I’ll spare you the ‘jumping through hoops’ groaner: No need. The wine is above such puerile puns, the label notwithstanding.
Hoopes Family Vineyard reminds me of one of those prodigy kids who realizes she was born with an extraordinary gift—athletics, math, violinity, whatever—and runs with it. Does not stumble, succumb to fame, dip into the drug stash or lose sight of focus, but develops said talent in logical, almost pre-ordained steps all the way up the ladder.
I say ‘she’ because, in 2014, Hoopes is very much an estrogen-drenched operation, but I’ll get to that.
A decade before Oakville became a federally recognized AVA, Spencer Hoopes—a farmer with a name like a farmer in a Steinbeck novel—bought ten acres of land in the Napa River bench land and set out to grow what then, as now, was the region’s cash cow—cabernet sauvignon.
He wasn’t alone in his choice of cultivar of course, but his choice of grafting stock was somewhat unusual. He planted on St. George rootstock, known to be low yielding but hearty—a risk that paid off when phylloxera—the Black Plague of viticulture—dropped in, and many of his neighbors lost their vines. His survived, and most of them are still producing, making them among the oldest cabernet vines in Oakville.
In 1993, the AVA was approved as a two-mile-wide swath of Napa Valley rising to about 600 feet in elevation up the bases of the Vaca and Mayacamas Mountains. It’s fair to say that the concentration of top cabernet producers here is startling: Oakville is home to Opus One, Far Niente, Heitz Martha’s Vineyard along with about fifty other, mostly boutique-sized producers of California’s most sought after cabernets.
Hoopes spent seventeen years selling premium cabernet grapes to nearly all the big-name window-dressers in Oakville and Yountville, but finally decided to release his own label in 1999. Six years later he upped the ante by reviving the Liparita name, a century-old winery which had pioneered appellation-specific Napa wines. Press has been steady and phenomenal for both brands, and can they justly claim bragging rights to being reminiscent of (according to Anthony Dias Blue) Screaming Eagle—a wine that retails for ten times as much.
In 2013, Spencer Hoopes turned the managerial reins of the winery to his daughter Lindsay, and is the front-of-the-house estrogen I alluded to earlier; back-of-the-house is winemaker Anne Vawter, and apparently, under-the-table are a couple of female rescue dogs. Dogs being a welcome winery mascot, as the label clearly indicates.
I was fortune enough to meet Lindsay in downtown Birmingham for a tasting of current releases. She is forceful and funny, and appears poised to launch the label into a new era: “We’re making the transition to a more elegant, less extracted style which shows off the unique fruit we’re capable of growing. We’ve always been somewhat old school in our vineyard—we keep our rows 12 feet apart without traditional trellising. Plus, our location is such that when the Napa River floods, we get new deposits of topsoil every year; with that kind of fertility and old vines we can harvest at five tons an acre. That allows us to keep our wines affordable while showcasing the inherent elegance of our cab; soft acids, great fruit projecting unique minerality.”
And—humor me, s’il vous plaît —I’d say that Screaming Eagle-ish cab at Oakville Ranch prices is worth two round hoops and a holler squared.
Tasting Notes (Other than the 2012, these wines were made by Anne Vawter’s predecessor, Jason Fisher):
Hoopes ‘Hoopla’ Chardonnay, 2012, about $20: This is the kind of chardonnay that drives Francophiles bonkers: It is clean and totally unoaked, rich with syrupy pear notes and natural butter held aloft by steely acidity; in-your-face without smacking you in the kisser. Lees aging rounds out the variety’s fundamental creaminess without resorting to ponderousness of some Napa oak-fermented, oak-aged chards.
Hoopes ‘Hoopla—‘The Mutt’ (Red), 2011, around $30: A huge, berry-scented mouthful; a blend of mostly cab, with merlot and petit sirah in supporting roles. Silky but crisp with wild blackberry and currant, the wine shows ripe fruit and ripe tannins and is a bargain at the price point—more so than the name, cute as it may be, might suggest.
Liparita Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville, 2010, around $60: The ghost is smoking hot and very much alive—rattling the chains, even. A big, beautiful wallop of bright red fruit, bracing acidity, pure tannins and a heart that reflects the richness that only optimally ripe cab can show.
Liparita Cabernet Sauvignon V-Block, Yountville, 2010, about $60: Terroir laid bare: Same grape, same winemaker, totally different flavor profile with a much more pronounced minerality, and whether that’s ultimately down to soil of succinic acid is immaterial: It’s there. The fruit feels softer in the mouth and the tannins move forward, settling under the upper lip, leaving the impression of a finely structured wine a few years away from total balance. But, with other subtle flavors that should emerge with age, that is a plus.
Hoopes Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville, 2010, around $65: No need for comparison to iconic superlatives; it lessens the fact that the wine is benchmark to begin with. Elegant indeed; aromas of smoky plum, spicy blackberry and Bing cherry up front; cedar, mocha and a touch of wild spice finding space in the rear. Unusual for its depth of fruit as well as the fact that unlike nearly all other cabs on the market, this is not a blend, but purely the product a single varietal. This is a vineyard that implicitly—and with justification—trusts its cab.
* Notes On Other People’s Notes:
(In doing my due diligence I noticed the following contrasting notes, which struck me as noteworthy enough to note with additional notes):
Winemaker’s Notes: ‘The aromas from the glass are cherry, anise and dark chocolate. The initial taste sensations are classic Hoopes Cabernet, including cedar, tobacco, allspice and black fruits. This 2009 vintage reminds winemaker Jason Fisher of the great 1999 vintage – long, lush and shows integration of time and balance.
Like how the winemaker refers to himself in the third person, but not sure how a wine can, upon release, show the integration of time.
Wine Enthusiast Notes: “The tannins are tough as nails on this 100% Cabernet, so even though it has a beautiful core of blackberries and cassis, it isn’t drinkable now. Such is the purity of the structure that the wine should easily hold its own for 10–12 years, throwing sediment and gathering mellow sweetness. Cellar Selection” 92 Points, Wine Enthusiast.
Hang on, WE. How does an ‘undrinkable’ wine merit a 92? How does a review that begins with ‘The tannins are tough as nails’ end up with a mindblowing number the score column? I get it, the wine should age well, but seriously, that is a wait-‘n’-see game, isn’t it? Awarding 92 points to a wine that isn’t yet, but might someday be worth 92 point, is sort of an invalidation of the scale’s usefulness to begin with.
Looked it up to verify my gut reaction, yup – S.H. review…