South Korean businessman Hi Sang Lee’s fascination with Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon—and the difficulty of buying it and other great wines in his home country—led him to start a wine-import firm. He focused on high-end wines from California, Europe and beyond, with a particular appetite for Napa’s cult Cabernets, such as Colgin, Harlan and Shafer.
The more time he spent tasting Napa Valley wine, the more wines he collected to import and at some point, he says, his friends suggested that if he loved Napa Cabernet that much, why not become a vintner?
Lee, CEO of Nara Food in Seoul, acquired the former Livingston winery and vineyard at the base of the mountains in Rutherford in 2005. This is extraordinary Cabernet turf, with such famed properties as Staglin, Scarecrow and Rubicon Estate nearby.
In Korea, Lee does most of his retail business at Podo Plaza, an elaborate five-story food and wine building that has a wine bar in the basement, a wine shop on the first floor, a wine museum above. The third floor houses the Wine Stewardship education trust, for wine classes, and above that is a Japanese culinary academy.
You might not get that much out of Lee without pushing, since he’s private and quiet. But he spent some time with me recently and talked about his passion for wine.
Once you step on his property, though, you can see his vision and precision. His winery is an amazing architectural achievement, the work of a famed architect-to-the-star-vintners, Howard Backen. The winery incorporates the old stone winery renovated by John and Diane Livingston and then extends that into a modern masterpiece, including three fermentation rooms, one each for the three single vineyard wines made under the Dana (pronounced Dah-Nah and Korean for spirit of generosity) Estates label.
Lee, 64, hired Philippe Melka as winemaker. Melka has his own label, Metisse, and has consulted for a stable of blue chip wineries, including Gemstone, Bryant Family and Hundred Acre. Cameron Vawter oversees production and discusses the three sites in the accompanying video.
While the 2005 Dana Helms Vineyard (the 5-acre former Livingston Vineyard at the winery) was impressive and expensive, at $275 a bottle, the next two vintages should showcase the quality of the vineyards. I loved the three 2006s and then found the 2007s even better. Both years produced wines with richer, denser, more complex and concentrated fruit. The 2006s were tight. The 2007s riper and fleshier.
The 2006 Helms is concentrated, while the 2007 should be a classic, offering a great range of flavors, with layers of loamy currant, almost tender in texture for a Cabernet of this weight.
From Lotus Vineyard, a five-acre site in Crystal Valley on the east side near Hundred Acre, the 2006 is firmer than Helms, very dense and concentrated, while the 2007 is rich, trim, with great depth and subtle flavor nuances.
The 24-acre Hershey Vineyard on Howell Mountain is barely in production. Both the 2006 and 2007 barrel samples showed a grapey-currant-graphite edge, although the ’07 has a more supple texture.
Production now is small, with 300-400 cases of Helms and Lotus and only 50 of Hershey. But the winery intends to grow to 2,000 cases.
The development of the vineyards and the individual wines should make for a fascinating horse race.
Vince Liotta — Elmhurst Illinois — March 19, 2009 6:32pm ET
Glenn S Lucash — March 19, 2009 8:23pm ET
Troy Peterson — Burbank, CA — March 19, 2009 8:43pm ET
Bill Hicks — March 19, 2009 9:43pm ET
Vince Liotta — Elmhurst Illinois — March 19, 2009 10:14pm ET
Patrick Steube — Thailand — March 20, 2009 12:11am ET
John Kmiecik — Chicago, IL — March 20, 2009 8:32am ET
Steve Lenzo — PHX, AZ — March 20, 2009 12:29pm ET
Sips & Tips | Wine & Healthy Living
Video Theater | Collecting & Auctions