We taste some of the most admired vintages of Napa Valley, through the decades, with two generations of the owning family of the Dalla Valle estate, Naoko and Maya
Naoko and Maya Dalla Valle make some of the most magical wines in the world. From their vineyards in Rutherford, in California’s Napa Valley, the mother-and-daughter proprietors of the eponymous winery create red wines which combine perfume, subtlety, style and power, that have become cult acquisitions for collectors. They also score high in the increasingly important sustainability stakes, as all the estate’s vines are farmed organically.
Dalla Valle was started by Naoko and her husband Gustav in 1986; it shot onto the wine world map in the early 1990s, when Robert Parker, the super-critic and then the man who could make or break a high-end winery, gave a perfect 100/100 score to their flagship wine, Maya.
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As well as being their most prized wine, made from their best vineyards, Maya was their daughter, then a baby. Thirty years later, Maya is the winemaker and increasingly active in running the estate. Parker no longer makes or breaks a wine’s image, but standards are still the same. The Dalla Valle wines, made of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, come from vineyards on the Rutherford Bench, just above the valley floor of Napa and home to what wine enthusiasts would call some of the best “terroir” in the region, which now produces some of the world’s most expensive wines.
The two wines we tasted on our Zoom tasting and chat are celebrated for an elegance, complexity and sophistication that is not always found in the great (in every sense) wines of the Napa Valley. Below are short extracts of our conversation, and our tasting notes.
LUX: Can you go back in time and tell us about making your first wines?
Naoko Dalla Valle: We created the Cabernet Sauvignon in 1986 commercially. Then 1987, we purchased more land from the neighbour and we planted additional about five acres of Cabernet sauvignon. And that turned out to be the best vineyard on the property and then we combined with that highest quality of the Cabernet franc we produced, and decided to create this special wine called Maya. People think she is named after wine, she came first! We immediately got noticed by Robert Parker and we immediately started getting very high scores and then by 1990, we got 99 points. For the 1992 vintage, we received 100 points from Robert Parker, we were the second winery in America to receive that score. That put us on the map. We have been fortunate to be able to maintain the quality.
Maya Dalla Valle: I would also point out the fact that, my father unfortunately passed away in winter, December 1995. So shortly after we had learnt about this 92 vintage Maya, so it was also a very sentimental moment but also for my father, he passed knowing that we were going to be ok. I am first generation American, both my parents came from different countries [Japan and Italy]. My mother had the choice to sell the winery and go back to Japan to work. We had family there, she could have easily have done that, but she had grown a fondness and a deep love for our property and the vineyard and land and winemaking, that she really took this business to next level.
LUX: What makes your terrain special?
Maya Dalla Valle: We are on the east side of Napa Valley, and it is about 500 feet elevation at the peak. What’s interesting is that this little bench that we sit on is a result of a landslide that occurred four million years ago, from volcanic origin, so we have volcanic iron rich bedrock soil… things are constantly moving. We often see these small boulders pop up in the vineyard each year through the surface. It makes us wonder sometimes if we are farming rocks or farming grapes.
LUX: You represent a generational change of winemaker. Has there been a generational change of consumer preferences?
Maya Dalla Valle: The younger consumer is not the same kind of buyer as the previous generation. They seek more authenticity and are able to connect with your brand. Then they become more loyal. You need to show them what you are doing in a way they can feel like they connect with you. We talk a lot about our sustainability, we are organic, we did organic certification for our vineyard to show accountability of what we do.
The tasting: (notes by Darius Sanai)
Dalla Valle Maya 1990
Scents of black olive, truffles, perfume top notes, a wine you could wear to the ball at the Chateau de Versailles. At the same time it is rich and dense, but not at all heavy, on the palate. Tastes develop in the mouth for a long time. One of the great wines of the world today, at 32 years old, but I would like to try it again when it is 64. The star of the show.
Dalla Valle Cabernet Sauvignon 1992
Very deep, layered wine, stratified, almost. Lots of muscle, black fruits and herbs. One for Kobe beef, simply grilled, on a Friday evening alone.
Dalla Valle Maya 2010
Like a young Russian prince wearing a cloak. Beautiful but quite closed to start with; opened up after half an hour of conversation, to reveal a complex, surprisingly delicate personality.
Dalla Valle Cabernet Sauvignon 2010
Quite different to the Maya, remarkable that it is grown from land so nearby. Full and rich, black fruits and mountain herbs, and a zinginess that makes it quite distinctive. To share with an old friend, in your mountainside ranch in Wyoming.
Dalla Valle Maya 2018
Expected this to be very closed, as it’s so young, but this is like walking into a jewellery shop, with a multitude of colours of flavour. Dazzling stuff, and you would drink it while celebrating your latest deal, but with a hint of guilt, because it will plainly be so much better in decades.
Dalla Valle Cabernet Sauvignon 2018
A rich Napa cabernet, meaning power and weight, and also with a lightness, meaning people who prefer elegant wines will also enjoy it immensely, particularly over a meal of grilled miso vegetables on the terrace of your Umbrian palazzo on a coolish May evening.
Find out more: dallavallevineyards.com