It had been more than a decade since I’d spent any time with former Silver Oak head winemaker Daniel Baron, with whom I’d felt an easy rapport and a deep appreciation of the man’s impressive intellect. So I immediately accepted an invite to catch up with him and taste samples of his new project, Complant, which he makes alongside his son Sam.
First, a bit of explanation on the odd moniker:
“Complant” is defined as an obsolete word from the Old French, meaning a cultivated vine or tree that produced fruit. Interestingly, it’s actually a as a misquote of a passage from Le Théâtre d’Agriculture to Daniel by his mentor, Petrus winemaker Jean-Claude Berrouet. The original is “L’aer (old spelling), la Terre et le Complant sont le fondement du Vignoble,” or “The climate, the soil and the cultivated plant are the foundation of the vineyard.” The Barons liked both the connection to terroir and the fact that it was a bit of a non-sequitur, and so the name stuck.
Next, a bit of a warning: I don’t often quote large portions of interviews, but in Daniel Baron’s case it’s worth it; he’s a gifted speaker, a talented winemaker, and has an opinionated mind. So… expect long, well-crafted sentences from the man below.
Complant is a true family affair (even employing artist Kristina McDonald, who happens to also be the family’s preferred tattoo artist, to design the blossoms on the labels). “I retired from Silver Oak after the 2016 vintage,” Daniel explained. “And I was kind of looking at this bleak future of no winemaking. It’s like, what am I going to do with myself? What am I going to do in September? My son Sam had graduated from [UC] Davis, had worked around the world as people of his generation do had worked in Burgundy, in New Zealand, and at some top wineries and vineyard management companies in Napa. By 2017, he decided that I’d grown up enough that he could work with me.”
“It’s it’s like any family business. I mean, there are moments where you think, ‘why the hell am I doing this?’ I think one of the things that is really helpful is Sam is 37 now. We’ve gone through a lot over the years. We know how to talk to each other, and we never let things get to the point where they’re going to break our hearts. But all that aside, it’s a dream come true to be working on a project together and to be sharing our aesthetic. And now he’s got two kids, and we’re thinking they’re the next generation, and we’re out walking in the vineyards with them. It’s quite fulfilling.”
Speaking of expressing an aesthetic, it seems to be the unwritten marching orders of Complant’s winemaking style. “What’s happened over the last five years is we’ve really distilled what we want to do,” Baron noted. “We live in Napa, and we feel that although we’re working with very traditional Napa varieties, we feel like we have something unique to say about them. Prior to mid 90s, we had an inferiority complex in Napa. Everything was measured against the yardstick of Bordeaux and Burgundy. What Sam and I realized is we don’t need to pick at 30 bricks. We can pick at 23 bricks, 24 bricks, and we can make beautiful wines that are still ‘Napa,’ but they’re the next step in an evolution. We’re not saying we’re making wines like people did in the 70s or 80s. We’re not saying that we’re making wines like they’re made in Bordeaux. But that wines of finesse and moderation can still be made in Napa, and still be tasty and ripe. So that’s what we’re doing. We think we’re doing something unique and something that is the next step, that the more sophisticated wine drinkers and sommeliers have been asking for this and been beating up Napa because of it.”
Daniel (a longtime musician on the side) made a comparison to the act of performing music: “I don’t care who brought it. I don’t care who wrote it. I don’t care if it’s the drummer, the bass player, the guitarist, the singer. Someone needs to own it. It’s exactly like winemaking. One of us needs to be in charge of a wine. We can’t make wine by committee. So the chardonnay is Sam’s and the Cabernet is mine.”
Sourced from Steve Matthiasson’s certified organic Linda Vista Vineyard, located just northwest of the city of Napa, from 25-year old vines that were originally planted by Beringer, this Chardonnay is bottled unfiltered and clocks in at a mere 11.72% abv. “[Sam] went down to San Francisco and worked in wine shops,” Daniel told me when asked about the genesis of this white. “He worked at a place called Terroir, which is a natural wine shop. And it’s a very eclectic shop with a lot of European wines. And one of the things that happened there is he met Steve Mathiasson. Steve came in to taste some of his wines and they ended up becoming buddies.”
“We give the Chardonnay about at least a year and a half to two years of bottle age because we feel that it needs to integrate the acid and we need some of the secondary characters to come out.” And acids this Chard certainly has, in spades. Citric, with white peaches, lemongrass, and blossoms, it’s authentic, pure, and fresh, with a ton of verve. Practically electrifying, actually. Toasted yellow apples give way to an astonishingly long, elegant finish. It’s just astonishingly good, and astonishing that this is being made in Napa Valley. It’s a fantastic and unique expression, and probably a bit under-priced at the moment.
Daniel waxed poetic about the source vineyard for this red, which is “surrounded by Opus One vineyards to the north and south. It is it’s the best terroir I’ve ever worked with outside of Petrus. It’s just mind blowing. When I go to the vineyard, I just want to lie on my back and do dirt angels. I don’t know why. The soil is just so lively. You walk through the vineyard and you can feel it just kind of flexing under your feet. I feel humbled by this wine. It’s like when your kid hits a home run and you realize, that’s not me, that’s them. It’s some of the best fruit I’ve ever worked with, so I’m super excited about it. “
“Do you know who Chris Thieley is? The mandolinist?” Daniel asked me, introducing a story that informed his outlook on the Cab: “[He] was visiting, and I handed him my ’24 Gibson [mandolin], which will be 100 years old next year. And he started playing a Bach partita on it, and I said, ‘Chris, I didn’t know that instrument had those notes.’ ‘Dan, you’re playing it too hard. When you have a beautiful instrument like this, you need to listen to it and you need to let it do the work. You don’t need to work so hard.’ And when you have beautiful terroir, why not let it do the work?”
Whatever work this vineyard is doing, it’s, well, working. Red an black currant fruit flavors follow what seems like an effortless palate entry. Everything on the nose and in the mouth is incredibly authentic and pure here, with gorgeous dried herb spices, bramble, earth, and violets. It’s boldly fresh, and long, long loooong. The structure is downright heavenly. Just… wow.