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.
I returned to Napa in February for my latest round of tastings and winery visits. First stop: Turley Wine Cellars, where winemaker Tegan Passalacqua reminded me that we'd met for the first time back in 2005 in France, when he was working in the cellar of Alain Graillot in the Northern Rhône Valley's Crozes-Hermitage.
From there, he's kicked the dirt in some of the same vineyards I have in South Africa, expanding the middle slice of our Venn diagram. Now that I'm covering California Cabernet, it seemed only natural to spend some time together.
A native Napan, Passalacqua, 41, now oversees production at Turley. And while the 55,000-case production here focuses primarily on Zinfandel (covered by my colleague Tim Fish), he does handle some Cabernet. Along with his wife, Olivia, he also produces around 2,000 cases annually under his own label, Sandlands, focusing on Chenin Blanc and other outside-the-mainstream varietals.
The real connection here, though, is vineyards: In the 2017 vintage, Passalacqua made 49 different wines from 13 different counties in California under the Turley label, and another dozen wines for Sandlands. That breadth of experience is hard to match, so when he offered to drive me around and show me a few things, it was an easy offer to accept.
We started with a drive over to Sonoma, then up the backside of the Mayacamas range, stopping first at around 800 feet of elevation to look at some head-pruned Zinfandel vines in the Fredericks Vineyard. From there it was another 1,000 feet farther up the narrow, winding road to the Montecillo Vineyard, where 10 acres of strapping, broad-shouldered Cabernet vines planted in 1964 were standing. Now we're talking!
Cabernet Sauvignon vines of this age are rare in California—much of the state's vineyard base was replanted in the 1980s due to phylloxera for one, while the penchant for producers to replant every 25 years or so to maintain robust yields also plays a role. But Passalacqua is an ardent believer in old vines.
"They just produce a more stable and better product," he says. "The natural acidity is higher, the colors are more stable and the depth and quality of fruit is so much more consistent. In the Hayne Vineyard, for example, we have a section of vines replanted in '96 and we still keep that fruit separate from the vineyard-designated fruit that comes from the old vines (planted in 1902). It's just not the same."
"People here have a hard time valuing old vines, because they don't have old vines," he adds.
In the Montecillo Vineyard, Passalacqua likens the fruit profile to the Cabernet from Mayacamas, just up and over the ridgeline on the other side. "It has that mountain characteristic," he says. "It's fresh and intense. Not higher acidity, per se, but very lively."
As we walk the vine rows, one vine has been completely cut back, with just a sucker from the previous season now being trained up onto the vine. The exposed portion of the trunk is spewing sap. The vine was infected with eutypa, a fungus that hampers growth. Passalacqua prefers to replace (or rejuvenate) vine by vine, keeping the vineyard's genetic heritage in place.
As we drive over the range and then down onto the Oakville crossroad, we stop in the famed To Kalon Vineyard. At one nexus of parcels there are dramatically different vine ages and trellising systems in use.
"But what's fascinating is that despite those differences, this spot always produces distinctive, quality wines. The styles of those bottlings might be different—I've seen Brix readings of 9° apart from two different producers using this vineyard—but the quality is always there. That's terroir," he says.
As we wrapped up the afternoon, I asked about the 2017 wine-country wildfires. The issue of smoke taint from those fires is at the fore for Napa right now, as later this week top producers will begin showing their barrel samples of 2017s.
Passalacqua sounded a note of caution. "We picked all our Zin before the fire, but only a portion of the Cabernet," he says. "We've tested everything that was picked after, but the reality is the labs only test for two compounds. Our wines don't have it, but nonetheless I don't feel right including any fruit that was picked after the fire in our wines, even if the tests say they're clean."
"A true wildfire is one thing, but these fires burned thousands of homes," Passalacqua says. "Think of all the other material in the air: the lead paint in someone's garage, copper pipes, tires and so on. It's just not worth the risk to me."