Winemaking in Napa Valley

By Manny Ortiz :: Photography courtesy of PlumpJack Winery, CADE Estate Winery and Odette Estate Winery

PlumpJack, CADE, Odette

It’s been said, in order to understand where you’re going, you must understand where you’ve been.  For winemaking in the Napa Valley, this requires you to travel back in time to the late 1770’s to the first planted vineyards in California. Father Junipero Serra and a group of missionaries planted vineyards for use at all nine missions that he founded, stretching from San Diego to San Francisco. These initial plantings were not the grape varietals we’re familiar with today — they were field blends known today as Mission grapes.

Before Napa Valley was a household name, the majority of America’s wine was produced in New York, Virginia Ohio, and Missouri. In fact, vineyards were popping up all over Southern California before Napa Valley thanks to a Frenchman by the name of Jean Louis Vignes. Vignes emigrated from Bordeaux to the Los Angeles area, began planting varietals from Europe and opened the first commercial winery in California in 1833.

It wasn’t until a few years later, in 1836, that the first vineyards were planted in the Napa Valley by a man named George Calvert Yount — the famous town of Yountville carries his name.  Though Yount gets credit for the first serious vineyard planting, it was John Patchett who created the first official vineyard and winery in the Napa Valley in 1854. The California wine industry exploded in the 1850’s — the completion of the transcontinental railway and the surge of the California Gold Rush brought countless new settlers, merchants, farmers and wealthy prospectors. San Francisco saw their population rise from 1,000 residents to more than 25,000 in less than 12 months. The sudden boom in population boosted the total California wine production from 30,000 cases in 1850 to 125,000 in 1860, and by 1870 it’s estimated that more than 1,000,000 cases were produced. The industry received another lift when the tariff act of 1864 increased the duties on imported wine — the California wine industry was beaming with growth. That momentum came to a shrieking halt; the California Wine Industry took two major blows: phylloxera and prohibition.

In 1863, the phylloxera epidemic was born — the vine pest decimated vineyards in Europe before migrating to Napa in 1877, spreading like wildfire. Effectively destroying a majority of the world’s wine industry, it wasn’t until nearly two decades later that a solution was discovered: grafting European grapevine, vitis vinifera, onto the phylloxera resistant American rootstock. Not even the speedbump that was phylloxera could slow the enthusiasm for winemaking in the Golden State. After a complete rebuild of the industry, they were faced with another monster, prohibition. The Volstead Act, better known as Prohibition, was passed in 1919 outlawing the production and sale of alcoholic beverages. However, research about grapes, winemaking and production continued during this drought. The genesis of the future California AVA mapping was happening, while researchers were determining that there were five, unique, climatic winegrowing regions. After the repeal of Prohibition, the wine industry began rebuilding. The 1970’s brought record levels of production and sales to the California wine industry. Fast-forward to today, where there are about 400 wineries in the Napa Valley and the wine industry is flourishing.

So what’s the difference between wine grown in California and the Old World? Place. France’s Bordeaux, Burgundy and Languedoc are similar in climate to California’s Napa, Sonoma and Paso Robles, but each has their own set of microclimates and soil types. In fact, Napa Valley is relatively small. When compared to Bordeaux, it would comprise just 15 percent of the entire geography. In this tiny valley — about 30 miles by 5 miles — Napa has 104 different soil types which equate to half of the World’s soil compositions. This allows an unprecedented amount of diversity in a very small place. Like their European counterparts, California wine growers and winemakers have learned that certain soils and climate conditions lend themselves better for cultivating and matching varietals — these microclimates are known as American Viticultural Areas (AVA). Just like Bordeaux has Margaux, Pauillac and Medoc, Napa has Oakville, Howell Mountain and Stags Leap District.

PlumpJack Winery sits in the heart of Napa Valley’s renowned Oakville AVA. The geology and soils are the product of slow collisions between the North American plate, the Farallon plate and the Pacific plate over the past 80 million years. The friction between these plates formed the Sierra Nevada Mountains and gave rise to the volcanoes that created the Vaca Mountains on the eastern border of Napa Valley and the ancient sea bed rock formations that comprise the Mayacamas Mountains on the western side of the valley. It is the publicity of Oakville’s wines that can in part be attributed to the unique quality of its soils and enviable climate. Oakville’s climate is moderately warm with temperatures sometimes reaching the mid 90’s, and the area is strongly affected by fog, which helps keep acidity levels consistent. The soil is primarily sedimentary, gravelly alluvial loams on the west with more volcanic heavier soils on the east. It is no wonder why Cabernet Sauvignon expresses the qualities of the varietal so well — deep, complex wines with the structural integrity of balanced acids and tannins; wines that can be cellared or enjoyed now. The principal varietals of the Oakville appellation are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc.

PlumpJack Winery is surrounded by a 42-acre vineyard highly regarded for the quality of its Cabernet Sauvignon. The name of the winery derives its inspiration from Shakespeare’s most memorable character, Sir John “PlumpJack” Falstaff. PlumpJack’s down-to-earth, fun-loving, irreverent nature is rivaled only by his fierce loyalty to Prince Hal (Henry V) whom he shares more than a few goblets of sack wine at the local tavern. PlumpJack appreciates the hearty fellow’s priorities, crafting wines of the highest quality while celebrating the spirit of Sir John “PlumpJack” Falstaff. PlumpJack Winery was founded in 1995 by Gavin Newsom and Gordon Getty on vineyards and a winery building dating back to the 1800’s. From 1973 to 1995, proprietors James and Anne McWilliams established the estate vineyard with the dynamic, long-lived wines of Villa Mt. Eden Winery. Today, winemaker Aaron Miller and his winemaking team create the full-bodied, elegant wines that have earned PlumpJack Winery critical acclaim, perfecting methods that express the vineyards terroir to create the best wine possible. Vineyards are carefully monitored for peak ripeness, then harvested and fermented in oak or stainless steel, and aged in a variety of oak barrels from distinctive cooperages. PlumpJack Winery bottles half their Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and all of their Reserve Chardonnay utilizing stelvin closures (screw tops) — a bold move that represents their commitment to quality and approachability.

PlumpJack Winery’s sister property, CADE Estate Winery, was founded in 2005 by John Conover, Gavin Newsom and Gordon Getty atop Howell Mountain. The Howell Mountain appellation is located within the Napa Valley and is situated within the Vaca Range on the northeast of the Napa Valley overlooking the town of St. Helena. The boundaries are dictated by vineyard land located at more than 1,400 feet of elevation. It is situated well above the Napa Valley floor which is most affected by the cool fog and winds from San Pablo Bay. The CADE Estate vineyards sit high above the fog line on Howell Mountain at an elevation of 1,800 feet. The climate here is above the marine layer, slightly warmer and drier than across the valley with strong afternoon sun. Temperatures range from 55 degrees to the high 90’s with cool nights that maintain optimal acidity. The soil is predominately volcanic, shallow and infertile and due to the slopping hillsides; drainage is extremely high. Winemaker Danielle Cyrot crafts Estate Cabernet Sauvignon in an approachable and powerful style referred to as Modern Howell Mountain. The wine exhibits beautiful blueberry and blackberry layers, dark chocolate elements and hints of smoke, licorice and minerality — truly a drinkable combination. Like PlumpJack Winery, CADE Estate Winery also takes its name from Shakespeare who used the term “Cade” to refer to wine casks.

The newest winery of the bunch, Odette Estate Winery, is tucked into the Stags Leap District that is often referred to as a “valley within a valley” at one mile wide and three miles long, compromising roughly 2,700 acres. It is situated on the east by the Stags Leap Palisades, to the west by rolling hills and the Napa River, to the north by the Yountville Cross Road and to the south by low flatlands. The climate consists of moderate to warm afternoons, cooled by marine winds at night. Soils are volcanic loams on the floor, rocky hillsides and low to moderate fertility due to hard clay bedrock sub soils. The principal varieties cultivated are 80 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Additionally, Stags Leap also cultivates Petite Sirah, Sangiovese, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Odette Estate Winery’s winemaker is Jeff Owens, who has been with the group since 2008. Odette Estate Winery, together with its two sister properties, PlumpJack Winery and CADE Estate Winery, is committed to producing full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignons highlighting power and elegance and showcasing the unique terroir of the AVAs.

John Conover
John-Conover-at-CADE-Final-0816Longtime wine industry executive John Conover is the managing partner and general manager of PlumpJack Winery, CADE Estate Winery and Odette Estate Winery.

“I’m exceedingly fortunate to have had the opportunity to develop these properties alongside Gordon Getty and Gavin Newsom,” says Conover. “We share an absolute passion for these three properties, our wines and our people. This level of alignment can be very rare and it is the foundation of our success.”

Conover joined PlumpJack Winery in 1999 after holding sales, marketing and management positions with Grgich Hills Cellar, Monticello Cellars and Lockwood Vineyard. He serves on the Board of Directors of The Napa County Land Trust and Napa Valley Grape Growers.


PlumpJack Winery
707.945.1220  ::

CADE Estate Winery
707.965.2750  ::

Odette Estate Winery
707.224.7533  ::

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