New Napa Winery Has All-Star Cast

Nov 29, 2006

Ovid (pronounced Ah-vid) is a spectacular new winery in Napa Valley's Pritchard Hill area, on a steep winding road that I’ve come to refer to as the Rodeo Drive of Napa.

This area, in the eastern hills overlooking Oakville, is home to several showcase estates, including Bryant Family, Chappellet, David Arthur, Colgin, Versant and, further up the road, Cloud View, yet another start-up. More winery estates are on the drawing boards.

The owners of Ovid, Dana (pronounced Dan-ah) Johnson, 47, and Mark Nelson, 48, came to Napa from New York in 1998. After years of visiting the valley, they decided to buy a home there, as they discovered Napa's milder winters were more to their liking than New York’s harsh snow season. One thing led to another and the couple eventually decided to develop a vineyard, make wine and build a winery.

“We became convinced the site was ideal for wine grapes,” said Johnson, citing one of their favorite wines, the Dalla Valle Maya, a Cabernet Sauvignon-Cabernet Franc blend made with grapes grown in a vineyard below their property.

Today the couple owns 300 acres, 15 of which have vines that were planted in 2000. Vineyard guru David Abreu designed and oversaw the mix of mostly Cabernet Sauvignon (about 9 acres) and Cabernet Franc (about 4 acres), with lesser amounts of Malbec and Petit Verdot.

The winemaker is Andy Erickson, one of the hottest names in winemaking circles this past year. He is also the new winemaker for Screaming Eagle. And the couple hired the famous globe-circling French enologist Michel Rolland as a consultant, and Janet Pagano, an industry veteran with extensive experience, including the start-up of Codorniu Napa, is CEO.

Johnson and Nelson built their ultramodern winery into the hillside, at an elevation of 1,400 feet, moving huge boulders and burrowing into the rocky hill for the cellar floor and caves where the first vintage, 2005, is resting in barrel, soon to be joined by 2006.

The facility, named after the Roman poet who lived around the time of Christ, is amazing. It's as cutting-edge as it gets, from grape-sorting tables to a 50-50 mix of 3- and 4-ton concrete vats and wood fermentation casks to the modern architecture. Use of concrete fermentation tanks is common in many parts of the world but not California.

“I was scared to death to put red wine in [concrete],” Erickson confessed, admitting he feared the cement might impart a dusty concrete character.

But the winemaking team and contractor Mark Grassi of Napa toured Bordeaux and found that concrete fermentors are often preferred over stainless steel at many estates, including Château Pétrus.

Concrete functions like wood, said Erickson, but allows for darker, more stabilized colors in the young wines, more intensity of flavor yet softer tannins. The wines are cold-soaked for five to seven days, then whole-berry fermented using native yeasts. The 3- and 4-ton tanks are punched down manually.

The two vintages I tried from barrel and tank, 2005 and 2006, respectively, were sensational.

 
Ovid was built into the hillside, at an elevation of 1,400 feet.  
The two 2006s, one from oak and one from concrete, were markedly different. The oak-fermented sample was intense, with vivid, elegant berry flavors and soft, fine-grained tannins. The concrete-fermented sample was darker, richer, with blackberry fruit that was deeply concentrated, almost syrupy compared to the oak-fermented sample.

The 2005 barrel samples—which will be the first commercial release, probably in 2008—are similarly striking. “We could tell the wines had established themselves [by 2005] and were really happy,” said Erickson.

Experimental wines were made in 2003 and 2004, said Johnson. “They were good wines, but you can really tell the difference with 2005.”

Erickson showed me barrel samples of the 2005 Cabernet Franc (gorgeous fruit, dense, concentrated and complex), two samples of Cabernet Sauvignon (one barrel which was dense, rich and earthy, with herb, currant and black olive flavors; a second with riper blueberry and blackberry flavors, and not as tannic) and a Petit Verdot (which was muscular, dark and tannic). The wines will spend about 22 months in new oak and one month in bottle before release.

Though Johnson and Nelson are trying to keep a low profile, it won’t be easy given their all-star winemaking team and the great promise the wines are showing.

United States California Red Wines Cabernet Sauvignon
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