On a beautiful November afternoon, we made a visit to Caldwell Vineyard. Nestled in the hills of the Coombsville region, just east of downtown Napa, the drive up to the property was nothing short of breathtaking. Once at the top of the hill, the view of the valley was patterned with vibrant, autumn-colored rows of vines. Although many people favor the luscious green vines they see while visiting wine country in the summer, there is a special aura in the rows of red, yellow, and orange leaves that fill the landscape.
Unlike most wineries where you drive up to see a beautifully architected tasting room, we pulled up to the property only to think we had taken the wrong turn. We arrived only to see the winery workers throwing grapes into the destemmer, while others sorted through the grapes. In the midst of being convinced that we were in the wrong place, we were greeted by a man in a tan straw hat. Unsure if this man was one of the winery workers; I asked him where the tasting room was located. He proceeded to tell me that this winery has no tasting room, but then asked if I wanted to help out the workers. To my pleasant suspicion, this man was no winery worker, but John Caldwell himself.
After John laughed off his gag, he took us over to the destemmer to introduce us to the workers and tell us a little bit about what they were doing. For his top of the line wines, John uses some unique methods that are not only rare in this day and age, but expensive as well. First, the grapes are destemmed and sorted through a vibrating table to remove any raisins. Next, the grapes are hand-crushed by two workers at the far end of the sorting table. Afterwards, the grape must is put into oak barrels for fermentation.This is a very expensive alternative to machine-crushing and fermenting grapes in vats.
Another interesting part of John’s process is that he uses native yeast, as opposed to cultured yeast, for fermentation. Native yeast has a higher risk of spoilage and is highly unpredictable, but can also provide tastes and aromas that cultured yeast cannot. John has taken a considerably risky move and created some truly great wine.
After exploring the heart of his wine process, John took us over the tasting table that had been setup up outside overlooking the vineyard. A tasting at Caldwell is a tasting one does not soon forget. The table was beautifully arranged with plates of local farm cheeses, Spanish chorizo, and various breads. My absolute favorite of the cheeses was the Shropshire Blue cheese, which is pasteurized cow’s milk with vegetable rennet.
Next up, the wines arrived. In addition to the selection of Caldwell wines we were about to taste, we had another unexpected treat. Winemaker Drew Neiman (Neiman Cellars) was also there to join us with his bottles to taste. Both John and Drew conducted our informative wine tastings while telling us stories of their journeys into the wine world. John is quite the jokester, and with every story of his was a playful laugh at the end. His contagious positive attitude and sense of humor made our tasting session both intriguing and incredibly entertaining.
While John was in conversation with the others at our table, I spent some time getting to know Drew and his winemaking. I was extremely fascinated by the fact that Drew is a one-man operation and controls every aspect of his wine process. He pays precise attention to every part of the chemical process in which he creates his wine. When asked why he doesn’t use any assistance, he jokingly replied that if anyone is going to screw up his wine, it’d better be him.
After a few hours of wine and our enjoyable chats, we concluded our tasting. Although this might be the longest tasting I have ever been to, it went by much too quickly. Nothing is better than enjoying some remarkable wine in the presence of some genuinely wonderful people. Whether you are an experienced wine drinker, or a newbie to the scene, a visit to Caldwell is an experience that will leave its mark with you forever.
My two favorite wines from this tasting…
Caldwell Rocket Science, 2008
This incredibly complex wine is full-bodied with strong oak, high tannins, and medium acidity. With strong aromas of plum, black cherry, and leather; this wine is powerful from the second the glass is in your hand. The remarkable combination of tastes includes black berry, black cherry, cloves, black pepper, licorice, tobacco, minerals, and forest floor. After the first sip, the only way to describe the experience is that this wine is purely Rocket Science.
Neiman Cellars Syah, 2007
This is a full-bodied wine that is highly tannic, with medium to high acidity. Its inky plum color is enhanced with the distinguishing aromas of black plum, black cherry, and black licorice. Earthy, leather, tobacco, spice, black pepper, and black cherry are the tastes that stand out to me when I taste this wine. It is beautifully influenced by the oak it was aged in. Without a doubt, this is one of the most genius combinations of flavors and aromas I have ever had in a Syrah.