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The true believers

A new generation of Napa vintners pursues the holy grail of cult Cabernets.

June 22, 2005|Corie Brown | Times Staff Writer

Napa, Calif. — Muck and mud cover the floor of the doughnut-shaped cave under construction below Jayson Woodbridge's Napa Valley home, the freshly carved walls still weeping groundwater. Near the entrance, Woodbridge plans to install a winery to make his Hundred Acre Cabernet Sauvignon. Wine barrels will line the back walls.

And to ensure that conditions below ground are in sync with the weather outside -- a key, he believes, to balanced wine and happy workers -- Woodbridge is installing an air-circulation system that can be cranked up to the equivalent of hurricane force winds.

A little extreme? Not if you are intent on producing one of the highly sought-after Napa Valley boutique wines known as cult Cabs.

Spending fortunes on madcap innovations in hopes of realizing infinitesimal flavor enhancements has become routine, as a rush of ambitious winemakers enters the race to produce a new generation of top-flight Napa Valley wines. Meticulously hand-pruning closely planted vines, tenderly hand-sorting grapes -- not once but twice -- and building elaborately engineered multimillion-dollar wineries are now the rule.

The first generation of cult Cabs (some of which are 100% Cabernet Sauvignon and some of which are Cabernet-based Bordeaux-style blends) started out as an elite club of limited production, highly extracted wines built to deliver powerful flavors. Wines such as Screaming Eagle, Colgin Cellars, Harlan Estate, Bryant Family and a handful of others were overnight successes in the 1990s, dazzling critics and quickly becoming an obsession among well-heeled wine collectors. They were sold almost exclusively through tightly controlled mailing lists.

It's been 10 years, and thousands of wine collectors still line up for a slot on the waiting lists, hoping for the opportunity to fork over $200 or more to buy the wines directly from the vintner. Impatient? The wines can be bought at auction -- for two to six times the mailing list price or more. Or ordered at restaurants such as Patina, Spago and Valentino, where a 2001 Screaming Eagle fetches $2,900 (which is a bargain, because at Melisse it's $3,200). Only the extremely wealthy can afford these wines, and many collectors never pop the cork, preferring the bragging rights of owning to drinking.

Growing demand

With the recent Supreme Court decision striking down certain state laws prohibiting direct shipments from California wineries to consumers in several states including New York, along with an overall explosion in demand for high-end wines, the cult Cabs are expected to become even harder to find, and much more expensive. The number of winemakers attempting to make these wines is exploding.

The idiosyncratic and fiercely independent producers of cult Cabs are the American wine industry's leading innovators as well as the industry's most profitable winemakers, according to wine consultant Vic Motto. "On every front, they set the tone for everyone else," he says.

The challenge is to take winemaking even further, says Woodbridge, a former oil and gas industry investment banker from Vancouver, Canada. Like most of the new arrivals, he came to Napa with the money to do things exactly the way he wants.

While throughout the valley, workers hoist overflowing bins of grapes into open-bed trucks, Woodbridge works alongside his harvest crews to make sure grapes are gently placed in shallow ventilated boxes, one layer of grape bunches per box, "so nothing gets crushed," he says. The boxes are whisked into refrigerated trucks where they are stored at just above freezing temperatures until they get to the winery. Sorted twice, grape by grape, before going into the fermenter, "my grapes look like caviar," says Woodbridge.

Although his state-of-the-art oak fermentation tanks are designed to last 10 years, Woodbridge uses them for only two vintages. "I think it makes better wine to do it this way," he says. With no formal training as an oenologist, Woodbridge shares the title of co-winemaker with Phillip Melka, who has worked at Chateau Haut-Brion and Chateau Petrus before coming to Dominus in Napa.

Woodbridge is shopping for a forest in France so that he can control the wood used to make his oak barrels from sapling to cooperage. "It's not extreme," he says. "There are just a few of us who will go the distance."

Woodbridge has a $175 price tag on his 2002 Hundred Acre -- his third vintage.

Not everyone comes to Napa with such deep pockets, yet they all know they have to push the envelope. Paul Frank, a marketing executive in Los Angeles' jewelry industry for 35 years, and his wife, Suzie, sold their home in Encino to try their hands at making a cult Cab.

So how does someone like Woodbridge or the Franks go about creating a cult Cab? First, you need the right vineyards.

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