Top 10 Oakville AVA Wineries
Red Hot Soil with Soul
I was recently certified as a “California Wine Appellation Specialist.” It meant a lot to me, since I have spent the last dozen years traversing California’s wine regions. It is a wonderful culmination of a long, and deeply fulfilling journey of girl and the grape.
This series is dedicated to my beloved California wine countries.
Fittingly, one must start with the Rolls Royce of appellations. It’s California’s most prestigious viticulture area, with plantable land selling for upwards of a million dollars per acre.
Located in the center of Napa Valley, the Oakville AVA is two miles wide, snuggled between the Vaca and Mayacamas Mountains. It hosts an unusual concentration of Napa’s cult producers of Cabernet Sauvignon. Known for its famed “red dirt” and diverse soils, near perfect climate, an intense commitment to excellence on the part of growers, vintners, viticulturists and winemakers, it has a long-standing reputation for producing world-class wines. Although Cabernet Sauvignon is the most famous, and by far, the most widely planted, other notable varieties are Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Zinfandel, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.
It’s difficult to choose the top ten producers from the AVA’s long list of prestigious wineries. Having tasted virtually every wine produced form this area, some on multiple occasions, I am convinced that these brands represent the pinnacle of California winemaking.
Sourced from tiny, hillside parcels ranging from 7 to 11 acres, Cabernet Sauvignon-based Bond blends are a poster child for diversity of Napa Valley’s wildly varied terroirs. Some offerings are broody and, a little backward, yet intense and qualitatively off the charts! Think aging potential galore.
The “Behind every great man there is a great woman” aphorism is especially true in this case. Originally from Japan, where her ancestors made Sake, Naoko and her husband Gustav started the winery in 1982. Since Gustav’s untimely death, Naoko has continued the legacy. Andy Ericsson, the latest in a string of wine making superstars, along with Michel Rolland’s consulting prowess, continues the tradition of producing stellar, highly acclaimed wines.
I first met Tom Garrett, one of the proprietors of Detert Family Vineyards, at Revana Vineyards, where he made wine alongside Heidi Barrett. He left to make his own brand, focusing on estate grown Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. Gently pressed, this pure gem boasts intensely floral aromas, richness and concentration with wonderful lush fruit core framed by velvety tannins. I believe that they produce the finest Cab Franc in the Valley that is decidedly age-worthy.
A family affair spearheaded by Kristine Ashe, this brand (crafted by Philippe Melka) beckons with intense, assertive minerality and exquisite nuance. Sweet fruit and seductive floral aromatics dance in unison in this seductive, silky, yet powerful wine. Also noteworthy is their Sauvignon Blanc, crafted in white Bordeaux style, quite sublime.
Futo Estate is comprised of five vineyards in the western hills of the Oakville AVA. It is planted predominantly to Cabernet Sauvignon as well as a few acres of Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot. Founded in 2002, the vineyards are managed by David Abreu, with Jason Exposto making wines there since 2010 (Mark Aubert was the winemaker from 2002-2010) The Cabernet-based blends are perennially wines of distinction. They exhibit complexity, laser-like focus and tons of varietal character.
A namesake of developer Bill Harlan who set out to produce the best Bordeaux blend from California. He achieved just that. Intense, structurally sound and exquisitely hedonistic, it is the wine for the ages…or a lifetime.
Heard of To Kalon Vineyard? Well the Macdonald family owned a 15-acre parcel in Oakville for 60 years, with plantings as early as 1954. Their cousins, the Deterts, have 17 acres of Cabernet Franc right next door. Robert Mondavi was no stranger in their home and a major purchaser of the fruit which went into his Reserve program. The MacDonald Vineyards brand debuted in 2010 and was an instant hit. Farmed organically, this well-endowed wine is ripe without being macerated. It is composed of deep, compelling, timeless flavors, along with huge, yet well integrated tannins.
The somewhat overlooked, Paradigm Winery, is known for Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. It was purchased by Ren and Marilyn Harris in 1976. Heidi Barrett has been winemaker at Paradigm since its first vintage in 1991. It is an extraordinary vineyard site that has been farmed impeccably for years: minimal intervention techniques equal brilliant wine that is modestly priced.
Leslie Rudd, owner of Dean and Deluca and 209 Distillery, purchased 55 acres of land in 1996. The vineyard is planted to Bordeaux varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, and Petit Verdot which are fermented separately, prior to blending. David Abreu, the renowned vineyard manager, is in constant collaboration with the winemaker, Frederick Ammons. Together, they maximize every single vineyard block’s potential.
The most expensive California wine in both the primary and secondary marketplace, this wine has earned the honors. With 500 case production, a $750 release price and a 10 year wait list, very few mortals get to taste this elusive bird. Is it worth it? I say a resounding “Yes!” The monumental effort and expense that goes into the production of this wine is outstanding.
An “insiders” tip:
The acclaimed Peter Michael winery is releasing their first Oakville wine this fall called “Au Paradis” or “In Heaven.” From everything I know of the brand, I expect this release to be phenomenal. Comprised of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, it will be a must-try for any serious wine lover.
If you haven’t had a chance to sample any of these wines, the 2012 vintage is a perfect opportunity to change that. Many are still releasing their 2011, a relatively challenging vintage. However, 2012 should be available relatively soon. 2012 was a stunning vintage in California (and by an odd coincidence in Oregon). It was a year when the toughest winemaking challenge was to get out of the way and let the wine practically make itself. If you love great reds, I highly recommend that you go after some, or all of these jewels with gusto. Your palate will thank you.