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Wine to me is passion. It's family and friends. It's warmth of heart and generosity of spirit. Wine is art. It's culture. It's the essence of civilization and the art of living. - Robert Mondavi

William Cole - Don't Blink, you'll miss it!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

William Cole Winery is easy to miss in both the literal and figurative sense. Heading North along St. Helena Highway, we kept checking our GPS to make sure we hadn’t passed the unmarked road to William Cole, one of the oldest wineries in Napa Valley. With only five acres of land and a production limited to 500 cases of wine per year, (most purchased by private colelctors, baseball players and the like) few people are familiar with William Cole, but those who have tasted the ruby red Cabernet are fanatics. The only SF restaurant that currently lists William Cole on its menu is Gary Danko - and it is rumored that they are often out of stock! Our private guide for the intimate visit admitted that he hadn’t planned to pursue a career in guest relations for a winery, yet during a serendipitous lunch at Auberge de Soleil, he had the rare opportunity to taste William Cole wine and became so enamored that he made it his goal to one day work for the winemaker.
The tour was short and sweet, since the winery itself was “boutique”, a PC way of saying, teeny tiny. Apparently, Napa law states that a winery must have a minimum 10 acres to be considered a Commercial Winery. However, William Ballentine was so intent on growing cabernet grapes on the former JC Weinberger Winery (also the first female-owned winery in Napa), that he petitioned to get Napa to make an amendment stating that you must sit on 10 acres of land to be a Commercial Winery – unless - you are the First winery. Built in 1876, the historic winery was apparently the first in St. Helena, and so it is now both the winery and residence of the Ballentine family, who are third generation St. Helenans.

As we arrived, we met Bill in person, and he couldn’t be more salt-of-the earth, stopping to chat with us and introducing us to his son Cole (hence the William Cole name). We strolled through the tasting room, where historic memorabilia and black and white photos from the old JC Weinberger winery had been collected from various shops and businesses throughout town and then made our way into the wine cellar and cave. Since William Cole is such a limited production business, Bill Ballentine is the only person who touches the wine, from the vineyards to the bottle. Bill’s palette is storied to be so sensitive that he can tell if a piece of beef has been sitting next to chicken at the butcher shop even after it has been cooked. William Cole’s 2.5 acres of cabernet grapes are separated and barrel aged by the 5 lots that they grow on and then blended together after being carefully tasted by Bill (sometimes with input from his teenage daughter Claire, the namesake of William Cole’s Cuvee Claire). Though the grapes are all cabernet, the wine is designated a cuvee due to the great variety between the five lots.

Tasting Notes:

William Cole Claire Cuvee – 2006:
We began the tour of the wine cave with a taste of the William Cole 2006 Cabernet Cuvee, which had been decanted that morning prior to our arrival. The 2006 was everything I had been promised it would be – so big and rich, that I expected to feel an equally strong punch of tannins, yet the finish felt like a satiny, silky sheet on my mouth. The wine was full of dark fruit, ripe blueberries, and blackberry juice, with hints of smoky fig and black pepper – a complex wine that I look forward to tasting again in a few years.

William Cole Claire Cuvee – 2001:
We finished the tour seated around the tasting table with a second visit from Bill, for a taste of the decanted 2001 vintage Cabernet. The 2001 contrasted dramatically from the 2006 – and was bold, smoky and meaty. It was full of oak, and earthier than the 2006, with ripe cherries and leather.

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