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Covert Estate's French Influence

Winemaker Julien Fayard's Napa Cabernets have a bright future
Covert Estate is among Coombsville's promising newcomers.
Photo by: Jimmy Hayes
Covert Estate is among Coombsville's promising newcomers.

Posted: Mar 11, 2019 11:00am ET

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.

Granted, February isn't exactly springtime. But Napa isn't New York City (my hometown). And so I was enjoying a week of bright, sunny 55° F days … until I got to Covert Estate.

It was late afternoon, and the sun was still up, technically. But as I stood on the full east-facing hillside site with winemaker Julien Fayard, the vineyard was already in shade. A knifing wind was hurtling through the gangly, yet-to-be-pruned vines. Suddenly, Coombsville felt like a decidedly cool-climate area ….

Located down the hill, on the back side of the Meteor Vineyard that I visited with Andy Erickson a couple of days before, Covert's 4.5-acre site was planted in 1998. Fayard and his partners blend it with the fruit from another 5-acre parcel that is leased.

Fayard is a newcomer to the area, in more ways than one. The native of France first visited California in 2000, then returned to France. In 2003 he visited again, working a bit with Sarah Gott at Quintessa, before bouncing back to France. He returned once more in 2006, catching on with influential winemaker and consultant Philippe Melka after which he finally decided to put down roots.

"The wine industry here has a brighter future than in France. It's a younger energy," says Fayard, who along his wine journey eventually met his wife, a native Californian. "She was from Sonoma, I was from France. I decided to meet her halfway in Napa," he chuckles.

Suzanne Becker Bronk
Winemaker Julien Fayard was drawn to California, by love and by a bright winemaking future.

We headed inside, where the cellar was actually warmer than the vineyard. Fayard drew a barrel sample of 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from vines at the top of the vineyard on shallow soils. It shows an intense beam of cassis and blackberry fruit with very energetic acidity. A sample of Cabernet Sauvignon from deeper soils located lower down in the vineyard and picked a full week later offers equally intense fruit, but with less rambunctious energy as the structure is more integrated and refined throughout. Lastly, a sample of Cabernet Franc is more than intriguing, with a dark, winey core of fruit and late tug of earth; it's hefty, but maintains refinement as well.

After leaving Melka to partner with Covert Estate in 2013, Fayard also went into the consulting business for himself; he's working with about 10 clients now. The roster includes Patel, Scalon, Azur, Purlieu and Empreinte among others. All are small-production labels, with the majority of them basing their wines on Coomsbville fruit while sometimes blending in up-valley fruit as well. Despite the focus on Coombsville, Fayard is able to produce a diverse set of wines.

"Coombsville is still finding its identity through the diversity of its sites. A site with northeast exposure on shallow soils versus one with eastern exposure on deeper soils can be ripening weeks apart," he explains. "And that's a big difference."

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

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