A true Napa Valley wine
February 15, 2007
What, exactly, is a Napa Valley wine? It’s difficult, if not impossible, to define, because all 14 of Napa Valley’s American Viticultural Areas, or sub-appellations, as they are often called, produce wines with different characteristics.
Rutherford, for example, has its Rutherford Dust. Howell Mountain’s cabernets have a distinctive flavor, quite different from those wines made from grapes grown on Spring Mountain across the valley, despite the fact that both appellations produce mountain-grown fruit.
Many winemakers lean toward making wine from a single vineyard to extract the characteristics of that vineyard, rather than blending wines together, even though they may be from the same appellation. To be sure, a single vineyard designation is a marketing tool, it also represents the belief that wine should represent the terroir of the vineyard.
A few years ago four vintners decided to join together and do exactly the opposite — create a wine that was truly expressive of the entire Napa Valley — one blended from one ton of grapes grown in each of the 14 sub-appellations.
It was Mike Seitz, a popular Napa Valley vineyard manager who was killed in a tragic vineyard accident in 2003, who came up with the idea. He discussed it with his friend, Steve Reynolds of Reynolds Family Winery, over margaritas one day, and they decided to bring in two other friends, Oscar Renteria of Renteria Vineyard Management, who had excellent contacts with vineyard owners, and Sean Thomas of Thomas Knoll Wines, who could provide the capital needed for the project.
“Mike was the driving force,” Reynolds said. “He was magical at selling things.” Some of the vineyards he sought for sourcing grapes were highly prized by vintners, and growers were a bit reluctant to provide even one ton for the project, so “Mike traded services to get them,” he added.
“When we told people about it they thought we were crazy to want to make wine from all the appellations and charge a lot of money for it,” Renteria recalled. “One grower was skeptical, but after we showed him what else we had (contracted for), he came in with us.”
The idea was developed just a few months before the 2003 harvest, so we just leapt right into it,” said Kristi Seitz, Mike’s widow, who became a partner in the project following his death.
At that time Napa Valley had 13 sub-appellations and the wine was called Thirteen, but in 2004, the Oak Knoll District was officially recognized as an AVA, so the 2004 vintage reflected the added wine, and the name of the wine was changed to Fourteen.
“We thought about using Thirteen Plus One,” Kristi Seitz said. “But we decided to use Fourteen so as not to single out the newest (appellation).”
The pending application by Calistoga vintners for AVA status poses a dilemma for the partners. Would the next vintage be called Fifteen?
Probably. “But Thirteen is near and dear to us” because it was the first, Reynolds said, and the circle of 13 vines ringing the bottle will remain the same, Seitz added.
The wine’s promotional tagline is “The parts are great, but the sum is even better,” and the promotional material shows a photo montage of signs, each showing the name of one of the appellations. But the partners declined to identify the creative genius behind those, saying only, “It was a friend.”
Most of the blending is done at Reynolds’ Silverado Trail winery, and all four partners participate in making the final blending decision. “The components are so good that the wine is really made in the vineyard, and that it makes it easy for us,” Reynolds said.
“We have similar palates,” Seitz added. “All of us give some constructive criticism.”
Most of the wine from the first two vintages came from the same vineyards, with just a couple of exceptions. “We’d like to get more growers,” Reynolds said. “We’d like to rotate more into it. Make it kind of like the U.N. of Napa Valley.”
The wine is about 60 percent cabernet sauvignon, but varying amounts of merlot, cabernet franc and petite verdot are also used. “It has four of the five Bordeaux varietals, but no malbec,” Reynolds said, but added some of that varietal might be used in the 2005 blend.
The wine will change every year because of the rotation of growers and the resulting composition of the vineyards, Reynolds said. “We will try to make the best combination of what we have.”
The different grapes will “add layers of complexity to the final wine,” Thomas said.
Although wine from every appellation is included, not all the wine from every lot is necessarily used in the final blend. But they don’t tell the growers whose wines are not fully used, Renteria said.
“They’re all proud of it (the wine),” Reynolds said. “They look forward to (our) dropping off the free case.”
About 900 cases are made, but with another appellation, production could go to near 1,000 cases. The wine is $115 per bottle. It’s distributed throughout California and in 15 states now, and soon will be introduced to the New York market.
Direct sales are growing — in the first year about 10 percent was sold directly to consumers, and that has climbed to 20 percent for the latest vintage after people started to find out about it, Reynolds said.
Although the wine is drinkable now, Reynolds thinks buyers should sit on it for two to 10 years, and it will continue getting better for at least five or six years. “There’s some powerful fruit in there,” he said. “It keeps getting deeper, more complex.”
The partners recently gathered to taste the 2005 barrel samples from each appellation, then put together a small amount to blend for a lot in Premiere Napa Valley Feb. 22. They are planning to offer a 3-liter bottle of the 2004 vintage for the e-auction at Auction Napa Valley in June.
As the partners gathered prior to putting the Premiere lot blend together, the camaraderie they shared was evident. Kristi Seitz summed up the feeling: “We’re not just a group who came together as partners. We are friends. It’s like a family, and,” — she pointed to the three men — “they’re my brothers.”