Shiny new Napa Valley cult wines come and go, but Spottswoode cabernet sauvignon is a classic.
Certainly Spottswoode has the history: The St. Helena estate was established in 1882. It changed hands several times over the years and survived Prohibition by selling grapes for use in sacramental wine. Spottswoode’s modern era began in 1972, when Jack and Mary Novak bought the place.
The Novaks, who had been living in San Diego County, were looking for a rural setting where they could raise their five children. Beth Novak Milliken, the winery’s president, jokes that her dad wanted to stop being a doctor and drive a tractor.
The vineyard had been planted with a mishmash of grapes, like Napa gamay and green Hungarian. The Novaks replanted it with mostly cabernet sauvignon and some sauvignon blanc. The grapes were sold to wineries like Heitz, Caymus, Shafer and Duckhorn.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
After Jack died in 1977 at the age of 44, Mary decided to keep the business going. Encouraged by some of her friends and grape customers, she decided to produce a little wine and hired Tony Soter as winemaker.
The first vintage of Spottswoode cabernet was 1982, the 100th anniversary of the estate. Soter had a lot to do with establishing the Spottswoode style: powerful yet elegant, with the ability to evolve. He also encouraged Mary Novak to adopt organic practices in the vineyard; it was certified organic in 1992. More recently, current winemaker and vineyard manager Aron Weinkauf has introduced biodynamic farming.
The vineyard had to be replanted because of phylloxera. There are now 37 acres under vine, mostly cabernet sauvignon, with a little cabernet franc, petit verdot and sauvignon blanc.
I recently attended a vertical tasting of 10 vintages of Spottswoode cab, dating back to 1985. It’s common at this sort of tasting to pour the wines, especially the older ones, from larger bottles, because the wines age more slowly in a bigger container, but all the Spottswoode wines were poured from standard 750-milliliter bottles. Most of the wines were aging extremely well, although the 1985 had seen better days. But the 1987 was smooth, vibrant and one of my favorites.
I’ve tasted a lot of Napa cabs from the 1980s that are aging gracefully, but as the style has gotten riper, aging potential often has suffered. That hasn’t been the case at Spottswoode. The 1995 is still fairly tight, though there’s nice sweetness to the fruit. The 2001 seemed disjointed at first, but the flavors integrated beautifully after some time in the glass. The 2012 ($165), the current release, is dark, dense and lively, with black cherry, mocha, cinnamon and firm but approachable tannins. The 2013, which will be released in September, is dark, fresh and concentrated and from a great vintage. It shows a lot of promise.
Spottswoode also produces a second-label cab called Lyndenhurst, which contains mostly estate fruit, supplemented by a few grapes from elsewhere. The 2012 ($75) is delicious: dark, lively and seamless, with a long finish.
Pick of the Week
Hug Cellars 2014 Ranch Vinedo Chardonnay ($36) Hug, a Paso Robles winery, sources grapes from a number of vineyards, including this one in Santa Barbara County. The wine is rich and creamy, with bright citrus and pear notes.