Renewal and Determination: Schrader Cellars Cabernet

Founder Fred Schrader and winemaker Thomas Brown talk history and inspiration over 6 bottlings from Beckstoffer To Kalon vineyard

Renewal and Determination: Schrader Cellars Cabernet
Winemaker Thomas Brown (left) and founder Fred Schrader have made more than 50 classic-rated Cabernets. (Rick Wenner)
Oct 23, 2018

“If you wanted to tell the story of Napa Cabernet over the past few decades, Fred Schrader’s story would be the perfect way to do it,” said senior editor James Laube, introducing the last of Friday’s seminars. “Fred came to Napa Valley in the 1980s and caught the wine bug. … He and his [then-]wife, Ann Colgin, founded Colgin Cellars, hiring a winemaker named Helen Turley.” The wine debuted in the legendary class of 1992 cult Cabernets, alongside Screaming Eagle and Bryant Family. It was an overnight success.

But after the couple parted ways in the late ’90s, “Fred was faced with the prospects of starting over,” Laube said. “His story is one of renewal and determination.”

Uncertain of his next move, Schrader was tasting through barrels of the 1999 vintage at Behrens & Hitchcock when inspiration struck. “I tasted this one barrel—it was like an epiphany. It was unbelievable. I thought, ‘Good God Almighty, where did this come from?’ They said it was from To Kalon Vineyard down in Oakville. Andy Beckstoffer owns it.”

Schrader promptly struck a deal to buy grapes from Beckstoffer and, his new course set, hired talented young winemaker Thomas Rivers Brown. “His attention to detail, his compassion for wine—he’s completely devoted,” said Schrader. But, “Thomas had never made a Cabernet in his life when I met him. He said, ‘What the hell, we’ll give that a try.’ We shook hands on my porch, and that’s the only contract we’ve ever had.” Since then, more than 50 Schrader Cabernets have earned classic scores of 95 points or more.

Schrader described Brown as “the ultimate master at reading a vineyard.” Through years of selection, Brown and Schrader have contracted 16 prime acres of Beckstoffer To Kalon. “There’s a crossroads in Andy’s vineyard that we think of as the tenderloin of To Kalon,” Brown said, “and we’ve focused on those blocks.”

Schrader and Brown presented three cuvées—Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard RBS, CCS and Old Sparky (MM V and MM VIII, in magnum)—from the 2005 and 2008 vintages. Five of the wines earned classic ratings on release.

“The RBS is much brighter, more red fruit, some savory elements but mostly fruit-dominated,” said Brown. “CCS has a darker profile, you see more things like black walnut, tobacco … for Sparky, it’s the most complete, and holding the most in reserve.”

The two vintages were quite different: 2005 was “a big vintage, more modern” and “2008 was really tiny and really hot,” Brown continued. Although Schrader Cabernets drink well young, he feels they start to hit their peak around 10 years old. “What I like is you’re starting to see the savory character, especially these 2005s, you’re getting more tobacco and herbal notes … really complementary. I think the 2005s, especially the CCS, are just in a spectacular place right now.”

While Schrader wines are often described as opulent, what Brown has done, better than most, said Laube, is achieve an equilibrium between richness and elegance, with nuanced aromatics and flavors.

“So many people are trying to make the best Napa Valley Cabernet, and getting to the top is a very, very combative exercise,” Laube concluded. “And Fred Schrader’s been there twice.”

Read James Laube's full profile of Fred Schrader in the Nov. 15, 2010, issue of Wine Spectator. Laube’s recent cover story, “The Midas Touch of Thomas Rivers Brown,” appears in the Nov. 15, 2018, issue.

6 Schrader Cellars Cabernets

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