Considering Changes at Mayacamas
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
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
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
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.
The Relationship of Vineyard to Winery
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
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