"Are you sensing a theme here with the rocks?" asked Ovid owner Janet Pagano halfway through a tasting of five Cabernet Sauvignons from Napa Valley's Pritchard Hill area.
The crowd laughed in response, as the Pritchard Hill vintners had repeatedly talked about the rocky terrain. Lively presentations, colorful slides and dramatic wines demonstrated what makes this prime California Cabernet zone so distinct: dark red soils, dramatic vistas, persistent fog, terrific wines and those huge, round boulders popping out of the soil. Some vintners shared stories of dynamiting the huge rocks, of realigning them into beautiful stone walls, or as Molly Chappellet explained, putting them in her garden. "You don't have to water or tend to them," she quipped.
Chappellet fittingly opened the seminar, presenting the big but refined Chappellet Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Pritchard Hill 2013 (93 points, $210). The Chappellets—celebrating their winery's 50th anniversary—were the original pioneers of Pritchard Hill. Molly described how she and her husband, the late Donn Chappellet, moved their family from Los Angeles to Napa in 1967, hoping to make world-class Cabernet. But the terrain was wild. "Rocks are what we had. Every time we put a shovel or tractor in the ground, rocks, rocks, rocks," she explained.
Colgin winemaker Allison Tauziet continued the theme as she described Pritchard Hill as reminding her of the "Wild West," making her feel like a pioneer. The Colgin IX Estate Napa Valley 2013 (95, $550), a Cabernet-dominated blend comes from one of the steepest east-facing slopes in the area. Tauziet pointed out the dark cherry fruit, sage and mineral flavors that she feels are the hallmarks of Cabernets from the region. "The ability [of Pritchard Hill] to distinguish itself means, to me, great terroir," she explained.
Though Philippe Melka is one of the most sought-after consulting winemakers in Napa, he called himself the "new guy" in Pritchard Hill, where he made the rich but deftly balanced Brand Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2013 (94, $225). Melka explained the prime vintage conditions of 2013 and the importance of Pritchard Hill's proximity to Lake Hennessey as a source of cooling air.
But it was Pagano who drove the point home about the rocky terrain, explaining that Ovid cleared 50,000 cubic feet of those rocks before vineyard planting in the late 1990s could begin. As she presented the dense, powerful Ovid Napa Valley 2013 (94, $285), which shows notes of crushed rock and loamy earth, Pagano said, "We think Pritchard Hill is a piece of heaven on earth—a rocky piece of heaven on earth!"
The last presenter, Tim Mondavi, introduced the savory, supple Continuum Continuum Napa Valley 2013 (94, $225) Cabernet blend by explaining his family's history—from his grandfather who shipped grapes back in 1919 to his famous father, the late Robert Mondavi, who revolutionized California wine. Mondavi said that he felt Pritchard Hill's good drainage and small berries gave the wines strength and density. Pointing out that he could have chosen to create his next family label anywhere, Mondavi explained what drew him to Pritchard Hill: "All [my family history] has taught me is that great wine is all about site." The Cabernet lovers in the room agreed.