The best way to introduce you to Cathy Corison, I think, is by telling you what happened when I said goodbye to her.
I was making my way out of her Route 29 winery building in St. Helena, having just wrapped up a short bit of video for Wines.com with the diminutive (even by my modest vertical viewpoint), soft-spoken, but not-to-be-trifled with winemaker (example: during a retrospective tasting over lunch, one of the things she told me was “the word ‘No’ is, in fact, a complete sentence”). We seemed to be waiting for the least-awkward moment, an opening for my exit (if that makes sense), when Cathy began… gardening.
She semi-nervously began picking out dead plants from a colorful bunch of small flowers planted atop barrels in the entranceway to the winery. I am familiar with this sort of habitual behavior, tidying up, constantly feeling as though you have to do something; she didn’t know it but I silently bonded with a small part of her psyche at that moment. Since I can’t stand even nanoseconds of silence, I stoked up a lead-in to a goodbye conversation.
“See you tomorrow at Premiere?” I asked.
“No, I won’t be pouring,” she answered, then stopped tending the flowers and looked up at me, squinting in the sun through her schoolmarm glasses. “Galloni is coming to taste tomorrow.”
That’s Antonio Galloni, who has taken over the CA wine reviewing beat from Robert Parker at The Wine Advocate. To briefly summarize why that might have gotten Cathy into flower-weeding mode, I’ll refer you to this statement from NYC’s California Wine Merchants: “Robert Parker has not published ratings on [Corison’s] wines since 1995, and really never awarded them with scores above the low 90s anyway.”
“Oh,” I said. “Does that make you nervous?”
“Do you know my history with Robert Parker scores?” she countered.
“Cathy… I don’t really know anybody’s history with anyone’s scores” I replied.
“Well, bless you for that!”
And so it goes with Corison, both a matriarch and a wine that, when you start peeling back some of the layers, reveal a series of contrasts: a winemaker not courting high scores but hosting critics and garnering a boatload of acclaim; an anachronistic woman making anachronistic wine, one that is produced in modern ways but with nods to the ancient past (the artistic busted-pottery artwork adorning the labels wasn’t put there without some forethought, I gathered); and someone who came into winemaking “old school” but now is totally killing it with her customers on twitter (more of that coming up soon on the Wines.com blog) and recently hired wine media maven Hardy Wallace…
Cathy wasn’t always quite so… iconoclastic, at least as far as wine is concerned. She has made what we’d consider more traditional Napa wine for other producers. But even after a quarter of a century into doing her own thing you can tell when you talk to Cathy Corison that she’s as determined and focused as ever on doing her own thing.
“I always wanted to make world class wine. I didn’t even know what that meant. This was in 1975,” she told me when we tasted through the 2000-2006 vintages of her Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.
Before starting her own winery, during her stint at Chappellet, “there was a wine inside of me that wanted to come out. It was later that I learned that wine was a Rutherford Bench wine.”
Since then, Cathy has pretty much played only her own hand in the wine biz, no matter what cards were dealt (good press, bad scores, etc.). “The 2003 Long Meadow Ranch was the last time I made wine for somebody else.” As one of her employees told me (with a smile and a wink) when I greeted her at the door, apologizing to her that I didn’t recall her name: “that’s ok – the only one you really need to make sure you know is Cathy!” Matriarch, indeed.
The wines… well, they’re as similarly divorced from chasing any trendiness as their maker is. They are thoroughly Napa in power, depth and concentration, but Napa with a sense of terroir and a nod to Europe’s most elegant, restrained styles (think the stately Saint-Estèphe reds and you’ll get close). These are Napa reds practically tailor-made for Right Coast wine geeks – tight without being taught, lean without being languid, fruity without being flirtatious.
In other words, at their best these wines can be tear-inducingly good.
The 2000 Corison Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is really just coming around, for example, and it’s stunning – juicy, with a touch of earth and leather, the red and black fruits are dense but dancing, like those hippos in Fantasia.
The 2001 is leaner, with a lot more earthiness but still striking in its acidic structure. 2002 (my least fave of the bunch) was almost Syrah-like, only with boatloads of minerality and leather. 2003 was a different animal entirely, a total spice box with fine tea on the side, but again that minerality shone through; it was svelte, tangy and demanded food.
Cathy’s 2004 Napa Valley Cab shows much fruitier and full of black and blue berries, but those leather and stones and earthy minerals were still the undercurrent, and the long finish was red and tangy. 2005 might have been my personal fave – Dark and funky, cassis all the way, truffles and such a delicate mouthfeel, but grippy and structured, too. When this wine shut down it was an odd bird, for sure, but when it opened back up? Killer.
The question for me, then, was how is this kind of restraint – where a mineral undercurrent of place exists along with potentially-endearing vintage-variable aspects floating on top – possible in Napa Valley, home of ultra-ripe, balls-to-the-wall reds? In other words, why aren’t these wines clocking in at over 15% abv?
“Picking [earlier] is the only method for managing alcohol,” Cathy told me. Occasionally she does “add a small amount of water back” in rare cases where there’s a drought or severe heat spell right before picking. But that’s it – what you get is mostly a matter of the nuances of location and timing.
Personally, I don’t care what this serious little lady with the schoolmarm glasses does to her wines, so long as they remain this alive and this good over time; she can send them to outer space to have alien monkeys shoot magical ray beams at the barrels of juice for all I care. And no offense meant to Galloni but I don’t give a rat’s ass what The Wine Advocate scores these wines (in case you were wondering, apparently that tasting with him went just fine).
Let’s get to the more recent releases, because they’re worth talking about:
2006 Corison Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley)
A riper, darker take on the signature mineral-driven, poised Corison style. The fruit is dark and the blackcurrant is leading the charge, but the intense stony minerality is still there tying everything together in a neat little tasty package for you. The wine isn’t shy about its power; it’s grippy, with depth and tension. In other words, it’s lovely and firm at the same time, and will need a few years to unfurl, at which time it will make an excellent dinner guest for your most elegant date night meal.
2007 Corison Kronos Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley)
My tasting note literally reads: “this wine is a trained pet black panther; muscular, dark, earthy, taut, with a brilliant, piercing gaze.” Yes, I was spitting and no, I wasn’t buzzed. The comparison just… fits. I think the black panther is wearing a diamond-studded collar as well. You will just have to taste it to see what I mean, at which time you will totally be inside my head (you’ve been warned!).
11 thoughts on “Out Of Time: Peeling Back The Layers On Corison The Wine, And Corison The Matriarch”
I’ve been reading your writing for about 9 months now, but I believe this is the finest piece of yours I have read.
The person was the story and I got it. I can imagine exactly what those conversations would have felt like from the specific details you provide. I also feel like you were in the perfect zone (at least from the way you present it of course) to interview this person at this time.
Thank you so much for the time and effort you put in. It is showing through more every time I visit.
Wow – thanks, Jason, you just made my day!
This is the way all the Rutherford Bench used to taste: Krug, BV in Andre's time. Martha's, Martini, Inglenook,some Mondavis. They had what Lichine, and pretty much nobody since, called " breed", which is not the same as depth or complexity. Depth and complexity is easy to get in Napa these days, but so many taste like 3D movies to me, if I may completely scramble some metaphors. I haven't tasted Corison's wines but now I can't wait to.
Thanks, George. I dig the metaphors mixed and all :). And I love that term… Breed… Might have to steal that! :)
Joe – Great stuff; when you were first said you were meeting with Cathy, I winced a bit, only because she has so often gotten recent media attention. Nice to see I was wrong, because I learned new things in this piece.
I want to make sure I understand something about your preferences in particular. For a while, I've heard writers and wine lovers debating Corison wines in this context: If you love Corison Cab, you won't love the bigger, riper cabs from Napa. They're just so different, so intellectually separate, that it doesn't make sense to love them all. But you've given high marks to some very big Cali cabs that are nothing like these place-driven wines from Corison. Given the choice, which style are reaching for first when you're enjoying wine at home?
Thanks, Evan – that means a lot but even more coming from you. The short answer to your question is that it depends on my mood at the time :). I rate wines trying to minimize the impact of my personal preferences. So wines can get lowish ratings even if I find them delicious stylistically, and others can get higher marks even if I dislike the variety or style personally. So the rating is not necessarily an indicator of what I most enjoy drinking, bu I'm lucky in that my tastes are pretty catholic and varied. If I had to choose, just talking purely personally, I tend to enjoy more and more wines with subtleties and nuance, as opposed to those that jump out of the glass. Most days I'm likely to be jonesing for a style like Cathy's. But Not everyday :).
I hear you. Your post inspires me to check another never-had wine off the list: I'm still waiting for my first Corison Cab. And looking forward to it.
Your refreshing and almost playful interviewing style mixed with your Josephs Technicolor Dream Coat like metaphors never cease to entertain and inform me. I might go so far as to echo Jason Phelps’s opinion on this post. Kudos to you sir, you make reading about wine so much more than worth while.
Thanks so much, Joel!
Great post Joe. I have met Cathy, got to taste with her, talk about wine, etc… what a magically location in the Napa Valley too. The 2001 has been my recent fave with the 2003 not far behind.
Thanks, man! How's the wine venture treating you?
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