Sean Piper has been remarkably supportive of my personal amble through the alleys of annoying wine disquisition, and today, it’s payback time.
See, in the spirit of a genuine anti-journalist, I operate this column on a purist catechism of quid pro quo: You scratch my Back-To-Back Mega Millions card, I scratch and sniff Emilia Clarke’s bicycle seat.
Or something like that; I’ll have to consult my anti-ethics manual.
In any case, Sean, publisher of Wine Consumer Magazine, has just filled a bucket from his list by launching his own wine label—Napa Vintage, Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon, 2011. It’s a small step in a larger leap; ultimately, he plans to release Napa Vintage wines from each of the appellation’s unique subregions, and, like his ‘Howell Mountain’, his intention is that these wines will benchmark the organoleptic profile representative of that specific district—Mt. Vedeer, Rutherford, Oakville, et al.
And Sean knows whereof he drinks, too—he grew up in south Napa and spent his formative years scratching and sniffing Napanese wine labels whenever an ingénue’s Schwinn seat was unavailable.
“I first had the idea for a series of limited-release Napa wines meant to reflect the signature flavors of a given sub-appellation in 2003,” he says. “But, since I’m not a winemaker, I have to be content—for now—to be visionary. It has essentially taken this much time to begin partnerships with growers and float ideas by some of the winemakers I admire.”
Foremost on this list is Mark Capalongan. Mark, with his wife Sandy, owns Big Dog Winery in Milpitas—an area known more for datacenters than decanters. But Mark’s approach to winemaking, which involves producing estate wines from his five acres of vineyard along with rich, full-bore reds from purchased grapes, was just what Sean was after. Going forward, he intends to apprentice with Mark and learn his vinting chops while producing future wines at Big Dog using fruit they’ll obtain on the market.
For the maiden voyage—Napa Vintage Howell Mountain, 2011—he stamped his label on pre-made wine from the hallowed cellar of Jac Cole.
And for you trivia trollops, that’s not the Jack Cole from that silly flick Sideways—basically an American Pie sequel for adolescent adults who have switched from cheap beer to expensive wine. No, it’s the ‘k’-free Cole from Spring Mountain, whose 2010 ‘Elivette’ Cabernet hauled in Decanter Magazine’s Regional Trophy Gold as Best of Show in 2013.
“Jac fit all my criteria,” Sean says. “Thirty years of experience and a genuine understanding of the terroirs he worked with. To me, the wine I bottled as Napa Vintage 2011 has pure Howell Mountain character—it’s what Howell Mountain ‘tastes’ like.”
I find the concept itself enthralling (learning appellation-defining archetypes via a single bottle), but quid pro quo schmid schpro schmo; I suppose if I didn’t find the wine to be equally so, I would have to admit as much and let the friendship chips fall wherever. My journalistic standards may be low, but they still exist.
But, gratefully, the wine is wonderful. It opens with a bright whiff of very red fruit, not the brooding, jammy blackberry stew that occasionally sidles from a glass of colossal California Cab. That’s due in part to mountain-grown fruit—Howell Mountain vineyards exist at a minimum of 1,400 feet—which provides a cooler climate and less juggernaut ripening than vines see on the valley floor. Slower veraison, and frequently, longer hang times allow the development of vital chemical compounds that peak early in warmer areas. Such high-elevation wines often show fruit dominated by cherry notes, giving Napa Vintage 2011 an almost Pinot Noir-like bouquet, but which is underscored by an unctuous substratum of mocha to bring the variety back into focus. Sean himself swears he can pick up scents of maple in the aroma, and although this eludes me, I’d sign off on a slight caramel scent which may be a manifestation of the same tasting note.
The wine then settles into a meaty palate with pronounced acidity and tannins which are perfectly integrated into the body. Again, many heavily-oaked Napa Cabs are still in a neonatal stage after four years, and may show tannin layers that seem to surround the wine without yet melding into it. Like Buddhists who are in the world but not of it, such tannins need cellar time to figure out what they want to be when they grow up Admittedly, my sensory preferences run toward Sean’s style from the outset—lots of fresh fruit flavors and restrained wood, making for a drink that is both easy to enjoy and repast for reflection.
In general, 2011 was a tough go in Napa, with a wet spring extending into mid-June, generally cooler temperatures through the summer and a return of the rain in mid-October. Howell Mountain, which allows for longer hang-times anyway, enjoyed a prolonged Indian summer that provided needed ripening time. So the fact that Napa Vintage 2011 displayed such rich layers is testimony to both field and cellar, and is an auspicious start for the label.
In my world, Sean Piper has come up with an idea that’s gold in them Napa hills. If he can extend the Midas touch to other Napa appellations (and beyond—he’s dreaming of a Sonoma Vintage line as well), I promise to be waiting at the bottom of the rainbow with my empty pot.