Before my recent four-day Napa Valley wine-tasting trip, many friends voiced concern about my itinerary. They perceived the Napa area to be a totally devastated landscape. Yes, some area wineries were lost in the fires, some were partially damaged, but most are fine and open for business.
From the air, Napa Valley was a blanket of brilliant green. On the ground, verdant hills and fields surrounded row after row of well-groomed grapevines – vines that for the most part were safe from the flames due to their high moisture content and the maintenance that requires the constant removal of surrounding dry brush.
Many of the private tastings for our small group were arranged by wine guru Ian Cauble, Master Sommelier, star of the movie “Somm” and chief wine officer at SommSelect, an online wine retailer (www.sommselect.com). I was thrilled that Cauble included Mayacamas Vineyards in the mix.
I’m a longtime fan of Mayacamas wines, as are many Orange County restaurants. Their wines appear on many OC wine lists, including A Restaurant, Mastros, Monarch Beach Resort, Juliette and Surf and Sand.
“The winery has existed since 1889 …” said Cauble, who grew up in Huntington Beach. “I have had the Mayacamas’ wines on every list I have ever had control over. It is one of those wines you love sharing with people, especially those who love a great Bordeaux.
“Mayacamas is best known for their Cabernet Sauvignon, which is a timeless classic which can age effortlessly for decades. The white wines are worth searching out and are an anomaly in the Napa Valley because of their restraint, age-ability, and balance typically only found in European white wines. They have a specific traditional approach to winemaking that has not wavered very much since the 60’s.”
The winery sits at the end of the twisting eight-mile Trinity Road, a serpentine journey dotted with hairpin turns. As our van ascended to the top of Mount Veeder, we found road crews at work along the way clearing intermittent fire-damaged trees in the densely forested terrain.
The historic 19th-century winery building and other winemaking spaces were almost untouched by the fires and remain intact. A tasting and events building adjacent to the winery known as “the residence” was destroyed. Some of the wilderness land on their 480 acres also burned.
Jimmy Hayes, Mayacamas’ estate director, told us that the fire threatened the winery just after the grapes had been harvested. A large bed of mulch covered the area where the fire-ravaged events building had stood.
“At the far end the stone wall was the only part left of a distillery that was built in 1889,” Hayes said, pointing to the mulched area. “Then there was an addition in the 50’s and again in the 70’s. We’re going to rebuild it and it’s going to be completely amazing. We still have a winery and the view is still beautiful. We are very thankful for what we have left.”
He pointed out that throughout their 129-year history wine production has never stopped, and that includes wines made during the Prohibition, bottles that were hidden in caves cut into the mountain when officials made a visit up the mountain.
We savored our five-bottle tasting inside an inviting stone-walled room within the winery. Hayes explained that the wines we tasted were classic Napa wines like those made decades ago, wines aged for three years in oak barrels, then aged another year in the bottle for a year or so before becoming available for purchase.
“It’s singular,” he said with a smile.
As I sipped, Cauble’s words rang true on my palate.
“The wines always have perfect balance and are incredibly food friendly due to the fact that they are not over-oaked or picked so late they lose balance,” he had explained. “My favorite wine they make is their Cabernet Sauvignon, it always has a very deep and savory component which is a hallmark year in and year out.
“With a decade of age the wine drops some of the primary fruit aromatics of wild berries, red currant and black cherry and these are replaced with nuanced notes of sandalwood, leather, dried tobacco leaf, mushrooms, wild flowers and damp forest. If I were to choose one Napa red to drink for the rest of my life, Mayacamas Cabernet Sauvignon would be it. These wines age forever and never fall apart, something that plagues many of the more modern styles. Where many modern styles of Napa reds begin to tire at 8-10 years of age, Mayacamas is just getting started and truly peaks decades after being bottled.”
I look forward to sipping some of the 2013 cabs that I purchased ten years down the road, in 2023. I’m hoping to connect with the wild flowers and damp forest. Maybe some mushrooms. Definitely leather.
Mayacamas Vineyards, 1155 Lokoya Road, Napa, CA 94558
Winery: 707-224-4030 Visits to Mayacamas are temporarily unavailable.
Cathy Thomas is an award-winning food writer and has authored three cookbooks: “50 Best Plants on the Planet,” “Melissa’s Great Book of Produce,” and “Melissa’s Everyday Cooking with Organic Produce.”