California Dreamin'

A return to America’s wine roots: Napa and Sonoma valleys

I started a recent trip through Sonoma and Napa by meeting with Napa nobility at Colgin Cellars’ IX Estate high up on Pritchard Hill in St. Helena. Ann Colgin ushered me into the property with its 20 acres of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, petit verdot and syrah vines. She launched Colgin Cellars in 1992, when Napa was flush with 
dot-com cash. And her wines quickly joined the ranks of the California cults, such as Bryant Family Vineyard, Harlan Estate and Screaming Eagle.

We sat on the terrace sipping her Bordeaux-style IX Estate Napa Valley Red, from the brilliant ’07 vintage—a luscious, generous wine with aromas of blackberry and licorice and subtle notes of herbes de Provence.

Colgin’s IX Estate Syrah—from a vineyard planted with clones from Côte Roti and Hermitage—was rich and smoky with animal undertones and a touch of lilac on the nose. These are not sold in stores, available only to a select few on the winery’s closed client list of about 8,000 members, who have an annual allotment of six bottles each, at a price of $250.

Chuck Wagner, at Caymus, is just as esteemed in the region. I tasted his most vaunted (and pricey) bottles, plus his most accessible. Caymus Special Selection is another members-only release ($120). This rich cabernet is known for its fruit-driven mix of sweet and tart flavors. The ’09 (released this September) was truly seductive, with chocolate notes.

The Wagner family began making wine in 1906, ceasing production when Prohibition hit, then re-entering the business in 1972. Their company, now known as the Wagner Family of Wine, has diversified from 
cabernet in recent years. Chuck’s two sons are the winemakers these days.

Joe specializes in pinot noir, under the family’s Belle Glos label. He 
turns Sonoma coast grapes into delicious wines, moderately priced at $44 a bottle. And his brother, Charlie, focuses on white wine production under the Mer Soleil label. His pet project, Silver, an unoaked chardonnay made with grapes from the Santa Lucia Highlands, comes in a fanciful ceramic bottle. But Conundrum—a mix of sauvignon blanc, semillon, viognier and muscat made by honorary family member Jon Bolta—is their biggest seller.

Switching gears, I searched for up-and-coming wine stars. With Napa’s flatlands saturated with vineyards, the trend is to plant up along the slopes. On Spring Mountain, up a rugged road into the Maycamus Range, I found one of these pioneers producing very good high-altitude wine. Lynn Hofacket and Casidy Ward spent six years preparing the land for grape 
cultivation, building a reservoir to feed their cabernet vines at Hidden Ridge Vineyard. I wondered what would possess them to go through such an ordeal, until I tasted their 55% Slope Cabernet Sauvignon ($45) and their Impassable Mt. Reserve ($75). These are truly special wines with savory notes of the forest floor.

Over the Petaluma Gap, in the Sonoma AVA, I found another 
promising upstart, Kimberly Pfendler, who, with winemaker Greg Bjornstad, produces small case lots of pinot noir ($45) and chardonnay ($38). Her Pfendler Unfiltered chardonnay had lovely notes of lychee 
and honeysuckle. Her pinot noir, meanwhile, was layered with bright fruit, 
redolent of pomegranate, quince and clove.

I returned to the flatlands for last sips of Napa Valley floor terroir, 
tasting the “Rutherford dust” in the Cabernet Sauvignon ’08 (cassis, nutmeg, cocoa and clove, with a long dusty finish) from the legendary Pine Ridge Vineyards. I merely scratched the surface on great wine from the area, and resolved to come back soon to further explore America’s original wine region.