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Napa

A Beautiful Factory

It was majestic, breathtaking. It cost tens of millions of dollars. It was the most beautiful factory I'd ever seen. Such are the temples of wine in the Napa Valley. Shrines to people rather than agriculture. The days of Bottle Shock have long passed to be replaced by sticker shock. The Napa Valley is no longer the place a farmer can bring his winemaking dream to reality.

Today in the Napa Valley people build pyramids to their own memories just as the pharaohs did in ancient Egypt - and for the same reason. Immortality is expensive. Making wine is farming and it's hard to think of anything less glamorous. The choice for the ages is obvious - temples last longer than wines.

I was visiting one of Napa's new pyramids a few weeks ago and it was perfection. Majestic floor to ceiling windows filled with vineyard views, a winemaking facility loaded with the cutting edge technology and, of course, it was all integrated with equally cutting edge modern art. There was only one thing missing. There was no soul, no soul of the wine and no tie to the land. The connection to the land was lost as everything about the place was about people - nothing was about nature and dirt, which was nowhere to be seen except through perfectly clean, massive windows. It was there to see, but there was nothing to touch or that could touch you.

You can buy the land, the equipment, the art and the media, but in the end the wines will have no soul, no soil, unless it is really inside of you. Without that soul, no matter how much you spend, you just end up with a beautiful factory and like all factories you pump out an industrial product. Designer wines designed for points not people.

The marketing employed to sell these wines is as cold as the facility they're made in. Data points replace people and social media becomes a strategy not a conversation. You don't want to get your hands dirty.

Corison Winery

On Route 29 in the heart of the Napa Valley is a plain gray barn where the wine, and only the wine, tells the story. There Cathy Corison has endured the pointless point-ridden decades for wine when only points mattered and pH did not. Today she has been magically rediscovered without changing a thing. It seems actually having a vision and a passion, not simply an ego and a bottomless checking account, have become fashionable again. This, at least, is something we can be thankful for in the Napa Valley

There are real wine temples, like that plain gray barn, out there in the the Napa Valley and across California, but as in Indiana Jones, you'd better choose wisely. Most people choose poorly forgetting that it's in the cup of a carpenter that you're more likely to find real wine.

Opening Day

2013 Corallina 

Opening Day has come and gone, which means only one thing: it's time for our spring wine releases! These two new releases are all about fun and immediate gratification and should be in your glass right now!

Nothing says spring more than the beautiful coral color of our 2013 Cornerstone Corallina Napa Valley Syrah Rosé. One of our Artist Series wines, Corallina Syrah Rosé is an explosion of pastel colors both inside and outside the bottle. As always, Cornerstone Cellars always does things a bit differently and Corallina Syrah Rosé is no exception. This is what I call a real rosé, not a wine drained off of a red wine tank as a second class citizen, but a classic, authentic rosé. The vineyard, tucked off in a cool section of Oak Knoll, was destined, before the first leaves appeared, to be Corallina Syrah Rosé and farmed to produce rosé each day of the vintage. Picked at the precise moment to capture the brilliant fruit flavors, just three hours gentile skin contact in the press was all that was needed to get that touch of coral color we love. Then the wine was fermented totally dry and aged in mature French Oak barrels for five months to achieve a unique creamy texture on the palate. The 2013 Cornerstone Corallina Napa Valley Syrah Rosé is totally seductive. You will not be able to resist. With only 417 cases produced it is sure soon be only a beautiful pink memory.

Each year Stepping Stone by Cornerstone North Coast Red Rocks! has gotten better and better as we've gotten better and better at making it. Our inspiration has always been the beautiful blends of Southern France from Languedoc-Roussillon and Provence. These wines have a savory complexity mixed with pure charm that is so perfect for the rustic, flavorful country French cooking of those regions. With the release of the 2012 Stepping Stone by Cornerstone North Coast Red Rocks! I feel we have hit the target. Bright, savory and vivacious, I can't think of a better wine for our own American country cooking, which at this time of year usually means grills, steak, chops, sausages and burgers. With the release of the 2012 Red Rocks! I believe we have crafted a wine with the balance and depth that makes it a true Cornerstone. As always with Rocks!, the blend is our secret and the pleasure is all yours.

Baseball and summer food are back and we've got the perfect wines to go with both!

 

Taking the Road Less Traveled - Cornerstone Cellars Black Label

2011 Cornerstone Napa Valley Cabernet Franc, Stepping Stone 

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 thirty miles long and five 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 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 a 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.

Feeling Perfectly Wonderful

2010 Cornerstone Cellars Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 

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 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.

One, Just One, Green Grape

It was just one green grape. It was one green grape too many. It's always something. 

It has been a picture perfect vintage. A lovely spring, with warm, dry weather for flowering and fruit-set. A “three bears” sort of summer: not too cold, not too hot, just right. So why was it there? As you passed through the vineyards you could not miss it standing out like a sore green thumb in the middle of a bunch of gloriously deep purple cabernet sauvignon, there would be one, just one, green berry.

No big deal, right? How could just one unripe grape on some bunches make any difference when all the others were perfectly ripe? One green grape is a very big deal if you want to make wines that are special.

Also there was another issue. Everything else this vintage has been perfect. The gorgeous weather has produced fruit capable of making wines from this vintage something very special indeed. When Mother Nature gives you such a gift you must take advantage of it. There is a sense of duty, responsibility, to take this gift and do everything in your power to make not only great wines, but memorable ones. 

What could we do? For us there was no choice. Out into the vineyards went our crews with one mission: to remove one-by-one those individual green grapes. Armed with scissors they went down the rows with the precision of a Bonsai gardener. Was this expensive? Certainly, but this is the price you pay to go beyond good, or very good, on to greatness in a wine. For us there was no choice.

We’re getting pickier and pickier every year as finicky is a virtue when it comes to winemaking. Not satisfied with just dropping any less than perfect fruit in the vineyard, we are going beyond just sorting out any bunches that don’t meet out standards and this vintage will be sorting individual berries on a special sorting table specially designed for nit-pickers like us. Note this is not a job we farm out, Jeff and I do all the sorting ourselves. 

I'll spare nothing, not only in this glorious vintage, but in each-and-every vintage to make wines that I love to drink and, most of all, that I am proud to share with you.

A perfect bunch of cabernet framed by the light of this morning's dawn

Night Harvest: Talcott Vineyard Cabernet Franc in St. Helena

Never Boring

Their shrill barking woke me from whatever dream I was having. A pack of coyotes was having a debate in the vineyard outside my window. In my sleepy stupor I tried, but could not remember the day of the week. It sounded like dozens of them, but it was probably just a few being particularly rambunctious. Suddenly the report of a rifle echoed sharply across the valley and the coyotes were silent. Just a few hundred yards from our house, in the other direction, the first crew of cooks were arriving for work at The French Laundry. Such is life in Yountville during harvest. There is this incredible mixture of nature and urban sophistication, which only intertwines so completely in the Napa Valley. The reason I could not remember the day was simple: during harvest all days are the same. There are no regular patterns, hours or life. It’s exhausting, stressful and the best thing that happens to you every year.

So what does this vintage mean to us? It means another debate with Mother Nature, much like the coyotes outside my window had last night. As winemakers we all bark at the weather, but in reality we live within it and in the end treasure what we have been given each and every year. Like a parent we don’t have a favorite child, but revel in their differences and the memories of their unique strong and weak points. The critics will give this harvest a rating, but numbers have no soul and harvests, like all things in nature, do.

So what should you expect from a wine or from a vintage? I think you should expect personality. Those who rank vintages by number in the modern era miss the fundamental character of wine and truly do not understand wine itself. The question should never be what is the greatest vintage of this wine can I have with my dinner tonight, but should be what vintage will taste the best with my dinner tonight. The disaster vintages of days past are no more due to the dramatic advances in enology and viticulture over the last decades. On top of it we live in the Napa Valley where, let’s face it, the weather is never really that bad. The ranges of vintages today runs more from producing earlier or later maturing wines and from bigger or more elegant styles. It’s a fact of the matter in the Napa Valley an overly hot vintage has a more negative impact on wine quality than ones that are overly cool.

It often strikes me that critics want all vintages to be the same. I cannot think of anything more boring: or unnatural. Tomorrow morning at 4 a.m. we start picking our Talcott Vineyard Cabernet Franc in St. Helena. It will make a wine different from last year and from the one it will make the next. I would not have it any other way.

Haymaking and Grape Picking

We’ve been blessed in San Francisco to have two extensive exhibitions of works from the famed Impressionist museum in Paris, the Musée d’Orsay, at the de Young Museum of Fine Art. In the first of these two exhibitions one work haunted me a bit more than some of the others. That work was Haymaking by Jules Bastien-Lepage. In this piece the exhaustion of the agricultural worker at the end of the day is powerfully portrayed. 

The feeling this painting gave me I could not forget as I picked up my camera during harvest 2010. I doubt I’ll ever see another harvest without seeing Haymaking in the back of my mind. Having grown up around farmers, my uncle and grandparents were dairy farmers in Illinois, and spending many a day during summer breaks and weekends helping on their farms I too remember the heat, sweat and endless work. Something I was lucky enough to leave behind.

In California and most agricultural states the majority of the real work is done by Mexicans who risk arrest and face the brutal prejudice of Americans (none of whom seems to want the jobs they take) to earn a living for their families. If you think you have any idea what they go through you are lying to yourself. From the most expensive California wines to Two Buck Chuck, none would exist without these workers. This is a concept that few consider as they sip their expensive wine in an even more expensive restaurant while raging on about how we should be building a wall along the Mexican border. It seems that good taste in wine does not improve the conscious of those drinking it. When we take a sip of wine, it seem the least we could do to remember and honor those that sweated to bring it to us.

What struck me in the photo above was the ballet-like symmetry which flowed through this crew as they worked. They are picking Stewart Vineyard Merlot just south of the town of Napa. The wine from these grapes is beautiful and they are a part of it.