The arrival of a storm brings welcome rain and beauty to the Napa Valley
Just in time for Thanksgiving I’m excited to share my new Cornerstone Oregon releases with you. Certainly there is no better match for the traditional cuisine of this American holiday than wines from America’s premiere pinot noir and chardonnay region: Oregon. With the 2014 vintage I passed my first decade making wine in Oregon and I am more convinced than ever that it is here in the United States that pinot and chardonnay can best show their true personality.
For this reason at Cornerstone Cellars we do not make any chardonnay or pinot in California as, while there are a few examples of wines that are true to these varieties, the vast majority of wines produced in California from pinot and chardonnay speak far more of winemaking than terroir. I believe in pinot and chardonnay grown in the Willamette Valley just as fervently as I do in cabernets, merlot, syrah and sauvignon blanc grown in the Napa Valley.
Very soon Cornerstone Oregon will be at the same production level as Cornerstone Cellars in the Napa Valley (about 5,000 cases each) and so these wines are of the highest priority to me.
As from the beginning of Cornerstone Oregon in 2007, our wines are a collaboration between myself and my friend and the Northwest’s premiere winemaker, Tony Rynders. The style of Cornerstone Oregon reflects my over three decade immersion in the wines of Burgundy and Tony’s two decades in the Northwest, which includes stints as the red wine winemaker at Hogue and a decade as winemaker at Domaine Serene. The wines of Cornerstone Oregon are a synthesis of our perspectives and together we are crafting wines with a classic structure intertwined with a vibrant New World personality. As always, all of the wines of Cornerstone Oregon are grown, produced and bottled in Oregon.
This Thanksgiving I am giving thanks for the privlege of making cabernet in the Napa Valley and pinot noir and chardonnay in the Willamette Valley. Certainly this is having the best of both worlds.
In the pitch darkness of your deepest sleep a nightmare suddenly launches your bed into the air jarring you awake. But waking only makes it worse as you realize that it was not a dream, but reality that launched your bed off the ground. But that's just the beginning as your entire house has been tossed in the air. Even beyond that you finally understand it's not just the bed, nor the house that has been flipped into the air, but the very ground itself.
Before your can fully comprehend what has happened it's over and everyone is holding each other trying to regain some sort of belief that the floor beneath their feet has become something that you can actually stand on. Then the adrenaline hits and you spring into action. That action mostly involves mops, brooms and dealing with the shock. For the next eight hours we cleaned, first our house, then repeating the experience at our Cornerstone Cellars tasting room in Yountville. By noon we had the worst of the mess cleaned up. We were spattered with wine like we'd been working crush all day and our hands were filled with small cuts from all the shards of glass that covered everything.
That's an earthquake. A few minutes of terror followed by hours of the most mundane, yet adrenalin fueled housecleaning you can imagine. After a few minutes, through the daze of shock, it occurs to you, you may have lost a year of your life, perhaps more. Could the entire vintage be gone? Could all of our wine be gone?
Through the haze of shock and exhaustion the harsh reality starts to sink in. It did not really hit until later in the day, when I was asked about our wines and suddenly tears started to well in my eyes as if the potential loss was just too much to ever consider. We started out in 2007 to make wines with what we perceive as refinement, balance and elegance. Achieving the style of wines you want is not an overnight thing. In winemaking you only get one learning experience a year. The 2013s were not the result of just one year of work, but the result of six years of work. When you lose a vintage you don't just lose the wine from that year, you lose the wine you achieved through a lifetime of experience. For a small producer like us, the wines change each year influenced by the weather and our increased knowledge of each vineyard and the fruit that comes from it. When you make wines that are not manipulated you literally only make that wine once in your life as each year is unique. Not only does the weather change, but you change. So whatever wine we lose will be losing something truly unique. The intersection of nature and humans at one point in time.
A week has now passed and with each day you get a little less jumpy. The aftershocks continue and we even slept through a 3.2 quake last night. However, we still don't know the extent of the wine we lost. A few more days will tell the story. We have been lucky so far only suffering broken wine bottles, minor cuts, smashed dishes and jangled nerves. At this point I am clinging to the hope that our luck will continue as we dig our barrels out of the confused pile the once orderly barrel room has become.
With harvest upon us we are experiencing death and birth at the same time. While we have certainly lost some of our work from the 2013 vintage forever, the hope and excitement of a new vintage is also upon us. As forward is the only direction we can go we are choosing to focus on what are about to create rather than what has been destroyed. It's time to celebrate the new vintage not mourn for the old one.
I believe this will be an exceptional vintage in the Napa Valley, perhaps the Earth itself thinks so too.
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.
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.
Chardonnay, Napa Valley, Yountville 8/9/14. Beautiful in spite of the fact this is no place to grow chardonnay.
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!
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.
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.
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 last Saturday 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.
The dawn has yet to glow over the Vaca Mountains to the east. I am standing in the dark morning coolness as hazy figures glide through the blackness waiting for first light to signal the start of the day's work. Harvest 2013 is now seriously underway in the Napa Valley as we prepare to pick our first grapes for red wine this vintage, Oakville Station Merlot. Theoretically the harvest started here weeks ago for sparking wines (they're done already) and some white wines, but in the Napa Valley you're not getting serious until you start picking merlot, cabernet franc and, most of all, cabernet sauvignon.
While the scene sounds idyllic, and indeed it is, there is an undeniable feeling of pressure. We get just the one chance a year to make meaningful wines from each of these sites. There are no second chances. Every decision is critical, including the timing of today's pick, which I believe we have gotten just right.
Vintage 2013 is full of potential. Our early spring combined with a warm, but not too hot summer has been ideal for developing the complexity of flavors we strive for in our wines while preserving the essential acidity, which makes them live. It is our responsibility to fully realize this potential.
The Oakville Station Merlot was of such outstanding quality in 2012 that we have decided to produce not only our first single vineyard bottling of merlot, but our first Cornerstone Merlot ever. The 2012 Cornerstone Cellars, Oakville Station Merlot will be bottled next July and released after a year of bottle age in 2015. We only produced 100 cases and it will be exclusively available to our Cornerstone Club members. Looking at the outstanding quality of the merlot we are picking this morning, I have every reason to believe that 2013 will see our second single vineyard bottling from this very special vineyard block that is tucked into the famous To Kalon vineyard.
So as it happens each year in the natural cycle that is agriculture, our goals remain the same, but Mother Nature makes the rules. Our goal is to make elegant, refined wines that elevate your experience at the dinner table. Almost every year here in the Napa Valley nature gives us the privilege of achieving our goals. It is our duty to repay that privilege by doing the very best we can do. While that's a heavy responsibility, it is also a great honor. The ultimate expression of this honor is achieved when we can share our wines with you.
Dawn Atlas Peak Yountville AVA #Napa Valley 8/25/13
Netted #Cabernet Sauvignon Yountville #Napa Valley 8/24/13
Atlas Peak and #Yountville AVA vineyards 8/22/13
Dawn Atlas Peak #Napa Valley 8/17/13
A frosty dawn over Yountville's vineyards in the Napa Valley
The vintage 2012 has the potential to be one of the finest vintages in many years, if not one of the best ever on the west coast. There is a true potential to create something special.
In the Napa Valley we have already harvested some amazing fruit at Cornerstone Cellars. Our new Stepping Stone Pinot Gris, picked on September 11th, has just started it's long cold fermentation and the juice could not be more exciting. Packed with fresh peach and melon flavors and explosive acidity the wine is sure to be exceptional. This new vineyard, located directly in front of Silver Oak, is an A+ quality site and will produce a very complex pinot gris. A few days later, September 13th, we picked our sauvignon blanc. To the excellent Talcott Vineyard in St. Helena, this year we have added a new sauvignon blanc vineyard, Ink Grade on Howell Mountain, the same site where we harvest our Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon. We are co-fermenting these sites and fermentation is progressing slowly and perfectly. We ferment our whites at very low temperature to maintain all the aromatics so fermentation can take months, instead of weeks as in the red wine. The juice now is packed with mineral-ly, grapefruit flavors and aromas. It's delicious.
The red wine harvest started last Monday and Thursday, with merlot from Oakville Station/To Kalon and Ink Grade Howell Mountain. Merlot is the earliest ripener of the Bordeaux varieties. To say that this first fruit has lived up to our high expectations of this vintage is an understatement. The color is rich and dark and the juice is full of the velvety plum flavors that define great merlot. These tanks are now all yeasted after a cold soak of several days and fermentation is just starting to really roll.
With temperatures spiking into the 90s this weekend we could not have hoped for better weather to push the cabernet sauvignon to perfect ripeness. Over the next several weeks things will go into overdrive as we rush to bring in this perfect fruit before the rains and birds arrive.
- Upcoming scheduled picks:
- 10/1 - Oakville Station/To Kalon Cabernet Franc and Block 2 Merlot
- 10/3 - Ink Grade Cabernet Sauvignon, lower block 5
- 10/4 - Ink Grade Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon and Stewart Ranch Carneros Merlot
- 10/5 - Losey Vineyard Riesling and Atlas Peak Syrah
In Oregon the quality of the vintage looks equally sensational. Harvest should start in about two weeks, which should let me finish here before I have to head up there. While in Napa we have the staff at Laird to support us, in Oregon its totally hands on wine production with harvest meaning about three days of concentrated harvesting for Cornerstone Oregon. As the pinot noir and chardonnay must get into the fermenter as quickly as possible that means days that begin long before dawn and you finish only when that day's fruit is all processed - often long after dark. We have no scheduled pick dates in Oregon yet, but the upcoming week will give us a good idea when crush time will arrive.
Our biggest challenge after this heat spike may be that all the fruit will ripen at once, which will test our logistical systems (read Jeff and my backs) to be be sure we don't let any of this great fruit get even one more day on the vine than it should have. We want perfect fruit in such a perfect year. You can't waste such a gift.
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.