To-Kalon at Twilight – MACDONALD Magic
Imagine owning a part of the most historic vineyard in the country. Imagine constantly being approached with generous offers to buy your land. Imagine growing grapes next to prominent, cult wine producers. What choices would you make? This is a story of the MacDonald brothers. It’s a story of perseverance, dedication, and a deep-seated set of beliefs that charted a course to greatness.
MACDONALD Vineyards‘ first wine release was launched without fanfare in 2010. Yet, for wine enthusiasts such as myself, it was a thunderous affair. The wine had my full attention from the first sip. I distinctly remember tasting it at an Oakville event. It knocked me off my feet with its powerful palatal presence. A boxer’s fist in a velvet glove, it left a lasting impression. I went from not knowing anything about the brand to wanting to know every single detail. I finally got my chance when brothers Alex and Graeme MacDonald kindly invited me for a private tasting.
I have driven past Oakville on Hwy 29 hundreds of times. Little did I know the treasure that I passed by until I took a left turn, drove along a picturesque field of blooming wild mustard, past the Carmelite Monastery and found myself on a doorstep of a modest ranch style home with an enticing porch swing, being enthusiastically greeted by a friendly pooch named Honey Bee.
Graeme and Alex MacDonald’s story is both powerful and simple. Born into a family of a third generation growers, they ventured into other wine and non-wine related occupations only to return to their family roots of nurturing their slice of vineyard royalty, the celebrated To-Kalon vineyard.
To-Kalon is one of the oldest and most notable vineyards in California. It’s an equivalent of Premier Cru in Bordeaux, and commands top prices for its fruit ($20,000/ton.) The vineyard has supplied fruit for world-class wines since the nineteenth century. Standing in the vineyard at twilight, one does not get the sense of the present, modern-day Napa Valley. It’s a throwback in time, a bygone era which emanates enchantment. The gnarly, grotesque, visually stunning vines touch your heart and draw you in.
Alex and Graeme grew up in Mill Valley, California and visited their great grandparent’s Oakville property on weekends. The home that I met them at was constructed by their grandfather, Allen Horton. Their grandmother, Gabrielle, was a major influence on the brothers’ decision to enter the wine business. They both readily credit grandma’s passionate love for the vineyard as their ongoing inspiration.
The other major contributor to the brother’s minds and hearts was Robert Mondavi, who was a close family friend and mentor. In 1954, while he was still at Charles Krug he paid a visit to the Hortons, who have just acquired the land, and offered a hand in teaching them how to cultivate and harvest grapes. The fruit has been going into Mondavi Reserve program ever since.
As a young adult, Graeme moved to Napa and joined UC Davis’ enology program. His post-graduate projects included Opus One and Colgin. He counts John Kongsgaard among his early mentors. Kick starting his own winemaking project, Kongsgaard, whose son Alex was one of Graeme’s best friends, had offered MacDonald the use of his cellar to make the wine.
The closely knit Napa wine community produces mentoring opportunities that are worth their weight in gold. With Kongsgaard’s urging, Graeme went on to train under Abe Schoener, one of the most unorthodox winemakers of our time, whose brand, the Scholium Project, has been making waves since inception. All along the way, the family vineyard loomed in Graeme’s mind.
Meanwhile, Alex, equipped with a law degree from U.C. Berkeley, yearned for a wine industry career. He began working at Mondavi’s tasting room, eventually taking on numerous wine related jobs, from production to marketing.
The brothers joined forces and decided to take over the farming, management and production of the family vineyard. This momentous decision marked a new chapter in the legacy of To-Kalon. The fruit, that had been sold for nearly sixty years to the venerable Mondavi winery, was now going to be vinified by the brothers as a stand alone wine as well. They vowed to farm and harvest the old fashioned way. Old-school methodology was to guide their path.
From annually changing the shoot length, to growing cover crops, to tilling based on individual row’s soils, the MacDonald’s are as involved as it gets. Night harvests, no sleep and a limited social life makes for the “glamorous” life of a vintner. The brothers are determined to produce a wine that is all about the site’s origin and strive to tell the tale of their vineyard in as an authentic voice as possible. Coaxing the ultimate spectrum of the flavors from the vineyard is a perpetual quest. Highlighting the elegance and the site’s natural minerality is a constant learning process. For instance, through experimentation, the brothers discovered that extended maceration works well for their fruit. Vines infuse energy into the seeds, pulp, and skins, so when the grapes sit on skins longer, they release more concentrated juice.
Graeme MacDonald started making tiny amounts of wine in 2004 for his personal use. The first official vintage was half a barrel in 2008, going up to a full barrel in 2009. The first commercial release was a hundred cases 2010 vintage with subsequent production rising to a hundred and forty-three by 2012. Graeme feels that, due to the site’s former role as a cherry orchard, there is a strong cherry (I’d say cherry cola) flavor component to the wines.
When we sat down to sample the soon to be released, 2012, I felt giddy with excitement. The sheer purity of the wine gave me chills. It was all there; the majestic vineyard, decades of careful tending, the generational legacy, and the reflected light of Grandma’s smiling eyes. Most importantly, the wine mirrored the love of the land that I observed in Graeme and Alex.
The wine didn’t feel “labored over,” it tasted as if it just magically, effortlessly, seamlessly came together. It was a complete, compelling, complex and deeply authentic dollop of grape happiness. I had to force myself to put the glass down. I was stunned by the aromas of this sensuous, profoundly fulfilling elixir. Letting go was not an option as long as a single drop of liquid lusciousness remained…
On my way back to reality; I had a thought. What if we all chose authenticity instead of compromise? What if instead of looking at other people’s success, we focused our own? What if we never chose an easy way out; and instead pursued excellence each and every moment? What would that look, feel and taste like?
I imagine it would be redolent of MACDONALD Cabernet.
Their minuscule production is sold via mailing list. The wine often sells out in a matter of hours. Don’t join their list because they are the next Napa cult producer. Join because you will drink better, and more meaningfully that you ever thought possible. Join to sip some Napa history.