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Mt Veeder

Considering Changes at Mayacamas

Mayacamas WIneryMayacamas Winery, June 2014

In 2013, Charles and Ali Banks, in partnership with Jay and Joey Schottenstein, purchased Mayacamas Vineyards and Winery from Bob Travers, the man who had shepherded the wines since the late 1960s. Though vine growing had been established on the Mt Veeder site in the late 1800s, Travers work there brought the label to iconic status, a representative of pioneering Napa Valley, and the rustic purity possible in a wine region that had become known for blousy red wines.

After the purchase of Mayacamas was announced, worry immediately whispered through the wine community. Would we lose Mayacamas? But any complete change in ownership ushers in a new era for a winery — new ownership, new Mayacamas. Now that the site has been sold and a year been given to the new team, the question is to what degree will it alter the icon?

Travers’s wines of the site, from 1968 to 2012, offer a signature of rustic elegance, with juiciness and sense of concentration that demands time in bottle. In Cabernet, for example, five years before release was standard, aging it three years in neutral wood, two in bottle.

The distance between vintage and release sheds light on the meaning of the recent change. We won’t see Travers’s last vintage, 2012, for another three years. Nor will we be offered the new winemaker, Andy Erickson’s first, 2013, until 2018. There is no way to know, then, what the change from Travers to the new team will taste like for at least four years. In reality, it will be more than a decade before a multi-vintage picture starts to form of the new Mayacamas.

There is already, however, a lot that can be known. Interviews with Banks, and Erickson, when compared to the actual updates already put into the winery, and vineyards shed light on where we can glimpse the new Mayacamas.

The Move from Travers to Banks, Erickson, and Favia

Looking South from the top of Mayacamasfrom the top of Mayacamas looking due South into Carneros and Hudson Vineyard below, June 2014

The change in ownership struck a painful note for many lovers of the site, who have been attached to the distinctively mountain expression of Mayacamas. As recently as four years ago, Travers’s sons and extended family involvement in the winery gave wine lovers confidence the style would carry forward with a sense of continuity. With the realization the site would not remain in family ownership, the break in continuity appeared.

The wine community has carried a persistent skepticism of the new team leading the site, and what it means for the long-term style of the wines. Banks earlier partnership in the cult Napa Cabernet, Screaming Eagle, is often raised as illustration of the concern. As Eric Asimov pointed out in his 2013 look at the change in ownership, Screaming Eagle is “the cult cabernet that seems in so many ways the antithesis of Mayacamas.

Banks’s involvement in Screaming Eagle, however, might prove a red herring. His ownership there, after all, was comparatively early in his move into wine investments. Its easy to imagine a person new to the wine world assuming more expensive wines must be better, whether for their assumed quality or cachet. Banks himself describes it as a change in his knowledge as well as his palate. His investment practices prove consistent with the statement as what he’s partnered in since are labels known for a lighter, more affordable style — Sandhi, Wind Gap, and Qupe, as lead examples from California.

The Screaming Eagle worries though seem more justifiable in Banks’s choice for leadership in the new Mayacamas wine team. With Banks choosing Andy Erickson and Annie Favia as directors of the winery, and vineyard respectively, the skepticism grew stronger, thanks largely to the seeming disjunct in style between their winegrowing history and that of Travers.

Banks has repeatedly stated in interviews that he respects Travers’s work at Mayacamas, and intends to maintain its style. Erickson’s and Favia’s success, however, has come through production of wines known as both riper, and more interested in new oak than Mayacamas has ever been.

For a person interested in maintaining the Mayacamas style, selection of a management team known for wines that run counter to the mountain winery’s, then, seems a contradiction. Why not hire a winemaker known for mountain fruit? Looking at Banks’s history as an investor might give insight into the choice.

In a 2013 interview with Alder Yarrow, Banks highlights the importance of who he works with over simply choosing based on style. “[W]hat I’m doing now in the wine world is influenced by the people I want to be in business with and like working with.” Banks said. “I like these people, what they’re doing, and their vision.” From that perspective, Banks’s choice of a winemaker starts to find a context. Banks and Erickson have a long-standing history of working well together.

For many, though, the concern remains. As said, Erickson’s vision has always coincided with the execution of a different style than that known for Mayacamas. Asked about the issue, Banks defends against this worry. To Yarrow he said, “That’s what Andy’s done [before] but that’s not what he’s about. We are absolutely not going to change the style of the wines.”

Banks, and Erickson have both given numerous interviews discussing their intentions for the site. Interviews can give insight into intention, but don’t always show how ideas will be executed, whether because of the relevance of a larger context, or change in need. This week, Fred Swan and I were able to visit Mayacamas, tasting the 2013 Cabernet from barrel with Andy Erickson, and touring the site as it looks now with Estate Director, Jimmie Hayes. With that in mind, a look at the winery today, the teams views of Mayacamas wine, and the vineyards themselves can shed light on what is changing at Mayacamas.

A Look at the Winery

Andy Erickson checking the progress on Mayacamas winesAndy Erickson checking the progress of 2011-2013 vintages of Mayacamas, June 2014

Without doubt Mayacamas is a special and moving site. The basic construction of the 1880s winery has remained, with fermentation occurring in open top cinder-block fermenters, and aging starting in large decades-old wood casks, before then moving into smaller older barrels. At the back of the winery a small cave was dug decades ago until it struck a stream. After rains, the winery floor now flows with water.

Erickson himself admits, its a winery style that pushes against what he’s used to. In 2013 when it came time to move wine into the 70-year old wooden casks, he says, he had to call Travers to get reassurance the wood would really hold. “Travers said, Andy, you just have to go for it.” Erickson laughs.

In 2013, Erickson tested aging some wine from the site in new wood, and discovered the practice simply didn’t work at Mayacamas. In interviews, Travers account of the role of new oak in his wines moved between 2% and 10%. It wasn’t an approach he relied on. New wood appeared as it was needed. In Erickson’s experiment, the fruit hated new barrels. The team cancelled their 2014 order for new barrels, and plan to bring them in only as replacements are needed.

Within the fermentation room, Travers had rigged a high-maintenance cooling system. During harvest, ice had to be brought daily to the winery, then held in a handmade tank at the side of the room. Tubes with water cooled by the ice then ran from the tank to each of the fermenters to act as temperature modifier. The practice was an economical choice for Travers, as well as one likely kept by habit. In an interview for the June 2014 issue of Wine & Spirits by David Darlington, Travers explained. “I didn’t even think about modernizing. It would have been very expensive, and I thought what we were doing was satisfactory.” Before the 2013 harvest Erickson had internal cooling installed in each of the fermenters. It’s an update that seems reasonable from the perspective of both work load and ease.

Bottling for Travers was another technological hold over. It occurred over several months. As Banks explains, bottling now will occur over hours. Such a change, again, seems reasonable. Bottle variation proves a real concern when bottling occurs over such an extended time. The wine going into glass at the start of the cycle simply isn’t the same as the wine at the end. Fine tuning bottling time, then, means getting a handle on a detail that can help capture quality at Mayacamas.

The Pillars of Mayacamas Style

Jimmie Hayestouring Mayacamas with Jimmie Hayes, June 2014

The new team has spent extensive time discussing the hallmarks of Mayacamas style in an attempt to hone in on their role carrying it forward. “We’ve had a lot of big conversations about what it means to keep the style here, and what can change or not,” Hayes says.

As Hayes explains, these discussions led them to identifying pillars of Mayacamas style that prove so definitive as to not be changed. “We decided there are some pillars to the style you have to keep to keep from changing it.” He names some of them. “Short macerations for the reds is an example, and you don’t start picking later. The age-ability is another one.”

Honing in on these mainstays, the team can then also test through the details to see what can be adjusted for the sake of improving quality. As Erickson discovered, incorporating new wood was not a reasonable detail to change. But shortening bottling time is an easy way to eliminate bottle variation, for example. In reality, issues like early oxidation on whites, and a bit of funk on reds, show up on some vintages of Mayacamas. Hayes points out that is the sort of thing that can be improved upon. “That slight funk that shows up in some vintages we can tend to. We can clean it up by watching the details.” He says.

Looking at the tools present in the winery, it’s clear many of Travers’s choices came from simple pragmatism, rather than a pre-conceived romantic ideal of wine. If Travers needed fermentation space, he wasn’t going to be able to let the wines soak. At the same time, he also kept extensive notebooks, which he then gave to the new team. Picking around 23-24 brix proved consistent through the years.

Part of people’s worry in Erickson acting as winemaker rests in his consistent history of making riper wines rather than the ultra juicy, higher acid style of Mayacamas. Arriving at the site, Erickson admits he was skeptical of what he thought of as earlier picking numbers. He picked fruit from the Valley floor at higher brix levels. Through the extensive team conversations, however, as well as talks with Travers, Erickson realized he had to trust the notebooks, and pick according to site history. At Pebble Beach Food & Wine in April 2014, Erickson said the experience with Mt Veeder fruit has made him rethink some of his ideas on ripeness. He’s picking Mayacamas fruit consistent with Mayacamas history. Tasting the 2013 Cabernet, it carries all the mountain minerality and structure of a classic Mayacamas.

The Relationship of Vineyard to Winery

The remaining parcels, Merlot and Cabernetlooking from the top of Golden Hill towards blocks Fletch and Coyote, which grow Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon

A view of Mayacamas Vineyards today brings the greatest shock of change. In interviews over the last year, Banks has repeated the point that they will replant slowly. In an article by Elin McCoy in July 2014 for Bloomberg, for example, Banks explained, “We’ll need to spend millions slowly replanting. It’s not a crazy redo.

It’s also been clear all along such replanting would be necessary. In her tour of the vineyards, McCoy mentions the sight of dying vines around the property. The Mayacamas plantings averaged in age between 30 to 60 years old, a condition uncommon for Cabernet Sauvignon in particular. In addition, many of the blocks were planted on AXR rootstock, which proved vulnerable to phylloxera. The reduction of productivity found in older vines, then, was in many cases exacerbated by disease. As Hayes explained, the worst of the blocks on the site gave only 1/4-Ton per acre.

Travers himself admitted that the average volume on Mayacamas as a whole was less than 1-Ton per acre. At the same time, it was a reality he didn’t seem to have issue with. In a 2006 interview with Alan Goldfarb for AppellationAmerica.com, Travers described his affection for the reduced production. “There’s no question that the higher you get on the mountain, the rockier, the shallower, and the less fertile the soils become. We average less than a ton per acre. That’s why I’m up here. That’s why I picked this spot.

As Travers continues, he emphasizes that the quality and condition of the vineyard is what gave Mayacamas its style of wine. “Producers realize that if they’ve got a good vineyard, the vineyard can do all the talking. If you don’t do too many winery techniques, you can let the grapes be the master. These [winery] techniques reduce the vineyard effect.” Travers’s reticence in updating the winery, then, begins to make sense. For Travers, the vineyards themselves appear to be a hallmark of Mayacamas style. He valued what he had in the vines.

It’s also simply expensive to invest in replanting when your focus is on a family operation of a winery where what you’re already doing seems to work. For a new owner, however, to purchase a site and maintain less than 1-Ton per acre seems unreasonable.

As Favia explained to Jon Bonné in an article looking at the change of hands last summer, the replants at Mayacamas were necessary but a long-term process. After vines are pulled, the ground is left to rest to allow phylloxera to die out. Once the replants are initiated, at such high elevation vines take closer to five years to establish. The team’s plan is to follow Travers’s previous example. They’ll use irrigation to establish vines in the first five years, then dry farm. (They’ve also moved entirely to organic farming.) After vines are established, it’s another decade before plants are more adjusted to their site. In the meantime, clusters offer something like the distinctively fruit focused character of young vines.

It’s shocking, then, to discover that the slow replant Banks promised actually amounts to all but two blocks of Mayacamas being pulled. Viewing the site Monday, the replanting project amounts to what looks like between 80% and 85% of the vines at Mayacamas removed. Do older vines not prove to be a pillar of style? One Merlot, and one Cabernet block at the far Western side of the property remain. (At the time of this posting, I do not yet have confirmation on the acreage of the two remaining blocks.) The empty blocks will rest this year. Replantings will begin in 2015, and continue into 2017. Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Noir will not be reestablished on the site.

Considering the level of disease, and age of the vines, perhaps it was necessary, or easier, to remove all of the vine issues together, rather than block by block. The situation still means it will be decades before Mayacamas returns to being predominately estate fruit.

Looking at the history of Mayacamas, Travers relied heavily on sourced fruit from the beginning, and throughout his tenure. The previous Mayacamas vineyards were about 50% Chardonnay, with the remainder split between Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc (for blending), Merlot, Pinot Noir, and Sauvignon Blanc. The site’s famous Cabernet Sauvignon, then, has always relied on a large portion of sourced fruit. Keeping with Travers’s seeming pragmatism, these sources varied. He did not always rely solely on Mt Veeder either. The new team has maintained Travers’s long-term Mt. Veeder fruit contracts, and added two more. In 2014, all of the fruit for Mayacamas will come from Mt Veeder.

***

Thank you to Jimmie Hayes, and Andy Erickson.

Thank you to Fred Swan.

***

To read more on Mayacamas (All articles in order by publication date):

* For a glimpse into Bob Travers, check out these older articles.

An interview with Alan Goldfarb, 2006: http://wine.appellationamerica.com/wine-review/272/Mayacamas-Vineyards-Interview.html

A visit from Evan Dawson: http://www.drvino.com/2010/01/27/visiting-mayacamas-vineyards-napa-valley/

Eric Asimov considering old school Napa Cabs: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/20/dining/20pour.html?_r=1&adxnnl=1&pagewanted=all&adxnnlx=1404328112-sjc6VC03CfJ6P6TsMtsljQ

* For a look at the new ownership:

Alder Yarrow talks with Charles Banks: http://www.vinography.com/archives/2013/05/charles_banks_the_new_man_behi.html

Elin McCoy visits Mayacamas: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-07-15/private-equity-wake-up-kiss-for-mayacamas-elin-mccoy.html

Eric Asimov talks with Banks and Erickson: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/07/dining/calming-words-from-a-vineyards-unlikely-new-owner.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Jon Bonné looks at the change, including viticulture with Favia: http://www.sfgate.com/wine/thirst/article/An-improbable-guardian-takes-over-at-Mayacamas-4703491.php#page-1

David Darlington considers Old Napa turned New Napa: http://wineandspiritsmagazine.com/pages/2014/0514/0514_oldnapa.html

Copyright 2014 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com

4

Five Decades of Mayacamas, PBFW

Mayacamas Panel, PBFW

from left: Kim Beto, Andy Erickson, Antonio Galloni, D’Lynn Proctor, Brian McClintic

At Pebble Beach Food & Wine, Antonio Galloni moderated a panel celebration of Bob Travers’s tenure at Mayacamas presenting a five decade vertical of the famed Cabernet beginning with Travers first vintage on the estate, 1968, and closing with his last, 2012.

New Mayacamas winemaker, Andy Erickson, included Travers’s own notes on the vintages tasted, and discussed the history of the property along with the recent shift in ownership. To comment on the individual wines presented through the panel were also Kim Beto, D’Lynn Proctor, and Brian McClintic. From the audience, Joel Peterson, winemaker of Ravenswood, also offered valuable insight to the discussion.

At the end of April 2013, it was announced that Charles and Ali Banks had purchased the property through their investment group, Terroir Capital. The purchase arrived after years of discussion over the possibility between Banks and Travers. Banks’s long term respect for the property, and Travers’s work there drew Banks’s interest in the purchase.

Since the change in ownership, Erickson has spent extensive time speaking with Travers, reading his notes, and studying previous vintages to smooth the change in winemaking.

In fielding questions from the audience, Erickson was pushed to consider the contrast in style between the winemaking he’s shown through other labels, such as his own Favia, and that historically housed at Mayacamas. It was clear from the tenor in the audience that there is trepidation over whether the new team can maintain Travers’s style of site expression. Most revealing of Erickson’s responses, he closed the panel by admitting his work with Mayacamas in 2013 has pushed him to rethink his previous understandings of ripeness. Mayacamas Cabernet picks at lower brix levels than other sites, and ages beautifully.

Attending the Mayacamas tasting and panel discussion was a genuine honor. Receiving a vertical that carved the complete arc of Travers’s tenure from first to final vintage at the site gave an extra sense of elegance and respectfulness to the experience. To say the wines are special is an understatement.

The Cabernet of Mayacamas, 1968 to 2012

Mayacamas Cabernet Vertical 1968-2012click on image to enlarge

Travers’s iterations of Mayacamas Cabernet give a beautifully organic sense of seamlessness. The vintages I’ve been lucky enough to taste celebrate sophisticated rusticity — the dustiness of mountain fruit with tobacco and earth components carried through sometimes rugged, while well-executed, tannin balanced by juicy length. Even the riper vintages aren’t afraid of earth components, refreshing green pepper accents, or tannin born of a view. They’re wines that come with a real sense of life in the bottle.

Joel Peterson commented on the Cabernets of Mayacamas pointing out that with their greater acidity, structural tannin, and rose/floral aromatic line they can readily be compared to Barolo, and perhaps even more appropriately than the stereotypical Napa Cabernet. He continued by noting that Mt Veeder, with its unique environment and expression, really needs to be considered on its own, rather than encapsulated simply as part of the Napa Valley.

In describing the winemaking, Erickson laughed, describing it as “wilderness winemaking.” Travers accomplished his purity of expression with decades old wooden vessels housed in an even older rock building, a road that was sometimes impassable, and very little electrical technology.

Tasting through the Vertical

The vertical began with 1968, Travers first vintage, and a wine made of 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. Though Traver’s notes expected that the wine “should age until the late 1980s” the wine was still drinking beautifully with energetic structural integrity, and beautiful mineral length. The wine had aged into a delicate flavor presentation with lovely floral aromatics and lift, well integrated with leather and earth components. Erickson shared with us that Travers’s notes stated “suggestion retail $4.50.” The 1968 vintage was primarily Mt Veeder Cabernet from the Mayacamas site, but included some fruit from the Alexander Valley.

The 1973 offered impressive structural integrity, and youthful strength. In a single word, this was a wine of purity. Aromatics of lavender and tobacco flower are joined by light cigar and rose petal, freshly opened green pepper and hints of jalapeno. The palate carries elegant juiciness with a focus on smooth tannic brawn.

The 1981 vintage offered the only wine that showed a sleeping phase, wanting time in bottle to show itself. Still, it carried recognizable kinship to its brethren giving lavender, cherry blossom, and light jalapeno aromatics rolling into an especially tannic focus on an earthy (though not fully showing) palate with a light menthol edge.

By the late 1980s, Travers was incorporating Cabernet Franc and Merlot into his Cabernet Sauvignon. The aromatics of the 1989 offered leather and light cigar accents coupled with creamy, delicate earthiness and light rose. Through the palate, the wine brought a vibrant, lifting red with silky, strong tannin, and a juicy crunch. This is a wine with lots of power that fills the palate giving a pert and vibrant lift.

With 1992, the wines began to shift from the fully integrated, while lively earth and leaf, flower and mineral elements of the first half of the tasting, into more apparent youthfulness of fruit still coupled with earth and flower accents. The red fruit focus of the 1992 married itself to the grounding elements of white truffle and oregano oil accented by evergreen carried through silken tannin, and a pleasing plush mouthfeel.

Beginning with light aromatics, the 1999 gave incredible juiciness on still such a young wine. The wine carried beautiful balance, long long lines, red fruit and redwood forest with less apparent flavor differentiation. The wine showed as less varied in that sense than earlier vintages but with the structural verve that will keep it developing well beyond Bob’s typical predictions.

With 2007 youthful red cherry perfume, red plum, and rose potpourri began to carry too the darker berry elements of young Cabernet. The vintage showed a beautiful purity of fruit expression on a body of fresh, juicy elegance and silken tannin. It’s a yummy, luscious wine with a bit riper fruit and a lot of structural focus.

The Mayacamas vertical was completed with a barrel sample of Travers’s last vintage, 2012. The dark berry focus of young Cabernet swirled through aromatics and palate here alongside fresh smashed cherries married to the lift of licorice blossom, redwood forest, and wet gravel on a body of plush tannin focus.

***

To read more on Mayacamas in the last year:

From Eric Asimov: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/07/dining/calming-words-from-a-vineyards-unlikely-new-owner.html?_r=0

From Jon Bonné: http://www.sfgate.com/wine/thirst/article/An-improbable-guardian-takes-over-at-Mayacamas-4703491.php

***

With enormous thanks to Bob Travers for his dedication to Mayacamas.

Thank you to Antonio Galloni, Andy Erickson, D’Lynn Proctor, Kim Beto, and Brian McClintic.

Thank you to Charles and Ali Banks.

Thank you to Sarah Logan.

***

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Visiting Lagier-Meredith: Driving to the top of Mt. Veeder

Carole and Stephen

Carole Meredith and Stephen Lagier at their home on top of Mt Veeder

It’s mid-December on a clouded day, the first of several visits to Lagier-Meredith Vineyards over a couple of months. At the top of Mt Veeder, the fog has shielded our view from the other side of the valley. We can still make out the general direction towards the house in which Robert Mondavi once lived, and the nearby (rather flat) peak of Mt Veeder itself, but the Bay, and mountains in every direction hide behind the cold weather. I’ve driven to the house of Stephen Lagier and Carole Meredith after getting the guts to write and ask for an interview a couple weeks before.

The story of Lagier-Meredith fascinates me for multiple reasons. The pair were among the very first to plant Syrah in Napa Valley at a time it was even more defined by Cabernet Sauvignon. When they purchased the land that would become their home and vineyard, Mt Veeder was not yet an appellation (the area still today not burgeoning with development as the creased and rolling tree covered mountain AVA makes too much growth difficult). Before realizing they had fruit good enough to sell wine from they were a two career couple.

Stephen Lagier made wine for Robert Mondavi, after first managing the company’s lab. But prior to that he’d also helped perform research at UC Davis on the chemical effects of vineyard practices before significant knowledge was to be had on the subject. Carole Meredith’s career at the same university focused on the genetic relationships between grape types, leading to the landmark discovery that Cabernet Sauvignon was the off-spring of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, information now almost taken for granted.

Talking with Lagier and Meredith

Lagier-Meredith art

art display outside the entrance to Lagier’s and Meredith’s home–Stephen made the frogs, Carole the telephone

Talking with the twosome proves both entertaining and insightful. The couple enjoy not only bragging about each other’s successes, but sharing in the fun of how they met.

In Fall 1980, both began work at UC Davis in the Viticulture and Oenology department. Lagier had done his undergraduate degree in Biochemistry and recognized most graduate students spent their study years broke, often also going into debt. Unwilling to follow suit, he started his Master’s degree in Winemaking (before the program shifted to a single Viticulture and Oenology Master’s degree) with a full-time job. Over five years, Lagier ran the research program for a professor doing chemical analysis of the effects of training vines on grape composition. At the same time, Lagier purchased his own home, then rented rooms out to other students to help with expenses.

The same Fall brought Meredith to the University as a Professor. She’d applied her PhD in Genetics in the private sector, until realizing she didn’t like having a daily boss. At the time Davis accepted Meredith’s application, she was actually a finalist in two different positions in plant genetics–lettuce and grapes. There had also been a third position in beans Meredith didn’t get. The time period marked the start of retirement for men that had returned from World War II, completed advanced science training, and then effectively reshaped American education. Meredith was hired as the start of a new generation of educators. With multiple plants up for research, the hiring committees negotiated to decide who would get which candidate, thus securing Meredith’s future in genetic research history.

Her beginning with the parentage of Cabernet was rooted in first developing the technology and toolkit to do so. She fostered the work of brilliant research students that helped solve how to apply insights from the use of DNA markers in human genetics to grape vines. But she also helped establish a multi-national genetics cooperative through which researchers from all over the world pooled their findings on those same DNA markers in grape vines. Doing so allowed an explosion in both identifying individual grapes genetic identity, and then afterwards the relationships between grape types.

Discussion of their UC Davis years quickly leads to the two of them smiling, telling me about how they met. Meredith was often working weekends to get ahead on some of the lab projects she had operating, and Lagier would be in his office having negotiated to switch his work day schedule so he could downhill ski during the week. Those days the mountain was quieter. He’d often come in showing signs of sun from the slopes, which gave the pair reason to talk. As Meredith explained, she wanted to have fun and go skiing too. So, Lagier invited her to join a group that often went downhilling together. Then, one outing, it turned out the two of them were the only ones able to go. “We had to spend the whole day together,” Meredith laughs. “I wanted to have fun, and Stephen is fun.”

Lagier smiles. “I crack Carole up everyday. I feel like it’s my job.”

Lagier-Meredith's young Mondeuse Vineyards

looking into the young Mondeuse vineyard at Lagier-Meredith

Lagier’s support of Meredith isn’t limited to his good humor, however. Meredith and I take at least an hour to talk through the work she accomplished in genetic relationships–how she helped find the parentage of Syrah (sire: Dureza, mother: Mondeuse Blanc; thus leading to Lagier-Meredith planting Mondeuse Noir, “Syrah’s crazy uncle,” as the couple call it), how she helped successfully find the original vine and homeland of America’s pride, Zinfandel (it’s the Croatian variety Crljenak Kaštelanski). But when Lagier comes back inside from clearing a tree that’s collapsed from a winter storm, he brings up an accomplishment Meredith hasn’t discussed yet. “Did she tell you about her paper in SCIENCE?”

“We were talking about ZInfandel.” Meredith responds. The Zinfandel discovery was significant for how it brought together people in the United States, in Italy (Primitivo is also of the same original grape vine), with researchers in Crotia. But also because the discovery that Zinfandel comes from the motherland of Croatia actually helped improve tourism to the region, showing that wines and their history from there could deserve respect for higher quality than previously expected internationally. The Zinfandel discovery also stands as significant, however, because it was Meredith’s final large project before retiring to focus on the Lagier-Meredith wine label.

The grape Zinfandel had long been suspected of having International origins. It’s a plant with visible characteristics unlike those native to North America, so it must have been brought in from elsewhere. But at the same time it’s wine history so shaped California it had become the adopted champion of a country’s pride. After completing the research that led to Zinfandel’s proper naming, Meredith had also reached the early cutoff for potential retirement. Ready to shift to their wine label, she stopped her commute from Mt Veeder to Davis, making Crjenak Kaštelanski her genetic’s career swan song, effectively leaving at the top of her genetics game.

Lagier agrees the Zinfandel discovery was significant, but it’s the paper in SCIENCE he wants to make sure I know before we finish our first interview. Meredith’s work on grape relationships led to the discovery that Pinot Noir and Goulaise Blanc together parent at least 16 grape varieties, including Chardonnay, Aligote, Gamay, and Melon. The conclusion was celebrated not only because of its scientific importance, but also because with such popular varieties considered, the discovery becomes relevant beyond the walls of science to other disciplines as well. Lagier looks at me directly and explains, “It was one of the proudest moments for me that my wife got a paper in that magazine. It’s like the Grand Slam of science. It brought tears to my eyes.” Doing a little bit of research, it appears Meredith is the only professor in the history of Davis’s Viticulture & Oenology program to have gotten a paper in the prestigious magazine.

The Beginning of a Wine Label

They make wine and olives

By Meredith’s retirement, Lagier was already working full-time on their label, having retired from Mondavi in 1999. His time at the company was significant, as he managed the Mondavi winery lab, established their first program to track and determine projected fruit availability from the vineyards, and then served as one of the Mondavi Coastal brand winemakers.

Though Lagier and Meredith had intended all along to plant vines on their hilltop, it took years before they realized they could turn that fruit into a bonded winery. Upon purchasing the property, it had to be thoroughly cleaned and cleared to rid the soils of Oak root fungus that would impact Vitis Vinifera. Once the seven years to accomplish that were up, the twosome placed their first vines in 1994. The year before, one of Meredith’s students, Jean-Louis Chave, the 15th, of Hermitage fame, had agreed the property would be perfect for planting Syrah as “Syrah loves a view.”

The grape was unheard of in Napa Valley at the time, with the pinnacles of the industry almost completely focused on the success of Cabernet Sauvignon. But the pair love Rhone wine and decided to plant what suited the slope and cooler climate of the site, as well as their palate interest. 1996 was their first press. By 1998 friends were commenting enthusiastically on the quality of wine, and the couple realized it was good enough they could consider selling it publicly. In 2000 they released it, inciting quick response that would herald them as one of the first labels in the region to showcase a marriage of French Aesthetic with California fruit.

I ask Lagier about this critical history of their wine, and if they’d intended to make wines that allude to the Northern Rhone. “There are hints of a Northern Rhone character in some of our vintages.” he responds. “To say more than that is just complete speculation.” He continues. “That was not our goal. Our goal was to reduce our influence on the wine, to capture the character of the fruit from here and get it into bottle. We’re just pleased this place makes this wine, and people enjoy it, which allows us to make a living. So pleased.” He pauses, then continues. “I do enjoy the hell out of the wine. Both of us feel incredibly blessed we found this land, and managed to pull this off.”

***
Thank you to Stephen Lagier and Carole Meredith for taking so much time to meet with me. I have plenty more moose meat whenever you’re ready.

***

To read more on Zinfandel, Carole’s work on its genetic history, and Lagier-Meredith’s foray into making it, read the recent article by Jon Bonné: http://www.sfgate.com/wine/thirst/article/History-underscores-Zinfandel-s-new-tack-4321826.php#page-4

Copyright 2013 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.

3

I am going to confess something. I’ve been trying to write this two post series on meeting Stephen Lagier and Carole Meredith for almost a month. There are some people I have such appreciation that the challenge becomes wondering what I could possibly say. Rather than stall any longer, I thought I’d post photos of my first visit with them, and keep working on the write up in the meantime. They really are both enjoyable, remarkable people.

***

Visiting Lagier Meredith, Mt Veeder

Looking through the fog into Napa Valley

The day Stephen and Carole initially met with me was foggy. Standing on the lower porch we are looking East here into Napa Valley. Highway 29 is below hidden in the fog.

Looking into Carneros

The Mt Veeder appelation is unique to the region. It is one of several Mountain appellations within the larger Napa Valley, but Mt Veeder sits the furthest south, overlapping Carneros. As a result, Mt Veeder is also the coolest AVA in the Napa Valley benefiting from the marine influence with fog and cool air moving Northward from San Pablo and San Francisco Bays.

While the other Mountain AVAs rely on more volcanic soil, Mt Veeder hosts primarily sedimentary, former seabed earth. The Lagier Meredith Vineyards grow from sandstone and shale, both of which fracture allowing roots to grow deep and more readily access water.

The Mondeuse portion of Lagier Meredith Vineyard

Carole’s work in grape genetics heralded an understanding of genetic relationships of vines. While she also helped establish worldwide lab partnerships in order to build a genetic map of grape types, her passion was in determining the parentage and relationship between different vines. The first such breakthrough established Cabernet Sauvignon as the child of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. Her success in this discovery led to heritage vineyards in France allowing her to use their vine collections to research further. She went on to establish the origins of Syrah, Chardonnay, Gamay, Aligote, Pinot Meunier, and Zinfandel, among others.

Partially in celebration of her work, the Lagier Meredith Vineyards grow Syrah (a good match for the cooler climate, elevation, shallow soils of Mt Veeder), Zinfandel, and Mondeuse (“the crazy uncle” of Syrah).

Stephen and Carole planted Syrah first. After having dinner at their home with Jean Louis Chave, the 15th., a former student of Carole’s, the couple mentioned they were considering planting Syrah on the site. Chave looked out into the Napa Valley and agreed, “Syrah loves a view.”

Carole had a cast metal telephone art phase

My favorite part of all this? Meeting the unique character of people. Carole had a cast metal telephone art phase. The handle lifts up. She also made a wall mount version.

Stephen had a ceramic frog art phase

The couple’s interests paralleled even before they met. Stephen had a ceramic frog art phase. This one with a cap and cigar, others with other accoutrement, and different postures.

The friendly kitty

the curious kitty

They make wine and olives

They make wine, and their own olives from trees planted in the 1880s. They’re delicious (Rachel ate a whole jar of them almost in one sitting).

Syrah was unusual for Napa Valley when Stephen and Carole planted vines on their then brand new vineyard in 1994. At the time the region was planted almost entirely with Cabernet Sauvignon. Lagier Meredith Syrah was also one of the first from the region to be described by the media as showing a more restrained European influence.

Carole and Stephen

Stephen and Carole manage all aspect of the business–vineyard maintenance and planting, winemaking and marketing–themselves, but he is humble about the project at the same time.

When I ask him about the European comparison of their wines he responds, “It is a reflection of this place. That was not our goal. Our goal was to reduce our influence on the wine.”

Carole adds, “we are fortunate. We have a cool site, with shallow soils, that produce focused wines with complexity.”

Stephen continues, “we are just pleased this place makes this wine we enjoy, and people enjoy. It allows us to make a living.” He pauses, “so pleased.”

The couple had their first press in 1996, originally having planted vines for their own appreciation and use. When they tasted what the wine had to offer, however, it far outpaced their own expectations. So, they shared it with friends, who had a similar response. Their first release was in 2000, and was received almost immediately with good critical response, and a quickly loyal mailing list.

The shy kitty

the shy kitty

The shy kitty purr-meowing

Original concert posters

These concert posters are originals from shows Carole attended.

***
Thank you to Carole Meredith and Stephen Lagier for hosting me.

More to follow!

Copyright 2013 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com.