Fri 12 Aug 2011
My history with Mayacamas Vineyards begins in late March 1984, when I served the Mayacamas Sauvignon Blanc 1980 for dinner. I purchased the wine for $11, marked down from $13. In 1985, I bought a bottle of Mayacamas Late Harvest Zinfandel 1978, though I did not record the price or the occasion. There’s a flurry of activity between 1992 and 1996, but after that no tasting notes, no published remarks, no contact. I was very pleased, then, to receive some samples from Mayacamas recently, because I’m an advocate of the winery’s traditional style of varietal purity and intensity and high-elevation grit and graphite, in the cabernet sauvignon and merlot, and flintiness, in the chardonnay and sauvignon blanc.
The estate began as a winery and distillery built by J. H. Fischer, high on Mount Veeder, in 1889. Fischer sold his wine in barrels, sending them on barges down the Napa River and thence to San Francisco, but he went bankrupt in the early years of the 20th Century. The property lay derelict until 1941, when Jack Taylor, a Shell Oil executive, and his wife Mary bought the facility and 260 acres of land. Their first release, in 1953, was a minuscule quantity of Chardonnay 1951; winemaker was Walter Richert, who was also technical editor of the journal Wines & Vines and president of the American Society of Enologists. Philip Togni became winemaker for Mayacamas in 1959, going on to make wine at Inglenook, Sterling, Chalone and Cuvaison before launching his own Philip Togni Vineyards on Spring Mountain and becoming a cult figure in the world of cabernet sauvignon.
The Taylors sold Mayacamas to Robert and Elinor Travers in 1968; they still own the property, and Bob Travers continues as winemaker, a fact that must qualify him for some kind of longevity and dedication award. From 52 acres of vines Mayacamas produces primarily cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay with smaller amounts of merlot, sauvignon blanc and pinot noir — I have never tasted the pinot noir — remaining true to a vision practically demanded by the geography the vineyards occupy at 2,000 to 2,400-feet elevation on the slopes of an extinct volcano, a site that offers a complicated soil composition. Let’s be honest, however. The Travers built the reputation of Mayacamas on splendid, long-lived cabernets from the late 1960s through ’79 and ’80; quality suffered in the 1980s and only began to reassert itself within the last 15 years or so. The cabernets are built on deeply-rooted tannins that at first seem unassailable, and during this, shall we say, troubled period it felt as though the tannins not only dominated the wines but dried them out. The Mayacamas Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, which I am savoring even as I write these words, reveals the tannic structure upon which the winery has erected its reputation but also — after considerable airing — lovely generosity and expansive spirit.
Mayacamas no longer makes wines from zinfandel grapes, but one of my favorite wines of 1996 was the Mayacamas Late Harvest Zinfandel 1984, two bottles of which I bartered from a friend by giving him some Cerutto Barbarescos.
For information about the history of the winery, see Charles L. Sullivan’s indispensable “A Companion to California Wine” (University of California Press, 1998) and the fourth edition of Norman L. Roby and Charles E. Olken’s “The Connoisseurs’ Handbook of the Wines of California and the Pacific Northwest” (Alfred A. Knopf, 1998). Both books need updated new editions.
As I mentioned above, I bought a bottle of the Mayacamas Sauvignon Blanc 1980 in March 1984; I commented on this wine in a post on this blog in March 2009. What’s remarkable is that the current release, the Mayacamas Sauvignon Blanc 2008, Mt. Veeder, Napa Valley, conforms to the same spirit as its cousin from 31 years ago, though that long-distant wine carried a California designation; Mount Veeder did not receive AVA status until 1990. The Mayacamas Sauvignon Blanc 2008 aged for eight months in 1,000 gallon American oak casks; in comparison, the standard French oak barrel (barrique) holds 59 gallons. The wine is notably clean, fresh, spare and elegant from beginning to end. O.K., I’ll just say it; this demonstrates wonderful character, class and breeding and should not be neglected by anyone who loves the sauvignon blanc grape. Notes of baked pear, quince, ginger, yellow plums and papaya are touched with hints of smoke and cloves and a flare of cold steel; it’s like drinking liquified limestone and flint infused with ripe, spicy stone fruit flavors, each element of the wine etched with cunning definition, precision and scintillating acidity yet remaining compellingly attractive and delicious. Notice that for a sauvignon blanc this is not grassy or herbal; it doesn’t assault the nose and mouth with strident grapefruit or gooseberry/cat’s-pee afflicted with attention deficit disorder. No, readers, this is cool, harmonious, balanced and poised; yes, one feels the wood in the spicy element and in the wine’s firm yet forgiving framing and foundation, though ultimately the complete integration of all components is the utmost consideration. 14.5 percent alcohol. Production was 294 cases. Drink through 2014 or ’15 (well-stored). Among the very best of sauvignon blanc wines produced in California. Excellent. About $25.
___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ The first chardonnay from Mayacamas that I tasted was the 1990. Someone was working in public relations and marketing for the winery — I don’t remember if it was someone at the winery or at an outside firm — but this young man got in touch with me, probably in 1994, and asked if I wanted some samples of current and past releases. Well, yes, I did. And in addition to the samples, I bought six bottles of the Cabernet Sauvignon 1985, so one fine day I received, at the newspaper office, a large box that contained those six bottles, samples of the Cabernet Sauvignon from 1990, ’89, ’85 and ’83, and chadonnays from 1990 and a vintage of which I can no longer find record. I’ll mention the cabernets in a moment, but let me here append my review of the Mayacamas Chardonnay 1990: The Mayacamas Chardonnay 1990 is so perfectly balanced that you don’t notice its stupendous 14.5 percent alcohol, so beautifully integrated that its 12 months in oak barrels seem merely to have lent an inextricable sheen to each atom in the bottle. No gushing, buttery, billowy, toasty tropical chardonnay here; its essence lies in hints and nods toward spice, limestone, caramel, flowers and dried herbs and citrus flavors, bolstered with essential but respectful oak and acid. Wow. About $20.
Interesting that for the Mayacamas Chardonnay 2008, Mount Veeder, the alcohol content is the same as for the 1990, a now-typical (for California) 14.5 percent; things were different 21 years ago, when 14.5 percent seemed over the top and beyond the pale. Far more dissimilar is the oak treatment; for the 2008, not 12 months but 20 months, that’s right, 20 months!, an extraordinary length of time for a chardonnay to spend in wood, in this case eight months in those 1,000-gallon American oak casks, followed by a year in small French oak barrels. Yikes, thinks my inner curmudgeon, what a great way to ruin a chardonnay! The regimen, however, calls for only 10 percent new oak, no sur-lie aging (on the spent yeast cells, a process that adds richness) and no malolactic; the result is a crisp, fresh, crystalline chardonnay that resonates with varietal character and authenticity and rests on a beautifully balanced and harmonious foundation of silky, spicy resonant wood. The first phrase in my notes is: “gorgeous but not flamboyant.” There’s a hint of the tropical in aromas of pineapple and mango with a touch of lightly toasted grapefruit dusted with cloves; a few moments in the glass bring in undercurrents of quince marmalade, ginger and orange blossom, all borne on the wings of crisply etched limestone and slightly spicy wood. Bear in mind that all of these elements partake of the subtlest nuance; nothing is overbearing or egotistical. The wine’s texture is beautifully poised between moderate lushness of ripe fruit (more citrus in the mouth, with a bit of roasted lemon) and the fleet tension of taut acidity, with immense reserves of shale-like minerality in the background. A masterpiece. 14.5 percent alcohol. Drink through 2015 or ’16. Production was 876 cases. Exceptional. About $30
With the Mayacamas Merlot 2006, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley, we venture into the realm of real tannin. The wine is a blend of 83 percent merlot and 17 percent cabernet sauvignon grapes, from dry-framed vineyards, that is, no irrigation was used. It ages six months in large oak casks and a year in small barrels. The color is dark ruby-plum with a violet-magenta cast at the rim. Aromas now are permeated by woody spice and dried herbs: cloves, sandalwood and incense, bay, sage and cedar; then come hints of mint, iodine, walnut shell; then, with patience and coaxing, touches of black currants, plums, mulberries, dried red currants. In the mouth, this is all structure, all the time, dominated by the elements of wheat-meal, briers and brambles, dried porcini and moss that indicate deep, broad tannins and oak influences that will take several years to mellow and soften and allow fruit to come to the foreground. On the other hand, this classic structure, this reticence and willingness to test the rigorous character of mountain-grown grapes and their acidity and tannin against the rigor of oak hews to a blessed tradition that does not worship over-ripe opulence and high-alcohol sweetness. The printed matter that accompanied these wines to my doorstep optimistically asserts that the “optimal consumption” period for the Mayacamas Merlot 2006 is “Now – 2022.” I agree with 2022, or perhaps 2020 to 2022, but the “now” I think is premature. I would let the wine rest until 2013 or ’14 before extracting the cork from one of these bottles. 14.5 percent alcohol. 481 cases. Excellent potential. About $35.
Here’s what I wrote in my newspaper column in November 1995:
I recently tasted Mayacamas cabernets from 1990, 1989, 1985 and 1983. The complaint is often registered that Mayacamas cabernets sacrifice fruit to tannin, and, true to form, these wines, particularly the ’89 and ’85, were abidingly firm and resolute. The ’89 exhibited close to unspeakable toughness and mineral depths, but a bit of coaxing elicited touches of leather, violets and dried herbs from the nose. The ’85 is a huge, biting and austere wine that will require five to eight years even to see if it will come around. The ’85 and ’89 can be found at retail for about $35.
From the not-so-great vintage 1983, Mayacamas produced a more-than-decent cabernet that displays a generous, mellow, minerally bouquet; in the mouth, the wine shows plenty of grip, a high gloss of dried herbs and flowers and raspberry-tea flavors. After a few minutes in the glass, however, the wine gains a dusty tannic quality, and the fruit submerges. Available at the winery, about $45.
It seems clear that the Mayacamas Cabernet Sauvignon 1990 is the best cabernet the winery has made in a decade. The bouquet develops from an initial scent of mint and minerals to a heady fragrance of thyme, lavender and dried cherries; plenty of oak and tannin assert themselves in the mouth, but the tannin – at first – is soft and grainy, encouraging the concentrated plum and black currant flavors to float to the surface. Give it five to eight years. About $25.
Now, the Mayacamas Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Mount Veeder, which is a blend of 85 percent cabernet sauvignon, 14 percent merlot and one percent cabernet franc; it ages one-and-a-half years in 1,000-gallon oak casks and then one year in small oak barrels; yes, that’s 30 months in wood. The color is deep ruby-purple with an opaque center and a magenta rim. The bouquet abounds with notes of cedar, lavender, licorice and leather, brambles, walnut-shell and wheatmeal; in the mouth, the wine is relentlessly austere and astringent with firm, almost iron-like tannins and deeply-set foundations of granite-like minerality and ecclesiastical oak. I pounded the cork back into the bottle and didn’t touch the wine for two days, and when I opened it again and poured the wine into a glass, what a transformation had occurred. Now it was all black currants and Damsom plums, laurel and thyme, lead pencil and black olive, oolong tea and caraway seed, hints of lavender and violets and rose petals, these elements all integrated and harmonious in nose and mouth, and yet the wine was still immensely tannic, oaky and minerally, though with some of the iron-and-ash edges smoothed and polished and rounded. My recommendation, if you wanted to drink this wine tonight with a steak, would be to decant it about two hours before serving and then pour it (using a very clean funnel) back into the bottle; that or let it rest quietly until 2014 or ’15 and then drink until 2022 to ’25. Alcohol content is 14.5 percent. 1,388 cases. Excellent potential. About $65.