Saturday, 29 October 2011

A visit to Screaming Eagle

Napa, seven-thirty on a Monday morning in late October and the mist hangs in the valley, a soft white fleece over the vineyards. It sits in pockets over the deep red soil of the tiny Screaming Eagle acreage off the Silverado Trail in Oakville (there’s no ‘winery’ sign, just the number post on the edge of the highway). A little knot of pickers hangs about, an intern or two. They have been picking for some days now, estate manager Armand de Maigret tells me, and the Cabernet is sitting in its bins waiting for the crush. The grapes are small, thick-skinned and sweet, and sparse on the bunches due to the coulure – poor fruit set – that has bedevilled reds and whites alike this year after the heavy rain in June spoilt the flowers. Still, the grapes are delicious. ‘2011 is going to be plumper than Bordeaux,’ de Maigret says. A phenomenal vintage, he adds, but there’s going to be ‘massive selectivity – we’re not taking any chances.’ Of course, as he says later, it doesn’t matter if they have a small vintage. ‘We’re under no financial pressure to increase production’.

Screaming Eagle, after founder Jean Phillips sold her ‘beautiful ranch with my precious little winery’ in 2006, is now wholly owned by Stan Kroenke, who has Arsenal FC in his portfolio, as well as basketball, hockey and American football teams. The vineyards, an almost perfect 50-acre square of Cabernet, Merlot and Cabernet Franc plantings yield between 500 and 800 cases. The smallest recent vintage was the 2005, at 500 cases, the biggest 07 with 800. The first vintage in 1992 was 200. 2011 is going to be small.

There is only one wine. Anything that doesn’t make the grade is poured down the drain, which at first seems rather arrogant, but then you realise that production is so tiny, the rejected wine is only going to be a barrel’s worth.

The release price of Screaming Eagle is $750 a bottle, with allocations strictly three bottles at a time. People tend to drink one, cellar one and sell the third, de Maigret says. The wine quickly finds its level in the secondary market, around £2000 a bottle, with the great 97 fetching anything north of £3000.

It’s the ultimate and first cult wine, but the term’s become a bit old hat. ‘No one calls us a cult any more,’ de Maigret says. ‘We’re a grand cru – a Napa first growth, and that’s it.’

He reckons that a cult wine is one that shows the winemaker’s hand, ‘but here it’s not the winemaker making the wine, it’s the place.’

The soil is rich, deep red volcanic, dotted with sizeable rocks (they call them corestones) that on the top of the hill are pulled out of the ground as big as truck wheels, but down here are more manageable. The vines all have irrigation lines (you very seldom see a pure dry-farmed vineyard in Napa). ‘It’s a kind of insurance,’de Maigret says. ‘Young vines have to be helped, and otherwise we only irrigate in a heatwave.’ Yes, of course there are regions of the world with superb dry-farmed vines, like the Douro, or Lebanon, or the south of France, but they have been there for many years more than these vines, and they are planted less tightly, and they yield far less, de Maigret says. At Jonata, Screaming Eagle’s sister vineyard in the Santa Ynez valley (Pinot, Petit Verdot, Sauvignon Blanc, Sangiovese, from $75-$150 a bottle), they are preparing to dry grow by dripping water in a way that trains the roots to go down in steps, as deep as possible.

Screaming Eagle is the result of forensic attention to detail. They’re not alone in this – plenty of producers will pick in half rows only – but here they take it very, very seriously. ‘The blocks are so small, and variation within them is key,’ de Maigret says. The blocks are picked in up to five different slices. They pick on taste, ‘and we use the refractometer afterward to confirm what we’re tasting.’

Winemaker Nick Gislason comes in. He was at Craggy Range in Marlborough and then Harlan, and looks like a successful indie musician (actually, most winemakers in Napa look like musicians - or Grateful Dead roadies).

The winemaking team consists of Gislason, globetrotting Bordeaux consultant Michel Rolland, who's there twice a year, and Napa veteran David Abreu.

We go into the cellar to taste the 2010s in barrel.

First the Merlot, from a block of riverbed gravel under shallow topsoil. It’s dense, with a lovely blackberry palate, licorice and very fine tannins. Then onto Cabernet. This is the Old B Upper Block. Three and a half acres, three to four different parcels, picked in partial rows. Dense and powerful. ‘This is the top third of 70% of the rows.’

Onto D1 North, Cabernet again, this time less dense with a palpable perfume of sandalwood. Gislason: ‘And people don’t believe in terroir in Napa?’

Then Old H Block Cabernet Franc. There’s only one barrel of this. Beautiful, tannic, rounded, mouthfilling and perfumed with violets.

The three to four acres of Cabernet Franc, which often in Napa can be astringent, is a ‘key component, for its density of tannin and floral aromas.’ There’s about 7% in the blend, and about 4% Merlot. (Later that day I meet Phil Coturri at Oakville Ranch Vineyards, a few hundred meters above where we’re standing now. His Cabernet Franc is lovely as well. ‘We’re on the same soil as Screaming Eagle,’ he says, looking down over the ridge.)

The rest is Cabernet. And what Cabernet. Moving onto the bottled wines: the 2008 has a lovely spearmint-fresh nose, and a deep, fresh blackcurrant palate, with exotic notes of chocolate and licorice. It’s bright, lifted, with earthy, spicy – almost hot –  tannins and a tantalising hint of truffle. It’s very long, with wonderful harmony of fruit, acid and tannin. What more can you say about one of the world’s most renowned and expensive wines? It is delicious, and obviously beautifully made. The 2009 is a dense, very deep colour with a nose of mint and some green, peppery, capsicum aromas. Tannins are more insistent than on the 2008, they are more precise, stronger, and give edge to the fruit. Again, delicious, compelling, with huge charm. It is a very, very good wine, with the exotic, perfumed, herbiness of Napa and the precision and linearity of cooler climate Cabernet.

‘What makes it unique? It doesn’t need to be overly ripe – we’re almost the first to pick reds in the valley. It has natural elegance and balance.

‘There’s no average, but the main elements are the lifted fruit, the perfume, brightness, floral aromas, the good acidity, the femininity. They are never over-powerful. Most of all they’re wines that make you think of food.’

Quite so. I hadn’t had breakfast, and the thought of a glass of the 2009 with a rack of lamb with a succulent sweet layer of sizzling fat pierced with sprigs of rosemary, was compelling.

I never lose my first impression of Napa as an enchanted valley. To stand high on a ridge and look down over its wide green floor carpeted with vineyards, and its rocky oak-covered hillsides, is to imagine what the first settlers must have thought, scrambling up the slopes in their fur hats and leggings, and marvelling at the beauty and fecundity of it all. Screaming Eagle’s a part of that enchantment, and it’s a privilege to be here, just as it is to be at any one of the estates all over the valley and the hills. It’s just that this one’s a sight harder to get invited to. ‘When we get a request we let it sit for a bit and then see if it gets followed up,’ de Maigret said as I got into my car. ‘Then we take another look. We tend to say no to most people. Jay-Z was in touch recently. We turned  him down.’