By Mary Novak, Beth Novak Milliken, and Lindy Novak, Excerpt from the 2015 Newsletter
Terroir. Place. Somewhereness. These have become ubiquitous words in the world of fine wine. They are shorthand terms for a nuanced, and at times, ethereal idea, about an essential element in our appreciation and understanding of great wine. Here at Spottswoode, we have been thinking about these ideas for more than 40 years, first as grape growers, and later when we began making our own estate-grown wines in 1982.
When you have the privilege and responsibility of cultivating a truly special vineyard, these ideas naturally insinuate themselves into your thinking over time. Our family moved to the Spottswoode Estate in 1972, back when our vineyard was 90 years old, and the “modern” Napa Valley wine industry was just in its infancy. As San Diego transplants, it took some time for us to adjust to the more languid pace of the valley, but happily we did, and the Spottswoode Estate became our home. While we don’t necessarily think that living where your vineyard is located is a prerequisite for making wines with a sense of somewhereness, we do believe that it helps allow for an innate connection to the land that is otherwise elusive. When you look at the world’s most storied vineyards and wineries—the ones that evoke reverence from wine lovers—one commonality is usually a long and intimate relationship between a magnificent piece of land and one family. This kind of relationship manifests itself in several important ways, from a sense of stewardship to a multigenerational approach to farming that thinks in terms of decades, not single vintages.
When our family came to Spottswoode 42 years ago, the truth is, we didn’t know just how special our vineyard was. We knew that it was an established site for growing grapes, with excellent soils and a rich history, but that was all. As we began to farm our vineyard, the exceptional quality of our grapes quickly became apparent, and we began selling our fruit to people like Robert Mondavi, Charlie Wagner (of Caymus), John Williams (of Frog’s Leap) and later the Duckhorns and Shafers. This precipitated a shift in our thinking that we think is one of the keys to achieving somewhereness. As we began to recognize the remarkable nature of our vineyard, we realized we weren’t simply growing grapes—we were growing wine.
Why is this an important distinction? Because “growing wine” acknowledges a complete, holistic process. It embraces a continuity of decisions with the starting point intrinsically linked to the end point. This simple, yet pivotal, idea has been fundamental to our approach from our earliest vintages. Our founding winemaker, the legendary Tony Soter, set an early precedent for how involved our winemakers have always been in the vineyard. In addition to making the wines, Tony soon took over management of our Spottswoode Estate Vineyard, which was certainly not the norm of the day. This tradition has been continued in the decades since, and today, like others before him, our winemaker, Aron Weinkauf, is also our vineyard manager.
Tony also set some other very important early precedents, most notably the adoption of organic farming practices in 1985. There is much to be said about this approach to farming, but for the sake of exploring the idea of somewhereness, there are two points that seem most relevant. The first is the powerful idea that our vineyard has been farmed without the use of synthetic chemicals for 30 years now. As a natural extension of this decision, what you taste in our grapes is what the soil, sun, wind and fog give us; it is also an expression of how we farm, the clones we grow, the spacing of our vines, our trellising, the way the light filters through our canopy, and a hundred other small, but crucial, details—it is nature and nurture, without the shortcuts and compromises of non-organic farming.
Organic farming also takes its cue from another philosophy that we believe is intrinsic to somewhereness—the idea that we are working with nature, not against it. This may seem obvious, but it is not, especially when it comes to understanding and embracing the unique character of each new growing season. While we have always pursued an elegant, balanced and age-worthy style, we have aspired to do so in a manner that captures the complexity of our legendary estate vineyard, and also the character of the vintage. As Tony once said, “I always take my cues from the place and never try to bend the grapes’ character.”
Throughout our history, each of our winemakers has shared this approach; this pursuit of somewhereness. But letting a vineyard speak isn’t enough in and of itself—the land has to have something worthwhile to say. What defines a great vineyard? From the first-growths to the grand crus to a handful of legendary New World vineyards, there are unifying themes. They are all historic sites, whose stories have been told over centuries and generations. They are also vineyards that, because of their quality, have often endured through wars, pestilence, social upheavals like Prohibition, and natural challenges like Phylloxera. Most important, they are benchmarks for their regions—sites so lovingly tended and genetically hardwired for excellence that they yield wines of nuance, depth, and beauty in even the most challenging vintages.
It is easy to justly romanticize such vineyards, and easier still to claim that the wines from these vineyards essentially make themselves. But it’s not true. In many ways, the finest vineyards are like the world’s best athletes—they have an innate potential for greatness, but their greatness is ultimately achieved only through the most rigorous training, hard work, and attention to detail.
Aron recently said this about our 2011 Spottswoode Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, “Where some vintages get their strength from pure muscle and brawn, the 2011 draws its strength from its core and its finesse—much the same way a yogi exhibits strength and balance versus a weightlifter’s brute heft.” This is a telling comment about Aron’s approach, and about what we believe as a winery. In 2011, as we do in every vintage, we took our decades of farming knowledge and used this experience to tailor the techniques we use at our Spottswoode Estate. The goal was to achieve balance in the context of what Mother Nature was giving us to make the most evocative and compelling expression of the vintage as possible.
As vintners, great wines are like treasured family snapshots. In some immutable way, they capture a place, a moment in time, and who we were during that time. There would be no poignancy or profundity if each year’s snapshot looked the same as the last. While the essence of our Spottswoode Estate, the somewhereness, is eloquently apparent in both our 2011 and 2012 Cabernets, they are very different wines—as are each of the 33 vintages we have now made from our Estate. This is a wonderful testament to the complexity of our vineyard, and the ways in which nature and nurture combine to shape a wine. It is also part of what makes wine so magical and fascinating, and what draws wine lovers to certain vineyard-designates vintage after vintage—that chance to see another chapter in a rich, compelling, and ongoing story.