For many, it's a dream to produce just one critically acclaimed Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. For Fred Schrader, it has happened twice. The proprietor of Schrader Cellars originally garnered attention on the Napa Valley Cabernet scene in the early 1990s as cofounder of Colgin-Schrader Cellars.
Schrader first visited Napa in 1988 to attend the Napa Valley Wine Auction. Soon after, Schrader and his then-wife Ann Colgin befriended husband-and-wife team Helen Turley and John Wetlaufer, before the latter couple became California's leading consultants. "They were the catalyst for being able to play the wine game at this level," Schrader says of his friendship with Turley and Wetlaufer. "They were totally interested in producing the finest product they could. It's the mantra I've kept ever since."
With Turley as winemaker, Colgin-Schrader Cellars produced its first wine in 1992, the same vintage that cult wines Screaming Eagle and Bryant Family also appeared on the Napa wine landscape. Colgin and Schrader parted ways in 1997 (the label is now simply Colgin), and Schrader immediately began to pursue resources for his next label.
While barrel tasting at Behrens & Hitchcock, Schrader learned that the source of the winery's grapes was the famed To-Kalon vineyard in Oakville, managed by Andy Beckstoffer. "About an hour later, I was in Andy's office, explaining that I needed the best possible grapes I could get from To-Kalon," says Schrader. He then tapped winemaker Thomas Brown, whom he says is "consumed with passion to make fine wine."
There are four different Beckstoffer To-Kalon bottlings in 2003: the T6 (94 points on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale, $75); the RBS (91, $75); the MM III (only bottled in magnum) (92, $250); and the Beckstoffer To-Kalon Vineyard (92, $75), which has no added designation. All are richly flavored yet elegant and stylish wines, with ripe currant and black cherry flavors.
Schrader, a private dealer in art and antiques, grew up in St. Petersburg, Fla., and has lived a life of travel and adventure. He drove Formula Ford race cars on the East Coast circuit, played polo in the Dominican Republic (as a lefty he was not able to play in the United States), and now, at 57, he is a cheerful man, with rosy cheeks and a ready belly laugh.
"I honestly think that Napa Valley has the potential to make the best Cab in the world," says Schrader. "That's what we try to show and represent." When asked to define the thread running through all his wines, he responds enthusiastically, without skipping a beat, "Lush, fruit-forward wine with balance from beginning to end."
Schrader is still consumed with getting the exact selection of the To-Kalon Vineyard he wants, and he will increase total production of his 2004 Cabernets to more than 1,000 cases. Yet he may continue to have separate bottlings for different clonal varieties. "Every year is a new child," he says. "We come out on a yearly basis with both guns blazing, no holds barred." Brown also makes the Vieux-Os Zinfandel for Schrader, and they will soon debut a 2005 Pinot Noir from Sonoma Coast grapes under the Ridgetop Partners label.
Schrader is quick to point out that though he is proud to represent Napa, he also challenges vintners there to improve. "There's a dreaded disease in Napa Valley. It's called 'house palate,'" he says. "People only drink their own wine. We rarely drink our wine. We are exploring the whole world of what is possible."