Spottswoode – and their excellent 2011 Cabs


29 September 2016 We are republishing this two-year-old article about the Napa Valley wine producer Spottswoode in memory of its founder Mary Weber Novak, who died on Sunday at the age of 84. Widowed at 45, she proceeded steadily and sensitively to build up a formidable reputation for a wine estate that was then only five years old.

So taken are we by the wines of this St Helena family-run estate that we have devoted a total of four articles to them over the years. And the Spottswoode 2013 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon was one of the highest-scoring wines in Elaine’s recent survey of Napa Cabs from one of the Valley’s sub-appellations . Thanks to Spottswoode's UK importer Domaine Direct, I happened to taste this wine, and its stablemate 2013 Lyndenhurst containing some bought-in fruit, on Monday and was blown away by both. I also voted the 1990 Estate Cabernet my favourite at a recent Sunday lunch in London devoted to California Cabs. You can find my standalone tasting note here (and you can see notes on the many other wines enjoyed at that lunch by searching our tasting notes database, ticking the Standalone box and choosing 18 September as the date tasted).

Mary was a very special person, a hugely welcoming presence in her memorable Victorian homestead, and a particularly steady hand on the tiller of an exceptional craft. She will be very much missed by all, especially by her daughters Beth Novak Milliken and Lindy Novak shown here. But we are sure there will be no hiccup in quality.

Elaine wrote yesterday I saw Beth Novak Milliken briefly today. She is grieving, of course, but also was checking on how things at the winery are going. Mary used to decorate a small tree on the corner of the vineyard across from the winery for every holiday, apparently, so the tree was often decorated for whatever occasion. So this week someone decorated it in her honour and put out gift card tags and pens so people can write on them and hang them like ornaments on the tree. People have been hanging cards and all sorts of things on the tree in Mary's honour.

23 September 2014 Who says Napa Valley 2011s are disappointing? Beth Novak Milliken of Spottswoode presented a range of her family's wines at Hedonism in London last June and both 2011 Cabernets were excellent. (She is seen on the left with her mother Mary Weber Novak, who ran the estate as a widow with five young children from 1977, and her sister Lindy Novak, marketing director, on the right.)  I gave 17.5 to the less glamorous Lyndenhurst bottling and 18.5 to the grand vin made exclusively from estate-grown fruit called simply Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon 2011.

The 2011 growing season was exceptionally rainy in northern California. Growers hardly knew what hit them. Here's how Spottswoode described it: 'Wonderful wet weather in the winter and into spring allowed for ample early spring growth, and we enjoyed glorious weather until late May, allowing for a healthy fruit set in the Spottswoode Estate Vineyard. We then experienced an unusual rain event [love this locution – JR] in early June, after which temperatures throughout the summer were unusually cool, with extended periods of fog in the morning evolving into moderate, beautiful afternoons. Just before harvest, Mother Nature dealt us one last bout of rain, which delayed picking. The vineyard showed its resilience and we harvested beautiful fruit without major complications.'

Lyndenhurst has been made, albeit in small quantities, for 10 years now. It was initially the produce of younger vines but is now made from fruit expressly chosen to yield an earlier-maturing wine than the main Spottswoode Cabernet (and includes about 15 to 20% fruit bought in from Oakville). I reckon the Lyndenhurst 2010 would drink beautifully from next year and would happily drink the Lyndenhurst 2011 already.

As you can see from our three earlier articles about Spottswoode, particularly Why Spottswoode is different, I'm a fan of this producer of particularly subtle wines from the benchlands just west of St Helena. They have been farming organically since 1985 and the vineyards are clearly healthy and in great balance. I can well imagine that the team was not too perplexed by the vagaries of the 2011 vintage since sheer power is not their strong sole suit. Not that there is anything remotely wimpy about their wines. And nor, alas, is there anything wimpy about their prices, as you can see below. But unfortunately, sought-after Napa Valley wines are rarely cheap – just like the top wines of Bordeaux. And remember what happened in both Judgment of Paris tastings... (Check out my recent tasting note on a Chateau Montelena 1974 by the way, made not long after an earlier vintage of that wine triumphed at the first France v California taste-off.)

It was a great treat to taste the 31-year-old Spottswoode Cabernet 1985, which was certainly mature but was by no means decrepit. We are big fans of old California wine and regularly add standalone tasting notes on them.

The Sauvignon Blancs are made from a blend of fruit bought in from a wide array of locations including the Hyde Vineyard in Carneros, the vines of some old Italian families in Calistoga and the Ferrina Vineyard just below Laurel Glen on Sonoma Mountain. Fermented in a combination of stainless steel, French oak and trendy concrete eggs, they result in fewer than 4,000 cases in total. They seemed much tighter and more youthful than most Napa Valley Sauvignon Blancs but did not quite have the class of Araujo's.

It has been frustratingly difficult to keep track of the California wine scene from the UK, where serious wine represents a tiny fraction of the amount of wine imported from the state. This situation is changing, thank goodness, and I will soon be publishing a collection of tasting notes on some exciting American wines currently available in the UK – not all of them at high prices.

UK retailers who take American wine more seriously than most include Roberson, Vineyard Cellars and The Winery. See our Learn/Where to buy section for contact details and scroll down to the many retailers listed for the UK.  Sager + Wilde have just opened a new 'California Wine Bar and Kitchen' in Bethnal Green, East London, with a very strong California wine list – appropriately named Mission (and subsequently renamed Sager + Wilde).

Wines are listed in the order tasted. 

Spottswoode Sauvignon Blanc 2013 Sonoma/Napa

72% Sonoma Mountain, 28% Napa Valley. 15% Musqué. Pretty reduced top notes and then ripe fig underneath. Intense. Slightly sudden end but this may well develop more breadth and interest. Very unlike most northern California Sauvignons.

£33.80 Hedonism Wines

Spottswoode Sauvignon Blanc 2012 Napa/Sonoma

54% Napa Valley from their own vineyard and others; 45% the Faine Vineyard on Sonoma Mountain. Raw and vegy nose but richer fruit than the 2013. Slightly bitter end. Both floral and citrus notes.

Available to order from Hedonism Wines

Spottswoode, Lyndenhurst Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 St Helena

60% new barrels and aged for 18 months. Very, very cool vintage. Lots of fog and much more rain than usual. Vibrant but not dominant acidity. Tobacco, balsamic notes. Subtle and savoury. Great balance. Glossy, but not too sweet – so subtle. Pretty lovely now. High toned. A very dry finish – definitely food wine. Just 987 cases made.

£74.50 Hedonism Wines

Spottswoode, Lyndenhurst Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 St Helena

Contains 1.5% of each of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Aged for 19 months in French oak, 40% new. Glowing crimson. Rich and ripe on nose. Succulent and glossy. Sweet end. Food wine. Rich but not at all heavy. Very different from the more open 2011. A fine wine by any measure but still a little reserved. Just 751 cases made.

£71.80 Hedonism Wines

Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 St Helena

Contains 8% Cabernet Franc and 3% Pettit Verdot. Aged for 19 months in 62% new French oak. Deep crimson. Very savoury and vibrant nose. Very serious and long term and dense. Just a bit chewy on the end. Sinewy. Rather reminiscent of Ch Haut-Brion. Released beginning of September 2014. A serious wine by any measure.  About 3,500 cases made.


Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 St Helena

Some heat spikes at the end of the season. Picked before the rains of October. Contains 6% Cabernet Franc, 2% Petit Verdot. Aged for 18 months in 60% new French oak. Blackish purple. Intense, pungent, velvety. High toned and minerally but rich. Rich and spicy. Vibrant and lifted at the end. Extravagant. Dramatic. Not sweet. This is awfully good but it certainly isn't underpriced. About 2,800 cases made.

£336.80 Hedonism Wines

Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon 1985 St Helena

Their fourth vintage:‘This vintage put us on the map. Back in the day when James Laube liked us, this was ranked number 8 in the world.’ Crushed at Robert Pepi’s winery. Contains 4-5% Cabernet Franc. Aged for 20 months in 50% new French oak – heavy toast.
A bit old on the nose. Iodine. Great fresh stuff on the palate though with really complex though far from heavy fruit, although from another era. Faded a bit. Needs aeration. Would be great for someone searching for a slice of California history.

£158.90 Hedonism Wines