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.
After my visit at Ovid, atop Pritchard Hill, I stuck to the valley floor for my next. The differences couldn't be starker, but it's that dichotomy that makes Napa Cabernet so fascinating.
Ovid has 15 acres of vines struggling on scraggy volcanic rock. At Groth, located on the filet mignon of Napa Valley, the Oakville Cross Road, there are 121 acres of vines seemingly gorging themselves on deep loam and gravel. And yet both make compelling wines.
When Dennis and Judy Groth bought a property in Napa Valley in 1981, it was meant to be a retirement spot. Dennis was working in the Bay Area for Atari during its heyday and he didn't know anything about farming, but he did like the property, which had some vines planted by Justin Meyer in the early '70s. As Groth kicked around during his spare time he hired Ben Benson to replace the fading vines and expand the vineyard a bit. The plan was to sell off the fruit. A small amount was bottled under the Groth name, debuting in 1982. A second property of 44 acres was purchased that same year.
But when Atari crashed in the mid-eighties, the "retirement" plan was accelerated and Groth moved his family up to Napa. And when the market for buying grapes didn't materialize the way Groth expected, plan B became to make all the wine themselves. By 1985, with Nils Venge as winemaker, Groth was cranking out 30,000 cases of wine. A winery was built in 1990 to keep up with the growing production and in '94 Michael Weiss replaced Venge as winemaker. Weiss oversaw another large-scale replanting started in 1998 during which time production dropped. By 2001 the vineyard was back on an upward trajectory …
It was Venge who isolated the first reserve block for its potential for Cabernet. There is some soil variation on the site, and a cooler corner where Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon are grown. There's some Merlot, too. But it's the reserve blocks (there are now two) that have earned Groth its reputation. The reserve blocks total 27.5 acres—nearly twice the total of Ovid's entire vineyard.
Cameron Parry is head of winegrowing now. Parry joined in 2014, after a stint at Chateau Montelena, and was promoted in '16, with Weiss earning the winemaker emeritus title. Dennis and Judy's daughter Suzanne, who essentially grew up on the property, is the winery's president.
Groth is Napa scale, with large stainless-steel tanks in the winery, as opposed to the boutique approach. No better or worse, just different, to accommodate valley-floor grapegrowing.
"On the valley floor there is more uniformity from vineyard block to vineyard block, as opposed to mountain parcels," says Parry. "So our picks are bigger, and thus our tanks are bigger. We do like flexibility, though, so we have various sizes, from 5 tons up to 20, though we rarely ever have a full 20-ton tank."
Parry has also put in a replanting program that pulls a few acres out each year, to avoid the drastic overhauls Groth went through previously.
"We don't want to be in that spot again, where there was no reserve Cab from 2000 through 2004, for example," he says. "So 5 to 6 acres every year to keep the vineyard in as full and healthy production as possible."
Once the grapes come in, they're fermented in stainless steel and pressed off before full dryness. "I like that hint of sweet fruit in the wine," says Parry. The wine is moved to barrel for malolactic, where the reserve (3,000-case average annual production) spends 22 months or more in 100 percent new French oak. The regular Oakville Cabernet (25,000 cases) combines fruit from other parcels on the property along with some purchased fruit; it spends about 18 to 22 months in 40 percent new French oak prior to bottling.
The 1985 Groth Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Reserve offers a gorgeous plume of savory, tea and blood orange notes followed by gently worn cedar and alder threads, all gliding along with a fully mature dried red currant core. It's a wine of elegance and pedigree. The 1995 Groth Reserve shows the difference 10 years makes on bottle age, as it's a noticeable step up in depth and richness, though still maintains its elegance, with a lingering sweetness of fruit. The latter wine is essentially the beginning of the end, says Weiss.
"With the leaf roll and eutypa issues we had, we really could just barely get it ripe. If we had a cool vintage, I knew we wouldn't get it ripe. … I had to think ahead," says Weiss. The vineyard had been torn out by 1999, causing the hiatus in the wine's production.
The 2006 Groth Reserve is the new beginning, the second vintage after the replant and the first containing the second block. It's lush and long, with waves of cassis, though it keeps the DNA of the vineyard with its alder hint, subtle mineral and sanguine notes and very, very refined tannins. It seems as if these are Cabernets of acidity, rather than mere tannins.
"Absolutely," says Parry. "We get a lot of tannin, but it's a very plush tannin. It's not the big bouncy stuff. So I need to make sure that core of acidity is there."
Parry also plays liberally with the Merlot percentage in the wine, ranging from as low as 1 percent in the 2015 to 20 percent in other vintages, such as 2013.
"In a big, muscular year for Cab, I need to tamp that down a bit," he says. "In a gentler year we need less Merlot."
The 2012 Groth Reserve Cab starts a new run of what could be called more modern vintages, as the new replants settle in. It's fuller and richer in feel, but doesn't lose its subtlety or finesse, keeping the light savory and wood elements infused into a core of warm cassis and plum puree. The 2015 Reserve is sappy in its fruit intensity, while the 2016 Reserve is thoroughly gorgeous, with a super suave display of cassis, plum and cherry preserve flavors infused with alder, sanguine, savory and rooibos tea accents.
The older vintages checked in around 13 perecent, with the newer ones now topping 14 percent. But this isn't an overt style shift due to market desires. The vineyard's character, its DNA echoes through all the vintages. Now that the vineyard has its best plantings to date, the terroir has a fuller throat with which to sing.