What was, is, and will continue to be compelling about Spottswoode are the Site, the Wines, and the People. Situated on the bench west of St. Helena on light, well-drained loam underlain by cobbles, one couldn’t ask for better soil for grapes. It is a very sunny and warm place, too, far from the fog, which can reach into the valley from the south and even the north (not many folks know that).
People are always the limiting factor in my experience with reaching the potential of a given site. In this regard, Spottswoode is blessed with the Novak family, who had a dream, envisioned the potential, and committed themselves to the task. One does not achieve the integrity and stature of a great wine estate overnight. It takes years of consistent results, if not decades of compounded demonstration, to earn acknowledgment from the critics, collectors, trade, and wine consumers.
I was only in on the beginning, on the early installments, but I was immediately impressed with the potential because all the ingredients were in place: a fine location on great soils, in a unique residential setting with a grand house acting as the mental placeholder for the Bordeaux château; the estate’s home had a cellar large enough to house a hundred barrels; experienced and committed owners; and a mature well-tended vineyard in its prime.
All that remained was to tend the vines with wine in mind rather than selling grapes as a commodity, and to then render that wine with respect to its origins and aspirations. I was very hands-on in those early years, from doing the vineyard frost patrol in the wee hours of the spring nights and mornings to racking barrels in the cellar.
But ultimately it is about the wine. The wine is compelling year after year. It is juicy and articulate, high-toned and expressive for a Cabernet, more concentrated boysenberry than brambly cassis and never olive or herbaceous. The acidity was in my time naturally high and this always gave the wine a distinctive inflection—and a noteworthy point of contrast with other wines.
I always take my cues from the place and never try to bend the grapes’ character to my will, as there is plenty of work enough to get them fermented and into the bottle. Having said that, I didn’t want to be limited to the notion that wine makes itself either. This is a quaint notion and plays well on the marketing side but personally, as a craftsman, I was in pursuit of opportunities to perfect my craft. Frankly, my notion was to render a wine so seamless and naturally compelling that it may well give the impression that it issued forth ready-made from the vine.
I like to think of what I do as something others, generations before, may have done even better. I don’t trust technology. I would rather imagine gleaning the wisdom of an imaginary ancestral winegrower I never knew. I imagined he or she would whisper the secrets of the vine to me—how to recognize stress, and maturity, and when to cultivate the soil and how to farm sustainably because back then there were few if any chemical alternatives to organic farming. I hoped to fashion a sleek, minimalist Cabernet with such purity of expression it didn’t need embellishment or complication.
We had a lot to learn and adapt to when it came to managing tannins in those early years, and that was the principal challenge to creating an opulent wine rich in extract but not overburdened with coarse tannin.
It is ironic that ten years later, as we were hitting our stride with the Spottswoode Cabernet, we became engulfed in the phylloxera epidemic and had to face the facts that we would have to reinvent the whole thing.
I am hardly responsible for what has successfully transpired since, except to be the architect of record on the replanting structure. I only had in mind how to preserve what had been working so well, which meant introducing as few variables as possible. The whole rootstock question would be enough to challenge continuity.
The spacing was modestly reduced for more vine density but not so dense as to require vertical shoot positioning. The trellising was deliberately done to mimic (in a more regimented way) the natural umbrella effect of an unsupported sprawl which Cabernet does rather well given its semi-upright growth tendencies. I already knew from being out there and observing and tasting that our best fruit grew in the dappled light of a semi-shaded canopy. This was not a very trendy adaptation at the time but I think it has proven all the more useful as climate change impacts the region.
With regard to organic farming my instincts were simple: don’t poison myself or anyone else in the process of growing these grapes. When you think about it, grape growing involves a lot of people. The Spottswoode vineyard is surrounded by houses…what goes on in the vineyard may as well go on in the surrounding backyards.
The moment of truth came when we were faced with an outlandish outbreak of leafhoppers (an annoying little white fly) counting in the millions to be sure. At the time, one fruit-buying customer insisted I do something to alleviate the situation that he feared would ruin the crop. I was armed with some encouragement from Richard Nagaoka who, acting as an etymologist, detected the presence of a known control agent—a tiny wasp that parasitizes the hopper eggs. Nature was apparently attempting to create some balance and I needed to respect that opportunity.
I said in no uncertain terms, “Damn it, I am not going to spray bug poison on that fruit!”
We survived to make fine wines and a lasting friendship. Moving on to the next steps of getting Spottswoode organically certified was as natural as not ordering the bug spray.
What was interesting at the time is that the notion of organic farming was controversial and deemed risky. Worse yet, some thought it might limit your aspirations if the goal was to make the highest quality wine. So it was our humble mission in the marketplace of ideas to establish that these goals of making the best possible wine and doing the best possible thing for your land were not mutually exclusive endeavors.
That it’s a given today that organic and biodynamic farming may even enhance quality makes it all the more quaint since it was such new territory at the time. On a recent visit to the Spottswoode vineyard, I was truly amazed at the ongoing commitment to organic and biodynamic ways and the sophistication that has clearly raised the bar since my time.
It has been a pleasure to share these reflections on a time dear to my memory, my career, and my passions.