Things Will Change at Mayacamas, and Some Will Stay the Same

New owners, a new winemaker and new vines won't change the character of the Napa Valley icon atop Mount Veeder
May 3, 2013

Some things need fixing at the recently sold Mayacamas Vineyards.

Some vineyard parcels are ancient by California standards. The late-1800s Zinfandel vines are gone, but some of the Chardonnay dates to the 1950s, along with Cabernet vines planted in the 1960s. Many of the vines have the girth of a tree trunk.

Much of the property will be replanted by new co-owner Charles Banks and the husband-and-wife team of viticulturist Annie Favia and winemaker Andy Erickson.

The 19th century stone winery is home also to the offices and storage. That'll be getting a retrofitting as well.

But the essence of Mayacamas is best left alone. It is to Napa what Hanzell is to Sonoma: a treasure. More so than any American winery, Mayacamas still adheres to its style and purpose. It is one of California's original cult wineries, a place where the wines speak of the land and time seemingly stands still.

Mayacamas is legendary in the truest sense. The dancing lions on its label and its cellar door, high atop Napa's Mount Veeder,  are reminders of the magic and mystique that surrounded California wine for decades. Many of the winemakers who descended upon Napa Valley starting in the 1960s and 1970s did so knowing the story of Bob and Nonie Travers and their hands-on, old-fashioned approach to winemaking. Trendy they weren't.

Mayacamas is isolated, located at the end of a steep, rock-lined road in a pristine forest, 2,400 feet in the sky. With a view of San Francisco, it would be enchanting on its own terms. But of course the wines make it even more special.

Wine drinkers know Mayacamas for its Cabernets, especially from the 1970s; the 1970 and 1974 vintages were impossibly long-lived wines. The Chardonnays also aged exceptionally well. One reason so many people can recall having a life-changing experience drinking an aged Mayacamas Cabernet is that the wines were unusually tannic, so much so that many people who bought the wines didn't dare drink them before 15 years. Often, the wines held their form for decades, and if you have a perfectly stored bottle from a great vintage, it will likely still have its vitality.

The tannins made it difficult for many to enjoy a young Mayacamas, and the winery became something of a lightning rod for those who found its rustic tannins overbearing. That, plus its blockbuster 1968 late-harvest Zinfandel, made people shy away from Mayacamas wines in their youth. Even Travers admitted that he changed the Cabernet's style in the 1980s, making it a shade lighter, in a claret style, downsizing the way some vintners are rethinking Cabernet and other wines these days.

I preferred the old style, counting his 1968, 1970, 1974, 1977, 1978 and 1979 as among the best from Napa Valley of that era.

The issue of tannins during that era caused many winemakers to reconsider style. Many vintners sought riper tannins for fleshier textures and early-drinking allure; many stopped acidifying their wines as well. Few people cellar wines for decades anymore. Moreover, vintners need to make wines more accessible earlier on for drinking pleasure in restaurants, not to mention moving cases.

With the sale of Mayacamas this week, a new era begins. But one suspects that the new epoch will look much like the old one. Certainly the hand of man can't reshape their terroir. New vines. A retooled winery. Maybe new barrels. But the label stays, along with the style. Every wine can be improved upon, and that starts in the vineyard; I'm sure Erickson and Favia will respect what's been done and why. Whatever new directions the new owners seek, Mayacamas' past will be ever present.

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