Senior editor James Molesworth is Wine Spectator's lead taster for California Cabernet Sauvignon. He recently returned to Napa Valley for more visits with top wineries. And don't miss our Q&A with James on his Napa Cab eureka moments, his scoring philosophy, and what he's up to when he's not tasting wine.
When word broke that Napa’s Grace Family winery had been sold earlier this year, it marked another inevitability in Napa’s generational changing of the guard. The estate was founded by Dick and Ann Grace, following their purchase of a small property on the western side of Highway 29 just north of St. Helena in 1976.
The Graces were living in San Francisco, and they'd come up for a Zinfandel tasting. A friend suggested they look at a nearby property and they agreed to, with no intention of buying anything. Needless to say, that didn’t last long as the Graces bought the ramshackle house, complete with birds living in the attic, on the spot. The front acre plot was an olive orchard; those trees were soon relocated on the property and replaced by grape vines.
When first harvest was completed, they loaded up their station wagon with small lug boxes full of grapes and drove it down to Charlie Wagner at Caymus, who liked the fruit so much he bottled it separately under his Caymus label, labeling it as Grace Family. From there the wine went on to earn one of Napa’s first cult followings, with production shifted from Caymus to Grace’s small basement winery a couple of vintages later. Production has always been limited, and much was sold off for charity. But the wine was distinctive. Marrying powerful fruit with racy savory and herb notes, it proved to be one of the valley’s longest-lived wines.
Fast forward to today and the new owner is Kate Green. Green and her husband came to the valley as outsiders and started with an olive grove of their own, with no intention of getting into the wine business. Eventually they planted a vineyard, and along the way developed a friendship with the Graces. Family parallels made it a natural fit in many ways.
“My husband is a banker, like Dick was," says Green. "We started with olive trees, then went to vines. We didn’t plan this, but it feels like a calling.”
And perhaps the main cog in the wheel is winemaker Helen Keplinger, who started working at Grace in 2014 and was helping Green with her vineyard. Keplinger’s own connection with Grace actually goes back to 1997, when she was trekking in Nepal and stopped to take on provisions, only to see a bottle of Grace Family on a table. She walked over and introduced herself to the group there—headed by no other than Dick Grace. When he reached out through an intermediary in 2014, Keplinger didn’t hesitate.
The first order of business for Keplinger was to rejuvenate the vineyards. There are two blocks, upper and lower. The upper had been replanted in 1997, but the lower one hadn’t, and it was succumbing to virus. That was pulled out after the 2016 vintage, with replanting done from a massale selection of the vineyard that had been started a few years earlier, eliminating virused material. The lower parcel features volcanic compressed ash, basalt and clay soils and, according to Keplinger, it gives the wine its soft fleshiness.
The upper parcel needed some work too. It’s situated on red volcanic soil that is remarkably different, despite the two parcels being barely a minute’s walk apart. Over time, the vines on the naturally low-yielding site had been trained on a single arm, which was limiting their capacity to produce. Keplinger is in the process of switching them to a double arm, to improve sap flow and ensure longevity for the vines, rather than having to pull them out on a 20- to 25-year cycle as is typical in Napa. The upper parcel produces the "skeleton" of the wine, according to Keplinger. It’s the structure and spine that then marries with the flesh fruit of the lower parcel. They ripen up to two weeks apart—another eye opener considering their proximity.
The Grace Family Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2017, which is nearly at its final blend and sitting in tank, shows a very intense cassis core, tightly focused structure and mouthwatering savory and mineral streaks that carry through a racy finish. The wine is made only from the upper parcel, as the lower block is not yet back in production following the replanting. Thus production is just 150 cases, half the normal (both parcels are nearly 1.5 acres each).
“North of St. Helena and west side, there’s always something green and fresh in the wines,” says Keplinger. “Not dried herbs like you get on the east side, but fresher and more aromatic, which highlights the red fruit profile of the wine.”
The 2018 is still in barrel, and a sample of the first picking from the upper block is even more intense than the ’17, with blazing purity to its damson plum, dark cherry and violet notes that are wonderfully vibrant through the finish.
I ask Keplinger if the ’17 and ’18 are really Grace, considering they currently lack half their normal vineyard base. “Oh, I think it’s the wine,” she answers, then pauses. “But it’s also not the full wine, because I know what that lower block can do and add to the wine. And when that is back in production I think it’s going to be even better than before. But still, this [‘18] isn’t an incomplete wine. I guess I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth, so I better let the wine speak for itself,” she adds with a light laugh.
The energy between Keplinger and Green is positive and collaborative. They both clearly care for the historical significance of the estate and are committed to keeping its heritage, while at the same time bring it into modern day Napa. That doesn’t mean a style shift—this is a micro-terroir that would be resistant to any major tinkering in the winemaking. What it means is more attention to the viticulture and more detail in the winemaking that will amplify the terroir even more. Grace Family’s history continues. And it’s new history starts now.