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Feature Article

Tierra Roja Cabernets are magnificent

...and a tiny vineyard shall lead them.

Oakville ~ Napa Valley (AVA)

Napa Valley’s future in the Cabs of tiny Tierra Roja

by Alan Goldfarb
July 15, 2009

To borrow the declaration that rock critic Jon Landau wrote in the 70s, “I have seen rock and roll future, and its name is Bruce Springsteen”, I have looked at the Napa Valley and its future is the Cabernet Sauvignon from the tiny Tierra Roja vineyard (just off the Silverado Trail at the eastern head of the Oakville Crossroad).

The wine is not corporate. The wine is a definitive expression of the site from where it originates. The wine is in spot-on balance with its fruit, tannins and acidity. And the wine is extraordinarily pleasurable, especially in concert with food.

In other words, the 2005 and the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignons I tasted, which represent the second and third efforts from this producer, resemble those which once were made from America’s most prominent region; and they are examples of the way modern techniques should be practiced to best allow the palpability of the wine to come to the fore.

But before you accuse me of hyperbole, let me state that the Tierra Roja Cabernet is expensive at a wallet-wrenching $115, and in this economy, that’s no trifle. Second, a perfunctory scrutiny of the data sheet will disclose a litany of high
David DeSante 300.jpg
Winemaker David DeSante
numbers that would make one blanch - alcohol levels which are bordering on 15 percent and pH’s which are creeping into a range that you might surmise will make it taste more like Dr. Pepper than wine.

In fact, the Cabs from the 4½-acre, terraced, red soil vineyard do not seem as though they are at the Napa Valley average of 14.8 percent. I guessed they were more in the 14.1, 14.2 range because the alcohol esters don’t grip the throat. Not even close. The pH is an extremely high 3.9, which is unconscionable if you don’t want your Cab to flatline and lay like a lox.

But somehow, little-known-as-yet winemaker David DeSante employs an open-top fermentation process that he insists allows the fruit to remain as bright as a freshly picked Bing cherry, the astronomical pH be damned.

According to the winery’s owner, Linda Neal, the winemaker doesn’t utilize often-used techniques such as “watering back” (to lower alcohol), de-alcoholization (to lower alcohol), or micro-oxygenation (to alter texture or aroma). So, how does DeSante explain the high pH that does not mercifully flatten out the wine, or the high alcohol that is subdued? DeSante acknowledges, “It’s a question I can’t begin to answer.”

But he goes on, “I prize freshness. I really want to taste the fruit. I’m harvesting around 25.5° Brix (a measure of sugar) and 3.5 (pH), and ferment in open-topped fermenters. (That way) you lose some of the oxygen, lose about half a percent of alcohol, and are left with the substance of the wine itself. After ML (malolactic fermentation), the pH rises to 3.9. (But) we preserve the freshness.”

Much of the reason why numbers alone can’t begin to explain the worthiness of the Tierra Roja Cabs is the efficacy of the vineyard. Without overstating it, DeSante calls it “a grand cru site”. Upon elaboration of what seems like bombast, DeSante is clear that “wines are not made by the numbers. I love my Davis education, but when you get to a certain point in your career, you don’t need a recipe. I make homemade pasta and I know it’s done when it has a texture of your earlobe. Those are things you can’t quantify. When you get to a special vineyard, it’s: wow! I can’t do that anywhere else. I don’t have that kind of subtle variation (in vineyards which he works for others) that I have here. What an opportunity …”

So what is it about the Tierra Roja vineyard that is so, well, “wow”?

The provenance of its founder, and perhaps more importantly, the ground from which its grapes emanate is owned by grower-cum-vintner Linda Neal. For 20 years, Neal worked alongside her now-divorced husband in their vineyard management company.

It’s apparent that this likeable, down-to-earth woman knows soil. She has it in spades in the form of the rust-red volcanic soil that informs her vineyard (ergo, its
Linda Neal 341.jpg
Tierra Roja’s owner, Linda Neal, puts her heart and soul into her vineyard.
name); as it does in the high-toned neighborhood of Oakville that is home to such stalwarts as Screaming Eagle, Bond, Dalla Valle, Bacchus, and Rudd. Those bona fides, coupled with Tierra Roja’s short supply – only about 250 cases are produced each year – account for the high price tag. That, along with the opinion that this vineyard seems to be turning out some of the best wine we’ve tasted from Napa Valley in a long while.

So, why in heck did Neal - who characterizes herself as a “jeans and boots person,” who now must put on high-heels although “I don’t feel like putting big-girl shoes on” - cross over to the wine side? Was it just for vanity’s sake, the malaise that has gotten a hold of a preponderance of her grape-grower brethren and sistren, who sashayed to the other side?

“Masochism and insanity,” she answers forthwith, without much irony. “I avoided it for so many years because I know it’s another business … Wine is a way to share the vineyard, but I can’t deny it, I want to share a piece of me and if that’s vanity, that’s vanity. I like to think of it as love more than vanity. But I was compelled to do it,” continues Neal, who used to manage the well-known Sauvignon Blanc vineyard Gamble Ranch and sold the fruit from her Oakville vineyard to Cakebread and still does to Dave Phinney’s Orin Swift label. “When you live in the Napa Valley, wine is the currency. You’re always taking someone else’s wine (made from their vineyard or their managed grapes) around. I needed my own child.”

It’s All About the Vineyard

So, which end of the business does she prefer? “No doubt the vineyard,” she says without hesitation. Now she says she has to start over, despite being on the other end of the business for more than two decades. Her parcel of land overlooks the valley, climbing to where it’s contiguous with Dalla Valle’s Maya vineyard. Of the vineyard, Neal says, “there’s no more perfect place on the planet to make wine.” The rocky soils make for a well-drained platform from which flows “some of the sweetest” (well) water and is the “sweet spot where it all comes together.”

Winemaker DeSante corroborates her story apropos the vineyard that he calls grand cru. “It’s all about that vineyard. You have to have a confluence of many factors – the right soil and exposure – and she has that perfect site.

The parcel results in small berries – the kind that winemakers always think are right for making great wine – “with good color, structure, and opulence that preserves the fruit. The fruit intensity and mid-palate structure without heavy tannin on finish - that’s a really hard thing to come by.”

While tasting the wines, I note a dusky or dusty taste in the mid-palate that’s both appealing and adds nuance and complexity that seems to come from the dry, red earth.

Neal and DeSante point out the vineyard’s lack of uniformity, just the opposite from the neat, exacting rows that one sees on the valley floor; and for which many viticulturists strive. It’s

Featured Wines

Merryvale Vineyards 2004 Oakville Grade This Cabernet has flavors of ripe black fruit including black cherry and blackberry, crème de cassis, sweet vanilla, and mint; focused entry; round, concentrated, and rich with good concentration and depth; finishes with ample, but well developed tannins.
buy wine 750ml $75.00

Textbook Vineyards 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon "Mise en place" Textbook Vineyards crafts very small lots (290 cs) of delicious and Top-Rated Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa Valley's much-heralded Oakville District.
buy wine 750ml $49.00


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