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The greatest wine discoveries on the planet might just be from an Australian brand that has been hiding in plain sight. In a conversation and tasting with Penfolds Chief Winemaker Peter Gago, LUX has a revelation

The world of fine wine is a paradox that make things interesting – sits Penfolds, a one. Some of the greatest wines are household names: who hasn’t heard of Dom Pérignon or Château Lafite? Yet others of the same or even higher stature are almost secret; few outside a tiny circle of collectors know of the wines of Henri Jayer or Château Rayas.

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And even seasoned wine collectors and aficionados could be forgiven for being confused by the “origin paradox”. This is not a story of religion (although, given the fervency of arguments it generates, it could be), but of location. As ever wealthier collectors delve ever deeper into their passions, the specific vineyard sites of specific producers can see their produce sell for a multiple of the price of the vines next door, ostensibly making the same kind of wine from the same type of grapes on the same soil.

man

Chief Winemaker Peter Gago

Within this fascinating collectors’ maelstrom – and with wine, as with people, it’s the paradoxes that make things interesting – sits Penfolds, a producer at once revered for its super-premium collectable wines, and known for its good value everyday bottlings. Penfolds is a latticework of delicious paradoxes – a fine-wine world in itself. For example, it’s quite possible you will find a delicious, easy-drinking Penfolds red wine at a good metropolitan supermarket for the price of four oat chai lattes at Starbucks. Meanwhile, if you wanted to get your hands on a bottle of Penfolds g3, one of the producer’s most revered red wines, wine-searcher.com lists its average global price as around £18,500 (US$23,000) at the time of writing. Only 1,200 bottles were ever made. Even more extreme is Penfolds Ampoule, a glass and precious-metal decanter of one of its most rare wines, the Penfolds (monopole) 2004 Kalimna Block 42 Cabernet Sauvignon, of which only 12 were made, and which currently retails at around £127,000 (US$160,000) – if you can find one.

wines

A line-up of Penfolds classics

Penfolds’ slightly more abundant high-end wines, The Penfolds Collection, are celebrated by connoisseurs around the world: bottles such as Grange and Bin 707 sell for the same prices as the most prized châteaux from Bordeaux. The 2021 Yattarna, a Chardonnay, recently received a 100/100-points score from leading authority on Australian wine Andrew Caillard MW; like a super-luxe white Burgundy – Le Montrachet, say. For us, the most intriguing, and delicious (see tasting notes, opposite) Penfolds paradox is a development of the company’s different way of doing things. Grange, traditionally its most celebrated wine, made mainly of the Shiraz (Syrah) grape, has always been made from multiple vineyard sites across a vast area, in stark contrast to its counterparts in France, which are from tiny, specified vineyard plots.

Now, Penfolds has stretched that logic from Australia across countries and even continents: Penfolds II is a top-end Cabernet-Shiraz from Bordeaux and South Australia (in the same bottle). The company also now makes Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon wines in Napa, as well as making wines (in the Medoc/Bordeaux) with grapes sourced from across the Bordeaux region. Peter Gago, Chief Winemaker at Penfolds, says stretching the brand from the high end to the middle market is a deliberate, democratising strategy. “Luxury has many meanings to many different people – it’s a continuum,” he explains. “We mustn’t forget that this is Penfolds’ 180th year, and what we do at the top end has to permeate all the way down to entry-level wines. This is what sets us apart from other ‘luxury’ wines. I’m not saying I’m a socialist when it comes to luxury, but it’s not just for the chosen few, it’s for everyone to have a taste of. “What makes us unique is affordable luxury at one level, transcending to the 2012 Ampoule launched at the Baccarat Club in Moscow: courage coupled with quality.” Gago makes the point that Penfolds wines have rewarded investors in top-end wines as well as any of the world’s best: the Ampoule was launched at around £87,600 (US$110,000) 12 years ago, and one reportedly recently sold on the secondary market for around £130,400 (US$162,000).

Read more: Lewis Chester on Giacomo Conterno

room

The Grange Tunnel at the Magill Estate, which is just east of Adelaide

UK-born Gago has been Chief Winemaker at Penfolds for 22 years and moves and shakes with rock stars and Hollywood actors who revere the wines; but he is never happier than when talking about the wines. He enthuses about Penfolds’ continuing collaboration with Champagne Thiénot, which has seen the release of some highly acclaimed vintage Champagnes in its first five years, including the 2013 Penfolds X Champagne Thiénot Blanc de Noirs, which last year was awarded Best Blanc de Noirs Champagne in the world by a panel of experts compiled by tastingbook.com founder Pekka Nuikki. (Champagne, of course, can only be made in the Champagne region of France.) He also enjoys the challenges of making a great Pinot Noir to match the best of Burgundy like a great Chambertin or Vosne-Romanée. “Some say that Australian Pinot Noirs lack the complexity of Burgundy. With Cabernet and Shiraz, we’re competing at any level. For Pinot Noir, the journey continues,” says Gago. It’s a journey Penfolds has been taking for nearly two centuries, and one that Gago and his successors will no doubt savour. Meanwhile, the greatest wine discovery you may make this year could just be a wine from a brand that’s been hiding in plain sight.

king charles

King Charles and Queen Camilla (the then Prince Charles and Duchess of Cornwall) taste the 1962 Penfolds Bin 60A with Peter Gago in 2015, Milton Wordley Photography

Tasting notes by LUX

1 Penfolds Grange, 2019, South Australia – £600 (US$740)

The ne plus ultra of Penfolds wines (if you ignore the hyperwines at hyperprices), and often thought the world’s best Shiraz (Syrah). This is a complex philosopher of a wine, which reveals layer upon layer over an evening. This vintage is still at school; try to find one of university-graduation age.

2 Penfolds Bin 707, 2019, South Australia – £450 (US$555)

Bin numbers are essential to an understanding of Penfolds wines, and 707 is an eternally velvety Cabernet Sauvignon that is a world in itself. It
is neither slightly austere, like a Bordeaux, nor open, like many great new-world Cabernets. A restrained lusciousness, like a young Daniel Craig.

3 Penfolds Bin 704, 2019, Napa Valley – £60 (US$75)

A Napa Cabernet by an Australian company? Zut alors! We loved the subtle fanning of flavours – more a refined tap on the shoulder than a knockout punch. More Bogart than Stallone.

4 Penfolds II, 2019, Bordeaux/South Australia – £270 (US$335)

A French-Australian blend! Double zut alors!
This wine has the intensity of Simone de Beauvoir and the persistence and artistry of Shane Warne. And chapeau to Penfolds for even trying.

5 Penfolds Yattarna, 2021, Australia – £135 (US$165)

Garnered a perfect 100/100-point score from wine critic Andrew Caillard MW; rich yet levitatingly fresh, powerful yet delicate, quite unlike anything else – like Margot Fonteyn driving an F1 car.

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a vineyard with a house at the back
green vineyards and an orange house at the end surrounded by trees

Dana Estates is one of Napa’s most prized wineries

Dana is a cult collectible among California wines, made in tiny quantities at sky-high prices. Its owners are on a self-declared quest for perfection. Darius Sanai sat down with them for a tasting of their exceptional wines

The universe of fine wine, more than that of any other luxury good, is filled with contradictions. You say you don’t like Merlot, but you pay £2000 for a bottle of Château Petrus, which is made, mainly, from Merlot. You would never dream of drinking a wine made from different vintages all in one bottle, yet you collect Krug Grande Cuvée champagne, which has made its name on doing just that. You don’t like California wines because they are too strong, and prefer to stick to Bordeaux, yet many Bordeaux wines, in this time of climate change, are 14% or 15% alcohol, just the same as their California cousins.

Nowhere is this paradox more vivid than in Napa Valley itself, the heart of California’s great wines. “Napa Valley Cabernet” is considered even by many wine connoisseurs to be one particular style, which they may profess strong views about either way – particularly if they are French, or a little snobbish and British. And yet not only does this area make a spectrum of different styles – arguably, much broader than that made in the grape’s famous homeland, Bordeaux’s left bank – but, geographically, geologically, horticulturally, and meteorologically, it is one of the most diverse wine producing regions in the world.

A lounge with yellow lighting

The winery was re-designed by renowned architect Howard Backen, keeping the original stone walls as its centrepiece

This point was brought home during our tasting of Dana wines with the estates’ owners. Dana itself is situated on the west side of Napa Valley, in the shadow of the Mayacamas mountains (in reality, densely, wooded, and biodiversity rich, big hills, separating Napa from valleys to the west that run towards the Pacific Ocean).

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Dana’s wines are made from grapes grown on both on the sides of the valley, including two vineyards on the slopes of Howell Mountain to the east, part of the range which separates this fertile area from the arid central valley of California. (This geographical detail is essential, as wine is a product of its place).

In the Dana wines we tasted, we were tasting different identities, and personalities, with far more differentiation than the marginal differences in climate and soil in revered heartlands of France.

casks in a room with a chandelier

Dana Estates produces three single vineyard wines: Helms, Hershey and Lotus Vineyard

And here is another paradox. Because while France’s great wines, from Chateau Margaux to Château Petrus to Domaine de la Romanée Conti, are brands that almost any connoisseur worth their salt knows of, very few people indeed have heard of Dana. And this, you would think, would lead to it being undervalued, a kind of hidden gem of beautiful wine to discover and buy up.

And you would be wrong, for all the wines we tasted here are as expensive, and in the case of some vintages more expensive, than the great names of France mentioned above. Tiny production, and a cult following, and also, as we noted in our conversation, an owner and winemaker absolutely obsessed with making the best possible, no matter what the cost. Hi Sang Lee is a Korean entrepreneur who bought the winery because he just wanted to make the best of the best.

Like a few other top and California estates, a conversation and tasting with Dana is like a window into the creation of a future wine, superbrand. And as for those who prefer to dismiss “cult” California wines, as a fad, superbrands, are often only taken up, in the early stages, by the most discerning.

a vineyard with a house at the back

Dana Estates sits at the base of the Mayacamas Mountains in Napa Valley

The wines: Tasting notes by Darius Sanai

Dana Estates Helms 2019
This is pure, brilliant, Napa Cabernet – and for connoisseurs of the region, more specifically, has the wonderful hallmarks of a Cabernet Sauvignon from the Rutherford Bench, an area just below the mountains on the west of the valley. There is density, powerful fruit, balanced tannins and a balance – although we would put either put this wine in a cellar for 10 years, or drink it with a Kobe steak personally chosen and cooked by Wolfgang Puck in our home overlooking the Pacific.

A blue carafe next to a bottle and glass of wine

The Helms Vineyard Cabernet displays the classic profile of the Rutherford Bench: dark fruit, richly layered with a hints of spice and earth

Dana Estates Hershey 2019
Hershey Vineyard is not in Napa Valley per se; it is up in the hillsides around Howell Mountain, to the east of the valley. Surrounded by forests, you can feel the freshness and lift in this wine. It’s more delicate, more precise, more defined, while still being a powerful wine. We would drink it with guineafowl in a wine jus cooked in our home in the high Alps by Yannick Alléno.

Dana Estates Lotus 2019
Rich, powerful, deep wine with many layers: creamy black fruit, savoury spice and anise, and velvety texture. We would drink this with Hélène Darroze herself, in a Mayfair townhouse, with an Auvergne-style beef casserole.

Large black wine bottles

Dana is a Sanskrit term meaning “the Spirit of Generosity”

Dana Estates Lotus 2011
It was interesting to see how this wine aged; at twelve years, the muscularity of the previous wine has turned into something altogether more poetic. Still rich with power, but woven through with a silken grace, and the spice has a greater subtlety. With this one we would ask Yan Tak from Lung King Heen in Hong Kong to cook us a hotpot, and eat it in our Midlevels apartment looking out over Hong Kong harbour.

Read more: A tasting of Schrader’s legendary Napa wines

Dana Estates Helms 2005
This 18 year old Dana wine has aged more like a Burgundy than a Bordeaux, opening out into a fresh, fragrant, balanced wine with much subtlety and no trace of tannins. We would drink this by itself, in winter, in our house overlooking the turbulent sea off the coast of wintertime Mallorca.

Find out more: danaestates.com

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There is a vineyard in the heart of Napa Valley that is a legend among wine cognoscenti; and one wine estate above all others that is celebrated for the wines it makes from it. Darius Sanai embarks on a tasting of Schrader’s celebrated To Kalon vineyard Cabernet Sauvignons

Schrader’s wines come from the heart of the Napa Valley in California

Anyone who enjoys the world’s great wines will have been asked a variation of the following question by a friend or acquaintance who is not a wine drinker: why are they worth it?

Top wines cost hundreds or even thousands of pounds/euros/dollars a bottle. What is it about a liquid, opened and dispatched over the course of a couple of hours, that is so much better than other bottles of very similar liquid, on sale for a fraction of the price?

My favourite answer is that a great wine makes you think. It carves its own conversation and memory in your mind. It has a depth and breadth of complexity which starts, like any foodstuff, with your sensory organs (smell, taste, sight, touch), but which then transfers into your brain to engrave itself on your experience.

Great food also has sensory complexity (and can also be expensive and confined to the very wealthy). But wine has two qualities which are unavailable to food: a bottle of wine accompanies you and your companions during the course of a part of a day (rather than as a course in a meal), taking part and assisting in numerous conversations. And a great wine evolves, and has a different conversation with you over the space of a couple of hours. The greatest wines leave a city’s worth of impressions on your mind.

I was thinking of this during our tasting of Schrader Cellars wines. Schrader is one of the big names of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon: if you are a hedge fund titan in New York, an oil magnate in Dallas or an entertainment investor in LA, you will likely know the winery.

 

 

 

Jason Smith, Master Sommelier at Schrader

The first three wines we tried – three of the winery’s flagships – were all from a legendary piece of land, the Beckstoffer To Kalon vineyard in Napa Valley.

Drive by Beckstoffer To Kalon on Highway 29, the main road bisecting the valley, and you would be forgiven for missing it. Unlike some of the spectacular vineyards of the region, perched amid hillside forests or on mountainsides, To Kalon is flat, on the valley floor, just an array of vines. But then, so are vineyards like those around Chateau Latour or Chateau Petrus or Chateau Cheval Blanc in Bordeaux. Visual appeal has no relationship to vineyard quality.

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Like a Burgundy vineyard, To Kalon has a number of different wine estates making wines from its esteemed grapes; Schrader is probably the most celebrated. But what makes Schrader, as well as this vineyard site of To Kalon, so special?

The To Kalon vineyard is on the valley floor of Napa, touted by forested mountains

Jason Smith, the urbane, cosmopolitan General Manager of Schrader, with whom we had our tasting, is too modest to give a direct answer: it’s a combination of the vines and the winemaking. Smith is a rarity in that he is a Master Sommelier running a prestigious winery; and as such has real insider knowledge of the fabulous restaurants which manage to get their hands on a small stock of Schrader wines. He says the wines are best drunk over dinner with a small group of friends; although the wines weave such a conversation we would be happy to drink them alone.

Tasting notes by Darius Sanai

Schrader Cellars Heritage Clone 2019

So many layers wash over your senses when you sip this wine: as soon as you think you have separated and worked out the different elements, more arrive to replace them. If it were an artwork, it would be a late-period Rembrandt: on first note, a portrait of a person, then you notice the eyes, the unfinished sleeve, the posture; keep looking, and keep sipping, and more nuances appear and others disappear. Unlike a Rembrandt, this will improve over time: its conversation will be even more fascinating in 2029 or later.

Schrader Cellars CCS 2019

The To Kalon vineyard is cooled by breezes and fogs coming in from nearby San Francisco Bay

Schrader is very scientific over which parts of the To Kalon vineyard make which of its wines. CCS is made from grapes from nearest the centre of Napa Valley itself, near the river. The soil is full of mineral deposits, which apparently make the wine balanced, lifted. My impression was of a wave of blues, greens, greys and reds; its conversation was playful yet intellectual, never too heavy, but always very precise. It reminded me of a Chagall; not one of his sadder paintings, but a more joyful work, figures flying, but always with a poignant poetry behind it. Again, I would keep my next bottle for a few years, as this conversation developed as the evening went on.

Schrader Cellars RBS 2019

For me, the most famous of Schrader’s wines and the only one I had tried before, in various different vintages. This is not a wine that hides its qualities behind its coat. It is made from the warmest part of the vineyard, and Napa does get very hot in summer, although To Kalon is mitigated by both the fact that it is near the cooling effect of the Bay, and that the valley floor has cooling fogs flowing in from the Bay and the Pacific, which can also keep sunshine off. So with the richness comes a balance. Still, this is a showcase wine with power and wow factor: a Damien Hirst sculpture of a wine, a showcase. I would drink this anytime from now, but ensure Alain Ducasse was around in my kitchen to cook up a tenderloin with foie gras or alternatively a morel mushroom casserole with plenty of truffle and parsley, to accompany it.

Read more: A tasting of Vérité wines with Hélène Sellian

Double Diamond Cabernet Sauvignon 2019

The wine made for people who can’t afford or don’t want to broach the fabulously expensive wines above, I expected Double Diamond to be a bit of a disappointment, like the second wines of top Bordeaux chateaux are sometimes. But hell no. Although it’s made from 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, like all the wines here, Double Diamond is sourced from outside To Kalon (but within Napa Valley), and it’s altogether a different conversation. Open, delicious, very sophisticated in its own right, perhaps less demanding of your attention and conversation than the artworks above, which require the limelight; ready to drink now and not really needing a food accompaniment. A mid-career contemporary artist, perhaps Flora Yuhnkovich, enjoying their success.

Find out more: schradercellars.com

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A blue car by a lake with an orange sunset
A blue car by a lake with an orange sunset

Mercedes E53 AMG, a highly enjoyable tourer

In the first part of our Great Drives series from the Spring/Summer 2023 issue, Darius Sanai travels from Santa Monica to Napa Valley in a Mercedes E53 AMG Cabriolet, ending his trip in Napa Valley with a glass of Harlan Estate The Mascot, 2016

There is a freeway that leads from downtown LA to the ocean at Santa Monica, but we chose to take Santa Monica Boulevard, which arrows straight to the ocean. On every corner, there seemed to be a liquor store or 7-Eleven to remind us of hold-up scenes in movies. Of course, we put the roof down – you have to in LA, particularly if you are a foreigner driving a valuable car – way to go in style. In fact, our understated mid-blue AMG, with its black interior, attracted only positive attention – a couple of thumbs ups, and encouragement to rev the engine from kids on a street corner. Even in the land of the Tesla, some things never change.

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At the Pacific Ocean, we turned right. Keeping the ocean to our left, we cruised through Santa Monica, which, from the road seems just another collection of low-rise buildings and garish signs. The arc of the ocean and bay occasionally appeared on the left, culminating in mountains dropping into the sea in the distance. In time, the traffic lights became less frequent, the buildings less condensed, rocks and cacti popped up by the side of the road and the ocean lapped the left- hand carriageway. But this is not a place to put your foot down, as ubiquitous signs warn of police speed checks. Our neighbouring drivers, some in quite exotic and speedy-looking cars, travelled dutifully at the posted speed limit, too.

We didn’t mind, we were in it for the long haul. Soon, the mountains dropped directly into the sea, the road became tighter and we could feel the spray sweeping over our open roof between patches of cloud above. Signs for Santa Barbara, our first destination, started to appear. We took a spontaneous turn off at Montecito, to see if we could catch a glimpse of the world’s most famous non-reclusive, non-royal, reclusive royals.

A wooden table on a terrace overlooking vineyards

Breakfast on LUX’s private deck at Meadowood, Napa Valley

We didn’t see them, but we did find a picture-perfect clapboard high street, complete with immaculate children clutching Instagrammable ice creams, watched over benignly by immaculate parents. We stopped for a sundowner at the Rosewood Miramar Beach hotel in Montecito, whose lawns stretch out across a miniature railway line and drop down to a beach. Sailing yachts gently rocked up and down on the ocean beyond, the setting sun was weak in the haze, the air was cool and all it needed was Cary Grant to stroll over and sit next to us to complete the scene.

Santa Barbara was a fun trickle along the back roads from Montecito, which is built into a steep hillside. A couple of spontaneous turnings took us through canyons, hugging the inner edge of mountainsides, facing other mountainsides, which faced other mountainsides – a plunge into wilderness just minutes from manicured civilisation of the wealthiest kind.

The E53 AMG seemed made for this kind of journey. There are AMG models that are more powerful, more focused, more hardcore, but this isa four-seater luxury convertible that has been subtly enhanced by the manufacturer to engage on the sporting side, with plenty of thrust from its V6 hybrid engine. The relatively benign cruiser that had taken us up the coastal highway earlier that day turned into a racket with a foot flat on the floor, surging forward with a roaring buzz from the engine at front. Big tyres and four-wheel drive gave great stability around corners on the twisting roads. This is quite a big, heavy car, so we are not talking Ferrari handling, but it has plenty of security, plus the fun of roof-down motoring.

A blue lit up car parked outside a lit up grand hotel

The Mercedes posing in front of the RosewoodMiramar Beach hotel in Montecito, California

It was pretty exciting. We imagined it would have been even more so for passengers in the back seat, where, unlike many sporting convertibles, there is plenty of room to stretch out. We arrived in Santa Barbara feeling we’d had something of an adventure workout, as you should on a good drive in a sports car.

This trip was about us finding our own personal nirvana: a long drive along the Pacific Coast Highway, or Highway One. As one of the world’s most legendary roads, the map showed it to follow the exact contours of the California coast between our location and San Francisco hundreds of miles north.  Setting off again the next morning, we noted that a Sunday was probably not the ideal day to start the main part of such a drive because we were not alone. Camper vans, family vehicles, pick-up trucks and the odd vintage convertible were inching along the road in weather that more resembled northern Europe in winter than California in Spring.

Fortunately, both turned out to be ephemeral. What has seemed a dull day threatening rain cracked as the clouds fractured to show deep blue fissures above, and soon the overcast sky was revealed to be no more than seven blobs of low cloud clinging to the mountainside in the early morning, and soon dissipated. The air was so clear I was convinced we could see across the ocean to Japan. The traffic dissipated a little, too, enough for us to speed up and enjoy the ride.

A blue Mercedes with its headlights on with a sunset and palm trees behind it

The Mercedes E53 AMG on a windswept Venice Beach, California;

The scenery before us altered between rocky curves, enormous bays, tiny inlets and forests pouring down mountainsides in the sea. We stopped just off the road at a beachside food shack-expecting preprepared food, instant coffee and canned drinks at best  and asked for a white coffee. “Full fat, semi-skimmed, oat or soy?” was the response, and there was a choice between Ecuadorian, Guatemalan and Indonesian roasts. Next to a plate of homemade brownies were three bowls of multicoloured Middle Eastern-style salads, rich with beans, Mediterranean vegetables and za’atar. no ordinary roadside shack.

As we headed north along the coast, every few miles there was a sign to the right, pointing along a road heading inland up some deep valley, towards mountains that looked as uninhabited as the moon. Occasionally, there were signs for wineries to visit along the roads, over the mountains and quite far away. Tempting though the idea was, we resisted, partly because we were driving, partly because a signpost in the US west to a given location does not mean you are anywhere near that particular location, and partly because our end destination was the ne plus ultra of California wines, Napa Valley.

There was a lot of wiggling coastline between here and there, though, and we stayed overnight at a hotel set back in the hills with a distant view of the sea, offering some of the local wines (from San Luis Obispo) in its list, along with a vegan club sandwich. One glass of refreshing Chardonnay was enough that evening.

A swimming pool surrounded by trees and sunbeds

Meadowood Resort’s adults-only Cabana Pool, Napa Valley, Calfornia

The sign of a truly great touring car is one you actively look forward to getting into and driving each morning. Some cars are comfortable but dull, where you feel, as a driver, that you would just as happily be a passenger. Other cars are exciting but tiring, making you weary of the idea of another day at the wheel. The AMG was neither: each morning it welcomed us with its promise of comfort, power and responsiveness. A more powerful and muscular car would have become frustrating in the traffic, and it had enough feedback and driver involvement to keep us looking forward to the next set of curves.

Setting out again along the (now emptier) northbound route on the Monday morning, I reflected further on the car’s virtues. The interior is both functional and lavish. We liked the sweep of the dashboard, the classic-style round vents in the middle, the big wide digital instrument display. The only misgiving I had developed was over the sound of the engine. Cars these days are downsizing their engines, accompanying them with electric motors in the move towards electrification. The AMG’s engine, so created out of a combination of petrol and electric motors, was certainly powerful and responsive enough, but, though the engineers had clearly tried, it did not have the mellow, throaty voice you would expect of a big droptop car with sporting ambitions. That is not unique to AMG, though, and it is a characteristic that engine lovers will need to get used to until, in a decade or two, they are phased out completely,

After what seemed a million mountainsides curving into the sea, it was a relief to stop for coffee at the cute little seaside town of Carmel, and wander through its art stores and boutiques, and again a little later in the bigger town of Monterey, where we visited the oceanfront Monterey Bay Aquarium, having a play with manta rays in the process. This is no normal small-town aquarium: its Executive Director is Julie Packard of the Packard tech family, and, in its mission to inspire ocean conservation, it leads research into marine welfare, advocates to end plastic pollution and campaigns for, and monitors, sustainable seafood production.

A white wooden bedroom with a white bed and dark brown wooden doors and floors

Meadowood’s refined yet rustic Cottage Room with private porch, Napa Valley, California

A couple of hours later, we were navigating San Francisco’s cityscape, before hitting the roof-down button again as we approached the Golden Gate Bridge. Doing so in a droptop Mercedes with a little 1960s music playing was perfect. By that stage, we were seriously appreciating the car’s seats, which felt as if they had been created by many thousands of German engineering hours. We felt neither stiff nor uncomfortable, despite the long days on this great drive.

Napa Valley starts rather abruptly: one moment you are in an urban road system in the unprepossessing town of Napa, having left San Francisco Bay just behind you; the next, you are driving up a steep country road, hillsides either side, vineyards all around, with signs pointing to estates familiar to anybody with a passion for a fine wine. We carried on along the main highway, and, although this is no place for speed-testing, we were grateful for the rapid- fire acceleration of the car when overtaking a couple of pieces of rolling vineyard equipment in the face of oncoming traffic. Crossing the valley and the riverbed, we came to the gates of what looks like a grand residence on the hillside, surrounded by forest rather than vines.

Meadowood Resort was acquired and expanded by Napa Valley’s first family, the Harlans of Harlan Estate, as the area’s first luxury resort in 1979. Our accommodation was a wooden lodge with a large veranda up on the hillside, a big bedroom decked out in luxury country style and a little sitting room with a bottle of The Mascot, the latest wine creation from the Harlan family, as a welcome gift on the coffee table. We sat on our private veranda with a view across through the trees and out to the vineyards of Napa and enjoyed the balanced power of the wine – a vivid, rich, layered Cabernet Sauvignon.

Read more: A Tasting Of Organic Boutique California Wines From Diamond Creek

It was a short walk to the tennis courts and an almost Olympic-sized outdoor pool, where we swam despite the chilly weather that had descended. The cuisine by the pool is Napa Valley country perfection: grilled tuna, parsley, beans, a little tomato coulis, rucola. A bit further along the resort’s forest, the spa looked out over the trees and offered very natural, wholesome treatments in absolute silence, marked only by occasional birdsong. It was altogether a fitting conclusion to one of the world’s great drives.

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pool surrounded by hills and greenery

frontside view of a house with sky above

In the second part of our luxury travel views column from the Autumn/Winter 2022 issue, LUX’s Editor-in-Chief Darius Sanai checks in at the Four Seasons Napa Valley in California

Autumn and winter are fine times to visit Napa Valley. The sun shines, the crowds aren’t here and nor is the summer heat that increasingly hits Napa, one of the most verdant and spiritual areas of the US. It is also source of some of the world’s greatest wines, thanks to its location on the West Coast, influenced by the cool waters of the Pacific and the semi-desert heat inland. 

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Mention of a Four Seasons resort conjures up visions of palatial buildings and good old-fashioned luxe. Not here. You could quite easily drive past the Four Seasons Napa Valley without noticing it, which is the intention. The resort is situated in a working organic vineyard just outside the northern spa town of Calistoga, and is surrounded by an amphitheatre of hillsides. 

The wooden buildings are environmentally integrated low-rises, biophilic by design, so that nature is incorporated, not counteracted. A series of swimming pools at the centre faces the hills and the sound of piano sonatas lap across the water. Napa Valley has a light that is as famous in California as that of Provence in Europe. Here, it is luminous, reflecting from the pools to the sky. 

grey bathroom with bath

The hotel is located at the northern end of the Silverado Trail, the winding road that lines the eastern side of Napa Valley. The great wine estates of the valley are all a short scenic drive, or a longer but more satisfying bike ride, away. 

True to the laid-back style of both resort and region, the main restaurant, Calistoga’s Living Room at Truss, and its terrace with a view, is a no-tablecloths kind of place, although Four Seasons regulars may feel it’s trying a bit too hard to be cool. You can try the resort’s own wine, a powerful Cabernet Sauvignon that shows it is made here, in the hottest part of the valley. 

Our favourite dining spot – in fact, one of the best dining places in a region famed for its cuisine – was Campo Poolside, the restaurant by the pools. A chicken superfood salad with balsamic vinaigrette had textures and flavours that were crisp, powerful, biting and vivid – perfect Californian lunchtime food. Campo describes itself as Cal-Mexican but, in reality, it serves food that tastes as light as the views. 

barn-style room with tables, chairs, candles

Our room was effectively the top floor of a wooden chalet, with a balcony overlooking the mountains beyond and the vineyards below (we said hello every morning to the gentleman pruning the vines). It had the feel of being your own residence in the vines (the room had its own entrance and staircase); clever and distinctive. 

Read more: Hotel of the Month: The Lygon Arms, the Cotswolds

The resort, with its extended grounds, is very open and outdoors-based, with pathways to walk on or to ride around on in a buggy. It’s great in perfect weather, exposed in the rain. But it doesn’t rain much in Napa, especially these days. 

Find out more: fourseasons.com/napavalley 

This article first appeared in the Autumn/Winter 2022/23 issue of LUX

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Reading time: 2 min
Two women standing in a vineyard
Two women standing in a vineyard

Left to right: Naoko and Maya Dalla Valle

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.

green vineyard with a pathway in the middle and mountains in the distance

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.

a woman with two dogs

Maya Dalla Valle and her corgis

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.

a vineyard and mountains in the distance

Dalla Valle Vineyard

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.

Read more: Luxury Travel Views: Royal Champagne Hotel & Spa, Épernay

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

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vineyards
vineyards

Harlan Estate’s vineyards in Napa Valley, California

Will Harlan is the second-generation managing director of California’s iconic Harlan Estate, maker of some of the most expensive and desirable red wines in the world. Over a Zoom tasting of the winery’s flagship wines, Harlan, who took over from his father Bill this year, talks to LUX Editor-in-Chief Darius Sanai about how to create a business for the generations

LUX: Your father Bill Harlan, who founded Harlan Estate, got into the wine business almost by accident.
Will Harlan: Yes, Harlan Estate is the first wine endeavour that my father founded, it got started in the early 80s and his vision for Harlan Estate evolved over the course of his life. He grew up in Los Angeles, not around wine, or anything, but he had the opportunity to go to Berkeley [part of the University of California].

During his college years, that he had heard about this place up north, where you could taste wine for free. They wouldn’t check your ID and he really enjoyed going up there as a college student and kind of developed this very fuzzy dream that someday, if he could ever afford it, he would love to find a piece of land, plant a vineyard, make a little bit of wine, start a family.

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He graduated and did a number of different things, but it wasn’t until he approached his forties where he finally had the wherewithal to be able to start thinking more seriously about this dream of coming to Napa. It was probably in the late 70s that he started coming up here and looking for vineyard land, not knowing anything about the wine industry, and through a certain series of events, he tried to purchase a piece of property.

man looking out over vineyards

Will Harlan, second-generation managing director of Harlan Estate

[Napa wine legend] Robert Mondavi really took my dad under his wing, wanting to show him the potential of Napa and that not all land in Napa is created equal. Robert understood how fuzzy this original dream that my father had was and maybe how naïve it was too, but he also recognised that my dad was genuinely interested in doing something in wine and wanted to help.

Mondavi says, “Bill, I know you’re interested in buying some land in Napa Valley, but not all land is created equal. I want to send you to France and really show you what some of the great wines of the world are all about, pieces of land that they’ve been able to capture and what sets them apart.” So he organised a trip for my dad to go to Bordeaux and Burgundy, made the introductions. At the time I don’t think the French wine producers were particularly excited about welcoming random Americans into their homes so it was really important that Robert was able to set this up. My father returned to Napa Valley with this drive, this new vision of wanting to create a “first growth” of California.

LUX: What is your personal vision for Harlan Estate?
Will Harlan: I’m very excited for the future. I feel like there’s so much potential. As a region, I think we’re really coming into our own, in terms of an international kind of understanding and recognition, but I also feel that there’s always the opportunity to understand your land better.

Read more: Product designer Tord Boontje on sustainable materials

LUX: How does Napa Valley compare to Bordeaux, or specifically your wines to top wines from Pauillac (home of chateaux like Lafite, Latour and Mouton-Rothschild)?
Will Harlan: We never like drawing comparisons. They are all different expressions of Cabernet and I think that’s wonderful. We have quite different climates. In Napa Valley, we have almost no rain during the growing season, but we have plenty of sunshine and the humidity is very low so we don’t have mildew issues. We have vines that get quite dry by the end of the growing season so we’ve got to focus almost all of our efforts on ensuring that all of our vineyards are used to this low hydration environment by forcing them to grow very deep root systems for example.

It’s very easy for us to ripen fruit. It’s never really a question whether or not we’re going to achieve ripeness. For us, it’s about aligning that ripeness at an earlier stage in the season before acidity begins dropping off and before sugars start to rise too much.

At the end of the day, the character of the two regions is quite different and I feel that the best thing you can do is to try to really understand your plot within your region and make it the best version of itself.

wine tank room

The Harlan Estate tankroom

LUX: We know some wine collectors who think about buying wine estates and then decide against it, saying they will be a money-pit..
Will Harlan: I’d say they’re probably right! It requires a lot more investment than people expect, but mainly, a lot more time. People who are very wealthy tend to understand return on investment timelines very well and once they start understanding what that means in the wine world, they think, “Right, you wouldn’t touch this.” So, I think it really comes down to what are your motives? Are you doing this because you happen to love wine and you love drinking wine and you think it would be fun and interesting? I would probably say  that’s not the ideal lens to approach getting into the wine industry. But if you’re ready to devote your life and your time and your effort, and probably more capital than you might think, then okay.

Read more: Is Germany the next global art hub?

LUX: How much harder is it to make a great wine at this level than a good wine? And what do you have to do differently?
Will Harlan: It probably comes back to my feelings on character versus quality. First of all, it’s about finding a piece of land and being able to capture that land to create a very distinctive wine. It takes a lot of time and resources, but you also need to recruit a team that has the capacity to really dive in and understand the land. You have to have one of the better teams around, but you also have to understand that it takes time, decades, even generations for people to truly connect to the land, to become familiar with the properties, the growing seasons and how they react to different weather environments.

LUX: We are tasting the 2006 Harlan Estate today – is that the year you started being involved in the family business?
Will Harlan: In ‘06, I was almost 20 years old. So, I wasn’t as involved in the family business yet, but I was always a little bit curious about the wine industry. I didn’t actually think I was going to go into it. I don’t think I had the perspective or the context at that age. On the other hand, it was the first year I worked harvest which was the start of my experience.

family on a lawn

The Harlan family on the lawn of the estate

LUX: And then we have the 2012. By then, you were then fully involved. Is that correct?
Will Harlan: I had started working on a little side project. I was living in San Francisco, working in the tech space and the consumer internet tech space. It turns out San Francisco is just close enough to Napa Valley to feel that gravitational pull I had already started to feel. I was curious about wine, and I was starting to attend a lot of the blending sessions that we had.

I had this idea of wanting to create my own little bottling. It didn’t have a label or a name. I was just bringing it to different social events. I ended up building that into its own proper label called “The Mascot”, which is made from the younger vines by different properties. That was the spark for me: getting to see that I could find my own entrepreneurial path within wine and the family business.

So, that’s what drew me in, but of course, I didn’t really have any credibility in wine world. You have to have worked a proper harvest. 2012 happened to be the year that I got really serious about joining the family business and so I spent that growing season in the winery. It was so rewarding and so fascinating to really understand the production side of things.

Read more: The gastronomic delights of Suvretta House, Switzerland

LUX: Was there ever a possibility given how close you are to Silicon Valley, that you might have just ended up there?
Will Harlan: Very much, that’s what I thought my life was going to be. So, I’m glad that I found my way back to wine, but the tech world has always been very interesting to me.  I got to forge a few really strong friendships there with folks that were at the beginnings of their path.

LUX: There’s quite a strong link between Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and Napa Valley vintners…
Will Harlan: There is. I feel like we have two speeds: Silicon Valley moves extremely quickly and Napa Valley moves at the pace of the seasons. I think Silicon Valley oftentimes yearns for something that is connected to the land, something that is physical, something that has a visceral core to it, that connection to nature. But at the same time, Napa Valley can learn from the Silicon Valery approach to work. So, there’s a wonderful connection between the two.

LUX: Bernard Arnault [owner of LVMH and Chateau Cheval Blanc, Dom Pérignon and Krug champagnes, and many more] or Francois Pinault [owner of Chateau Latour, Clos du Tart, and many more] come to you and say, “Name your price. I want your winery.” What do you say?
Will Harlan: We never built any of this with the intention of selling.

LUX: I’m offering you $2 billion.
Will Harlan: We’re not doing this for the money. Before my dad was in wine, he was in real estate development. You can make a lot more money in real estate development than you can making a few thousand cases of wine. It’s never been our driving motive. And as I said before, you only really get into wine if you truly love it.

wine bottle

Harlan Estate 2006

The Wines (tasting notes by Will Harlan and Darius Sanai)

Harlan Estate 1994

Will Harlan: It’s always had a certain energy and an incredible density. It’s a very tight weave, not necessarily a heavy fabric, but the weave is very fine. It’s just beginning to soften, showing you a little bit of detail. We think it’s going to be one of our very long-lived wines.

Darius Sanai: Initial impressions are of a full bodied, fruit-led wine, but after a few seconds this dissolves into an array of lacy micro-flavours, from meats to dried fruit via summer blossom. Remarkable. As good as any top Bordeaux, except different, less stern and reticent, more talkative, but just as much of a polymath. Serve at a dinner with guests including Ptolemy, Queen Elizabeth I, Einstein, Jane Austen and Audrey Hepburn.

Harlan Estate 2006

Will Harlan: A cooler vintage. It’s taken a bit of time for this wine to relax. It’s still in the phase of being a little bit introverted. It has a certain herbal quality that I always recognise and I feel there is some wonderful detail in there and some higher notes.

Darius Sanai: This wine is all about potential. Like dining with a group of star PHD students from Oxford and Stanford. Enjoyable company now – it’s not closed down or dull – but you just know how much more it will have to say in 10 or 20 years.

Harlan Estate 2012

Will Harlan: This is a vintage very close to my heart. It was a very good growing season Wonderful. It always had this welcoming generosity. It is almost this kind of spherical experience on the palate. Very, very welcoming, very approachable and very seductive in a sense. Very plush and velvety tannins.

Darius Sanai: One to open when receiving the Marquise de Pompadour in one of your rooms at Versailles.

Harlan Estate 2016

Will Harlan: In the long run, I feel that this will be recognised as one of the great vintages of Harlan. It’s kind of like the 1994 in a certain sense. The winter before the 2016 vintage, we finally got some much-needed rain. It shows you so much detail and complexity, even though it’s quite young. It’s special.

Darius Sanai: An intellectual and a seducer: rich and rigorous at the same time. It doesn’t taste young, and it’s delicious now, but you know all its complexities will develop over the eras. A wine for the President to open to celebrate the US Tricentennial in 2076.

Find out more: harlanestate.com

 

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Reading time: 11 min
wine estate entrance
wine estate entrance

Spottswoode wine estate in Napa Valley, California

Spottswoode Estate is Napa valley wine aristocracy. Its wines, selling for hundreds of dollars a bottle, are in demand from collectors globally. Beth Novak Milliken, the estate’s second generation owner, is also a leader in sustainability and biodiversity and has secured coveted B-Corp certification for the estate. She speaks to LUX about her challenges and hosts a tasting of some of her finest wines for us over Zoom
woman standing on driveway

Beth Novak Milliken

LUX: Where does your sustainability ethos come from?
Beth Novak Milliken: It started in 1985, Tony Soter started to take us down a path that we really couldn’t have envisioned would take us where it is now. He was our founding winemaker and started making our wines in 1982. In 1985, he went to my mum and said that he really wanted to take over the farming of the vineyard. He made the suggestion of organic farming and as she trusted him a great deal, she said, “Sure, let’s give it a try!”

That was way back before people were talking about organics – we were amongst the first to farm organically here. We stuck with the organics and planted with that in mind, and never looked back.

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Around 2000, we started planting the insectaries in the vineyard to bring some biodiversity to what is obviously a mono-culture. We set up solar power at the winery in 2007 and added solar  at the estate the same year. We get a great majority of our power from solar, and that which we don’t get from solar is from renewables. Then in May 2019, we came up with our core purpose statement, and all of a sudden everything accelerated.

vineyards

The Spottswoode vineyards

LUX: What are your aims and dreams?
Beth Novak Milliken: We want to inspire others. I’ve been looking to Yvon Chouinard, the Founder of Patagonia (he is truly my hero), what he has done and how he has pushed for environmental causes in such an amazing way. We joined 1% for the Planet in 2007 and since then we’ve given a minimum of 1% of gross revenue every year to environmental causes that we believe in (it’s usually more than one percent) and it’s a remarkable; you start to feel like your business is something greater than just yourself.

I am the second generation of what will, hopefully, be a long-term multi-generational family business and our biggest threat to continued success is climate change because we are agriculturally based and that really brings it home. In ’17, ’18, ’19 and ’20, we had the highest heats we’ve ever had. We had 117° F (47 C) one day – that’s desert heat!

We have had historic fires that just seem to keep coming, and it is a consequence of climate change. It is is hotter, drier, warmer, windier, and a lot more variable. It’s a remarkable time, and we feel like we really need to act to inspire others.

Read more: A glamorous escape to the Lanesborough

LUX: Was there ever a choice, long-term, between quality of wine and sustainability, or sustainability versus keeping the business going?
Beth Milliken: Never. The two are completely compatible.

LUX: Tell us more about the B-Corp certification and why you decided on it?
Beth Novak Milliken: B-Corp is the gold standard for a business that operates for good, that operates because it cares about its community, the planet, its employees, everything really. It’s how we’ve been operating anyway, so this was really just taking that and putting a certification on it.

It’s a very rigorous process. There are many questions about how you treat your natural environment and how you treat your employees, everything from pay to wellbeing. We feed people here everyday, we always have, and it’s always organic food. We’re minimising waste, and taking care of our community.

LUX: In terms of the sustainability side, what’s next? As a wine-producer, what must you do?
Beth Novak Milliken: We are applicant members of International Wineries for Climate Action (IWCA). We are going to be LEED-certified on this entire property, and we’re working on our zero-waste platinum certification.

four wine bottles

A selection of Spottswoode wines

A tasting of a historical collection of Spottswoode wines, hosted by Beth Milliken over Zoom

Tasting notes by Darius Sanai

Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon 1985

Wow! The greatest aged Napa Cabernets have a unique character, completely distinct either from what they tasted like in their youth, or from aged Bordeaux made from similar grape varieties. On opening, this had a port/cognac “rancio” layer to it; after a few minutes, that diffused and we were left with this lifted, almost light, but nevertheless deep, earthy, woodland soil filled wine with a core of steely dark fruits. If I had blind tasted it I would have guessed it was a Grand Cru Chambertin from Burgundy – not a Cabernet Sauvignon. Amazing stuff and proof too much Napa wine is drunk too young.

Pair with: Cep mushrooms on plain polenta, while sitting on a mountainside in the Alto Adige in northeast Italy while having a chance meeting with someone you broke up with many years ago and are still in love with. Don’t ask why, just do.

Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon 1996

This is a wine to serve to the kind of narrow-minded snob who says all California wines are obvious, fruity and easy. It is as iron-clad as any Pauillac from 1996 (Pichon Lalande springs to mind), behind the curtain of tannin is an array of subtle savouriness. No fruit bombs here. One that will develop even more.

Pair with: Dinner with a client who proclaims only to like old-fashioned Bordeaux, at their house in Schwabing. Serve it blind and prepare to be amused.

Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon 2006

Roasting coffee! Almonds! Thistles! This is a wine with massive presence and subtlety, simultaneously. There’s some creamy fruit in there also but it’s at the back and very restrained, like smelling it in its packet rather than eating it. It’s 15 years old and needs another 15 years. But it’s very balanced.

Pair with: This one needs a muscular bavette or skirt steak, with apologies to our vegan readers; ideally at a steakhouse in New York City, with the guys at the next table hollering about the game or some deal they made or a girl.

Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon 2018

After concluding that the 1996 and 2006 are possibly too young to drink now, what about the 2018, from a stellar vintage? Ironically the 2018 is delicious, creamy-rich with bluecurrant (not a thing but that’s what it tastes like) and branchy tannins balancing themselves out on a see-saw on your tongue. Irresistible.

Pair with: Share with your closest friends at dinner by the shore of Lake Geneva in summer, over some aged Comte cheese and maybe very old Mimolette.

Find out more: spottswoode.com

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picturesque setting for dinner by the poolside at a luxury villa
picturesque setting for dinner by the poolside at a luxury villa

Friday night’s dinner is typically hosted at various wineries across the Napa Valley. Image by Briana Marie Photography

This month sees the latest edition of the annual Auction Napa Valley, one of the most lavish and interesting events on the world’s charity and wine calendars. LUX editor Kitty Harris, who attended last year’s event as a guest of honour, recalls about her time spent drinking some of the world’s finest wines, dancing the tango at sunset on a hillside vineyard and witnessing the enormous generosity of connoisseurs and winemakers alike over the four-day event

Setting my bags down in the quaint Sutter Home lodge is like stepping back in time to the 1970s – when Sutter created the first White Zinfandel, a style of cheap and cheerful wine which I suspect is not going to be on any of the menus for my next five days. I’m told that every evening I will get a bottle of fine wine to take to my room or to enjoy on the wooden white porch. I opt for a glass of the house’s Californian Riesling while I prepare for my evening of festivities; I am told to wear white for Argentinian tango and dinner.

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My host for the evening, Argentine Delia Viader, earned her title as the ‘Wine Mother’ after founding Viader in 1986 when she created her eponymous estate on the slopes of Howell Mountain, on the east side of Napa Valley, and soon gained worldwide renown for her highly-structured, Bordeaux-style reds.

wild party with gold streamers inside a luxury marquee

Guests dancing post live auction on Saturday night. Image by Briana Marie Photography

We are served Viader’s estate blend, made of 40 percent Cabernet Franc and 60 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, that evening; now ranking among Napa’s most esteemed wines, it is powerful yet restrained, a wine that combines California’s sunny fruit with a certain French hauteur. There is a mix of guests from around the world, and I (the only Londoner) sit around five tables with white table cloths below the shadows of trees for the evening meal. Argentinian style steaks and are served before we try our luck following the steps of the tango teachers. If there were any hesitations to begin with, all fears were lost as we happily swapped dance partners whilst the sun set behind the hills.

Auction Napa Valley is a phenomenon. The four-day fete raises money for 25 local Napa Valley nonprofits and strategic initiatives for the benefit of children and community health. Since 1981 they have invested $180 million into the area. The first evening, usually a Thursday, sees Napa’s vintners invite guests to dine with them at their estates. During Friday afternoon the live barrel auction is held at a different location each year depending on which estate hosts the events – this years is Charles Krug and last years was Francis Ford Coppola. Early Saturday evening the auction begins, prizes included a private dinner at The Restaurant at Meadowood’s Christopher Kostow, one of the youngest chefs to ever earn three Michelin stars’ and the chance to travel on the Coppola family’s private jet and a four-night stay at their hotel Palazzo Margherita in Italy. The event is attended by residents of Napa who range from Oscar winning director, Mr. Coppola, to venture capitalists Steven and Claire Stull and celebrities such as Oprah and Michelle Pfeiffer.

Read more: Geoffrey Kent on millennials and transformational travel

Napa Valley Vintners, the nonprofit trade association who organise the auction, are my hosts for the weekend. Brian, my driver, picks me up the following morning for an adventure. We drive we pass a gigantic (35-foot tall!) stainless steel Bunny called ‘Foo Foo’, which I later learn was created by the English artist Lawrence Argent. This is one of the 35 pieces of contemporary art on show at the HALL winery. The 150-year-old site is owned by Craig and Kathryn Hall who compered a treasure hunt for us that morning. The 30 odd guests divided into groups and were given an iPhone with a pre-programmed game to follow. Tasks at different levels of the game included recreating your favourite music album cover – my team opted for the famous Beatles scene walking over the Abbey Road zebra crossing – and blending your own wine which was judged by the in-house wine maker. Sadly, I didn’t win, though I thoroughly enjoyed the vineyard’s classic Bordeaux varietals.

Francis Ford Coppola (director of ‘The Godfather’) and his wife, Eleanor and two children Roman and Sofia were the honorary chairs of the four-day fete. 2,000 guests frequented their historic Inglenook estate for the Napa Valley Barrel Auction which took place in the winery’s caves. The cool – in every sense of the word – atmosphere of the caves saw bidders vie for the 108 lots of 10 single cases of current Napa Valley wines. There was a buzz in the air, an energy and excitement that wasn’t just from the wines.

Man stands behind big silver bowls of tomato sauce

Saturday’s live auction with various festivities and food stalls

Outside in the mid-day heat, canopies kept the crowds covered and wines were flowing in areas according to their blends. Food stalls with grilled scallops, bursting with flavour, were served alongside freshly rolled sushi and tempura.

Read more: California takes on Chateau Latour and the world at an exclusive LUX wine tasting on Lake Como

For a little respite, I headed to Health Spa Napa Valley to revitalise before the weekend’s pièce de résistance: the live auction. Held at five-star hotel Meadowood Napa Valley, the host venue since 1981, the auction began under an enormous white tent in the theme of a 1930s nightclub, complete with a live jazz band. The top single lot was donated by Dalla Valle Vineyards: a week-long trip with the co-proprietor Naoko Dalla Valle to some of her favourite spots in her native Japan. Dalla Valle is a modern Napa legend, an estate situated on the Rutherford Bench, an area just above the river and below the steep valley sides on the east side of the valley, which some connoisseurs think of as the ‘first growth’ stretch of the valley, infusing its greatest wines with an almost imperceptible hint of ethereal ‘Rutherford dust’.

The highest-bidding lot was from Colgin Cellars, another Napa legend created by the redoubtable Anne Colgin, and included Colgin wines and trips to both Champagne and Napa. The bidding was vigorous with an astounding $15.7 million raised in one evening.

vineyard landscape with luxury canopy on a hilltop

The region’s stunning landscape provides the perfect backdrop for sunset dancing and wine tasting. Image by Briana Marie Photography

Following the live auction we moved to the garden for a candle lit al-fresco dinner of Italian family favourites prepared by Francis Coppola himself. The evening ended on the dance floor with a private performance by soul singer-songwriter Leon Bridges of Texas. The weekend went by in a flurry of excitement with a gentle buzz from the wines. And the fun wasn’t over: sampling cult wines from the Screaming Eagle winery, possibly Napa’s most famous (and most expensive) and the rounded hillside merlots from Shafer with the proprietors themselves was a privilege, inside the dreamscape that is Auction Napa Valley.

The 38th annual Auction Napa Valley runs from 27th May to 3rd June. For more information visit: auctionnapavalley.org

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