Your image of Napa Cabernet may just be out of date. A shorter version of this article is published by the Financial Times. See relevant tasting notes.
Bruce and Heather Phillips of Vine Hill Ranch in the Napa Valley were in London recently with a strong sense of purpose. ‘We’re on a mission to show Napa Valley as it really is now’, said Bruce. ‘We want to open collectors’ eyes to how it’s changed since the 1990s. There has been an evolution, even among producers who used to make big, extracted styles of wine… New drinkers initially came into the market wanting easy-to-appreciate wines, but that’s changing. We’ve gone from big Meritage blends to nuanced single-vineyard expressions.’
Visits to China in 2017 and 2019 planted the idea of exporting their wines. ‘We saw a lot of high-volume, ordinary wines being presented as high quality’, said Bruce. ‘We were frustrated that Napa Valley isn’t presenting its finest face.’ So, believing their own Napa Valley Cabernets to be high quality, a belief echoed around ‘the Valley’, by me, and by their fastidious new UK importers, Justerini & Brooks, they started sending a few cases to Britain, which they describe as ‘the most competitive market in the world: ground zero’.
‘In the 1990s there was a proliferation of new brands [in Napa Valley], many of them launched by people who didn’t have a lot of experience’, said Bruce. ‘But now the most noted estate programmes are dialling back on their wines. There’s also the locavore movement.’ Heather chimes in: ‘Farm to table’.
Authenticity and traceability are certainly 21st-century virtues. And with them has come a notable rise in vineyard-designated wines globally.
Which is where Vine Hill Ranch comes in. In the foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains, on the cooler, east-facing side of the valley, in the southern reaches of Oakville, the site is so admired that its name features on many august Napa Valley labels. The Phillipses see themselves more as grape growers than wine producers. They sell between 85 and 90% of their grapes to just 13 vintners, and it is only since 2008 that they have made their own wine, called VHR, Vine Hill Ranch to differentiate it from other producers’ vineyard-designated bottlings of their fruit.
Bruce’s maternal grandfather built the house on the ranch in 1956, prehistory as far as modern Napa Valley wine is concerned. But it was Bruce’s banker father Bob who moved to Oakville in 1978 and really cemented the estate’s reputation as a source of top-quality Cabernet Sauvignon. He is seen above with Bruce, Heather and his wife Alex when they were voted Grower of the Year by Napa Valley Grape Growers in 2011.
In the 1960s and 1970s Vine Hill Ranch had just one customer for its Cabernet grapes: the famous oenologist André Tchelistcheff, who used them to make Beaulieu Vineyard’s seminal Georges de Latour bottling. This wine inspired Robert Mondavi to found his Oakville winery in 1966, kickstarting Napa Valley’s boom. Bob, most unusually for the mid 1980s, took the prescient decision to concentrate on Cabernet. This was at a time when white wine in general, and Chardonnay in particular, was all the rage; Chardonnay grapes fetched higher prices than Cabernet.
By now, it had become clear that the then most common vine rootstock, AXR1, offered little resistance to the deadly phylloxera louse. A good three-quarters of Vine Hill Ranch’s vines succumbed and had to be replanted. Bob had the foresight to replant entirely with Cabernet Sauvignon. His brother-in-law Rory was not convinced; he was more interested in selling a range of grape varieties that matched market needs. This eventually led to the ranch being split in two.
Bob was left with 70 acres (28 ha) of vines that he was determined should be the best they could be. According to his son, ‘My father was very good at identifying the right experts. His brightest moment was in the late 1980s when he brought in Tony Soter as a consultant. Tony had his feet in all the great Cabernet sites in Napa.’
Unusually for the time, long before precision viticulture became a thing, soil pits were dug throughout the property and the vineyard was divided into 12 heterogeneous blocks. According to Bruce, ‘his vision as a grower was that he wanted to optimise all these various different expressions, with their varied soils, rootstocks, orientations and so on, so as to get the highest price for his grapes’. He added intriguingly, ‘People don’t often talk about growers and prices, but actually we’re all very competitive.’
One sign of the superiority of Vine Hill Ranch grapes was that Bill Harlan, of the esteemed Harlan Estate, had been buying them since 1992. Designated sections of Block 1 and Block 6 of Vine Hill Ranch, pictured at the top of this article at sunset, have been the sole source for Vecina, a mainstay of Harlan’s BOND range of single-estate wines, since 1999.
Harlan winemaker Cory Empting told me by email, ‘I see Vecina as the wise elder. It has a stoic resolve that is powerful, yet calming. These vines always amaze me with their ability to anticipate and synergise the whims of the natural world without drama. (Examples [would be] 2011, ripening against all odds, 2017 ripening earlier than ever before, allowing us to harvest everything before the fires.)’
Way back in 1974, the Phillips family had begun selling grapes to Mondavi, the man who put California on the world wine map. Mondavi’s company produced a vineyard-designated Vine Hill Ranch bottling from 2000 to 2009, but this was abandoned by the new owners, the giant Constellation Brands. Vine Hill Ranch has only just parted company with Cakebread Cellars, to whom they sold grapes for 43 years. These are long-term relationships and Bruce describes those who buy the grapes (listed below ) as ‘vintner partners’ rather than clients. Does he ever turn down a request to buy his grapes? ‘Oh yes’, he assured me.
Tor Kenward considers himself fortunate to be allotted some grapes for his TOR wines and writes in his forthcoming memoir Reflections of a Vintner, ‘The vineyard and its management (led by Mike Wolf) is brilliant’, adding by email, ‘the vineyard is one of Napa's best. The word is finally getting out.’ Paul Roberts of Colgin Cellars, who also buys Vine Hill Ranch grapes, agrees. ‘The Phillips are great folks and I do believe that Vine Hill Ranch is a very hallowed site within the Napa Valley.’
The 2020 vintage tested the hundreds of grower–vintner relationships in Napa Valley to the limit. A significant, though rarely mentioned, proportion of grapes was adversely affected by smoke taint thanks to wildfires that ravaged the outskirts of Napa Valley just before harvest. Many vintners refused to buy the fruit they had been buying for years. Only about 40% of growers, including the Phillipses, had crop insurance. Labs throughout the US were overwhelmed by requests to analyse grapes for the compounds associated with smoke taint. Lawyers rubbed their hands. But Bruce was proud to say that ‘80% of our fruit was delivered. The 2020 wines taste like a warm vintage, but they lack a bit of the vibrancy of 2014 to 2016. They’ll be very dense.’ The average price paid for Vine Hill Ranch’s 2021 grapes, which were unaffected by fire, is apparently $28,000 a ton (c £20,650/€24,200). (The average price of Napa Cabernet grapes is about $8,000 a ton.)
As is common in Napa Valley, Vine Hill Ranch vines are worked by a vineyard management company, in this case that of Mike Wolf. The ranch was his first client when Wolf left Napa Valley’s most famous vineyard owner Andy Beckstoffer and went off on his own. When the Phillipses decided to produce their own wine, from a range of different blocks on the ranch, they chose as winemaker Françoise Peschon, who is known for the subtlety and expressiveness of her wines.
She used to make the impeccable wines of Araujo Estate until it was acquired by François Pinault’s Artémis Domaines. She now also makes the wines for the former owners’ new label Accendo.
Recently in London I tasted vintages from even-numbered years of VHR wine from 2008 to 2018. They were seriously impressive and not overdone. Mid-tasting, Bruce noted intriguingly that ‘Napa Valley today is full of egotists who don’t have a great deal of perspective, often making mistakes that I’ve seen already’. He refused to be drawn on who those guilty parties were, and on what those mistakes might be, simply stating that, in this era of water shortages, the fashion for cramming as many vines as possible into an acre should be well and truly over.
He also expressed a sentiment in London with which I can only agree. ‘I’d like to see more of our vintners show their wines here and put aside that Napa image of 1990s style of big, extracted wines.’ I wonder how many Brits will abandon their prejudices sufficiently to pay more than £200 for a bottle of VHR 2018? They seem happy enough to pay that for a fine Pomerol.
Vine Hill Ranch’s vintner partners
- Arrow & Branch
- DVO, a partnership between Maya Dalla Valle and Ornellaia of Tuscany that will be launched soon with the 2018 vintage
- Lail Vineyards
- Keplinger Wines
- Nigel Kinsman’s project with the new owner of Bella Oaks vineyard
- Kinsman Eades
- Memento Mori
- A new project with Maayan Koschitzky of Atelier Melka