Going vertical at Dalla Valle

The phrase “Napa Valley cult cabernet” brings to mind certain characteristics. Expensive. Limited production. Impossible for mere mortals to buy.

But “cult” also often connotes a particular style of wine: showy, dramatic, uber-ripe, often over the top.

The wines of Dalla Valle Vineyards, especially the cabernet-cab franc blend called Maya, certainly fit the rare and expensive part of the formula; the cabernet sauvignon is $200, Maya $425. But, in my limited experience with them (I couldn’t afford them even if I could buy them), I’ve generally found the wines to have a grace and elegance that many cult wines lack. So when I was invited to a recent retrospective tasting of the wines, I happily made the drive to Oakville.

Dalle Valle Vineyards is in the hills on the east side of Oakville. (Photo by Jimmy Hayes for Dalla Valle)

Dalla Valle Vineyards was founded by Gustav and Naoko Dalla Valle, who purchased their property in the hills on the east side of Oakville in 1982. Their original plan was to build a resort and restaurant, but they soon realized the obstacles to that sort of development. The property seemed to have potential for wine grapes – a few acres of vines were already there – so they changed course and acquired an adjoining parcel. Their first vintage was 1986.

Dalla Valle now has 20 acres of vineyard, mostly cabernet sauvignon, but about 30 percent cabernet franc and a little petit verdot. (There used to be merlot planted, but the site proved too warm.)

Winemaker Andy Erickson has been at Dalla Valle since 2007. (Photo by Jimmy Hayes for Dalla Valle)

The west-facing hillside is indeed warm, with a lot of afternoon sun, although there’s a cool breeze from San Pablo Bay on most summer afternoons. It would be easy to make very ripe wines. But a succession of winemakers, including Heidi Peterson Barrett, Tony Soter, Mia Klein and, since 2007, Andy Erickson, has managed to (mostly) tame the ripeness. “It’s easy to wait too long (to harvest) and miss the window over here,” Erickson said. With that in mind, he said he started in 2009 to rein in the ripeness some more.

When the grapes get too ripe, he said, “you’re losing the freshness. You’re losing the aromatic complexity of the wine.”

“Waiting for flavor,” he added, referring to an oft-repeated mantra about when to pick, is “one of my least favorite terms anymore.”

Naoko Dalla Valle and her daughter, Maya. (Photo by Jimmy Hayes for Dalla Valle)

Gustav Dalla Valle died in 1995, and Naoko has run the estate since then. Their daughter, Maya (for whom the flagship wine is named), joined her mom in 2017. Maya had been preparing for some time: She has degrees in enology from Cornell University and vineyard and winery management from the University of Bordeaux, and she worked at estates including Château Pétrus and Château Latour in Bordeaux and Ornellaia in Italy before joining the family business as the winery’s director.

The vintages at the tasting stretched back to 1992, and we tasted both the cabernet and the Maya from each vintage. Maya Dalla Valle characterized the lineup as “a little piece of each era” of winemaking, although the majority of the wines were made by Erickson. (Erickson confessed that he had “had a secret desire to work here” since he’d tasted the 1990 Maya.)

I thought the 1992 cabernet, made by Barrett, was a little tired, but the 2001 – from Soter and Klein – was a standout: spicy, fresh and persistent. The Erickson years were represented by 2008, 2009, 2013, 2015 and 2016. My preferred vintages were the 2008 (sweet fruit and nice freshness) and 2013 (dense, concentrated and structured, but still quite charming). The 2016, which has not been released, shows a lot of promise, but it needs time for the oak to integrate and the flavors to come together.

The Maya blend contains a substantial amount of cabernet franc, usually about 40 to 45 percent. Erickson said that cabernet franc is his favorite variety in the Napa Valley, provided that it’s planted in the right places and managed correctly, because of its aroma, structure and complexity. The cabernet for the blend comes from the five-acre Maya block.

I preferred the Maya to the cabernet in every vintage except the 2008, when the Maya was generous but not very “franc-ish.” The others were spectacular, combining savory and floral notes with dense fruit and firm structure. The 1992 was aromatic and astonishingly good. It and the 2001 were more delicate, but even the younger vintages had an elegance and light-on-their-feet quality despite their obvious power.

In addition to slope and exposure, the Dalla Valle site is defined by its red, iron-rich soils. It’s hard to say exactly what these soils impart to the wines, but both the cab and the Maya have a refined structure and a spiciness that doesn’t seem to derive from oak.

The vineyard has been farmed organically since 2007, and there are plans to transition to biodynamic practices – which Maya Dalla Valle calls the “natural next step.”