When a well-heeled businessman decides to open a winery—and plenty do—we can but hope that they possess at least one of the Big Three: A sense of taste, a love of the land or winemaking savvy.
If somebody around the place can also play the harp? So much the better.*
*It is not required that all four skills are contained in the same body.
So, within Napa’s Hestan Vineyards, you’ve got pretty much what hockey fans call a hat-trick, orchestrated to the strains of Bach’s Sonata For Harp in G-Major.
Helen and Stanley Cheng—whose first names combine to make the word ‘Hestan’—entered vinotopia via a line of upscale cookware with names that sound like Futurama robots—Anolon, Circulon—and a private brand for Paula Deen, whose favorite Futurama character, of course, is Fry. Cheng’s profession took him to numerous restaurant kitchens (French Laundry, etc.) and from that, the Hong Kong native developed a deep appreciation for the subtle differences in Napa terroirs. When, in 1996, he translated some of his hard-won casserole cash into a 127-acre ranch on at the base of Napa Valley’s Okell Hill, his intention was to build a steady, stellar reputation as a grape grower supplying fruit to top tier Napa wineries. And did. But by 2005, the yen to release his own line grew too much, and in 2005, with advice from Helen Cheng’s reputed world-class palate and the consultation of medical student-turned-winemaker Mark Herold, Stanley released 2002 Hestan Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon and a second label, 2002 Meyer Cabernet Sauvignon to phenomenal notices. Parker Jr. garnished the former with 95 points, and the Meyer picked up 90 points from Wine Spectator.
An auspicious start in anyone’s book of prototypes.
Meanwhile, The Chengs continued to add blocks of vines one at a time, finding multiple exposures with nuanced affability to Bordeaux rock stars like cabernet sauvignon, merlot, petit verdot, malbec and cab franc. In all, 52 Hestan acres are planted to grapes, and, with yields kept low, intervening vintages have been roundly applauded as dense, opulent examples of what limited production Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon—Herold’s specialty—can offer.
And The Harp?
Hark as you might, it has nothing to do with what’s played by any of Herold’s angels… On the contrary, in the 2008 vintage, the Chengs enlisted separate-but-equal wine consultant Jeff Gaffner (of celebrated 1996 St. Jean Cinq Cépages, Wine Spectator’s ‘1999 Wine of the Year’) to develop a third label named after their harp-playing daughter, Stephanie.
Both Herold and Gaffner love dramatic, concentrated reds, and although both adhere to a similar regimen of detail and discipline in the vineyard and in the cellar, their styles are strikingly different—a fact upon which Stanley Cheng is happy to harp: “We feel very excited and privileged to have winemakers of such accomplishment interpret our vineyards’ terroir in such wonderfully different and expressive styles of wine.”
Herold’s reds see less oak time than Gaffner’s, and the wines manifest potent, liqueur-like berry flavors in the foreground—Chambord especially. The massive amount of time spent inside new oak (28 months) that underscores Gaffner’s ‘Stephanie’ might have been something with which a taster needed to wrestle, but there’s a overriding malolactic creaminess in each which make them rich and ripe and appealing. Gaffner is, as it happens, a strong proponent of vinifying grape lots separately to retain individual block and varietal characteristics, and a few more years of aging should do ‘Stephanie’ wonders.
As for a bit more aging, Stephanie herself, at twenty-two, is just beginning to appreciate the delicacies along with the dynamisms in her eponymous bottlings—rumor has it that she didn’t fully sign up to the original flavor program.
Patronizing Note to Stephanie: No doubt, listening to your first year of harp practice weighed a little heavily on mom and pop too, so, consider that their patience in waiting for your skill sets to fully develop may also be a word to the wise when it comes to your wine.
In 2009, a third winemaker joined the Hestan team, Thomas Rivers Brown—a guy who has a naturalist’s name if ever anyone did. The resumé of this native South Carolinian is equally impressive (I’d say ‘electrifying’ if I dared use that word in the same sentence as ‘Old Sparky’): A couple of years ago, Brown found himself on the business end of double 100 point scores from the Wine Advocate for his 2006 Schrader ‘Old Sparky’ and CCS Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as double 99 points from James Laube of Wine Spectator for ‘Old Sparky’ and T6 Cabernet Sauvignon, representing the highest blind tasting scores ever awarded an American winery by that publication.
Rivers Brown has taken over production of Hestan Cabernet Sauvignon as well as the chardonnay—the only varietal that the winery produces from grapes outside Napa acerage–these from the very new appellation of San Francisco Bay and a vineyard Stanley has planted on land near his cookware company.
Such a triumvirate of talent supervising the winemaking at a 6000-cases-per-year winery almost seems like overkill, doesn’t it?
Still, what do I know? I wouldn’t have guessed that Paula Deen needed her own brand of stockpot, either.
Hestan Vineyard, Chardonnay, San Francisco Bay, 2008, about $50: Lush and round on the palate to the point of being nearly syrupy—the wine is filled with an opulent spread of poached pear, mango, honey and nutmeg along with a gripping butterscotch finish. Should grow even richer and more layered with cellaring.
Hestan Vineyard, Chardonnay, San Francisco Bay, 2009, around $50: The first wine produced by Brown Rivers, the wine shows a crisper profile driven by greener fruit: apples and citrus predominately. Like its sister from 2008, the chardonnay is bottled without fining or filtration, but shows clear in the glass—there’s a pure, almost crystalline substructure of minerality to the wine that I missed in the ’08.
Hestan Vineyard, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, 2007, around $75: Massif-massive; jammed with jam and fleshy with blackberry, black cherry and pipe tobacco. Darkly textured and slightly astringent with bitter chocolate notes, the tannins are currently in-your-face aggressive, chewy and somewhat ferocious, but should settle in for the long haul, making this a wine to allow to mature with finesse.
Hestan Vineyard, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, 2008, around $100: Despite a jittery onset, the ’08 growing season got a grip on itself after one of the coldest spring frosts on record. The resulting vintage is considered a classic, and indeed, this wine holds it to such an obligation. Supple, stupendous and sweet, the ’08 cab is more floral on the nose that the ’07, displaying the same wealth of warm briary blackberries, but this time bolstered by a package in which the tannins seem a bit more integrated, even at this early date. A long, leisurely finish shows black licorice, vanilla and oddly, a slight but appealing overtone of grapefruit.
Hestan Vineyard, Cabernet, Meyer Vineyard, Napa Valley, 2007, about $45: Lovely aromatics of currant and chocolate spill over into a bold, drink-now gush of spicy, cedary summer fruit with a strata of limousin complexity adding smoke, creosote and tobacco.
Hestan Vineyard, ‘Stephanie’ Proprietary Red, Napa Valley, 2007, around $60: Two years of French oak has left a stamp on this wine—one that we presume is not indelible. Intermixed with the chewy tannins are wonderful splashes of plum, black raspberry, cherry and creamy espresso, and at this point in its evolution, the wine works best with food—especially a nice marbled hunk of steer—but not to worry: The harp logo on the bottle forewarns that this may indeed be a selection that comes with a few strings attached.