The first time I tasted a Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon I was at Robert Pepi Winery. For all the Millennials who read HoseMaster of Wine™ (yeah, right), Robert Pepi Winery is now Cardinale, a property of Jackson Family Estates, located on Highway 29 in Napa Valley directly across from Far Niente. Pepi was once a reputable winery, though now the label is a dumping ground for some pretty miserable wine. Tony Soter was Bob Pepi’s winemaking partner at Robert Pepi Winery, and Tony had taken on Spottswoode as one of his first (if not his first—I don’t remember) winemaking clients. (Tony also sold his first vintages of Etude at Robert Pepi Winery, including, if memory serves, a pretty terrible Rosé of Pinot Noir.) The ’82 Spottswoode, their first commercial release, was being bottled at Pepi, and Bob asked me if I wanted to taste it. Does a dog lick his nuts?
Bob pulled a bottle of ’82 Spottswoode from the bottling line, we opened it, and it was damned tasty. Banged up from the bottling, maybe a bit shut down, but it was quite delicious. That’s about what I remember. So, with Bob’s blessing (though it wasn’t his wine), I took a couple of bottles. “Stole” would be the accurate verb, but let’s not quibble. At the time, I didn’t have any idea that Spottswoode was destined to become one of the great estates of Napa Valley. Imagine having tasted the very first vintage of Chateau Margaux when it was first bottled. How cool would that have been? Let’s ask Michael Broadbent, he was there. There’s a chance I was the first person to ever taste Spottswoode from the bottle. Now there’s a lede for my New York Times obituary. “Ron Washam, First Sommelier to Taste Spottswoode, Author of Stupid Wine Blog, dead at 99.” To be humble, I’m sure my obit will be below the fold. Though there won’t be any goddam folds by then. Only homeless paperboys.
On the Friday following my debacle at the Napa Valley Professional Wine Writers Symposium, I was invited to Spottswoode to participate in a vertical tasting of ten vintages of Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon. Others in attendance included Ray Isle, Andrea Robinson MS, Linda Murphy, Lana Bortolot, and Virginie Boone. Begs the question, what the hell was I doing there? Comic relief. Spitbucket Monitor. Seat Filler. I’m a triple threat.
I love everything about Spottswoode. Mary Novak, and her daughters Beth Milliken and Lindy Novak, and the rest of their family, resurrected and elevated one of the great wine estates of California. Theirs is a remarkable achievement, and they are remarkable women. I remember the first time I visited the property, and that gorgeous old Victorian home surrounded by Mary’s beautiful gardens, I was amazed at how the wine barrels were crammed underneath the house. It looked like a dipsomaniac squirrel had stashed them there for the Winter. Which is not a nice thing to say about Tony Soter.
The vineyard itself is 40 contiguous acres, and there I was, its long lost mule. I’m not sure why, but being at Spottswoode always made me think of “Gone With the Wind.” You can gaze out over the vineyards and you can almost hear the vineyard workers singing old spirituals, like “La Bamba.” I’m being my usual stupid self, but, truly, it’s an enchanted place, and I cannot drink a bottle of Spottswoode without envisioning the magnificent estate’s warmth and beauty. Its one of wine’s chief pleasures, I think. How you are able to taste a glass of wine and travel in your mind to the place where it began, recall the way the place looked in the Fall, the way the air smelled, the palpable energy of a vineyard bursting with fruit. Beer cannot do that, nor anything distilled. Walk a great wine estate and the wines produced there never taste the same again. Wine connects us to our senses, and to the places we’ve been, and the trajectory of our life. I know of nothing else that can make that connection. Wine grounds us on this beautiful planet. Maybe if the world had more wine drinkers, we wouldn’t have ruined it so carelessly.
There’s an argument against blind tasting in there somewhere. Though blind tasting isn’t about pleasure, blind tasting is about a false sense of objectivity. I would not want to taste Spottswoode blind, though I have. Once, many years ago, at a blind tasting of California Cabernets sponsored by Far Niente (I could be wrong about Far Niente), I managed to identify three of the twelve wines rather precisely. The other nine I was trying to identify simply by region. I struggled with one, couldn’t quite pin it down, and finally decided it was from Alexander Valley. It was Spottswoode. Spottswoode! I was personally humiliated. I love Alexander Valley Cabernet, but that was like taking a bite of sirloin and declaring, “Wow, great halibut!” Tasting it blind robbed me of the pure joy I feel when I drink Spottswoode. It’s like being blindfolded for a first date, then finding out the next day you had clumsily groped Charlize Theron. Yeah, like that would happen. But you get the idea.
Mary Novak made an appearance at the blind tasting. It was great to see her, and she looked fantastic. She is one of the grand and great ladies of Napa Valley. It’s almost impossible not to smile when Mary is around. I had been carrying around all that guilt from stealing two bottles of ’82 Spottswoode thirty years ago, so I finally confessed to Mary that I had done so. I offered to pay for them. I asked Beth what the release price was for the 1982 Spottswoode. It was eighteen bucks. Eighteen bucks! Hell, I wouldn’t have stolen them if I’d known they were only eighteen bucks! I told Mary I owed her thirty-six dollars. She laughed and told me, “It’s OK, Ron, I think we can afford that.” That Friday night—the first good night’s sleep I’ve had in thirty years.
|Beth, Mary, and Lindy
Beth Novak stayed for the tasting. I adore Beth, too. Aside from our annual allocation fight, I always look forward to seeing her. She has her mother’s sweet energy and determination and smarts, and all of them have that lovely quality of being humbled by the estate they so gracefully manage. There is so little arrogance in the room you can’t believe you’re in Napa Valley. Maybe Alexander Valley…see, I was partially correct. I shudder to think of Spottswoode ever being sold. Spottswoode is the Novaks, and the Novaks are Spottswoode. The wines of Spottswoode are so often described with adjectives like graceful, elegant, beautiful, powerful, and restrained. Sounds a lot like the Novaks themselves. OK, maybe not restrained.
The vintages we tasted were ’85, ’87, ’91, ’95, ’01, ’05, ’10, ’11, ’12, and ’13. Spottswoode’s current winemaker Aron Weinkauf was there to answer questions and pretend he thought we knew what we were talking about. Those ten vintages represent the efforts of four other winemakers besides Aron—Tony Soter, Mia Klein, Pam Starr and Rosemary Cakebread. Usually, one would be worried about following an Aron; but, in this case, Aron had to follow a lot of home run hitters. It’s nice to report he’s doing just fine.
Tasting the ten vintages side by side spoke to, I felt, the slow discovery of what the Spottswoode estate vineyard had to say. I won’t bore you with my descriptions of the ten wines individually. There really wasn’t a dud in the bunch. My least favorite wine was the 2005, which seemed like an anomaly in the lineup, though I’d gladly gulp that wine with a grilled lamb chop. The ’05 struck me as very brooding and unevolved, not descriptors I usually associate with Spottswoode. Actually, I’m often called brooding and unevolved, but that’s a different story.
The first couple of wines from the ’80’s were lovely, but stylistically have very different taste profiles. You sense a winemaker feeling his way with a vineyard, trying to see what works. But then the 1991 starts to say Spottswoode to me. It had great persistence, and enormous presence, two attributes that are hallmarks of a great wine. 1995 Spottswoode dials that up a notch, and at 21 is, you guessed it, at drinking age. And just gorgeous. 1999 was the year I was married, and though it wasn’t in this lineup, I have had it many times and I can tell you it smells exactly like bliss. All through the ‘90s, a lot of Spottswoode’s vineyards had to be replanted, and I’m certain a great deal of thought went into clonal selection and rootstock and all the other stuff that makes a vineyard (how authoritative is that?!). The property was evolving.
And you can taste the Cabernets starting to progress, to hone in on what the vineyard has to say. Some vineyards won’t shut the hell up. Colgin won’t shut the hell up. Spottswoode whispers. The 2001 is very seductive, and focused on the dark black and borderline blue fruit that I associate with Spottswoode in a classic vintage. The 2005 just seemed in a time warp to me, but it will be just fine.
The final four wines are yet another step forward in the evolution of a great wine estate. The vineyards all reaching maturity, and the wines singing. I don’t have the talent to describe a wine like Spottswoode, not adequately. But so often greatness in wine is about great power matched with great delicacy. I think of Baryshnikov or Venus Williams. I think of their focus and balance, of their imagination, of their confident swagger. The 2013 has that swagger. If you can afford the $185 price tag, I’d get some. It’s a lot harder to steal now. Even in a terrible vintage, weatherwise, like 2011, the vineyard manages to show its greatness. Even on a bad night, I imagine Barysnikov was still better than most.
And the 2012 Spottswoode? It’s going to be legendary wine. Bank on it. I tasted it and I was transported--both into the past, when I first had the sense to keep an eye, and my sticky fingers, on Tony Soter’s new project, and into the future, hoping that I’ll be able to taste this masterpiece as I check out from a lifetime of wine. As a reminder of what a beautiful time and what a beautiful place I lived in.