John Caldwell is the sort of character you can’t make up. With his ready grin, salty language and weathered looks (he is a farmer, after all – albeit one of top-quality grapes), he is clearly having the time of his life.
He greets us at the entrance to the caves, leading us down a hall, around a corner, and into a tasting room carved out of the rock. The domed ceiling seemed 20 feet high and a round table was centered in the room.
We sat down and the wine and stories quickly began flowing.
Caldwell purchased this property in the late 1970s with the intent to build houses. However, the town put a moratorium on development just after he drew up the lots and installed a road leading to the property.
Friends suggested he start growing grapes – after all, California wines had just bested their French counterparts in the Judgment of Paris.
As the workers were ripping up the land in preparation for planting, Caldwell received a call that there were a lot of rocks in the soil that were mucking up the works. He drove to the property, swaggered out of his Cadillac (“with my shirt open to here,” he indicates his navel, “and my gold chains and calfskin boots,”) and hopped on the tractor.
Tearing down the field, Caldwell fell in love with the land and decided to plant the vines himself.
Conventional wisdom said the area was a cool-climate haven for chardonnay and pinot noir, but Caldwell installed sensors to measure moisture and temperature. He was surprised to find that it was warm enough for cabernet grapes to thrive, and made them his focus.
This, of course, leads into a story about smuggling grapes (not his greatest skill) and how he wound up working with the French government to license several clones for North America.
We taste our way through a LOT of wines, which by the way, weren’t originally slated to exist. You see, when Caldwell started growing cabernet, it was simply to sell the grapes, and many of Napa’s legendary producers were willing customers.
Then in 1998, Caldwell decided to release his first wine, a cabernet sauvignon dubbed “Silver.” But that was it, he said.
Of course, in the grand tradition of never say never, the winery now produces some 20 wines, including cabernet, proprietary red blends, and a small-lot varietal selection that highlights the charms of various grape clones.
Here are my notes:
The syrah rose came off as a bit sweet, but enjoyable with floral and fruit tones.
The 2012 Chardonnay is made with the 809 clone, which Caldwell says tastes like the muscat grape on the vine and offers notes similar to viognier once vinified. Oak is judiciously used, so the wine is crisp and delicious with a white flower aroma.
Sauvignon blanc was next and, truthfully, I wasn’t crazy about this one. I wasn’t able to pinpoint exactly why – the wine is fresh and crisp – but maybe it’s because the wine was fermented in older oak barrels, giving it a quality I’m not used to in sauvignon.
The 2010 Silver Cabernet also has bits of cabernet franc, merlot, petit verdot and malbec for a Bordeaux style blend. It’s big and bold, but not overwhelming, with lots of fruit. Very smooth and not too tannic on the palate.
From the same vintage, the flavors of the Gold Cabernet include bramble (think twigs) and black fruit. It’s really fresh on the palate, but the tannins will definitely get you!
Switching it up, the next wine was cabernet franc (clone 214), a really delightful, enjoyable wine that shines with food. Loved the purple flower notes.
Finally, we tasted another mini-vertical: the Rocket Science proprietary blend, and the only wine available at retail stores and restaurants. (Everything else is sold only at the winery or through the web site.) The 2009 seemed a little thin to me, but with a nicely earthy nose; the 2010 was softer and more approachable, making it really easy to drink.