Craig Becker is a man of many titles: co-founder of Somerston Wine Co., general manager and director of winemaking. But the title that seems to have captured most attention is vineyard designer.
We never heard a winemaker talk so passionately about how he designs a plot of land, but it makes sense if you see the challenging terrain of the hilly eastern Napa Valley. With elevations ranging from 800 to 2,400 feet, a variety of soils and tractor-defying hillsides, Becker has to design a vineyard to make the best use of et the sun, water and soil best suited for specific grape varieties. In some of his vineyards, high and low temperatures can swing 50 degrees.
“I spend a lot of time designing vineyards,” he confessed. “From a winegrower’s standpoint, designing a vineyard makes the wine process a whole lot easier.”
During a virtual tasting, Becker said vineyard design is a multi-generational project for the family owned winery. “We’re laying the foundation for the next 10, 100 years,” he said. “There’s a lot of pressure to get it right.”
One would think that it would be far easier to just blend the grape varieties that come begrudgingly from these ornery vineyards, but Becker loves to pull some of them out for special bottlings. We loved the 2015 Priest Ranch Coach Gun ($80) blend of cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot and malbec. But more fun is tasting these single-block grape varieties when bottled individually.
The 2015 Priest Ranch Block 136 Cabernet Sauvignon ($75) is a muscular wine with firm tannins, layered dark fruit flavors and generous aromas that speak of terroir in this block 1,400 feet in elevation. A whopping 16 percent alcohol adds to the body of this immense wine. Becker said alcohol level is a tradeoff. He understands consumers don’t like wines with harsh tannins, so he gives the grapes longer hang time to achieve sugar ripeness and thus more alcohol. We are not complaining.
The 2015 Priest Ranch Block 81 Malbec ($75) is one of the best California malbecs we have tasted. The winemaker has achieved a nice balance of brawn and finesse. Smooth texture but deceiving tannins project longevity for those who have the patience to wait. It shows off plum, blackberry and blueberry flavors with a dash of vanilla.
We also enjoyed the inky, dense 2015 Priest Ranch Block 100 Petit Verdot. Although we always thought of this grape variety as shallow, this one is opulent with dark fruit flavors, a long finish and full body.
These wines are made in small quantities.
Less than 300 acres of the 1,600-acre estate are planted to grapes. The lush woodland and indigenous grass fields were fuel to the Hennessy and other fires that swept through Napa Valley. Thanks to employing a private fire-fighting force, Becker saved his house. But a lot of vineyards were hit by fire and smoke. Alas, Becker decided not to make any wine in 2020 and focus on replanting 20 acres of vines. Buy the 2015 while you can.
Post & Beam
Far Niente Winery has been making wine since 1979 but in recent years it has added new labels to diversify its portfolio. Dolce, an exquisite late-harvest dessert wine, was added in 1988, Nickel & Nickel in 1997 and Enroute in 2017. New this year is Post & Beam, a label for ready-to-drink chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon.
We had a chance to participate in a virtual tasting with Andrew Delos, Far Niente’s director of winemaking, and Michael Accurso, winemaker.
Delos said that Post & Beam is based on specific lots, normally blended into other wines, that were singled out for their unique character – much like Priest Ranch.
“They are very expressive of the site,” he said. “They may not offer the texture for Far Niente, so sometimes we keep them separate. Post & Beam was formed out of this process. We wanted to showcase them.”
The 2019 Post & Beam Napa Valley Chardonnay ($35) is quite a contrast to Far Niente’s bold, viscous and textured chardonnays. Medium in body and void of oak, it has bright acidity and pure stone-fruit character to make it an easy sipper or a good match with fish. Delos likened it to the austere chardonnays from Chablis.
The 2018 Post & Barn Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($50) is bolder with youthful tannin and bright fruit flavors. We enjoyed the lively plum, cassis and black berry flavors and generous aromatics.
Accurso said they first deconstructed the vineyard sites that were blended into other brands and then constructed the Post & Beam profile.
There isn’t a lot of complexity or depth in these wines but that’s not the intent.
Bonterra The McNab 2016 ($50). Using grapes from the biodynamically farmed McNab Vineyard, Bonterra has a delicious, forward blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and old-vine petite sirah. Pure flavors of raspberries and plum mingle with dark fruit aromas and a hint of spice.
- Flying Solo Grenache Blanc/Viognier 2019 ($16). From southern France, this white blend is just pure fun. Bright stone fruit and citrus notes with a rich texture.
- The Hilt Estate Chardonnay 2018 ($45). We have come to admire this richly textured Chardonnay from Sta. Rita Hills year after year. White peach and pear notes with vibrant acidity.
- Justin Cabernet Sauvignon Paso Robles 2017 ($34). Here is a topflight, dependable, cabernet sauvignon from the Paso Robles region. Bright fruit seems to be a hallmark of Paso Robles cabernet sauvignon and Justin is no exception. Plums and cherries with a good dose of appropriate oak make for a terrific package.
- Banshee Pinot Noir Sonoma County 2018 ($20-25). We really enjoyed this expression of pinot noir that displayed a somewhat tart version with rhubarb and plum elements. Aged in some new French oak barrels enhances this very food friendly pinot noir that tantalizes the palate.