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Plumpjack and Terroir

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Plumpjack Winery in Oakville, Calif., is known for its cabernet sauvignon and syrah. (Courtesy photo)

I have wanted to visit Plumpjack Winery in Oakville, Calif., for some time, interested in tasting their estate syrah, whose past two vintages appeared on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 List. Spending a few hours with winemaker Aaron Miller, I learned that Plumpjack is a lean, mean operation that focuses on doing the very best with what the land gives them.

A 1992 partnership between Gavin Newsom and Gordon Getty established Plumpjack Wine and Spirits, which stills strives at different locations in San Francisco. From that, Plumpjack Winery began in the Napa Valley, offering a menu of nearly 20 wines. After joining the team, President John Conover persuaded staff to limit production and concentrate on what the local terroir supports: cabernet sauvignon and syrah. They have achieved this while expanding a family of wines that highlight different microclimates throughout the Napa Valley.

The 2015 Plumpjack Syrah ($60) was everything I thought it would be, and comes with an interesting story. It is sourced from two distinctive vineyards: the Stagecoach, which sits above the Napa Valley floor, and the Hudson in the cooler Carneros region. The higher elevation adds intensity of fruit, and cooler climates help retain the varietal character. Balanced and powerful, the smokey, spice flavors nicely overlaid those of baked fruit for a rich mouthfeel.

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The 2015 Syrah is 30 percent pressed whole cluster and, according to Miller, is often done barefoot, “I Love Lucy”-style. Sounding natural and authentic, he described it as exhausting, while creating small, painful acidic scratches on the feet and ankles. I urged him to work through the pain and continue what he is doing.

Plumpjack winemaker Aaron Miller. (Courtesy photo)

The Plumpjack family now includes two other nearby wineries that exhibit distinct terroir and persona. The Cade Winery, located on Howell Mountain to the North, experiences warm days and cool, windy nights; Odette, in the historic Stag’s Leap District is naturally cooler, known for combinations of clay, loam and volcanic soils.

We compared the characteristics of current cabernet sauvignon releases from each winery, all with recent reviews in the mid-90s.

With minimal pruning to the vines, Miller lets the fruit do the talking with his Oakville 2015 Plumpjack Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($130), adding touches of petit verdot and malbec. Expressive, fruity aromas extend into jammy berry and cherry flavors with herbal notes, silky tannins and spice on the finish.

The soils up on Howell Mountain consist of more rock and less clay. In both aromas and flavors, winemaker Danielle Cyrot’s 2015 Cade Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($110), with small amounts of petit verdot and merlot added, has an earthy quality with hints of tobacco, coffee and cassis. Muscular tannins are softened by a very rich mouthfeel.

Plumpjack’s tasting room. (Courtesy photo)

Jeff Owens is a veteran winemaker who began with Plumpjack, and became an assistant winemaker at Cade, before being named as head winemaker at Odette. His 2015 Odette Cabernet Sauvignon Stag’s Leap District ($140) epitomizes the balance of power and elegance. Rich, concentrated dark fruit and spice on the nose and palate are nicely restrained throughout a lengthy finish.

Selecting one of these wines over another is like picking a favorite child. In the end, they’re all great. It isn’t a competition, but a rare opportunity to discover first-hand the nuances of distinctive terroir that exist in a region simply known as the Napa Valley.

Among the reds, we managed to taste the 2016 Plumpjack Reserve Chardonnay Napa Valley ($50) that, again, is sourced from two unique appellations: cool Carneros and warm St. Helena. Aged in stainless steel (65 percent) and French oak (35 percent) with no malolactic fermentation, it has a crisp acidity with citrus, tropical and stone fruit flavors and a pleasant, creamy vanilla on the finish.

Various tastings range from $50 to $80 per person, but are not for everyone. Nonetheless, those with serious palates and an interest in education of the local terroir will be amply rewarded.

Plumpjack is in a good place. They are happy with their growers and the estate vineyards are performing well. The plan is to continue with the current format, respect the land, treat each vintage as its own and strive to make extraordinary wines.

Lyle W. Norton is a wine enthusiast and blogger in Santa Rosa who has written a wine column for 15 years. Visit his blog at www.lifebylyle.com or email him at sfewine@gmail.com.

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