Food & Drink

The Grapevine: Spottswoode is spot-on with powerful cabernets

Jack and Mary Novak purchased a historic Napa Valley wine estate named Spottswoode in 1972. Jack, a physician in San Diego, “wanted to stop being a doctor and drive a tractor,” says his daughter, Beth Novak Milliken.

The old St. Helena estate, established in 1882, had a huge garden, a beautiful Victorian house and a pre-Prohibition vineyard. In 1910, the estate had been named “Spottswoode,” after the owner, whose last name was Spotts. The Novak family started remodeling the house and restoring and replanting the vineyard. They sold grapes to wineries including Shafer and Duckhorn.

Then, in 1977, Jack Novak died of a heart attack at age 44. Mary, who was left with five children, decided to keep the business going. Finally, encouraged by some of the people who bought her grapes, she ventured into wine production. The first Spottswoode wine was made in 1982, the 100th anniversary of the estate.

An established name

In the 25 years since, Spottswoode Estate Vineyard& Winery has established a reputation as one of the Napa Valley’s top wineries. It doesn’t have the cult status of, say, Screaming Eagle or Harlan Estate. You can actually still sign up for the winery’s mailing list and buy wine at

But year in and year out, the women of Spottswoode—CEO Mary Novak, president Beth Novak Milliken, marketing director Lindy Novak and winemaker Jennifer Williams (who followed another woman, longtime winemaker, now winemaking consultant, Rosemary Cakebread) — have produced wines of refinement and balance.

The first Spottswoode winemaker was Tony Soter, who has also consulted for Napa Valley wineries such as Araujo Estate Wines, Dalla Valle Vineyards and Viader and founded the Etude Wines and Soter Vineyards labels. Soter had a lot to do with defining the style of the Spottswoode cabernet sauvignon. He correctly believed that the estate vineyard could yield wines that were powerful yet elegant. It’s a model that subsequent winemakers have followed.

Soter also encouraged Mary Novak to grow her grapes organically, and Spottswoode in 1985 became one of the first in the Napa Valley to do so. The vineyard was eventually certified in 1990.

Located in St. Helena

The 40-acre vineyard sits on the western edge of St. Helena, at the foot of the Mayacamas Range. It’s planted primarily with cabernet sauvignon, along with smaller amounts of cabernet franc, petit verdot and sauvignon blanc. (Although cabernet is the star at Spottswoode, sauvignon blanc has quite a following.)

The winery has held a series of tastings to celebrate its 25th anniversary. Although I wasn’t able to attend a vertical tasting earlier this year of all the Spottswoode cabernet vintages since 1982, I did have the opportunity recently to taste eight vintages, dating back to 1986.

But first, a word about the sauvignon blanc, made from grapes grown on the Spottswoode estate as well as a few other vineyards. The wine is fermented in a combination of oak and stainless steel barrels, but the oak isn’t too intrusive. Rather, the wine tends to have a round, creamy character that accents the fresh flavors of citrus, lemon grass and fig. (The 2005 is sold out; the 2006, which I haven’t tasted, is $32.) Unlike many sauvignon blancs, Spottswoode’s is also capable of aging a few years.

Cabernet is king

The current vintage of estate cabernet sauvignon is 2004 ($110), and only a small quantity was made. It’s still quite youthful and exuberant, with plump cherry and blackberry fruit and notes of chocolate. The wine obviously is quite expensive, but many cab aficionados pay a lot more for wines that don’t have nearly the track record of Spottswoode.

As for the older vintages, most of the wines in the tasting were aging extremely well and demonstrated the estate’s consistency, both in good years and more challenging vintages. The 1999 is showing particularly well now, with plump, ripe black cherry flavors, hints of anise and cedar and fine tannins.

The Lyndenhurst label

Since 2002, the winery has also produced a second cabernet from younger vineyard blocks. The wine is called Lyndenhurst, the name given to the estate by George Allen, who owned it in the early 20th century. The 2004 Lyndenhurst Cabernet Sauvignon ($60) is, like the estate cab, showing exuberant fruit right now, as well as a fair amount of oak. Only time will tell whether it has an aging potential that approaches that of the estate cabernet.

The estate cabernet’s balance and elegance are all the more remarkable because St. Helena is the warmest part of the valley. It would be easy to produce a much riper style of wine there, as many wineries do.

But the Spottswoode team has stayed true to the original vision. The estate vineyard, Williams says, “speaks for itself.”

Laurie Daniel writes a weekly column on wine. E-mail her at

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