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In 2005, we had another family join us, the Saunders, with one ton of their fruit from vines that were about eighteen years old at the time (the oldest vines on the hillside), and their fruit had been used in Dalla Valle's Maya in the past, so it was a really good fruit source. In fact, [International Wine Cellar founder Stephen] Tanzer said that the Cabernet Franc from that vineyard is the second best in the world; it's pretty spectacular. Then in '06, we got three tons from that vineyard; in '07, we got five tons. Then in '08, we got twelve tons from it, plus, for the first time, fruit from the Buselli's Vineyard. So, now, that's five families and six vineyards. After the 2008 harvest, I hired Philippe Armenier — the biodynamic guru who took [Joseph] Phelps, Peter Michael, and Grgich [Hills] all to organic and biodynamic farming — to do the same for all six of our vineyards. All told, we're on a four year program to have almost 40 tons of fruit biodynamically farmed from just the eastern hill of Oakville.
NM: So, this started more or less incidentally. You found yourself, a grower, with fruit that your original customer wineries could no longer buy.
ES: The plan actually started when Dalla Valle pulled out of Wilson Daniels, where I was the head of Sales and Marketing at the time. And I thought, "Well, I could do that project: I have access to some of the same fruit, live on the same hill. I'll just create a project and move it to Wilson Daniels to replace the Oakville project that they lost." Soon after, I left Wilson Daniels without ever having followed through on the thought. That is, until my friend David Finney (from the Prisoner) told me in 2003 that he couldn't use my fruit anymore. It's interesting: Cakebread's Three Sisters used to be from three vineyards in Oakville; two of those three are in the Oakville East project now. Some of the fruit that used to go into the Dalla Valle Maya is now in the project, too. So, the fruit sources were well-established long before Oakville East came along, and all we did was to begin some strict vineyard management and changes in the water regime, and then to start going biodynamic. We have an overall vineyard manager that walks all six vineyards every Saturday morning who will then tell each vineyard's manager, whom we individually employ, how to work through all the projects for his own vineyard.
Differentiation of an Appellation
NM: Every vineyard in the Oakville East project is located in the Oakville appellation, with specifically an eastern exposure. Beyond that, what other characeristics do the vineyards have in common?
ES: The vineyards in Oakville have two differentiators. One is the sun: the east side of Oakville gets a lot more sun than the west side, strictly because as the sun moves southerly (as we get closer to harvest), it gets blocked by the Mayacamas [Mountain range] earlier on the west side of the valley than it does on the east side. The other major difference is the east side of Oakville is a collapsed Vaca mountain, and the basalt rock that got exposed to the elements turns to iron oxide when rainwater hits it, and as it became chipped off through the centuries, became our soil. As a result, we get less than two tons per acre [of fruit] without doing anything to the vines, because there is no soil here. I have a little over an acre on my home vineyard, and have never gotten more than a ton [from it]. So, we get a difference in sun exposure, and then even though our vineyards are on the east side, they all face west — there are eastern hillside Oakville vineyards that face away from the sun. So you get a difference in tannin structure, depending on both the vineyard's side of the hill (east or west) and its exposure to the sun.
To answer your question, the grapes we're getting with our six vineyards ripen, and are therefore harvested, earlier than the west side. The tannins — not just in the wines of Oakville East, but historically with Rudd, Screaming Eagle, Dalla Valle, Phelps Bacchus [also sourced from vineyards on the eastside of Oakville] — have a very feminine structure, very soft and elegant. And what I think is so dynamic about this side of the valley is that when get a soft and elegant tannin structure, along with a very judicious use of new wood, you taste the awkwardness of fruit when the wine is young. Which is totally different from a lot of Cabernet-based wines where the structure is so up-front in your mouth that it takes years [in bottle] before you really taste the fruit. So when something is weird in a young, eastside Cabernet, it's usually because the fruit is going through stages [of evolution] and because the tannin structure, although definite, is soft enough for that young fruit to really come through. I think these wines are actually easier to drink when they're young. But they'll still mature for as long as any other.