As harvest 2003 shifts into high gear, Highway 29 at Oakville Crossroad in Napa Valley is a beehive of activity. Cars zoom along the highway, clogging the roads with tourists and local residents competing for space with large trucks hauling important bounty -- gondolas of grapes headed for the crush pad.
The air at Napa Wine Co. is thick with the smell of fermenting grapes. This is one of Napa Valley's busiest arrival hubs for newly picked berries, the ultimate collection of wineries within a winery. It reminds me of an anthill, where the outward appearance offers barely a clue as to what is inside.
There are many custom crush facilities in Napa Valley, used mostly by smaller, upstart vintners that can't, or won't, put capital into expensive equipment they need for only a few hours a year. For these winemakers, Napa Wine Co. is a special place. It is a historic warehouse of a winery that some 65 different wine companies call home. They range in size from artsy to industrial. There is the dinky, $250-a-bottle cult-wine wannabe Amuse Bouche and its production of 10 barrels, or 250 cases, of Merlot. At the other extreme is Robert Mondavi's line of Private Selection Coastal appellation wines, a million-case brand that uses the facility for part of its production.
Then there are some of Napa's better-known labels, such as Pahlmeyer and Fife, along with newcomers, such as Azalea Springs, Blankiet, Jones Family, Mason, La Sirena, Showket, Oakford, Crocker & Starr, von Loben Sels, Downing Family and Madrigal. Until recently, Napa Wine Co. was where Bryant Family, Colgin and Marcassin crushed their grapes or aged their wines in barrels inside cagelike quarters about the size of a one-car garage. The most curious -- no, make that bizarre -- wine to be made under Napa Wine's roof is the red known as Marilyn Merlot.
When harvest heats up, the winery is a veritable madhouse, with workers unloading grapes from 5 a.m. until the gondolas are empty. And even after the grapes are crushed, the fermenting musts need to be moved into fermentation tanks, and the place has to be washed down and cleaned up for a fresh start the next day. Oftentimes, cellar crews work well into the night to wrap up the day's work.
The managing partner who oversees the chaotic crush is a cool hand named Andy Hoxsey, 48, a fourth-generation Napan. "You'll have people say we're nuts with all the small niche brands we have," he says with a smile, "but it all seems to work out fine." Indeed, there are occasionally tense moments when representatives of big-name wineries want to make sure their grapes aren't stuck sitting in gondolas in the sun for hours waiting for their turn at the crusher.
Hoxsey and his family have been farming grapes and making wine longer than almost any other family in Napa. They own nearly a thousand acres, with 635 in vines, and since buying and refurbishing the Napa Wine Co. property, they have made some impressive wines of their own, including a zesty Sauvignon Blanc and a rich, polished Cabernet Sauvignon.
The building is old, too. It is California Bonded Winery No. 9 and dates to 1877, when it was home to Nouveau Médoc Winery. Because of its prime location in the heart of the Valley, the building has been in constant use for most of its existence, and Inglenook harnessed it for many years for cellaring. If only the walls could talk.
From the highway, though, you'd hardly know Napa Wine Co. has one of the most fascinating tasting rooms around. Some 20 wineries share the newly redecorated room, and the menu features up to 20 of their new releases at a time.
By far the most expensive wine is perhaps the one you'd least expect, Marilyn Merlot. The 2001 Marilyn Merlot Napa offers a simple medley of berry fruit flavors and is nowhere near the elite from this tremendous vintage. Still, the allure of the famous actress -- who is featured in different poses on the label each year -- has resulted in one amazing following. The 1985 Merlot sells for $3,500 a bottle, and a vertical case from 1985 through 1996 costs $7,500. The last time I checked, most Napa 1985s were selling for a fraction of what Marilyn commands, which goes to show you can't judge a wine by its winery.
James Laube, Wine Spectator's Napa Valley-based senior editor, has been with the magazine since 1983.