December 18, 2017
Our Conn Valley Ranch is rectangular, with two longer sides running north and south. The southern boundary borders Conn Creek, and is about 400 feet in elevation. As the property extends north, it rises in elevation, reaching almost 1000 feet at the northern boundary. The slope of course faces due south, so it catches the entire arc of the sun, from daybreak to nightfall. Our home is situated in the middle of the parcel, surrounded by vines. The soil in the south is deep gravel with some sandstone, clay and loam. As we go north approaching the higher elevation blocks, the soil becomes increasingly steep and rocky, due to the large blocks of Basalt, which is compacted volcanic ash and lava.
When David Abreu joined us as viticulturalist in 1992, he was immediately drawn to the highest elevation parcel which we called ‘The Knob’ because of its immediately apparent prominence and southern exposure. Most importantly, it would be well-drained which is especially important to Cabernet Sauvignon. After digging a few test holes, Abreu reported that the area was ideal for Cabernet Sauvignon, and would probably be the source of grapes that would become the ‘soul’ of our vineyard. I mentioned his observation to my French-speaking office manager, and she was quick to point out that the French word for ‘Soul’ was ‘ÂME’, a word that contained the first name initial of each of our three children – Alexandra, Michael and Elizabeth. We named the parcel the ÂME Vineyard.
Five years later, vines had been planted, and an extensive drain tile layout had been engineered and built. Terraces were cut into the steep slope, and berms were developed to direct the flow of water runoff to avoid any erosion. We selected two low-yield, drought-resistant rootstocks – 420A and 3309 – but instead of using nursery planting stock for the subsequent field budding, we took Abreu’s advice and used budwood he had obtained from the old John Daniels Block at Inglenook Winery. According to locals, these vines were originally planted in the early 1940’s by Daniels – then the owner of Inglenook Winery – using plant material furnished to him as a gift from the Ginestet Family who at the time were the owners of Ch. Margaux in Bordeaux. Planting the entire ÂME Block to a source of uncertified budwood seemed like a high risk at the time, but I’d had several years of encouragement from a number of veteran French winemakers with whom I worked at Kermit Lynch. All of them were enthusiastic supporters of ‘Heirloom’ budwood sources, and they suggested we avoid heat-treated ‘clones’ – those furnished by local nurseries – and seek out a field selection source of Cabernet Sauvignon. Almost as if on cue, Abreu furnished us with one, and it happened to be a source of incredible pedigrée.
We used a tight spacing on this steep hillside parcel – three feet between vines and six feet between rows – and wired the stakes for vertical trellis pruning, after laying out bi-lateral cordons. The morning sun now strikes the plants on the eastern end, and then shines on the southern face of each vine during the entire growing season. The crop is low, the fruit ripens evenly and the 2015 harvest was the 20th anniversary of the vineyard. While it regrettably yielded the smallest crop in our history, the 2015 vintage for Cabernet Sauvignon was loaded with high spots. We harvested a mere 6.2 tons from the entire three acre parcel we call ÂME, but the crop was evenly ripe, with small, intensely flavored grapes, each with a near-perfect acid and sugar balance. The hand picking lasted barely four hours, so the grapes were delivered to the winery while they were still cool from the early morning chill. The fruit was de-stemmed, then pumped to a 2000-gallon stainless-steel, jacketed tank. After three days of cold holding, the cooling jacket was turned off and the natural yeast trapped on the surface of the grape skins went to work. We typically allow three weeks for the fermentation of these grapes, then cover the top of the tank with dry ice to prevent oxidation, and let the wine macerate with the skins for another 10 days. The tank was then drained and pressed, and the new wine was racked to 60-gallon French oak barrels, 25% of them new.
We use a combination of barrel types and toast levels for all cooperage, with the idea that doing so increases the complexity of the wine. We aged the 2015 ÂME for 18 months in these barrels, then bottled it — unfined and unfiltered — in June 2017. The color is dark purple, and the aroma is saturated with a combination of black fruit, cassis and a faint touch of tobacco leaf. An important characteristic of our Cabernet Sauvignon based wines is the soft texture that we believe is due to the long maceration, a step that allows more of the large, slightly bitter tannin to drop out.
Here is a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon for the ages. You should ensure that you too have enough set aside to watch it develop over time.