If I were to compare Napa Valley, one of the gems of the American west coast, to a piece of high jewellery, it would be an IF diamond. Flawless is reserved for only the finest, purest and best, and like every wine-growing region, there are exceptional to mediocre estates. With its dazzling land prices, scarcity of land and beauty, Napa Valley attracts billionaires looking for ways to ultimately indulge their passion; namely by creating their own winery. Success in business shows drive and an unwavering desire for excellence, and this carries forward to their side projects. Naturally, this makes competition, well competitive, especially with reputations at stake and pride of being listed at the finest restaurants.
Estates in Napa have not generally been handed down through families for generations, passing on the knowledge of the land. Although the first plantings here can be traced back to George Calvert Yount in 1836, it was not until 1976 after the famous Paris tasting where Chateau Montelena’s Chardonnay and Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon stole the show that the Napa Valley saw the widespread replanting of the valley. According to Napa Vintners (napavintners.com) in 1889, there were 140 wineries in operation until phylloxera destroyed 80% of these. To compound this devastation caused by the root louse, prohibition almost saw the death of commercial-scale winemaking in the valley, until 1933 when a slow recovery began.
Today there are some 400 wineries in the Napa Valley, an alluring visual feast that is 30 miles long and 5 miles long at its widest. It feels polished as if it has had cosmetic surgery, yet stunning. I have not visited in 18 years (shameful) but recall it being the USA’s equivalent of a chocolate box UK village. It emanates luxury, wealth and excellence. Its roads are lined by world-famous wine estates, looking pristine in the morning light before having their car parks filled with cars, full of people making a pilgrimage; geeking out on vinification techniques; capturing the perfect Instagram photo or planning an idyllic wedding. But take away the waxy polished look and you have a plethora of the world’s finest winemakers and viticulturalists, conjugated together to create wines that can only be described as spectacular. One such estate where this magical alliance happens is Quintessa.
The 280 acre Quintessa estate (160 planted to vines) was founded by Agustin and Valeria Huneeus on the eastern edge of Rutherford, overlooked by the Vaca mountain range. Planting commenced in 1990 including on now prohibited slopes that are over 30% in angle. Interestingly, the aforementioned George Yount was an early landowner in this region and gifted 1040 acres to his granddaughter Elizabeth and her husband Thomas Rutherford in 1864 as a wedding present, hence its name.
I mentioned above how several wine estates are owned by uber-wealthy titans of industry, or dot com million/billionaires; Quintessa is different. Agustin started his wine career at Concha y Toro in 1960, going on to run the wine divisions of multinationals. Valeria is a microbiologist and viticulturist that holds a PhD. It was she who secured the estate whilst looking for a new vineyard management project. She persuaded the then owners to sell them the property. A feat 12 others had failed to do.
With hindsight, I would conjecture with almost certainty that the former custodians would be thrilled at how the Huneeus’ have managed, developed, and initiated change at the vineyard. Dr Pedro Parra, a renowned expert on terroir, was brought in to analyse in minute detail the soil and its components. Using Electro-conductivity to determine the soil conduct, a map was created to separate different sections of the vineyard at harvest time.
Furthermore, 5 feet deep pits have been dug next to the vines to allow detailed observation of how the vine roots interact with the soil. The knowledge gained from this detailed surveillance has led Rebekah (winemaker) and Rodrigo (estate director) to change multiple facets of how they interact with the vines. Pruning for example has moved away from finishing with aesthetics in mind, to promoting vascular flow to maximise their energy and vitality. This is especially important as the prolonged summer heat can be an issue with no rain falling for months. With the new pruning and other proprietary viticulture and biodynamic techniques being practised, the vines are well-nourished at the beginning of the summer ensuring resilience towards the end of the growing season. This is particularly important as whilst dormant during winter the vines rely on stored carbohydrates reserves to survive and are also dependent on these for approximately a month after new shoots appear. By understanding and working with the vine’s energy systems, increases in grape quality and health are realised.
The dedication to the land, the vines and the estate is not new and most certainly is not a marketing spiel. In 1996, and ahead of the curve, biodynamic farming was introduced, connecting the vines with nature via soil management that allows microorganisms to thrive and release nutrients into the ground for the vines to take up. The soils here are varied, from the white volcanic ash of the Eastern Hills; deep gravel and cobbles of the central hills, to the sand, clay loam and gravel of the bench. Wildlife thrives here amongst the ancient oak trees surrounding the picturesque Dragon Lake which was dug in the 1950s. It acts as a focal point on the estate. It must be particularly wonderful in Spring when sheep are introduced to graze and naturally fertilise the soil. Bees are also kept, which play an essential role in pollination. Not vines themselves (they are self-pollinating) but the essential cover crops which aid the level of nitrogen in the vineyard whilst increasing the organic content of the soil through microbiomes.
Rebekah Wineburg, the estate’s winemaker, strongly believes that the relationship between a winemaker and the ground is like a marriage. You need a deep connection and have your personalities work together to make the relationship thrive. Daily walks around the vineyard help cement this interdependence and gain a true understanding of what is needed. One change that Rebekah has made is the installation of 5300-litre concrete tanks, installed in 2018 and manufactured by Sonoma Cast Stone. The benefit of concrete tanks is their thermal conductivity. It takes less energy to heat and is permeable, oxygen can interact with the wine, further keeping the process natural and giving, it is said, a finer tannin structure to the wine.
In terms of ageing, I asked Rebekah how she feels the change to concrete tanks and pruning to aid vascular flow will make a difference:- “The concrete tanks are a particularly good match for the grapes from our Eastern Hills (aka the white soils). The vessel size, thermal properties, and breathability allow the linearity and texture of these parcels to show their best self. The pruning techniques that focus on the preservation of vascular flow promote healthy vines that will be able to survive much past the typical vine age for our region.”
Native yeasts are used to inoculate fermentation instead of commercial variants purchased on a wholesale scale. The 26 individual plots are matured separately in immaculate French oak barrels (63% new for the 2018 vintage) for approximately 2 years before careful blending. Such is the desire for excellence that not all of the wines will reach the desired quality level for Quintessa, in fact only one plot in the wine’s history has made every vintage – Dragons Terrace. Each barrel is tasted individually which sees hundreds of glasses placed in front of Rodrigo and Rebekah. It may seem like the ideal job, but it is extremely skilled with minute adjustments making a defined difference.
The 2018 Quintessa is predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon (92%) with the remainder made up of Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Carmenere and Petit Verdot. It is packed full of dark fruits such as blackberry, cherry and damson. It opens up in the glass to reveal layers of vanilla and oak complemented with dark chocolate and leather. The tannins are refined and integrated, the acidity balanced. This is a wine that you genuinely keep coming back to in the glass and one that not only should be tasted now but in the future. With the wineries’ Decades range, you may just have the opportunity to do so, as they lay down the finest vintages only to reemerge 10 years later.
I was curious to know if Rebekah had aged the Decades in half bottles, on an experimental basis, to test the accelerated maturation it offers. She remarked – “After tasting the vintages over time in all formats, I feel the 1.5L is best for ageing as it allows the development of secondary character and mouthfeel while also preserving the freshness of aroma”
The gravity-fed winery is sympathetic to the natural contours of the surrounding landscape in the form of a crescent-shaped building. The choice of material, Tufa stone, for the walls is in reference to historic Napa buildings. Its contemporary design includes exposed steel structures in the ceilings whilst being dug into the hillside to blend with the landscape and be hidden from the Silverado Trail. This had resulted in the tunnels having naturally controlled humidity and temperature with no need for air conditioning. It was designed by Walker Warner Architects in San Francisco to have four major areas; the production building, the receiving area, the visitor centre building, and the wine tasting pavilions. The latter is of particular interest if visiting in a group and wish to taste through 6 wines. Each of the 3 pavilions is 250 sq feet and can accommodate up to 8 guests. Here you will be guided through the Quintessa philosophy whilst soaking up the incredible vista that through millennia now forms part of this renowned wine estate.
If you have not booked a private pavilion and tour, you can still enjoy some of the most exquisite vistas in Napa from the visitors centre. Whilst sampling the wines you enjoy the fact that there are circa 3000 barrels ageing in the 1,200 linear ft, immaculate cathedral-like cellar below. Photos portray a sense of calm, pace and authenticity; of nature and connection to the ground, whilst manifesting elegance. The wines are in perpetual darkness, slowly ageing before being brought back to the surface for blending to create something flawless. Much like a perfect diamond.