To Everything (Turn, Turn, Turn)
There is a season (Turn, Turn, Turn)
And a time to every purpose, under Heaven
– The Byrds
Let’s play a little game of word association. I say “Carneros” and you say… ___________.
Budding wine geeks and geekettes out there would likely answer “Pinot Noir” or “Chardonnay” or “Sparklers” or “Unimpressive-In-Recent-Vintages.”
But the answer we’re looking for today is… wait for it…
Our story today not only involves Carneros, it also involves turns, banks, and several groan-worthy, near-pun plays-on-words. Oh, yeah, and some very good wine as well (you didn’t think I leave that part out, did you?).
A couple of weeks back, I dragged my worn-out and slightly-hungover bones over to the fine Farmstead restaurant in St. Helena to meet up with former investment-banker turned wine brand owner (and first-class personality dynamo) Emily Richer. Over a “light” lunch of amazingly fresh garden produce made into phenomenal but artery-clogging, buttery delights, Emily and I chatted (and chatted, and chatted – we’re both talkers) about her new wine venture, Virage Napa Valley. Emily had come with a preview, label-less bottle of Virage’s inaugural release.
It’s from Carneros. But it’s not a Chard, a Pinot, or a sparkler.
It’s a blend made primarily from Cabernet Franc. And it’s pretty damn good.
Is Emily nuts for trying to establish a new brand in today’s hostile market – especially when she’s banking on a variety that still isn’t relatively well-known to most wine consumers (and even to some wine store employees)? Her backers don’t seem to think so…
If it seems odd to be making a Right Bank Bordeaux style blend out of Napa, most of your trepidation should dissipate after a taste of Virage; it’s a solid wine with a lot of personality. Lush, of course, as Napa Cab Franc is sure to be, but it doesn’t shy away from Cab Franc’s spicy side, either. No one is going to confuse it with Cheval Blanc anytime soon, but it’s definitely got enough cache factor to get sommelier’s heads turning when they’re looking for a tasty-but-out-of-the-ordinary-red to pair with the chef’s new flank steak.
Virage is, of course, French for turn – think a banked turn, as in a racetrack. Which is where our cheesy bank wordplay begins.
Emily used to work in banking, though she’s been in The Valley for several years, working for folks like Karen MacNeil and producers like Quintessa – where she met Virage’s winemaker Aaron Pott. Aaron is an actual Right Banker, having cut his winemaking teeth in St. Emilion. When Emily was looking for a turn in her life (virage also means a change in orientation – I told you, it’s gonna get worse before it gets better) towards wine, she turned (ouch!) to the “Alta” Carneros – an area just inside the Mayacamas foothills, near Highway 12 just before the Highway 29 turn (hey, at least I didn’t italicize or bold the last one, okay?).
According to Virage’s PR material: “this unique and hilly corner is protected from the cool winds that sweep through the Petaluma Gap across much of Carneros, yet because it sits just above the Bay its temperatures never reach the daytime highs of inland Napa Valley to the north. Neighbors include Hyde and Hudson Vineyards, longtime champions of cool-climate winegrowing.” It’s a spot where Cab Franc (and Merlot, the other substantial component in the Virage blend) get nice, slow, and relatively long ripening periods. According to Emily, when a winemaker friend toured the vineyard with her, he advised her to purchase it before he did.
Virage is a big, juicy wine. Early on, it’s fighting a battle to see if the red or black fruits will dominate. The mouthfeel is silky but the tannins are a tad tight. I found myself wanting to get on a spaceship, approach the speed of light, and come back a minute or two later, which would have been like four years in Earth time, to see how the wine developed. In any case, the spiciness and acidity mean that Virage should be be pretty fun to throw at a meal, though you’ll need something meaty to tame it right now.
Emily’s plan is to release Virage’s first bottling this fall, in the relatively affordable range of low-to-mid $40s. Seems like it’s going to be well worth it.