A Cabernet Learning Curve on Pritchard Hill

The all-star team at Napa's Ovid continues to aim higher
A Cabernet Learning Curve on Pritchard Hill
Courtesy of Ovid From left: Ovid's Austin Peterson, David Duncan and Jack Bittner
Apr 23, 2019

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 Mark Nelson and Dana Johnson were house hunting in Napa in the late '90s, they weren't looking for vines. They wanted a turnkey property to relax in. They were nearly done looking, fruitlessly (see what I did there) before they were shown one last property: a 300-acre tract of uncleared land on Pritchard Hill, at 1,400 feet of elevation on the eastern side of the valley, behind Dalla Valle and neighboring David Arthur and Continuum. It had neither vines nor even a house … but it had a view, and an allure.

The couple were wine drinkers and as the thought of Napa Cabernet danced in their heads, they took the plunge. After bringing renowned vineyard manager David Abreu up for a look, there were 15 acres of vines planted by 2000 and by 2005, Ovid was born.

Eventually Nelson and Johnson sold to David Duncan (they remain minority owners and live on the property). Duncan, 53, who owns Silver Oak and Twomey, oversees the winery now, with managing partner Jack Bittner, 49, and winemaker Austin Peterson, 36. Abreu still helps with the vineyard and Michel Rolland consults on the wine.

The site is rocky—that's the first thing you notice. The ground is crunchy and firm under your feet, and the red, oxidized and weathered volcanic soil has a rugged feel. The estate is planted to two-thirds Cabernet Sauvignon, 25 percent Cabernet Franc and the rest Merlot and Petit Verdot. The 15 acres are divided into 17 parcels, each with a different variety and rootstock combination.

"The idea is to figure out which combination does best," says Peterson, who worked at Rolland's Bon Pasteur in Pomerol and down in South Africa before returning to his native state to work at Ovid in 2006 (he was born on Spring Mountain).

Ovid's site is at elevation and above the morning fog line, giving it a cool aspect. But it faces west, and the ensuing blast of afternoon sun brings warmth. That puzzle has been the focus of Peterson's experimentation over time. The experimentation has revolved around everything from when to mow cover crop to when to turn off or on the irrigation.

"You ask a question and get an answer, but then it opens up all new questions. We're still figuring out all the farming practices," says Peterson. "The good thing is, the vineyard gives an immediate response to any change you make because there are so few resources here. Once you go down that route, then it's the analysis of the results from block to block and year to year."

While the vineyard has a definite Napa mountain-style feel, the cellar feels like Bordeaux, with only cement vats. After primary fermentation, the wine is moved to barrel for malolactic and aging, with the percentage of new wood now down to 50 percent from an initial 100 percent.

"We started all new and slowly dialed down. It as a question of the intensity of the lots and how they matched with the oak. There are no easy answers because it's all about evolution," says Peterson.

The 2006 Ovid Napa Valley (a 45/41/11/3 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot) shows a red fruit profile typical of the area (as opposed to rich blue and purple fruits from the valley floor Cabernets). Loam and tobacco run along the edges while the fruit has a gently mulled edge. The 2010 Ovid Napa Valley added more Cabernet Sauvignon to the blend while dropping the Cab Franc percentage. It keeps its raspberry and mulberry profile, with a nice buried iron note. The texture is slightly grainy, but integrated, with singed alder and sagebrush hints peeking through.

The evolution shows positive results in the pair of 2016s here. The 2016 Ovid Napa Valley is youthfully ripe and polished, showing greater length than the '06 or '10, with sappy intensity to its red currant and mulberry fruit and a racy iron streak through the finish.

The 2016 Ovid Hexameter Napa Valley tilts to Cabernet Franc (58 percent of the blend), with the balance Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The cuvée, started in 2009 and made again in 2012 before becoming a regular partner to the Napa Valley bottling, was meant to showcase the potential of Cabernet Franc on the site. Tasting it next to the Napa Valley bottling shows a strong parallel to the Napa Valley and Maya bottlings from Dalla Valle, a short tumble down the hill in front of Ovid. Its fruit profile is still red, but it's fleshier in feel, broader in scope, and pulls in more loam and tobacco at this young stage. It keeps a sense of the site's ruggedness, but the fruit in the '16s shows greater volume, and there's better definition and integration all around in both '16s.

The evolution is proof that even with a well-financed operation and an all-star team micro-managing a relatively small vineyard, things take time. There is always somewhere new to go in terms of quality and style when it comes to winemaking.


Follow James Molesworth on Instagram at @jmolesworth1, and on Twitter at @jmolesworth1.

United States California Napa Red Wines Cabernet Sauvignon Winery Intel

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