Well up in the Mayacamas Mountains on an extinct volcano called Mt. Veeder sits a winery of the same name. It was once the site of the old Moyer prune farm; San Francisco attorney Mike Bernstein purchased the property back in 1963 - mostly as a weekend retreat. Without any serious long range plans, Mike and his wife, Arlene, planted a few vines in 1965 and eventually grafted them over to cabernet sauvignon. In 1969 they purchased a 1400 foot-high plum farm a half mile up the road. Over the course of time the plum farm was turned into a five acre vineyard planted to the classic Bordeaux grape varieties: cabernet sauvignon, merlot, petit verdot, cabernet franc, and malbec. By 1973 the winery was completed in time for production of 375 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon. By 1977, Mt. Veeder's other Bordeaux varietals were ready for blending with the winery's Cabernet. To our knowledge, the 1977 Mt. Veeder Cabernet was the first California Cabernet to be composed of a blend of all the classic Bordeaux grape varieties.
In the early years Mt. Veeder staked out a reputation similar to nearby Mayacamas Vineyards - the Cabs were big, tannic beasts packed with fruit and varietal intensity. There was a legion of loyal fans for the winery's small production, but we were not among them. Although once quite fashionable, this style began to fall from favor in the 1980's. Perhaps recognizing this fact, the Bernsteins decided to sell rather than switch. The new proprietors were Henry and Lisille Matheson, formerly of Miami, Florida, where Henry's family was very active in real estate. (His great-grandfather once owned the entire island of Key Biscayne!) A year earlier in 1981, the winery had also retained a new winemaker, Peter Franus, who had worked previously at Chalone and Chateau St. Jean. During the latter part of the 1980's the Mathesons struggled to gain recognition for their winery. Shortly after their arrival at Mt. Veeder, the best Cabernet in the winery's history debuted to extremely positive reviews. It seemed that a radical departure in style was afoot. The 1981 had lots of "mountain personality" with big structure and fruit, but at the same time it was graceful and well-balanced. It was one of our favorite wines of the 1981 vintage. The Chardonnays during that era were crafted in the tight, austere, oaky style so characteristic of Chardonnays from Mt. Veeder grapes. Although we never were particularly fond of them, they fit a stylistic niche for those who did not like their white wines gushing with fruit. After the burst of very favorable press for the 1981 Cabernet, things seemed to go straight downhill for the Mathesons. The wines of the middle 1980's were panned by the critics, and the Mathesons decided that their only choice was to sell the winery.
In June of 1989 Agustin Huneeus, the Vintner-President of Franciscan Estate Selections, which now owns Franciscan Oakville Estate, Estancia, and a new estate in Chile known as Veramonte, signed a contract to purchase Mt.Veeder from the Mathesons. Huneeus' long range plan had always been to augment his impressive quality portfolio with additional top vineyards while maintaining their separate identities. His uncanny good sense told him that Mt. Veeder was capable of producing outstanding wine - The Hess Collection vineyard (which was adjacent to Mt. Veeder's vineyards) had produced some extraordinary wines during the 1980's. Huneeus and his team immediately set about making many improvements such as retrellising the vineyards, providing drip irrigation so that the vines would not be over-stressed, and installing a computerized press for the grapes. Changes were made in winemaking style to soften the overly tannic nature of the Mt. Veeder fruit, and new barrels were brought into the winery. Peter Franus, the winemaker who had been with the Matheson regime, departed in January of 1993. Huneeus then installed Ms. Darice Spinelli, who had worked for three years under Greg Upton, formerly the senior winemaker who oversaw all the Franciscan Estates properties.
At the time of the sale Mt. Veeder had about forty acres planted to cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, chardonnay, and zinfandel. Huneeus has since planted another fifty acres (called the North Ranch) to cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and merlot. The decision was also made to tear out the chardonnay after the '92 vintage and also replant it with the aforementioned red Bordeaux varietals. Beginning with the 1987 Cabernet, which was finished under the auspices of the Huneeus team, the improvements at Mt. Veeder have been dramatic. The 1987 was an excellent first start; it was followed by a terrific 1989. The winery turned the corner with the release of the superb 1990 (probably the best regular Mt. Veeder Cabernet ever produced). Demand for this wine was almost hysterical because of the very high rating (94) in The Wine Spectator. The Chardonnay was discontinued after the 1992 vintage (ironically we thought it was the only outstanding Chardonnay we had ever tasted from this property!) Production now centers on a Cabernet Sauvignon, the Reserve Red, and a small amount of Zinfandel. Total annual output will max out at about 12,500 cases, about 25% of which will be the Reserve Red. The Reserve Red has completely wowed the critics in the past several vintages. The 1991 scored a (97) in the World Wine Championships conducted by Craig Goldwyn for The Wine Enthusiast. In the same issue this wine was selected as one of the "7 BEST WINES OF THE YEAR" among 3,380 wines considered. It was also rated a very impressive in Connoisseurs' Guide to California Wine. The recent 1994 was equally as impressive, we though it was the one of the best wines in its price range.
Today Mount Veeder is owned by Franciscan Estates which is, in turn, owned by Constellation Brands. Even though this winery is part of the largest wine group in the world it is still run like the small family owned winery when it was first started by Mike Bernstein and today the winemaker is Janet Myers.
Northern California has experienced quite a few excellent vintages the last decade and 2008 looks to be outstanding again from Napa. Here is what the worldâ€™s leading authority on California wine had to say about the 2008 vintage. â€œWith respect to the 2008 vintage, the year of the horrific California wildfires, many wines from the Sonoma Coast, Anderson Valley, and Mendocino are smoke-tainted, and have been completely declassified by conscientious producers. Other wines were put through multiple filtrations in an attempt to remove any evidence of smoke, and consequently, taste dull and charmless. This is also a year where spring frosts cut yields significantly in many vineyards, ranging from high elevation Cabernet vineyards to Sonoma Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Syrah vineyards. Tasting through the 2008 Napas, I was struck by how forward the wines are, and I saw no evidence of smoke in the Bordeaux varietals or Chardonnays. The wines appear to possess lots of concentration and what looks to be an up-front, richly fruity style. This was also a year with serious heat spikes, and at this early stage, it looks to be a very good vintage that will have to live in the shadow of 2007. However, the 2008s do seem to be better balanced, at least for the Bordeaux varietals, than the 2006s, which can display issues with hard as well as rustic tannin.â€ The Wine Advocate
OUR TASTING NOTES: A bit of sweet tobacco light smoke and fresh earth mineral notes black plum and black currant berry fruit. A nice smoky character to the black plum and black currant berry fruit, firm tannin and big and chewy wine with lots of black earth and mineral but a mouth full, needs a bit of time to come around but has all the right stuff. Finish 40 TASTING DATE 04/25/11