Log In / Join Now

Napa’s Chef in the Cave

Abreu Vineyards winemaker Brad Grimes left a career in the kitchen to make coveted single-vineyard Cabernets
The Lucia Abreu Vineyard parcel at Las Posadas on Howell Mountain
Photo by: Matt Morris Photography/Courtesy of Abreu Vineyards
The Lucia Abreu Vineyard parcel at Las Posadas on Howell Mountain

Posted: Nov 14, 2018 1:30pm ET

Senior editor James Molesworth is Wine Spectator's new 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.

Music echoes through the cave as I enter, and I can hear the far off sound of clinking metal. Someone is in here.

As I move through the rows of barrels and come to a small passageway between two rows, I come across a solitary figure. Abreu winemaker Brad Grimes has the rugged winemaker look down cold—a bit Cornas meets Catskills, with a full beard and a well-worn T-shirt. As I approach, he slides a phone out of his pocket and turns the music down, then shakes my hand.

“All alone in here?” I ask.

“Yeah, I kind of just go under at this time of year,” he says. “Three months, just work.”

In 2000, Grimes was working as a chef in Seattle while his wife was doing private cooking for folks in Napa, including Stuart Sloan at his namesake winery. Grimes was coming down to Napa on weekends here and there to spend time with her when he made the decision to embark on a new path.

Matt Morris Photography/Courtesy of Abreu Vineyards
Abreu Vineyards winemaker Brad Grimes

“All I knew about wineries was they had tasting rooms,” says Grimes, who speaks softly but clearly.

David Abreu was making his Napa Cabernets at Sloan at the time. After getting to know him, Grimes asked for a job in the vineyards, to “do anything.”

While working on pest management and pruning vines, Grimes met Mark Aubert, Tony Soter, Mia Klein and Annie Favia, among others in the rarified world of Abreu’s clients. (Abreu’s vineyard management company, founded in 1980, commands legendary status in the valley; he started making his own wines in 1986.)

As the wine bug took hold, Grimes saw harvest approaching and decided he wanted to be inside rather than out. So he asked if he could work in the winery. By 2002 he was in Abreu’s cellar full-time. And in 2005, the Abreu winemaking operation moved down into the former S. Anderson facility on the Yountville crossroad, just behind the Cliff Lede cellar. Grimes has been making the wines since.

Today Abreu manages and owns about 83 combined acres of vines in four vineyards. There are 23 acres in Madrona Ranch and 6 in Cappella, both in St. Helena. There are 22 acres in Thorevilos, in the hills east of St. Helena, which Grimes describes as a “Bermuda Triangle” of subappellations and which only garners the Napa County AVA. And finally, 33 acres on Howell Mountain in Las Posadas, on the opposite side of the AVA from Dunn Vineyards. All four sites are planted primarily to Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, along with some Merlot and a drop of Malbec in Thorevilos. Abreu only keeps about 25 percent of his production, selling off the rest to a small roster of who’s who among the Cabernet elite, including Colgin and Bryant Family, resulting in a paltry 1,700 cases made annually under the Abreu label.

”And the beauty is, David just lets me make the wine,” says Grimes. “We think alike. He gives me perfect fruit. And we’re not concerned with reaching 12 barrels of that, because if we just have eight barrels and it’s the best we can do, then it’s eight.”

Grimes likes wine. As we talk about various topics, a wide spectrum of producers rolls off his tongue, all having made an impression on him at some point. From Ganevat and Guiberteau to Château Margaux and Ausone, it’s a broad—and refreshing—perspective.

As I taste the young wines, I see parallels with Clos des Papes in the Rhône, which keeps foudres of the three main varieties together but in varying percentages, using those lots to build the blend. Grimes uses his building blocks to slowly assemble the wines here. These are rich, powerful and dense expressions of Cabernet blends, but they're matched by an inner energy and brightness. They are showstoppers that also make you think, rather than just leaving you spent.

WineSpectator.com members: Get James Molesworth’s tasting notes for Abreu’s 2018 samples from all four vineyard sites, and the 2007 Cappella.

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

Would you like to comment? Want to join or start a discussion?

Become a WineSpectator.com member and you can!
To protect the quality of our conversations, only members may submit comments. Member benefits include access to more than 315,000 reviews in our Wine Ratings Search; a first look at ratings in our Insider, Advance and Tasting Highlights; Value Wines; the Personal Wine List/My Cellar tool, hundreds of wine-friendly recipes and more.

WineRatings+ app: Download now for 365,000+ ratings.