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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

A Sense of Place

Saturday, August 16, 2014

A sense of place. This phrase was echoed  throughout my recent visit to Cuvaison and truly embodies the philosophy behind the winery.  On my first visit, I found myself there at 6:45 am on a Sunday morning in July surrounded by nearly 3,000 other people. A layer of fog kept the temperature cool but the air still, and all of us in racing gear, arms and legs exposed to the cool morning air, were stirring about to stay warm. The grapes, however, were undisturbed. What on earth was I doing at a winery so early in the morning? I was lining up for the best half marathon I have ever experienced, the Napa to Sonoma 13.1 mile race, whose starting line happened to be at Cuvaison.  Cuvaison’s location in Carneros, just a short detour off of Highway 121 had made it a winery on my “must visit” list for a while. So as the gun went off and my fellow racers  and I  ran through beautiful vineyards from Carneros to a finish line in the Sonoma Square, I knew I would return to Cuvaison for a proper tour of the winery, vineyards and taste the impressive portfolio of wines.  A “carrot” always helps with motivation and speed, and racing towards a finish line that promises an impressive line up of wine even helped me to PR!

After enjoying a glass of sparkling wine at the finish line, and the festivities on the square, my husband and I were too exhausted to visit a winery and opted to soak up some the gorgeous Napa sun, poolside. However, I couldn’t keep Cuvaison out of my mind, and we wasted no time, returning the following  weekend for a proper tasting.  The team at Cuvaison, from the winemaker to the hospitality director, to tasting room staff, go above and beyond to create an environment for people to come, relax and enjoy  wines in the same environment that bears the grapes.  Which is certainly striking - rolling vineyard-covered hills, cooled by fog from San Pablo Bay in the Carneros Region of Sonoma. The tasting room is clean, modern, with floor to ceiling glass windows and a viewing deck intended for guests to relax and taste while looking out over a nearby lake and the vineyards; which produce the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes that have made Cuvaison famous.

Dedicated to an ethos of producing vineyard-driven wines, Cuvaison employs block-by-block farming methods and a vineyard-to-bottle winemaking approach. The resulting wines are balanced yet complex, allowing the distinctive characteristics of the estate shine.  For a winery established in 1969, Cuvaison is remarkably ahead of the times with both a modern aesthetic and approach to sustainable winemaking practices. The name, Cuvaison, means that perfect moment when the grapes and yeast  blend together to ferment and produce this perfect liquid, wine.  Winemaker, Steve Rosgard, produces wines that are balanced, nuanced and complex and has established a winemaking technique that involves a very hand-crafted and sustainable approach.  Rogstad harvests grapes block by block ferments them separately to the extent that he even has separate storage rooms set at different temperatures and humidity that are perfectly suited to showcase each particular grape’s terroir and ripeness level in the resulting wine.  Some of the blocks are bottled as single-block Estate wines, but most are blended into beautiful complex yet approachable wines.  Rogstad also employs natural winemaking practices such as using gravity flow, and cement egg fermentation tanks which allow some oxygen to help get into the fermenting wine and create balance.  What you won’t find in any of the Cuvaison wines are overly ripe powerful wines - at Cuvaison, the wines are made to be more austere, embodying Burgundian style elegance.

Not to be overlooked is the profound influence the Schmidheiny family of Switzerland who purchased the winery in 1979. When Thomas Schmidheiny's mother visited the Carneros region in the late 1970's, she was so taken with the land and its potential for winegrowing that she brought a small bag of soil home in her suitcase. A year later, Thomas purchased the Carneros estate where Cuvaison now makes its home. In the years since, the family has thoughtfully re-invested all profits in the vineyard and winery, consistently providing the support needed to produce the highest quality grapes and wines.  Winemaker, Rogstad, joined Cuvaison in 2002, and oversaw the construction of the new winery, ensuring it was "purpose built" to optimally handle the fruit from Cuvaison's estate vineyard.  We toured the winery and barrel room and observed first hand the care that is taken to separate each wine by block and allow it to ferment in perfect conditions. Each vineyard block has a home in a vessel specifically meant for that wine (from French Oak to cement egg to stainless steel), and are designed so they can actually be moved into different environments within the winery as needed to ensure the wine develops perfectly.  The result is high quality wine that is integrated and complex.

Rogstad manages the certified sustainable vineyards at both Cuvaison and Brandlin, Cuvaison’s sister winery, with vineyards on Mt. Veeder, that produces bolder wines like Cabernet and Malbec that require the warmer climate in Napa.  At Cuvaison, you feel a shared pride about the sense of place, as well as a concern about the environment and genuine will to reduce Cuvaison's impact on our environment. A few of the initiatives practiced at Cuvaison include solar power, water conservation and energy efficiency; the winery is also certified Napa Green.  It’s hard to imagine that a winery this dedicated to maintaining the environment also produces
some of the best wines Carneros has to offer and maintains friendly staff to make the experience personal and relaxing.  If you’re looking for the perfect winery to stop at on the way back from Napa, this gem off Duhig Road (neighbor to the stately Domaine Carneros) is ideal.  This isn’t a normal tasting experience with guests overcrowding a tasting bar. It’s recommended to call ahead and schedule an appointment as the tasting room and patio are petite and the experience is tailored to be able to accommodate guests at their own private tables, each with a sweeping view of the picturesque landscape.  You’ll get a tasting of both Cuvaison Pinot and Chardonnay and the wines in the Brandlin portfolio, including an impressive  Zinfandel and Cabernet.

My favorite wines are listed below with tasting notes provided by the winery:

2012 Estate Chardonnay - $25 per bottle
From a truly classic vintage, the 2012 Estate Chardonnay displays lovely aromatics of honeysuckle, lily, acacia blossom and clove spice. Upon tasting this wine, it demonstrates a charming mix of white peach, apricot, nectarine and lime zest all tied to a bright, long, refreshing finish

2012 ATS Chardonnay - $56 per bottle
An opulently styled wine, the 2012 ATS Chardonnay is richly perfumed with notes of honeysuckle, jasmine and orange blossom. The fruit is focused around a lovely core of melon, peach and lemon chiffon with a hint of vanilla and toasted almonds. It’s this interplay between the bright, floral components and the dense fruit with a long crisp finish that sets the ATS apart and pays homage to the art of blending.

2012 Spire Pinot Noir - $48 per bottle
A classic vintage, 2012 enjoyed near perfect weather and ideal conditions at harvest. The Spire Pinot was harvested over a 15 day period, rigorously selecting the best fruit with each pass. The result is a multi-layered wine with opulent fruit, intriguing spice, lush tannins and brilliant acidity. Cherry, plum and wild strawberry notes with rose petal, violet, clove and ginger spice on the nose. Round and full-bodied for Pinot Noir the Spire showcases the plush tannins and rich mouthfeel typical of this site. Aged for 16 months in French oak puncheons, this is a rare wine from a singular place.

2011 Diablo Syrah - $40 per bottle
Named after the formidable Diablo soils from whence this wine springs, this wine is a lover and a fighter, with gorgeous black cherry, boysenberry, sandalwood and cardamom spice notes backed by some bare knuckle tannins. Forged in a cool and challenging vintage on unforgiving soils, this wine demonstrates that the best things are born of struggle. Both powerful and graceful, this wine should reward you with intriguing spice, ample dark fruit and a long, persistent finish.

2012 Brandlin Estate Zinfandel - $38 per bottle

The 2012 Brandlin Zinfandel captures the essence of Old Vine Zin, where delicate floral tones (rose petals) mingle with crushed red berries and dark, jammy plums. The wine also has a nice spice element, star anise and a hint of bay leaf. On the palate the flavors of raspberry, blackcherry and boysenberry jam come to the fore, while texturally the wine is quite lush with medium-bodied tannins and a silky, long, bright finish.


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