Three legendary Napa Valley winemakers gather to discuss trends, sample wines

The trio oversees winemaking at iconic Napa Valley vineyards that have been producing wines for over a century

Winemaker Michael Eddy said that to survive prohibition, Louis Martini winery established a company that supplied concentrated grape juice for home winemaking. (Courtesy photo)

It’s not everyday that one has an opportunity to sit among three legendary winemakers to discuss the past, present and future of the Napa Valley and sample of some of their selected releases.

Peter Mondavi Jr,(Charles Krug), Michael Eddy(Louis Martini) and Dan Petroski(Larkmead) oversee winemaking at iconic Napa Valley vineyards that have been producing wines for over a century. Thanks to Zoom, they came together while sheltering in place to discuss the region’s history: Surviving Prohibition, the phylloxera infestation that led to the replanting of cabernet sauvignon and two World Wars. Today, they now face the present- day challenges of climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Responding to questions from Sommelier Amanda McCrossin, who moderated the discussion, Eddy explained that to survive Prohibition, Louis Martini established the L.M. Martini Grape Products Company that supplied concentrated grape juice for home winemaking.

Dan Petroski added that while World War II presented some challenges, there were embargos on European wines that actually drove demand for California releases. Of note, vintage dating began during that period. Petroski also pointed out that the speed of economic recovery can be hard to predict. Following the 2008-2009 recession, the Napa Valley saw a spike in site visits that lasted until the current coronavirus crisis.

They all agreed that nothing can replace the experience afforded by personal contact at the winery. Even with the global Napa Valley brand and increased direct-to-consumer sales, Napa Valley’s market is still largely local with 40 percent of its product sold within a 100-mile radius.

Good planning prior to our meeting allowed all participants to enjoy wines from each producer. Inviting guests to pour a glass of the 2019 Charles Krug Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley ($18), Peter Mondavi, Jr credited his Peter Sr’s diligent research as vital in adapting to setbacks including his preference for St. George root stock that was less susceptible to disease.

Peter Mondavi Jr, owner and winemaker at Charles Krug winery. (Courtesy photo)

The Charles Krug Winery, founded in 1861, has been owned and operated by the Mondavi family since 1943. Mondavi, Jr described the most difficult setback as the major family split with Robert Mondavi in 1976 who went on to establish his own iconic winery. Twenty years later, Charles Krug navigated a difficult portfolio reduction strategy that guides them today.

Peter, Jr described the 2019 sauvignon blanc as Napa Valley fruit grown in a New Zealand-style. From an estate vineyard with deep, rich soil, the wine is light and bright, good for springtime.

In contrast, Dan Petroski described the vintage 2014 Larkmead “Lillie” Sauvignon Blanc ($90) as a modern version of a Sancerre from the Loire Valley in France, higher in acids and richer from aging on lees and in the bottle.

With regard to climate change, the veteran winemakers agreed that it is an industry challenge that cannot be solved by individual wineries. Most wineries have adapted to sensitive and sustainable farming practices, but the real problem is the carbon footprint driven primarily by the production and shipping of bottles to the wineries and, in turn to market. It was called the “crisis of movement.”

Dan Petroski, winemaker at Larkmead winery. (Courtesy photo)

Michael Eddy described their nucleus in crafting different styles of cabernet sauvignon by introducing the Louis Martini Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 ($43), then the Louis Martini Cypress Ranch Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2016 ($100), part of their Crown Cabernet Collection focused on specific vineyard sites located in the Pope Valley on the backside of Howell Mountain. The “Cypress Ranch” was an elegant wine with deeply integrated red and dark berry flavors and soft tannins.

The herbaceous style of cabernet franc was on display with the Larkmead LMV Salon Napa Valley 2012 ($180), blended with cabernet sauvignon. With its expanding popularity, Dan Petroski sees a cabernet franc dominant LMV Salon release in his future. Awarding the 2012 vintage 95-points, James Suckling described the wine as “Wonderfully elegant, full-bodied, firm and velvety.”

First released in 1944, the Charles Krug Vintage Selection Cabernet Sauvignon has remained the pinnacle of their portfolio. The 2016 Charles Krug Vintage Selection Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley ($125) represents the first vintage to add Howell Mountain fruit from the Cold Springs Vineyard with that of the Voltz and Slinsen vineyards on the valley floor. The refined, integrated flavors of dark fruit and spice provided a lingering finish to our tasting.

As these legends remind us, only four percent of California’s annual harvest comes from the Napa Valley. It is a special place with special wines.

Guest columnist Lyle W. Norton is a wine enthusiast and blogger in Santa Rosa who has written a wine column for 20 years. Visit his blog at www.lifebylyle.com or email sfewine@gmail.com

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