There’s more to Napa Valley, Calif., than the big, well-established brands and "cult" producers of unobtainable cabernet sauvignon. There are hundreds of family-owned wineries making distinctive wines that are reasonably priced and not sold-out before release. Read on for five such wineries, including one that may become the next big name for collectors.
Tres Sabores is a certified organic vineyard at the base of the Mayacamas Mountains in western Rutherford. It bears no resemblance to stereotypical notions of a Napa winery. I stood at their small, outdoor tasting bar just the other day, sampling upcoming releases while snow-white baby lambs bounced happily through the bright yellow mustard flowers that serve as inter-row ground cover.
Proprietor/winemaker Julie Johnson co-founded Frog’s Leap Winery in 1981 with Larry Turley and her then-husband John Williams. Six years later, she left to live on and manage the Tres Sabores vineyard. Today, cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel, petite verdot, and a bit of petite sirah grow on the dry-farmed estate. Two carefully-tended outside vineyards provide chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, and additional petite sirah. Johnson’s winemaking style is non-interventionist, letting the vineyards reveal themselves. Her wines are oak-aged, but most of the barrels are well-used and flavor neutral.
2010 Tres Sabores Zinfandel, Rutherford Estate Napa Valley $35
Zinfandel is the Tres Sabores Vineyard’s signature grape, delivering distinctive, balanced, food-friendly wines that are very different from the jammy, heavily-oaked zins which are so common today. The nose here offers fresh cherries and berries, huckleberry, white nectarine, and sweet herbs, with just a hint of vanilla. In the mouth, it’s dry and medium-bodied with moderate tannins, very fine, and lightly grippy. Flavors include cherry, dark berries, cocoa, coconut, and spice. 100 percent zinfandel. French and American oak, mostly neutral. 500 cases. 90 points
2010 Tres Sabores ¿Por Que No? Red Blend Napa Valley $28
Aromas of dusty black fruit, dark chocolate, and a scattering of dry leaves precedes a juicy palate of black cherry, blackberry, chocolate, and warm dark spice. The medium-plus body and light-grained tannins mean the wine is suited to pairing with casual meals or drinking on its own. 50 percent zinfandel, 35 percent petite sirah, 14 percent cabernet sauvignon, 1 percent petite verdot. Mostly French oak, some American, 40 percent new. 1,980 cases. 89 points
2009 Tres Sabores "Perspective" Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford Estate Napa Valley $80
An elegant nose: black currant and cocoa with a trace of bay leaf. Medium-plus-bodied in the mouth with blackcurrant, powdery mocha, and dark chocolate, framed by medium-plus chalky and grainy tannins. Decant now or drink from 2015 to 2022. 100 percent cabernet sauvignon. 200 cases. 92 points
2010 Tres Sabores Petite Sirah Guarino Vineyard Calistoga Napa Valley $45
An opaque wine with black ruby color and blackberry, thick black plum, and sweet dark spice. Full-bodied with generous tannins, juicy blackberry, licorice, and sweet dark spice. Enjoy it this fall with unctuous braised meat or hold it for two to five years. 200 cases. To be released end of March. 90 points
Jeff Keene brought a New Zealand accent to Cornerstone Cellars’ California operation in 2008, but also years of Napa Valley winemaking experience. He started at Havens Wine Cellars, where they focused on cool-climate Carneros wines and made America’s first varietally-labelled albariño. Several years as assistant winemaker at Peter Franus Wine Company broadened his experience with both varieties and Napa Valley AVAs.
Cornerstone Cellars Napa Valley has two personalities. The main label offers powerful, age-worthy Bordeaux varietals and blends plus an oak-aged sauvignon blanc. Its sister label, Stepping Stone by Cornerstone, is no less quality-focused and uses dedicated vineyards. However, it is more varietally diverse and offers wines that are ready-to-drink upon release.
The Cornerstone Cellars tasting room is in downtown Yountville, where they also pour their Willamette Valley pinot noir and chardonnay made in Oregon by Tony Rynders, formerly of Domaine Serene. Keene met me at the tasting room with tank and barrel samples of their upcoming releases for this article.
2012 Stepping Stone by Cornerstone "Corralina" Rosé Napa Valley $20
Made entirely from syrah picked at 22.5 brix specifically for this rosé. The pretty, light-salmon color fits aromas of just-ripe wild strawberry and mineral with delicate floral and spice notes. Soft on the palate, owing to five months sur lie in neutral French oak, with medium-plus body, mouthwatering wild strawberries, and persistent minerality. It will be just right with a light lunch by the pool. 89 points
2010 Stepping Stone by Cornerstone Syrah Napa Valley $25
Syrah from the Truchard Vineyard is combined with a 5 percent share of Carneros merlot for an approachable, nuanced wine. Dark flowers are followed by a touch of black pepper, then earthy spice, mineral, and dark fruit on the nose. The gentle palate is medium-plus in body, with tannins of chalky powder. Attractive flavors of licorice, dark and earthy spice, chocolate, and dark fruit gradually give way to a mineral finish. 300 cases; Release date TBD. 90+ points
— Gregory Del Piaz, Snooth