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Dalla Valle

A Vineyard Comes Into Its Prime

James Laube
Posted: April 5, 2000

Naoko Dalla Valle
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Dalla Valle

A Vineyard Comes Into Its Prime

Dalla Valle's first few vintages gave no hint of what the future would hold. The Cabernet, first made in 1986, came from young vines and tasted like it -- tannic and sharp. The vintages of the rest of the '80s sometimes struggled to complete the process of malolactic fermentation, the secondary fermentation that smooths out the rough edges of red wines.

But as the hillside vineyards matured and winemaker Heidi Peterson Barrett became more familiar with the grapes, the wines gained richness and depth. Then, just as Dalla Valle began to hit its stride, in the mid-1990s, co-owner and cofounder Gustav Dalla Valle died, and the vineyard began to suffer from disease. That left his wife and partner, Naoko, alone to face the task of replanting portions of their 25-acre vineyard, located on the east side of Napa Valley. She subsequently decided to replace Barrett with Tony Soter and his assistant Mia Klein (who went on to assume full winemaking duties in 1995).

The change reflected Dalla Valle's desire for new input into the vineyard replanting. "I really needed someone who had greater knowledge of grapegrowing," says Dalla Valle, a 43-year-old native of Japan, who moved with her husband to Napa Valley in 1982. Soter is known as a master not only of winemaking but of vineyard management. The early wines "really didn't reflect the true color of the vineyard -- they were more acidic and didn't have the concentration [they] do now," she says.

The first breakthrough in quality came with Dalla Valle's Maya (named after the couple's daughter) in the tricky, rain-plagued 1989 vintage. The 1990 vintage proved to be much richer and bolder for both of Dalla Valle's muscular reds -- a Cabernet Sauvignon bottling and Maya, which is a blend of Cabernet and Cabernet Franc.

Both wines have had their moments of glory. The Cabernet (with an annual production of about 3,000 cases) is typically harder and firmer, brimming with complex flavors and hints of mineral and sage. Maya (400 cases) is also quite dark and potent, but it gains an extra boost in flavor and texture from the Franc, which accounts for about 45 percent of the blend. Its most profound vintages have been the amazing run from 1993 to 1997.

Today, both wines benefit from the mature vineyards, says Dalla Valle. "The vineyard shows off our terroir, our location. I just feel that the replanting was not all bad. We're always striving to make better wine." Included in the replanting were clones and budwood from the Maya vineyard.

The 1997 vintage, due to be released this year, is another stunning effort for both wines. Five years after Gustav's death, Naoko is comfortably in charge. "I miss him, but we were partners all along," she says. The recent run of great vintages only reinforces how special this vineyard is and how well the property and wines are being managed.

-- J.L.

Dalla Valle Vineyards
Oakville, Napa Valley
Founded: 1986
Owner: Naoko Dalla Valle
Winemaker: Mia Klein

98 Dalla Valle Maya Napa Valley 1996

Release Price: $100
Current Auction Average: $384
Production: 500 cases

Wonderfully seductive. This Cabernet blend is enormously rich and concentrated, beautifully fine-tuned and integrated, with bold, ripe, complex currant, black cherry, spice, earth, mineral and cedary oak. Best from 2001 through 2009.

-- J.L.


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