak barrels to broaden flavors and develop a rich, creamy texture. Simply delicious.
Such a wine is our Cornerstone Corallina Napa Valley Syrah Rosé. Corallina is a real rosé made in this classic style. Made as we make our white wines, the fruit was gently whole-cluster pressed over several hours to maintain freshness, elegance and complexity. Corallina Syrah Rosé is then fermented to total dryness then followed by five months in barrel as we patiently wait for every part of the wine to come into full harmony. Produced from a single vineyard in Oak Knoll, Corallina Syrah Rosé is both a pleasure to look at and to drink, a classic rosé at its best.
You can find our Corallina Syrah Rosé here: http://d.pr/n/42Ws
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.