Cade Estate is typical of the new generation of Napa wineries. Founded in 2005, the operation is located on 22 hectares of Howell Mountain, on the steep eastern flank of the valley. It was an unusual spot to plant a new vineyard and many wine pundits doubted it would succeed. But Napa has always been about quashing naysayers and pulling off the impossible. From the start, the trio of owners—Gordon Getty (son of oil tycoon J. Paul Getty), former San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsome, and longtime Napa vintner John Conover, who runs the day-to-day operations—wanted to create something new and different, not just the wine that derives from their grapes, but the whole winemaking process.
Fresh off the plane from his annual surfing trip to Sumatra, Conover meets me in a glass-enclosed lounge where patrons sip his wines on leather sofas while gazing down at the valley 550 meters below. It is barely past breakfast time, but when in Rome . . . Conover pours two glasses of Cade’s best sauvignon blanc, swishes his own around, then takes a deep whiff and a generous sip. The look on his face says it all: sublime wine.
“I knew right away this was the perfect spot for grapevines,” Conover explains later as we walk the vineyard. “There were certain issues we had to overcome. Like how to irrigate the vines on these steep slopes. And the wildlife—there are bears, mountain lions, bobcats, all sorts of things up here. We gotta get a guy in here every year—a snake handler—to round up the rattlesnakes.” In keeping with the wild locale, the winery buildings are made from recycled and sustainable materials (metal, plastic, wood, denim from old blue jeans) and the vineyards are 100 percent organic, factors that earned Cade the valley’s first LEED gold certification.
It took Conover and his staff three years to produce their first grapes and months more to make their first wine. But right out of the gate, they were being hailed as among the valley’s best. Wine critic Robert Parker called the 2008 Cade Estate cabernet sauvignon “a glorious nose of blueberries, black raspberries, plums, graphite and crushed rocks. A brilliant texture, stunning purity and great length make for a fabulous wine to drink over the next 20 to 25 years.”
Another experiment is the Napa Valley Reserve outside St. Helena. The brainchild of Bill Harlan, who also owns the nearby Meadowood resort and an eponymous wine estate, it’s not so much a winery as an exclusive wine club. For an entry fee of US$140,000 plus annual dues, members get their own stretch of vines and the right to harvest the grapes themselves during the September–October picking season. With the help of a master vintner, those grapes are transformed into your own private vintage, with customized labels designed by local artists.
“We also have member workshops, lectures, cooking demonstrations, wine pairings, and other activities,” says Napa Valley Reserve director Philip Norfleet, “as well as a library, bocce courts, fire pits, and places for picnics or private dining.” Little wonder the club currently has about 500 members from 13 different countries.
Another local trend is virtual wineries—operations that make and market wines but don’t have a physical location or even their own vineyards. “These days you can build a wine brand from scratch without owning land,” says Chris Cutler, a marketing consultant to several local wineries and the creator of a new wine portal called MyVino.com. “You see that more and more now. There’s also this big trend toward outsourcing things like grape growing and bottling rather than trying to do everything yourself.” And a lot of Silicon Valley–style consolidation, too. “The big estates see little brands popping up and doing well,” Cutler says. “But rather than compete with the little guys, they just buy them.”
Yet the old-timers are still around and flourishing. On the outskirts of Calistoga rises one of the valley’s oddest architectural landmarks, Chateau Montelena, recently named to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. The main building is an ivy-covered, European-style stone castle constructed in the 1880s; a Chinese lake and pavilion were added in the 1950s. But what really made Montelena shine in the annals of American winemaking history was the success of its chardonnay at the aforementioned blind tasting of 1976. In addition to pouring great wine, the upstairs tasting room doubles as a museum, much of it an homage to the late Jim Barrett, who owned and operated the winery for more than four decades until his death earlier this year. Along with bottles of premium wine, they are more than happy to sell you a DVD of Bottle Shock, the 2008 Hollywood movie that tells the story of Barrett’s date with destiny at the Judgement of Paris.