WHAT: Because there is so much good California Cabernet Sauvignon available at all price points, some people wonder why you would spend more than $25 on one.
The Priest Ranch Cab is a good answer to that question. It is the kind of wine that when you take a sip or two your mind starts to race, trying to figure out what you are drinking. The flavors are so complex, it is hard to pigeonhole this wine.
It starts with spicy aromas of blackberry and dark chocolate. The flavors explode in your mouth: rich, deep fruit such as blackberry and dark cherry, balanced by firm tannins and crisp acidity. It is a wine I’m sure will continue to develop in the bottle for years, perhaps a decade or more.
This is a great wine now, but because of the lush fruit and powerful tannins it could develop into something really special in four to five years.
The grapes all come from the Somerston Estate, located high in the eastern hills of Napa Valley, from 11 different hillside blocks on property that ranges in elevation from 820 to 2,400 feet.
The wine was aged for 22 months in 35 percent new French oak and 65 percent neutral French oak. It was racked three times in its first year and three times in its second year of aging. It was bottled unfiltered.
I also tried the Priest Ranch signature 2009 Coachgun blend, and it was spectacular. It costs a little bit more ($75), but it was much bolder and darker than the Cab. Lush fruit was evident, but the tannins and acidity show that this should develop into a sublime wine. The winery doesn’t expect it to reach maturity until 2022.
“How long will it last? It’s a guessing game,” said winemaker Craig Becker. “Parker (a well-known wine critic) said wines coming off this property will last 20-25 years.”
The Coachgun was handpicked and sorted, fermented naturally and aged 27-28 months in 70 percent new French oak barrels and 30 percent once used French oak. The blend is 75 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 12.5 percent Merlot and 12.5 percent Petit Verdot.
Becker said the 2009 was the first national release of Coachgun, and the succeeding vintages have only gotten better. They also are using all five of the major Bordeaux varietals in the blend beginning with 2012, adding Cabernet Franc and Malbec.
Beginning with the sale of the 2013 vintage they will offer a six pack that includes one bottle of each of the varietals in the blend, along with one bottle of Coachgun. There will never be more than 35 percent of a single varietal in the blend.
“So far ’13 is the hero,” said Becker, “But the ’14 is really good, too.” Neither of those wines has been bottled yet, so there’s no telling how good they will be after some aging.
You are more likely to find Priest Ranch wines in a restaurant than in a wine shop, but they are worth looking for.
WINERY: Priest Ranch was originally part of the 8,500-acre Ranch Catacula Mexican land grant. Joshua James Priest and his wife, Sarah, settled on the estate, and the family owned it for more than a century.
It was sold in 1968 to Carl Rose, who made his money renting out houses in the San Francisco Bay area. He bought 2,000 acres and planted grapes, primarily Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling.
In the 1990s, another owner planted other varietals. Then Alex Chapman bought it in 2004.
Becker, who also is general manager and a partner in the winery, said he first came to the property to buy grapes for his Hi Flyer brand. Chapman was making Somerston wines.
“Then in 2008 we merged our businesses,” said Becker. Hi Flyer and Somerston continue, with Somerston being primarily single-vineyard wines. But Priest Ranch is the main brand.
Becker said he enjoys his work because the property provides a diverse source of grapes.
“It’s fun, amazing to work with this property,” he said in a phone interview. “We have 24 different blocks growing Cabernet now and that will grow to 90 in the future. We have a great diversity of sites. There’s a lot to put on the canvas.”
The change in altitude among the sites provides many different growing conditions to help make the wines more complex. “We go from 800 to 2,400 feet,” said Becker. “That’s the length of the Empire State Building.”
I visited the property several years ago and thought it was beautiful. The vineyards, which account for only 13 percent of the 1,628 acres on the property, are sustainably farmed. Hundreds of acres are dedicated to fruit trees, vegetable gardens, bee hives, olive trees and natural springs. The winery minimizes use of harmful sprays, minimizes erosion and uses woodbox owls to keep away harmful rodents.
Sheep also roam the property to keep down unwanted vegetation. A new wine-making and tasting facility opened in a converted barn in 2010, providing great views of the mountain vineyards as you taste the wine. Priest Ranch also has a winery in Yountville.
“We like to brag about a lot of things,” said Becker. “We’re most proud of the way we treat our people. We pay $4 over the California minimum hourly wage. Folks talk about sustainable farming, but then they don’t offer health insurance. Our people come first.”
Becker said they would like to plant more vineyards on the property, but it is difficult and expensive. So Priest Ranch and Somerston are likely to concentrate on what they do best: make consistently good wines year after year.
“Customers learn to trust our wines, even in difficult years,” said Becker. “We take the old-school method to showcase the sense of place in our wines. Our slogan is ‘made in the vineyard, handcrafted in the winery.’
“The wine actually comes from a place, not just a label. The hero here is the property.
“Americans like to anoint the winemaker as a magician, but it’s all about the property. It’s 90 percent in the vineyard, 10 percent in the winery. But that 10 percent is still important. I just like doing what we do.”
The many fans of Priest Ranch also like what they’re doing, in the vineyard, in the winery, and especially in the bottle.
GOES WITH: My wife, Teri, and I had both these wines with vegetable beef soup on separate days. Both wines worked well with the hearty soup.
I use a lot of beef in the soup, shank and pieces of rump roast or chuck roast, so the wine has to have some weight to hold up to the meat flavor. I also add many vegetables, such as potatoes, turnips, tomatoes, onions, leeks, okra, corn, celery, carrots and parsley. I boil it all in a big pot of water and beef broth for about an hour, and it makes enough soup for several meals.
The complex flavors of the soup bring out the complex flavors of the wine
Both of these wines also would go well with steaks, pot roast, game or pork on the grill, pasta with tomato sauce or hearty cheeses. Decant the wine at least 30 minutes before serving.