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Coombsville's Old-School Cabernet

Frank Farella and his son Tom planted some of Coombsville's oldest Cabernet vines, and they're still at it
The Farella family’s namesake vineyard was planted in the late 1970s and early '80s.
Photo by: James Molesworth
The Farella family’s namesake vineyard was planted in the late 1970s and early '80s.

Posted: Mar 7, 2019 10:00am 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.

After visiting with Paul Hobbs and seeing the Huneeus family's Faust property, I was getting a clearer picture of the Coombsville AVA's recent history. But where did it start?

Frank Farella bought his property, nestled at the base of the Vaca Mountains on the east side of what is now the Coombsville AVA, in 1977. One of the last parcels sold off from the massive Nathan Coombs Estate, the former cow pastures didn't have any vines. But they did have the volcanic gravel and loam soils that seem to beg for Cabernet Sauvignon.

As Farella planted his vineyard, to Cabernet, Chardonnay, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and other varieties, his son Tom worked alongside him, clearing brush when he wasn't busy with high school. The 56-acre estate was planted to 26 acres of vines in 1979 and, as with most vineyards at the time, AxR1 rootstock was used, along with some St. George. The AxR1 vines had to be pulled out due to phylloxera, but those grafted to St. George stock remain. Those 1979 plantings are ancient by Napa standards, and they now stand 4 feet tall, with dramatically gnarled trunks, each vine radically unique in appearance.

Young Tom caught the wine bug easily and quickly from his father, travelling alongside him when the family made a trip to Burgundy in the 1970s. Tom had his epiphany when Guy Faiveley pulled a '59 Musigny, Tom's birth year, to share at the end of the tasting.

After returning home, Tom attended U.C. Davis and graduated in 1983, taking a winemaking job at Preston vineyards as a 26-year-old. His father kept building up the home vineyard, releasing the first Farella wine in 1985. As Tom kicked around, he felt a pull to go back overseas. "I knew I had to work in France to get some respect," he says.

He worked the 1989 harvest at Jacques Prieur, and the French artisan aesthetic was ingrained. "The whole thing was a dream," Tom recalls. "I was really torn about returning to California."

But he did, and he went up to Oregon, where he worked for Dick Ponzi and met Mike Etzel before returning to the family vineyard. He sat down with his dad and said, "I'm either all in or all out."

In 1991, he was all in, and they released what was likely the nascent Coombsville area’s first varietally labeled Cabernet Sauvignon.

In 1997, he built a new cellar and finished retooling the vineyard. Today it has 11 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, 5 of Merlot and 4 of Chardonnay, with a little Sauvignon Blanc, Malbec and Syrah. He uses Juan Mercado's team from Realm to manage the vineyard, keeps 25 percent of the fruit for his own label and sells the rest off to Realm and a few others. And to cap it off, along the way he wrote the petition for the Coombsville AVA, granted in 2011.

Farella's Cabernets epitomize the Coombsville terroir. They feature an uncompromising old-school persona, with dark earth, bay and charcoal notes carried by grippy tannins and a well of steeped, dark currant fruit. They don't offer immediate gratification, but rather need time in the cellar.

The 2013 Farella Cabernet Sauvignon Coombsville has the extracted persona of this dense, drought-marked vintage, though it isn't overextracted. Its loam and currant profile is well-ensconced behind a wall of tannins for now.

The 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon Coombsville (retroactively labelled with the AVA designation) is more expressive, with sage and rosemary infusing the core of red and black currant fruit, the flavors running through a fresh, slightly racy-edged finish.

Production stands at a modest 2,000 cases annually, allowing Tom to handle most of the work himself, along with recently hired Ryan Pass, 30. It's that French artisan aesthetic at work.

"To do things the way I want to do them, increasing production isn't necessarily a good thing," Tom explains. "It's a tough business, and sure, selling more wine would help. But I want my customers to know when they have a wine with my name on the label, that I did just about everything to get that wine to them myself." 

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

David Weissberger
Florida —  March 7, 2019 10:52am ET
I believe you meant Juan Mercado's team @ Realm, not Relic.

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