It was love at first sight for Florence Cathiard when she saw the property at Flora Springs.
Florence, along with her husband, Daniel, owns Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte in Bordeaux. That original foray into the wine business was in 1984 and Smith-Haut-Lafitte was a run-down mess, with a hole in the winery roof. Today it has been rejuvenated into one of Bordeaux’s elite properties, and its neighboring Sources de Caudalie is one of the world’s top eno-tourism spots.
The couple has since gone on to purchase châteaus Le Thil, Cantelys, Beauregard, Bastor-Lamontagne and St.-Robert in Bordeaux, as well as develop additional luxury hotels, spas and a ski chalet. The Flora Springs purchase is their first foray outside of France.
But with that track record, it seems an easy gamble for the Cathiards to elevate the Flora Springs estate they purchased at the end of 2019, especially considering the relatively healthy state of the vineyards. Only the winery and hospitality facilities need much of an upgrade at this point, though there are plans to tweak the vineyards a bit as well. The previous owners, the Komes and Garvey families, kept some additional vineyards to the south, as well as the Flora Springs brand name and tasting room on Highway 29. The Cathiards have renamed the property, located at the base of the Mayacamas mountain range, Cathiard Family Estate.
While the ravages of COVID in 2020 have prevented the Cathiards from getting to their new property, they have been able to install Justine Labbé, 27, as winemaker. On my recent visit, she’d been on the job all of two and half weeks (previously she worked with SHL technical director Fabien Teitgen for two years). While she has youthful energy, she’s taking a measured approach, particularly in the vineyards.
“We need to wait for this year, to see what does well and what needs realignment," she says, referring to some spots where she plans to change the row orientation from north-south to east-west to help mitigate the effects of too much sun. “We need to see how the terroir expresses itself.”
A touch of Merlot has already been taken out in favor of Cabernet Sauvignon. Labbé has her eye on 20 of the 58 acres for possible realignment, along with an additional 11 acres to be planted on virgin soils on the property. The current breakdown of plantings is 60 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 25 percent Merlot, 10 percent Malbec and 5 percent Cabernet Franc, with the estate’s oldest vines dating to 1980. Rudd Estate’s Frederick Ammons is consulting on the project, with Teitgen overseeing from back in Bordeaux.
There were 156 tons of fruit brought in from the 2020 harvest, but no final decisions have been made on what, if any, might make it to bottle under the Cathiard Family Estate name.
“We want our first release to be outstanding. Luckily a majority of the lots don’t show any smoke taint,” notes Labbé. “Other than that, nothing has been decided yet, as our desire is to only produce a CFE wine if the quality reaches our expectations. For now, it is too early for us to decide, as the wines are still at the beginning of the aging process.”
In addition to tweaking some vineyard parcels, Labbé has also immediately set to converting the estate to organic growing, and will then perhaps test some biodynamic practices as well. The cellar upgrade is already underway too, with new stainless steel vats being brought in along with a few technical upgrades.
Labbé admits she has a lot of catching up to do. She’s familiar with some of the clonal and rootstock material in the vineyard, but not all of it. Soil pits need to be dug as well so she can get a handle on what’s going on underneath the vines. And she’s tasting.
“The last two weeks have been busy, but I’ve tried wines from Dominus, Inglenook, Phelps and others,” says Labbé. The goal is “to do the best of both worlds. To use low yields as we have in Bordeaux and vinify for freshness, but respect the beautiful fruit and rich tannins of California.”
It’s all very much at the beginning for this project, and wine is a long game. But with some excellent building blocks in place and dedicated ownership, I’d expect this new project to trend up relatively quickly.