With the number of new wineries popping up these days, you might think it's a fairly straightforward process to start one. But Downing Family Vineyards would make you think otherwise. When owners John and Tracy Downing started looking for vineyard land, they hadn't planned on having their own wine label at all.
"All we really wanted when we started was to be growers," said John, 55. "I wanted my son to have a connection to the land."
In 1990, John sold his laser-printer parts company and started looking for vineyard land in southern California, where he and his wife, Tracy, and their 6-year-old son still live, just north of San Diego. However, the Downings soon switched gears.
"After looking for a while, we decided we really wanted to make a Cabernet," said John. "But to do that, we knew we had to go to Napa instead." He spent several years searching for vineyard land there, but deterred by the "totally crazy" prices, he finally arranged to buy Cabernet from sites in Rutherford, Oakville and Yountville.
So the winery's first release is a Cabernet, right? Actually, it's a Zinfandel. Odder still is that the Zinfandel is from Oakville, an appellation better known as the home of Cabernet giants such as Opus One, Harlan Estate, Dalla Valle and Screaming Eagle.
With all the excitement over Oakville Cabernet these days, people tend to forget that it's a pretty good place for Zinfandel too. But the Downings, who fly their own plane on their frequent trips up to Napa, had become friends with fellow pilot Andrew Hoxsey, who runs Napa Wine Co. He gave them a chance to lease a small, recently replanted Zinfandel vineyard right behind his winery and custom-crush facility, where the Downing Family wines are made.
In another twist, their winemaker is Randy Mason, who worked for Napa Wine Co. and currently produces Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot under his own Mason label. Despite having made almost every kind of wine during his 28 years in the business, Mason had never taken a crack at Zinfandel before. He came on board with the Downings for their original Cabernet project and only agreed to the Zinfandel on the condition that he had veto power over the final result.
The Downings learned right away that winemaking poses any number of obstacles, such as a fermentation that stopped several times during a very cold December. One of the two tanks of Zinfandel wound up not fermenting dry, so they sold it off and produced just 525 cases. Downing plans to get back to the original target of 1,000 cases with the 2000 vintage, and eventually increase to 2,000 cases.
The 1999 Downing Zinfandel Oakville Fly By Night (88 points, $35) is elegant, with ripe, graceful cherry, wild berry and raspberry flavors, and hints of chocolate and herbs. The wine's name ties in the spirit of the Downing's winemaking venture with their love of flying, and the bottle design features a Beechcraft Staggerwing airplane. The Zinfandel is currently available through the winery's mailing list, as well as in a few retail stores and restaurants in California.
This November, the winery will finally achieve its original vision, with the release of a 1998 Napa Valley Cabernet blend (not yet rated, not yet priced). In keeping with the "flying" theme, the bottle design is based on fly-fishing, another of the Downings' pastimes. Only 220 cases were made, with production increasing to 300 cases with the 1999 vintage. John is still looking for a Cabernet plot to buy, and his ultimate goal is to make 1,000 cases a year of an estate wine.
But then again, things could change.
Downing Family Vineyards
3212 Jefferson St., Box 189
Napa, CA 94558
Tel: (707) 399-9463
Read past New Wines, New Faces: