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?
Winemaking is a journey with no end. You set goals, but as you achieve them you just have higher aspirations. The more you achieve, the more you know there is to achieve. With the two Cabernets you have we are now releasing we have achieved a goal we set for ourselves, but now our vision for what we will achieve in the future is even sharper.
Our first goal was to craft wines with elegance and finesse while still honoring the power, which is an accurate expression of Napa Valley terroir. It was also our goal to achieve wines with appropriate levels of alcohol. We do not simply want to have low alcohol levels for the sake of that alone by following some pre-set recipe, but to produce wines from grapes harvested at just the right moment, the moment that defines that vintage. We don't want underripe grapes anymore than overripe ones. Perhaps the most important thing to us is having acid levels that make the wines refreshing, even in their youth. What you will not get from us are wines suffering from the "big wine" syndrome so favored by certain well known critics. What you will get are wines that fire up your saliva glands with the zesty acidity required to truly compliment cuisine. If you like massive, oaky cabernet with 16% alcohol (no matter what it says on the label) with high pH and residual sugar you won't like these wines and we can live with that. Our first goal is to make wines we love to drink and our second goal is to find wine lovers who agree with us. We are not interested in making wines that try to satisfy the broadest range of consumers possible.
The 2010 Cornerstone Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon releases reflect well this vision. They are very different wines telling two distinct stories. We make different wines for that very reason as we find each expresses aspects of the Napa Valley well worth telling. By Napa Valley standards 2010 was a cooler vintage, which means by Bordeaux standards it was a a very good year. It reemphasizes my opinion that the problem vintages in Napa are the hot ones , not the cooler ones. The cooler weather helped us towards our goal to make balanced wines. While the "big wine" folks struggled with 2010, we loved it.
The 2010 Cornerstone Cellars Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon expresses the personality of three exceptional vineyards: Ink Grade on Howell Mountain, Oakville Station in the To Kalon district and Kairos in Oak Knoll. They weave together to produce a wine that reflects the character of the Napa Valley as a whole. The power and structure of Howell Mountain combines with the rich velvety Oakville Station and both are lifted by the bright aromatics and freshness of Kairos. However, cabernet sauvignon alone does not tell the whole story in this wine. Often I find that cabernet sauvignon on its own has a big start and finish, but can be a bit hollow in the middle. Here is where cabernet franc and merlot come in. A touch of merlot fills that hole in the middle and brings a beautiful silky texture. Cabernet franc is like MSG in a dish lifting and defining flavors. Together they achieve umami, that elusive savory personality that defines great wine.
The 2010 Cornerstone Cellars Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon is a wine of time and place. Sourced from the organically farmed Ink Grade Vineyard on the high slopes on the east side of Howell Mountain. Grown on the distinctive powdery, white tufa soils as contrasted to the red, clay based soils on many Howell Mountain vineyards, this is a firmly structured wine, which we make to express, not hide its richly tannic character. This is a wine born and made to age. I recommend waiting five or more years to let the many layers in this wine to expand and integrate. If you can't wait an hour or two in a decanter will help reveal the treasures still hiding in this young wine. Once again, a small touch of merlot is added to expand the textures on the palate.
Perhaps the most important thing to me is these wines give me the complete experience that I seek in wine: lifted aromatics, brightness on the palate, refreshing flavors and long, layered flavors that go on and on. Most of all they are wines that make me want a second glass. There is no such thing as a perfect wine, but in the fact that these wines purely represent the vineyard, vintage and varieties that gave them birth, I feel perfectly wonderful about them.
The baseball season is long, one hundred and sixty two games. After six months of effort it can come down to one game, indeed one swing of the bat. Months and months of effort can come down to one second.
Baseball, grapevines and winemakers start and end their seasons at the same time and in the same way. Some teams are happy to go home with a .500 season while for others nothing less than a championship will do. Every year we swing for the fences expecting nothing less of ourselves than winning it all.
Our season came to an end almost two weeks ago when we picked our two cabernet franc vineyards in the Napa Valley. As usual, although Oregon and California are neighbors, the vintage experience is very, very different. In the Napa Valley it was smooth as silk. The early flowering in the spring gave us all the time we wanted to ripen our fruit to the very point of perfection. In Oregon the pace was not as relaxed as an approaching storm forced us into high gear to get our fruit in before the rains hit, which we did.
Once again as in baseball, there is more than one way to win the game. The 2010 vintage may have been difficult and the 2012 vintage warm and benevolent, but we made excellent wines in both years. Most importantly we made wines of the vintage, letting the natural character of the wines nature gave us to speak their own minds. Perhaps the biggest difference between big industrial wineries and artisan producers like Cornerstone Cellars is that their wines taste the same every year and ours don't. In baseball "small ball" often wins games, but in winemaking there is only one way to the pennant and that is by swinging for the fences each and every year.
Now as we finish the 2013 harvest, we are releasing the Cornerstone Cellars Cabernets from the 2010 vintage and our Cornerstone Oregon Pinot and Chardonnay from the 2011 harvest, while the 2012's are still resting in their barrels. Each of them tells the story of our dance with Mother Nature every vintage and we are confident you will find each of their stories as compelling as we do.