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.
The Oakville Cross Road in Napa Valley is as prominent a meeting point as there is in the valley. Connecting Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail, it counts high-profile residents along its route, has the Oakville Grocery at one end and faces the famed To Kalon Vineyard of Robert Mondavi Winery and Andy Beckstoffer. Less noticeable is the tiny road nearly in line with the Cross Road, on the west side of Highway 29. There's a road sign for Walnut Drive, and it's marked "private."
Walnut Drive runs along the southern edge of To Kalon, winds over a small stream and meanders into the western edge of the vineyard, with just a few small houses along the way. One of those is a small gray cottage that sits among the vines, some of which look very, very old. Their cover crop is untamed and, after the wet spring, it stands as high as the vines themselves. But it's the vines that get your attention. Gnarled by age yet standing tall and proud rather than hunched, their arms sprawl out with lengthy, curling grace and authority; rows of grape-bearing cephalopods, I thought to myself. On the surface, there is no "precision" here, but the seeming randomness of it belies the level of care and detail needed to nurse this vineyard along. Planted in 1954, these are among the oldest Cabernet Sauvignon vines in Napa Valley.
It was Tegan Passalacqua of Turley Wine Cellars who first drove me by this parcel, and he put me in touch with the brother duo now tending to them: Graeme and Alex MacDonald, ages 35 and 32, respectively. Together they manage 15 acres in what is part of To Kalon Vineyard, selling most of their grapes to Robert Mondavi Winery for the winery's To Kalon bottling. They keep the old-vine fruit for themselves, and have been bottling it since the 2010 vintage, but because of Mondavi's trademark, they can't use the name of the vineyard on their own bottling. The history here is worth telling …
In 1954 the MacDonalds' great-great-grandparents bought a 30-acre parcel around that gray cottage as a retirement spot, complete with cherry orchard. The plot was part of the area originally designated as To Kalon by Hamilton Crabb back in the 19th century. Robert Mondavi came by and suggested they plant grapes—Chenin Blanc, Johannisberg Riesling, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. He said he'd buy them, and they signed a contract for $165 a ton for three years. Not soon after they started selling, there was a grape shortage and the going market rate shot up to $200 a ton. Rather than stick to the contract price, Mondavi paid the market rate. In a sign of respect, the MacDonalds' great uncle tore up the contract and made it a handshake deal going forward.
The vineyard eventually transferred to the MacDonalds' grandmother, and she was selling the grapes equally to Robert and Peter Mondavi, who'd already had their famous split. Whenever the market fluctuated up, Peter would stick to the contract price while Bob would pay the premium; eventually she sold only to Robert. When the Detert and MacDonald families split, each took 15 acres. The Deterts eventually changed their parcel to nearly all Cabernet Franc (and the fruit goes to a wine under that name made by Tom Garrett), the MacDonalds switched to nearly all Cabernet Sauvignon.
Graeme and Alex's parents sold the production every year. It was the new generation that began to bottle some of the production themselves, turned on by the history they uncovered as they researched the estate. And those old vines.
"When we took over the farming, we were told nobody would want the old-vine fruit because there was so little of it, so we just decided to make it ourselves," says Graeme.
The vines under MacDonald control total about a half-acre of the 1954 plantings, 7.5 acres planted in 1974 by their grandfather, and another 6.5 acres planted by their mother in the 1990s with Mondavi's help. There are no plans to pull out the oldest vines, despite their low yields.
"Lowering yield is an issue for sure," says Graeme of most Napa vintners' penchant to replant on a regular cycle. "And vine management—pruning for fungal disease, for example—is extra work. So most people replant every 25 years."
"But longevity is what gives us something unique in terms of quality," says Alex. "We think age 20 is when our vines start to hit their stride. So we prune and farm accordingly to not only get them to age 20, but well beyond that."
The MacDonalds were not only lucky to come into old vines in such a prime piece of terroir, but healthy old vines too.
"Historically this was always farmed organically. No Roundup or other chemicals. If you look at other vines that are the same age as ours, from all three periods of planting, you can see the difference," says Alex. "In addition, viruses such as leaf roll don't spread as fast through our vines since we farm for biodiversity and our insect population is more cyclical."
As for the To Kalon name issue, the MacDonalds are sanguine about it. They've done exhaustive research and are confident in their vineyard being part of To Kalon, but prefer to stay out of the fray, even with another lawsuit underway.
"When we got interested in working the property, we were told it wasn't To Kalon," says Graeme. "But then we went back and looked at all the weight tags for the grapes sold from our property, and they were all labeled 'To Kalon,' which is legal for vineyard status," says Graeme. "But we'd rather do what we can do to add value to the To Kalon name. It's the precedent for vineyard designation in America. The wines from here were famous in the 1800s, and they were totally different grapes and wines from what is made today. That's what a great vineyard is, not a trademark."
The brothers made experimental cuvées from the old-vine parcel from 2004 through 2009 vintages, before finally releasing the 2010 commercially (there were just 92 cases of the debut release). They make the wine at John Kongsgaard's facility.
With the 2016 release, the wine totals 369 cases. Very concentrated, it moves slowly but with authority, as its core of cassis and mulled plum fruit is laced with plum pit, stony mineral, light savory, alder and incense notes. It's youthfully tight, but with a long echo of sweet fruit that plays out while serious cut and loamy grip hold a rock-steady rhythm through the finish. In farming their vines for longevity, it seems the MacDonalds have crafted a wine for longevity as well, as this should cruise in the cellar for two decades easily. (Check out the April 24 edition of the Insider for my official review of their 2016 Oakville Cabernet.)
"We don't have a big palatial tasting room. But if we're passionate and do everything with our own hands, we think we can compete with anyone," says Alex with a steady, plainspoken confidence.
I realize that this is a wine that many folks will likely never try. But I'd be remiss if I didn't tell the MacDonalds' story—my job is to shine a light on the efforts of those in the wine industry making something of quality and distinction while respecting the land they farm. And the MacDonalds epitomize that approach perfectly.