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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

Cardinale Winery - A symphony in a bottle, perfect for collectors

Monday, May 27, 2013
If you’ve ever headed north from Yountville to St Helena on Highway 29 in Napa, chances are, you’ve admired a finely crafted stone sign for Cardinale Winery and the stone winery beautifully built atop the rolling hills of northern Yountville.  Despite sharing my maiden name with the winery, I must have driven past the winery dozens of times before I finally made it in for a tasting at this ultra exclusive, rarefied tasting room.  Having grown up in a family of Cardinales, I was used to seeing a vertical line up of the brand as well as large format bottles of the namesake wine in my Dad’s cellar, and even helped him decant a bottle of the 1985 Cardinale Cabernet a couple years ago for my sister’s birthday.  After decanting that 1985 rich, layered, Cabernet Sauvignon into 4 decanters and enjoyed it paired with a delicious lamb dinner, I knew the wine was special and not just because we shared a name.   
We arrived at the ivy covered winery perched atop a hill with breathtaking views of the valley and were welcomed graciously by a set of fastidiously professional yet friendly wine ambassadors in the tasting room.  After being proffered a glass of the 2011 Intrada Sauvignon Blanc, Jonathan, our Estate Host for the afternoon escorted us to the stately tasting room, where we enjoyed the privacy of being the only group ensconced at a table set beautifully with glasses, criss-crossing with eachother to form a lattice across the table and already filled with the collection of red wines that had been decanted earlier that day.  The temperate afternoon sun beckoned to us out on the patio where Jonathan led us prior to our tasting. On the patio, one couple enjoyed a tasting and discussed the wine they were producing. Another couple arrived in biking gear and helmets, which surprised me until I learned that their private limo was following them with their collection of purchased library wines to stock their private jet.  Despite the holiday weekend, there were few other people at the winery, most being hospitality staff; this is not a winery that welcomes “walk ins”, nor does it accept overcrowding at its elegant quarters. But is the perfect destination for Cabernet aficionados and collectors to come enjoy an impressive collection of wines. Jonathan even walked us through a private tour of the impeccably designed country chic guest house, where esteemed guests stay when in town to for a winery visit.  The guest house smells of vanilla and leather and is decked out with a country chic kitchen, two bedrooms, living room, 2 dining rooms and gorgeous veranda with breathtaking views of the valley.  
Back at the winery, on the veranda, Jonathan pointed out the four mountain appellations where the grapes for Cardinale are grown, Howell Mountain, Spring Mountain, Pride Mountain and Mount Veeder. The winemaker for Cardinale, Chris Carpenter, sources the fruit from these 4 mountains because he believes stressed vines produce the most flavorful, concentrated grapes.  The grapes from the mountains grow in 4 different types of soil, but all are well drained, loamy volcanic rocky soil that make grape roots work hard to find water and thrive. Chris has a distinguished background, earning his BS in biology from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana and an MBA from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Chris had initially studied to be a chemist, and worked in pharmaceuticals, but soon grew tired of that profession and traveled to California to study viticulture and enology at UC Davis.  Chris went on to work at Domaine Carneros, Domaine Chandon, and several wineries in Italy, but always remained down to earth.  Standing 6’6, he still works at the Bar at Rutherford Grill on Friday Nights, plays the bass, and is on the board of the Napa Youth Symphony where his two children play.  

Perhaps his affinity for music is why Chris likens winemaking to composing music and his Cardinale wines to a symphony of nuanced layers of flavors.  Chris strives to make wines that gain complexity as they age, but can still be enjoyed now.  His one white wine in the collection, Intrada, means “prelude” and is intended to be enjoyed before the richer complex reds.  The Cardinale Bordeaux blends are likened to a symphony with their nuanced flavors, and the Lokoya label is likened to the “soloist” since each wine is bottled from a single vineyard from the 4 used to make the Cardinale blend.  The high end winery’s name, Cardinale, (owned by the Kendall Jackson brand) comes from Chris’ focus on the cardinal rules of winemaking in which quality takes priority first and foremost.  Our host, Jonathan Rivera, recalled tales of harvests past and one that stuck out in particular.  Chris had expected to harvest 22 tons of grapes in 2011, but due to the conditions that year, they ended up with 32 tons.  Jonathan was pulled from the harvest in Yountville to help at Howell Mountain, where he and other staff were delirious with work from the long day which started at day break and continued until after dark, with the added drama of one of the crushers breaking mid-harvest.  Chris had always been keen on building a strong team and family at the winery, and to boost morale, he had his children come to the winery after night fall and serenaded the workers as they finished the harvest.  Every year, Chris has young interns come work for him from around the world.  They all share techniques, all of them practicing and “performing” for Chris like musicians in an orchestra. Despite this focus on technique, Chris believes that everything done in the cellar is secondary to what is done out in the vineyards and the fruit is always the most important aspect of making a beautiful wine.  You can see this brilliant expression of each Mountain’s distinct flavor characteristics in the Lokoya line, which Jonathan brought out as a final finale, decanting the 2005 Diamond Peak Cabernet in a fantastic demonstration using two decanters.  
Cardinale is very limited production, and high quality wine produced flawlessly by a focus on sourcing the best fruit,meticulous blending, and refining each vintage over the two years that the wine is in the cellar. During this time, a variety of techniques are used to achieve Cardinale's signature layered complexity, including hand sorting ensures the most pristine fruit, custom basket press used for tannin management, native yeast fermentations for complexity, exclusive use of French oak barrels, egg white fining, and separation of the 30 lots through bottling.  This winery is the perfect place for collectors to come to build their cellars - the prices are steep and the wines are best aged ten years or more.  If you are an avid Napa Cabernet collector, this winery will bring music to your ears - just don’t play it by ear and be sure to call far in advance to secure a private tasting.  Robert Parker himself was at the winery 3 days prior to our visit and apparently went away pleased.  Note: Lokoya has received three 100 point scores and Cardinale has received a 99 point score. Tasting notes on a few of my favorites from the collection below:

Tasting Notes:
2009 Cardinale Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Blend $250
Cardinale works to layer all facets of the Napa Valley into a composition that is not unlike a beautiful score of music. The 2009 Cardinale shows this layering in its rose petal, mineral, and cassis-driven nose, and its blackberry, dragon fruit, dark chocolate, and silky and mouth-filling texture-driven palate

2005 Lokoya - Diamond Mountain $400
The 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Diamond Mountain exhibits a fabulous scorched earth, almost volcanic ash sort of nose with blackberry and cassis notes. Dense ruby/purple-colored, with full-bodied power and richness, relatively soft tannins, and a sensationally layered mouth feel, this is concentrated but beautifully complex already and set for at least 15-20 years of evolution. 94+ points Robert Parker

2010 Lokoya - Howell Mountain $350
Classic aromas of graphite, crushed rocks, boysenberries, black raspberries, blackberries, and subtle wood soar from the glass of the inky/purple-colored 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain. Full-bodied and formidably endowed with awesome purity as well as a stunning, layered texture, this beauty has it all. Give it 5-6 years of bottle age and enjoy it over the next three decades. It is a prodigious Howell Mountain wine from Jess Jackson’s Keyes Vineyard.

2008 Lokoya - Mount Veeder $400
The 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon Mt. Veeder, which has the largest production, exhibits a deep blue/purple color along with notes of burning embers, charcoal, sweet black currant liqueur, licorice and scorched earth. It possesses fabulous fruit along with full-bodied power, a voluptuous texture and beautiful density as well as richness. 97+ Points - Wine Advocate


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