The backbone of California winemaking is the tapestry of tiny wineries, family owned, each representing a vision and an idiosyncratic approach to the making of wine. They number in the hundreds and range in size from overstuffed garages to mansion-sized facilities backed by hundreds of acres of meticulously-trained vines.
At the low end of the size spectrum is a 2000 case-per-year specialist that is quickly gaining a reputation among the cognoscenti. Jericho Canyon Vineyard has only been making and selling their own wine for eight years. Before that they sold fruit to other wine makers, notably David Ramey and Rudd. Their 30 acres of estate vineyards comprise four of the five Bordeaux varietals (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot), Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. Three quarters of it is Cabernet Sauvignon, so that gives a clear signal where the gravitational center of the winery style sits.
The winery is located in the Calistoga AVA in the middle of the vineyards in what the French would call a beau site. On one side are the Palisades and on the other Mount St. Helena. The vineyards rise from a sea-level like elevation of 200 ft to a near mountain level of 1000 ft. with slopes that range to as steep as 40°. That means vines must be on trellises with a sophisticated gutter system to direct falling water in order to prevent erosion. The owners of the winery are actually leaders in water conservation and sustainable agriculture. They own over 140 acres but do not plant vines in 100 in order to allow a reserve for the deer, increasingly hemmed in by vineyard fences, to roam (along with bears, boars and other critters).
Assistant winemaker Nicolas Bleecher, the son of the founders, and Tara Katrina Hole, Director of Sales and Marketing, came into town this week and invited me to taste some of their wines over a meal at Central 214 in Dallas’ Hotel Palomar.
We started with their 2007 Sauvignon Blanc ($30). This wine, made from estate fruit, is mainly aged in stainless steel except for one fifth aged in mature oak. A blend is made at bottling but I would describe the result as firmly in the New World style but with less forward fruit than most California Sauvignon Blanc. It is very elegant, and rather reminded me of another Calistoga Sauvignon Blanc, that of Kelly Fleming. I wonder if it is a characteristic of the grapes from that area? The high acid made the wine pair well with an appetizer of st. david’s raclette, Yukon gold potatoes and duck prosciutto.
Next we tasted the first of two Cabernet Sauvignons. First the 2009 Jericho Canyon Vineyards, Jericho Creek, Napa Valley ($55) is the current release of a Cabernet that comes from the lower part of the vineyards, next to a creek that runs through the property. It is soft with bold raspberry fruit but not a fruit bomb: more of a velvety texture in that it is smoothness with an undercurrent of grip. This is a complex wine but not one that will take a long time to mature. It is pleasant enough to drink now but will improve for maybe five years.
The second Cabernet had a very different in character. The 2006 Jericho Canyon Vineyards, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($80) is the winery’s main Cabernet wine and from an older and very different vintage. It is a denser, more tannic and has overwhelmingly dark fruit with notes of lead pencil (more like a Bordeaux than a Napa Cabernet). The oak (French, and 80% new) is well integrated.
Both of these red wines were well paired with execuchef Graham Dodds’ oxtail ragout, crispy gnocchi and basil pesto.
So small is the production of these wines that they are best ordered online on the winery web site. The prices represent good value for Napa Cabernet.
First photo: 2007 Sauvignon Blanc, 2009 Jericho Creek Cabernet Sauvignon and 2006 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon