Shiny new Napa Valley cult wines come and go, but Spottswoode cabernet sauvignon is a classic.
Certainly Spottswoode has the history: Wine grapes were first planted at the St. Helena estate 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 to raise their five children. Beth Novak Milliken, the winery’s president and CEO, jokes that her dad wanted to stop being a doctor and drive a tractor. The vineyard had been planted with a mishmash of grapes, including Napa gamay, green Hungarian, French colombard and petite sirah. By the early 1970s, cabernet sauvignon’s potential in the Napa Valley was evident, so the Novaks replanted the vineyard with mostly cab and some sauvignon blanc. The grapes were sold to wineries like Heitz, Caymus, Shafer and Duckhorn.
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. (Soter went on to consult with some of the top wineries in the Napa Valley before moving to Oregon to devote himself full time to his Soter Vineyards.)
The first vintage of Spottswoode cabernet was 1982, the 100th anniversary of the estate. (Milliken notes that the first vintage sold for $18 a bottle.) Soter had a lot to do with establishing the Spottswoode style: powerful yet elegant, a reflection of the vineyard, and 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.
In recent years, Spottswoode has resisted the trend toward ever-riper cabernet sauvignon, maintaining the more nuanced style that Soter championed. “Tony left a pretty big imprint on the place,” Weinkauf says. “We didn’t go to what I call the dark side,” Milliken adds.
Much of the Napa Valley had to be replanted in the 1990s because of phylloxera. The new vineyards were often planted to higher densities, with trellising that gave a lot of sun exposure to the grape clusters. Recognizing that all that sun would result in a riper style of wine, the team at Spottswoode decided on a different approach. They planted with wider spacing and a modified open canopy system that gives partial shade to the fruit. That helps preserve acidity and prevents sunburn on the grapes.
There are now 37 acres under vine, mostly cabernet sauvignon, with a little cabernet franc, petit verdot and sauvignon blanc. Most of the cabernet is the so-called Spottswoode clone, propagated from the vines that Jack and Mary had first planted.
Milliken joined her mother in running the winery in 1987, become president in the late 1990s and more recently added CEO to her titles. Her sister, Lindy Novak, joined the company in 1992 and is the national marketing director. For much of the winery’s history, the women of Spottswoode have also been joined by female winemakers – four of them over the years.
I recently attended a vertical tasting of 10 vintages of 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 dominant style has gotten riper, aging potential often has suffered. Since Spottswoode, for the most part, didn’t follow that ripeness trend, I expected that the wines had aged well. The tasting bore out my expectation.
Two wines from the 1990s – 1991 and 1995 – had ample lively fruit, though the 1995 was still quite tight.
Spottswoode cabs from 2001 and beyond are from the replanted vines. The 2001 seemed disjointed at first, but the flavors integrated beautifully after some time in the glass. Milliken acknowledges that the wines changed some “because the vineyard had changed.” The decade also produced a number of riper vintages. After 2010 – which is dark, dense and very powerful – Milliken says they wanted to dial things back a bit.
Weinkauf took over as winemaker in 2011, a cool, difficult vintage that would have forced them to dial back the ripeness no matter what. I think the 2011 Spottswoode is one of the best Napa cabs of that vintage: dark, concentrated, with red fruit, savory notes of anise and bay laurel and fine tannins. “We’re super proud of what we did with the ’11,” Milliken says.
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, as does the 2014, which is still in barrel and was poured at the Premiere Napa Valley trade event in February.
“We’re on a really great trajectory,” Milliken says. She praises Weinkauf’s “thoughtful approach,” saying that it “harkens back to Tony.”
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: lively and seamless, with a long finish.
The winery is also known for its sauvignon blanc, which is Mary Novak’s favorite wine. “She’s our primary consumer,” Milliken says. The 2014 Spottswoode Sauvignon Blanc ($38) exhibits racy citrus flavors, some creaminess and a long finish.
Postscript: Sadly, Mary Novak died Sept. 25 after a brief battle with cancer. She was 84. Her warmth and spirit will be missed.