Making wine is a fascination for me, and I was able to go some way to satisfying my curiosity on a recent trip to California. In August 2018 the opportunity arose for me to take part in supporting a winery harvest in Napa Valley, California. Together with a team of interns bought together from France and the US, I supported the Hourglass Winery, a two-estate family winery in the sub regions of St Helena and Calistoga.
A tale of two estates
Hourglass Winery, owned by Jeff and Carolyn Smith, bought the second estate in 2006 and named it Blueline, coined by Jeff in reference to its striking location amidst the Majestic Blueline streams. The two estates each grow the same grape varietals, consisting of the Bordeaux varietals and a small amount of Petit Syrah. Hourglass also produce rosé from these varietals and buy in Sauvignon Blanc from further south of the valley. Even though the Bordeaux varietals were made by the exact same team of staff and grown just a few miles apart from each other, the terroir clearly showed it had its differences — something I soon learned to detect in the glass!
The magic of the Napa Valley
Napa Valley is an easy wine region to understand. Just over an hour north of San Francisco, the sixteen sub-regions of the valley go from south to north. Each sub-region boasts world-class wineries, hotels and restaurants, all surrounded by bewitching and often panoramic views.
Wineries in Napa Valley enjoy a lot of freedom when it comes to planting whatever varietal they want. The volcanic soil from Mount St Helena and the mountains right the way down the 4-mile-wide and 30-mile-long valley have produced a soil so fertile that you can literally plant any grape anywhere and it will thrive! However, Sonoma County, next door to Napa, accommodates those varietals that grow better in a slightly cooler climate, such as for example Pinot Noir.
This versatile Napa soil has helped the valley massively over the past 10 years, with many wineries changing from majority Zinfandel to Cabernet Sauvignon, which has now become 40% of all the varietals planted within the Valley.
Take-aways from my Californian adventure
Tony Biagi, Head Winemaker at Hourglass and indeed a number of other wineries within the Napa Valley, is one the most colourful characters you could ever meet. He taught me far more about Napa and wine making than I ever thought it possible to learn in my four months in California. Tony has his own label, called Patria, also produced at the Hourglass Blueline estate. For his own wines, he makes use of grapes from sub regions such as Oakville and works with Chardonnay and Grenache.
The 2018 vintage that I worked on was slightly cooler than the previous year’s, and this clement weather produced a fantastic quality of fruit; the team at Hourglass believe that the 2018 could very well be their best vintage yet!
The trip taught me a lot, in particular which wines really stand out and thus we’d love to purchase at The London Wine Cellar. Screaming Eagle, Ridge, Silver Oak, Robert Mondavi, Raymond, Duckhorn, Stags Leap Wine Cellars, Alpha Omega, Opus One, Hundred Acre, Inglenook and Hourglass are all currently of interest to us. However, if you do hold a wine that doesn’t fall into this category please remember our team is still happy to provide an American wine valuation for any bottle or case that’s important to you — just get in touch via our online form, Whatsapp, contact the office by telephone or drop by for a chat.
I couldn’t conclude this article without giving a massive thank you to Jeff, Tony, Eric and the team for this unforgettable opportunity, and for teaching me so much about this rich wine-growing region. Theirs is a small family winery with big ambitions and world-class wine, and it will always have a place in my heart.