|California's Vintage of the Century|
|Raymond Vineyard & Cellar|
A Contractor's Dream
By James Laube
A building contractor by profession, Steve Sherwin was in his element when he and his wife, Linda, bought property on Spring Mountain above Napa Valley in 1996. Their goals were straightforward, if daunting: remodel an old home, log a forest, till the earth and plant vines for their new vineyard. "I couldn't have been much happier," says Sherwin, with a grin.
After rebuilding the home, Sherwin, 49, turned his attention to the vineyard, racing about their property on an all-terrain vehicle and tending to different chores -- until his wardrobe started smelling like diesel fuel. "That's when my wife took my clothes and threw them away," he says.
The Sherwins came to Napa Valley from Clayton, Calif., a small town in Contra Costa County, east of San Francisco, where Steve owned a construction company which built everything from custom homes to schools and apartments.
"This whole area was overgrown," he says, pointing in a sweeping motion to one of his newly planted (save for 3 acres of old vines that he discovered and kept) vineyards, surrounded by towering trees. In all, he estimates he clear-cut 15 to 20 acres and now has about 15 under vine, with most of the land allotted for Cabernet and smaller amounts of Merlot and Cabernet Franc.
Although Sherwin didn't know much about grapegrowing or winemaking when he started, he says he knew that Napa was red-wine country. "I'd tried some of the Ritchie Creek Cabernets," he says, "but just look around at the dirt, the altitude [2,000 feet], the district -- this is Cabernet country."
Even though the vines are young and skinny, the grapes from the first few vintages show tremendous potential, particularly in the newest wines. "I like the mountain fruit," he says. "When you pour it, it's a dead giveaway."
Sherwin Family Vineyards' Cabernets are tannic and chewy and in need of short-term cellaring, but the consistency in the first two releases is notable. The first vintage, from 1996 (92 points, $56), came from the old vines and is a tight, peppery, austere wine. The 1997 (92, $65) is also intense, but offers more depth in its cherry, currant and earthy notes. The 1998 (100 cases) shows richer up-front berry and cherry flavors, but still tightens on the finish. The 1999, a barrel sample, should be the best, revealing exotic spice, wild berry and blueberry flavors.
Sherwin has hired Phil Steinschriber, winemaker at Diamond Creek Vineyards, to help with winemaking. Diamond Creek's Cabernets are tight and tannic, too, so having someone with experience should aid the Sherwins in their battle with the Spring Mountain tannins.
The plan is to increase production from about 150 cases a year to between 1,500 and 2,000, and of course Sherwin can hardly wait to build a winery. The old 20-by-20 foot building he's using is functional, but he's got grander designs in mind -- a gravity-flow winery, maybe with caves and vine cover. It's another one of those contractor's dreams.