In the fame-drenched Napa Valley, there is a tremendously important vineyard, growing Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, that is not famous at all. When you read the history of this vineyard, in the dramatic decades of the 60s, the 70s, the 80s, the 90s, right up to the modern day—what you find is a record of the most important changes that shook Napa Valley, pushed it into its modern superstar status. The vineyard of which I sing—Vine Hill Ranch—quietly, surreptitiously, played one of the most central roles of all in the rise of California’s most iconic wine region.
Bob and Alex Phillips began cultivating fine winegrapes here in 1959 and, with the founding of Phillips Family Farming. Photo: Margaret Pattillo
Pick a “famous” Napa wine from the 20th century. Let’s say the historic 1968 Beaulieu Vineyard Georges de Latour Private Reserve. A classic—made by the classic winemaker of the day, Russian-born André Tchelistcheff. What grapes did he choose to crush into this wine? Many of them were from Vine Hill Ranch, which sits in a beautiful southwestern corner of Oakville, rolling up over gentle hills into the east side of the Napa/Sonoma border (the Mayacamas Mountains). The elegant, almost European ’68 BV Georges de Latour made the kind of waves in the wine world that puts a wine region on the map….though it was not an era of “vineyard identification”…so it did nothing for the fame of the vineyard that grew the grapes.
Another historic wine from the 20th century? How about its opposite, in a way: the much richer, much chunkier 1997 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, Robert Mondavi…grown almost 30 years after the ’68 BV Georges de Latour? You guessed it: same vineyard source, Vine Hill Ranch. BUT…a very, very different wine.
In fact, from the 1950s, when Vine Hill Ranch was established…Napa Valley Cabernet has been on a roller-coaster, style-wise. Vine Hill Ranch has seen it all. Its flavorful fruit has been used by many Napa winemakers for many decades to craft wines that were “of the times”—elegant sometimes, but at other times more forward and boisterous. Following the history of wines made from Vine Hill fruit is a way of following the history of Napa: Cakebread, Chappellet, Etude, Duckhorn, Lail, Bond, Araujo, and, right up to today, the great group at Favia Erickson Winemakers (Andy Erickson was the famous winemaker who fermented Screaming Eagle into mind-blurring fame).
Most happily, once and for all, I hope…. Vine Hill Ranch, in 2008, decided to start using some of its own grapes to make its own wines, wines identifying “Vine Hill Ranch” on the label as the producer. And the establishment of the brand came right in the middle of one of Napa’s greatest stylistic eras (which is still going on): the era of the Modern Napa Wine, which is much less weighty, much more ethereal than the Napa wines of the 1980s-1990s. A perfect vineyard source (Vine Hill Ranch), found a perfect winemaker in 2008 (Francoise Peschon), to make elegant wines, through this day, that are the best possible expressions of Vine Hill fruit.
Vine Hill Ranch, in 2008, began using some of its own grapes to make its own wines, wines identifying “Vine Hill Ranch” on the label as the producer. Photo: Margaret Pattillo
Intriguingly, almost ten years later, they are still not so well-known.
The contemporary Vine Hill wines are like a memoir of another era. Back in 1956, when an architect from Point Reyes, California, named Bruce Kelham, decided to buy a large vineyard in Napa Valley, and to move north to Napa, and to become a grape-grower…Napa Cabernet had an almost Old World aesthetic going on. The wines were gentler, lower in alcohol, somewhat like the European reds that were their historical grandparents. Tchelistcheff’s ’68 BV Georges de Latour was such a wine.
But then…May 1976 happened. In Paris!
Some of California’s best Cabernet producers…in most cases, producers of rich wines…were asked to compete in Paris, in a blind tasting that set up French Cabernets (from Bordeaux, of course), and California Cabernets, for a duel. The judges were French. Staggeringly, the Californians came out with a first-place victory for the 1973 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon (from Napa Valley), as well as big honors for other 1970s Napa Cabs from Heitz, Clos du Val, and Chateau Montelena. You can only imagine the shock throughout the world--and the frenzy in California
Until the 1976 victory, the traditional, more restrained style was in full force in Napa. According to Dan Berger, wine columnist at the time for the L.A. Times, Cabernet-making was relatively buckled up before the Paris victory: “no excessive ripening (22 to 24 Brix was the standard), no excess alcohol (13.5% was considered too high), almost no new wood.”
But “the judgment of Paris” had its effect. The heads of California winemakers swelled, as did their wines. “If the richer, chunkier style of California Cabernet beat out the more elegant first-growth Bordeaux,” they wondered.....“shouldn't we go richer still?”
And they did. And they came in droves to do it, emboldened by California's great international victory. “The consumer,” Berger says, “was inundated in the 1980s by brand after brand of new Napa and Sonoma Cabernets.” Soon-to-be classics like the Shafer Hillside Select were inaugurated (first vintage: 1983), as well as lots of smaller-scale wines and wineries. And the use of new oak was rampant; sarcastic tasters at the time spoke of pulling splinters out of their palates.
Well, this was fine and dandy for Vine Hill Ranch; if the pickers harvested their grapes later in the season, the grapes provided superb material for this over-the-top kind of Napa Cabernet.
And the wines got bigger still before the pendulum started swinging back twenty years later. A famous writer contributed a lot to the fattening up. The consumer was overwhelmed by all this up-sizing activity—and needed a lodestar, a voice, to help select these new California Cabernets. Wine writer Robert Parker emerged—who put the final kibosh on the elegant California Cabernet tradition; Parker had a predilection for big, densely fruity, heavily extracted wines, with lots of tannin, alcohol and new oak. “We had in California,” Berger recalls, “the first indications that high scores could sell wines. And because high scores went to fat wines, that changed everything.”
The spectacular 1990 vintage itself sealed the deal. Pushed by this warm year, and by the growing knowledge that making wine that's bigger and bigger predictably leads to higher and higher scores, a new type of California Cabernet emerged: the expensive bottle (wineries were flirting with $100 per at this point, soon to rise), containing sweet-ish, ripe, concentrated wine, whose price was ostensibly justified by the 97, 98, 99-point scores the wines were receiving.
Throughout the 1990s, the push was towards Cabernets like these. “What became the norm,” Berger says, “were wines not for the dinner table, not for the cellar (because alcohol and pH were too high for aging).....but ‘walking-around wines,’ show-off wines, trophy wines.” This is the era in which the California cult wines became all the rage: Harlan, Screaming Eagle, Bryant Family Vineyard, Staglin, anything made by Helen or Larry Turley, with prices for a single young bottle rising absurdly close to $1000. “These were egocentric wines,” notes Bob Millman of Executive Wine Seminars, a prestigious tasting group in New York City, “centered around the egos of the proprietors, or the flying consultants flown in from across the globe to assist them.” The wines, according to Steve Tanzer, of the top wine publication Vinous, became “urban indoor sporting events.”
As if this weren’t enough basis for change, the ’80s had brought another startling development: the discovery of phylloxera in northern California's vineyards, the same root louse that had nearly wiped out the vineyards of Europe in the late 19th century. This horrific plague threatened the end of Napa Valley wine. Yes, Napa Valley was riding the Cabernet rocket--but the rocket was about to explode if something wasn't done about the vineyards.
Having no choice, many wineries pulled out their old, phylloxera-susceptible vines—as they did, in a major way, at Vine Hill Ranch—and planted new rootstock that was much more resistant to the disease. The changes wrought by this were unexpected--and enormous. The new vines produced massive amounts of sugar easily; it soon became apparent that you could have much more concentrated wine than ever before, with higher alcohol and a greater impression of sweetness. A lot of the newly re-planted vines came with new trellising systems.....bringing even more sunshine and ripening to the grapes. Plus....modern yeast strains that came into vogue at this time were better at converting sugar to alcohol.
“Intriguingly,” says Bruce Phillips, grandson of Bruce Kelham, and current co-owner of Vine Hill Ranch—“another trend was taking hold at the time of the post-phylloxera re-planting: the identification of vineyards on the labels.” Robert Mondavi, a long-time buyer of Vine Hill Ranch grapes, started identifying his wine made from Vine Hill grapes as Robert Mondavi Winery Vine Hill Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon.” Before the phylloxera epidemic, Phillips pointed out, “almost all vineyards were planted in a way to maximize volume. But at this time—the re-planting of quality producers started to emphasize individual plots.” This was an important new phenomenon in California that lasts to this day—mirroring the age-old practice of wine in, say, Burgundy, where the most prominent thing on the most expensive labels has always been the name of the vineyard, not the producer. Vineyard-identification in Napa accompanied the rise of richer, more expensive wines.
Bruce Phillips has been managing partner of Phillips Family Farming, LLC since 2003. Photo: Margaret Pattillo
So where can you go from there? Nowhere. 16% alcohol? No way. There WAS no way for these pumped-up, expensive, vineyard-identified wines to get any bigger in style.
So….they didn’t. Starting in the mid-2000s, after taking much international ribbing about “monster” wines…and just about at the time that Vine Hill Ranch was starting to make its own wine, in an elegant style…Napa Cabernet went on a diet.
“While heightened alcohols and fruit concentrations dominated the wines of the late 90’s and early part of this century,” says Bruce Phillips, “Napa inevitably moved towards grapes being harvested at balanced maturity…resulting in wines that are uniquely expressive of their individual vineyard sites and the subtle nuances informed by each individual growing season.”
Phillips made a great contribution to this trend. When a guy whose family has been growing grapes for fifty years starts making wine himself, people notice. Neighbors notice the kind of wine he’s making. And right from the VHR get-go, in 2008, Francoise Peschon has been making Napa wine in a decidedly French direction.
Easy question: where is Vine Hill Ranch wine going from here? To ever-greater quality, I suspect. Peschon, is still in place, at the height of her skills. Many of the blocks of Vine Hill Ranch that are used for the winery’s own wine are getting older—a good thing, in viticulture! And a very good thing, in this case! I had the opportunity recently to taste through barrel samples of the most recent vintage, the 2017. There were six samples, each from a different block of the 70-acre vineyard; each of the blocks had had its own planting date. Intriguingly, my two favorite barrel samples were from the two youngest blocks! One of these blocks was five years old, and one was six years old. They seemed much brighter, even deeper, than the blocks averaging around 20 years of age.
The Phillips family are part of a long line of independent growers who have farmed this land over the past century. Photo: Margaret Pattillo
This doesn’t necessarily mean that the younger vines are better vines; Peschon uses different barrel treatment for wines from blocks with different ages—typically choosing more new oak, and longer stays in oak, for wines from older blocks. But the careful tracking that she does—and constant experimenting—will inevitably lead to adjustments that improve the quality of the wine. When I asked her about her criteria in choosing barrels, she said “we look for barrels that enhance the quality of our vineyard, rather than make a statement.” Brava! Exactly what a winemaker in Napa Valley in 2000 might not have said!
I also had the chance to taste a range of recent vintages already in bottle. Brava again! I especially liked two: the 2010, a luscious wine, with pretty eucalyptus notes, and very little wood influence; and the 2015, a wine that’s becoming available in retail, elegant, with good acid, and with touches of vanilla and camphor in the very pretty nose. Complex, high-quality wines, the both of them.
These wines are not inexpensive, of course…like so many wines before them that came out of this very special vineyard. The 2015 has just appeared in California wine shops at around $200 a bottle. But if you compare that to other first-rate, better-known Napa Cabs—at Wally’s Wine and Spirits in Los Angeles, you can find yourself a nice 2015 Screaming Eagle for only $2500—I’d say $200 is quite a bargain.
Grapes in the same family since 1956, wines from the same winemaker since 2008—both of these things encourage me to break the piggy bank (it’s only a fracture, really!) for this enormously consistent wine from Vine Hill Ranch.
Since its inception, the wine [VHR, Vine Hill Ranch] has ranked among Napa’s top performers. Its limited 500-case production fosters its status as a well-kept secret, though competition for the bottles is increasingly fierce….
It’s hard to believe just how far Bruce and Heather Phillips have come in just a few years. Of course, the Phillips family has been supplying grapes to some of the Napa Valleys top wineries for decades, but that is not the same as making wine. Ever since their debut vintage 2008, the Phillipses have quietly but surely staked out a place for themselves among the top producers in Napa Valley. Vineyard guru Mike Wolf and Winemaker Françoise Peschon bring an extraordinary level of passion to Vine Hill Ranch that is evident in every detail.
Vine Hill Ranch currently produces just one wine, which is a blend of six separate blocks on the property. The 2013 harvest was a full three weeks ahead of 2012. Peschon opted to leave the wines on their lees as long as possible. The 2013s were racked in March, right after the malos finished. The five blocks of Cabernet Sauvignon in this tasting are all vivid and remarkably different. Block 6L, the single largest component, is drop-dead gorgeous. Petit Verdot has yet to be used in a final blend at Vine Hill Ranch, but the 2013 is beyond beautiful. The 2012, tasted just prior to bottling, could turn out to be one of the wines of the vintage. I also had a chance to re-visit the 2010 and 2011 from bottle. Both wines confirm their place among the best wines of their respective years. Readers who haven’t tasted Vine Hill Ranch owe it to themselves to do so. This is without question one of the most exciting properties in Napa Valley today.
Bruce Phillips on building the character of the vineyard: “Each generation in my family has had the opportunity to rule one block,” said Bruce of Block 3, “and this one is mine.” Planted in 2000, Block 3 is nearing maturity and just now coming into its own. “Over periods of time, blocks will come into time and decline [before the need for rejuvenation]…It takes time for a block to fall into character.” And while a block that is still in its adolescence has the potential to “wow you”, it can also be unpredictable, he added.
Releasing their second vintage – VHR 2009 – just this year, the Phillips family of Napa Valley has a history of vines that extends far beyond this time. With 70 acres planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, the family is a long time supplier of fruit to some of the most prominent winemakers in Napa. In our last post about VHR, we discussed the inaugural vintage at VHR, crafted at the hands of Francoise Peschon. When we most recently spoke with Bruce, the third generation behind the farm, he was happy to discuss the differences between the estate’s seven blocks, and their varying stages of development.
With the average life of a vineyard spanning 25-30 years, there comes a time when the vines must be uprooted and replanted. And because Napa Valley was forced to deal with the phylloxera infestation of the late 1980’s and 1990’s, two-thirds of its vineyards are now 20-27 years old. “Those plantings have been a driving force for putting Napa on the map,” said Bruce. “It’s really exciting, we’re moving into the next big phase in Napa. We’ll see a lot of replanting in the next 5-10 years, bringing forward new root stocks, clones, plantings and refacing of vineyards.” And, just as every bottle is a snapshot of selections from the “toolbox” or parcels at VHR, the estate itself is a picture of the best that Napa has to offer.
With seven blocks hosting a variety of Cabernet Sauvignon clones and rootstock, each limited release at VHR is an assemblage of fruit from the estate’s best vineyards. Aged nine- years-old at the time of harvest, the fruit from Block 3 was not included in the most recent vintage, which was in fact comprised of fruit from Blocks 4, 6 and 7.
Located near the Valley Floor, Blocks 2-4 are the estate’s “benchland” blocks that yield fruit that is red in character, and bright with soft and supple tannins. At 300-400 feet above sea level, these vines receive the moisture that comes downslope, which in turn informs the density of the plantings and the choice of selected clones. With 1,000-1,400 vines per acre, the “benchland” blocks can be twice as dense as those on the hillside. And while Blocks 1 and 6, which are located on the hills of the Maycamas Mountain Range, average 700-750 vines per acre, they produce grapes that bring structure to the wine with big tannins and notes of dark fruit, with nuances in between.
On the northern boundary, Block 7 is the smallest of the lots, at 5.72 acres. Located on the watershed of the Maycamas, this Block contains the highest mineral content. With roots that reach 10-15 feet deep, the soil here is rich with cobblestones, yielding fruit that is high in minerality.
As the estate’s oldest and most historic plot, Block 1 was originally planted to vines in 1873, and most recently replanted in 1990, post-phylloxera when, Bruce said, “my father brought the vineyard back.” Terraced just as the plot was back in 1873, Block 1 could have yielded another 40 years of fabulous wines, but it is currently out of commission. Now planted to a single clone and a single root stock, Block 1 is undergoing a transformation. Employing eight clones and rootstocks, VHR is redirecting the terracing from the contour of the hill that it now follows, to rows that travel up and down the hill. During the 1990’s the farming equipment was big and heavy, but now that technology has changed the rows can be more tightly spaced and in-line, which will yield better and more consistent fruit quality with optimal exposure. And while the Block is now lying fallow, the stakes and rootstocks will be in place next summer, and the grafts will be added the following spring in 2014.
“In designing a vineyard,” said Bruce, “you design for a moment in time, July to early August”, when the fruit starts to ripen. In a densely planted “benchland” block, VHR employs a variety of rootstocks and clones, with different canopy management. “If you do it right,” he added, “you arrive at veraison at the same time.”
Like the rest of Napa Valley, VHR will be looking to stagger their replantings over the next five to eight years, in a carefully orchestrated effort to maintain their song. “It will take a lot out of production, Napa Valley wide,” said Bruce. Yet one can be assured that just as the Phillips family ensures that each block of vines reaches veraison at the same time, they are also carefully conducting their seven blocks like members of a Big Band that never misses a vintage, note or beat.
The Stevens touted this place as “the hottest property in Napa Valley,” mostly because the Phillips family makes subtle, brilliant Cabernet—it speaks to the sophistication level of the buyers who appreciate their remarkable ($150) wines—but partly because the backstory is captivatingly unusual for a Napa cult wine. The Philips didn’t arrive in Oakville flush from some otherworld glamour occupation. They came from…right here on this property!
They’ve been farming it themselves—grandfather to father to son—for 50 years. It was just that up until now they’d been selling off the fruit to tony brands like Bond, Etude and Lail. The family made the decision to cherry pick about 5% from diverse sections of the vineyard and put the grapes under the care of A-List winemaker Francoise Peschon. Shrewd move: The refinement and sense of proportion in these reds should shame the last anti-California wine snob into extinction.
Proprietor Bruce Phillips and winemaker Françoise Peschon showed me samples from the four Cabernet Sauvignon blocks that will be used for the 2011. Quite simply, I was blown away by the purity of the wines. In 2011 the Vine Hill Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon will include a small percentage of Petit Verdot (that was grafted onto Merlot rootstock) for the first time. The sample I tasted was harmonious and complete.
It will be interesting to see what Petit Verdot brings to the wine. I also tasted the 2008 and 2009 from bottle. The 2008 is just starting to soften and show hints of complexity in its aromas and flavors, but the 2009 is an undeniably sexier wine. The 2009 needs another year or two to truly shine, but today it is living up to all the praise I bestowed upon it in our December issue. The 2010 combines elements of both the 2008 and 2009. It is yet another drop-dead gorgeous wine from Vine Hill Ranch.
Over the years I have been fortunate to taste many, many California Cabernets, and there have been many that are truly excellent, but it is rare (like not in the last 12 years) that one crosses my path where the only way I can describe it is ‘extraordinary’!
Vine Hill Ranch has just released its first ever estate Cabernet Sauvignon. The property is located in the southern corner of the Oakville appellation. Bob and Alex Phillips began cultivating fine winegrapes here in 1959 and with the founding of Phillips Family Farming. Vine Hill Ranch continues to produce exceptional fruit for a collection of premier Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon vintners. Their vineyard is divided into 7 blocks, and each is picked, vinified, and aged separately. The blocks are then selected and blended for the finished wine. The label indicates which blocks were used and gives their date of harvest, as well as other technical information. Only 300 cases were produced.
Extraordinary wines usually come with a hefty price, and this wine is no exception ($150 a bottle), but I compare the wine to other Napa Cabernets that sell for 2 to 3 times the price, and I like this one more! This is a world-class Napa Cabernet that is delicious now, but should be put in the cellar next to the great Bordeaux. If you are looking for that “extraordinary” gift this year, don’t overlook the 2008 Vine Hill Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon. Needless to say, supply is very limited!
On Friday morning, Bruce Phillips and Francoise Peschon, of VHR, or Vine Hill Ranch, in Oakville, Napa Valley, came by Studio TEW for a visit. Here to debut their inaugural vintage–the VHR Cabernet Sauvignon 2008–Bruce discussed the inspiration for the wine, along with the history and transformation of his family’s vineyards.
In the family for three generations, VHR has been farmed by Napa Valley growers since 1884. Originally planted with plums, pears, grapes, and walnuts, VHR turned vineyard when purchased by Bruce Kelham, Phillips’ maternal grandfather, in 1959. With 70 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon that run alongside the wooded hills of the Mayacamas Mountain Range, VHR consists of seven blocks, each with a unique terroir.
Initially following in his father’s (Bob Phillips) footsteps, Bruce sourced grapes to local vintners, who partnered with him in the field. In 1998, Michael Wolf joined the team as vineyard manager and in 2000, they started to explore the “winemaker’s toolbox”– one acre plots within the seven lots that could potentially be vinified separately and blended.
In 2004, says Bruce, “Mike Wolf and I had lunch with my father…” who was happy to be a grower. “…He said, ‘Why don’t you try to figure out how to do this?’” And with that, they got his father’s permission to vinify the grapes that they had been growing.
Joined in 2008 by Francoise Peschon, who’d studied at UC Davis, spent time in Bordeaux apprenticing at Chateau Haut-Brion, and served for 15 years as the winemaker at Arajuo Estate, VHR took a calculated gamble, deciding to make their first vintage in the economically tumultuous 2008. “2008 was a winemaker’s year,” says Bruce, “with small berries and a tight crop.”
To best express the attributes of each block, for the first vintage they decided to begin with four one-acre carveouts that would be fermented separately, “to weave a blend together,” says Francoise, “to make something unique…to make a wine without having to interfere too much…no filtering, no fining…it’s all about extraction and maceration…” and their use of native yeasts. And though all 70 acres support Cabernet Sauvignon, there’s diversity from within, says Francoise, through vine age and rootstock.
For the 2008 vintage, they vinified blocks 4, 6, and 7, which are listed on the label along with the harvest dates and yields. Inspired by old grower records, the labels are a tribute to the agricultural history of VHR. “The identity is tied to the old tax account documents that my father saved,” says Bruce. “He dropped on the table a dusty box, and in it were old tax records from the 1800’s. These documents are hand written…they’re beautiful…they document how many hogs and vines…the documents solidify the history before my family.”
As Bruce and Francoise spoke, we passed the bottle and tasted the wine, which is restrained, elegant, and balanced. With fresh berries on the nose, a touch of spice, and ranch animal notes that turn savory on the palate, the VHR shows beautiful acidity and mid-palate tannins that blend together beautifully with the wine’s herbaceousness. With elements of agability, the VHR is surprisingly approachable and drinking well now. With only 300 cases produced, our allotment is limited…and we certainly don’t expect that it will last.
In 2011, VHR was awarded the prestigious Napa Valley Grower of the Year Award, and we here at TEW certainly look forward to future vintages.
If you had asked me in January to tell you what I knew about Vine Hill Ranch, it would have been a fairly short answer: They are an established grower in Oakville who sells Cabernet Sauvignon grapes to Etude and Cakebread who produce vineyard designated wines from the property. That's about it. I couldn’t tell you exactly where it was, how big or who owned it. However, I certainly could tell you about the wine in the bottle.
For the most part, unless a grower also produces a wine from property they own it is fairly certain that the average wine consumer, or for that matter a wine writer would not have much reason to make a connection with them, at least directly. We would usually only experience what they do through the efforts of winemakers if the label includes vineyard designations such as Alder Springs, Monte Rosso, Larner, Stagecoach, Georges III, Martha’s, To-Kalon, Hyde, Hudson, Shea, Cohn, or Vine Hill Ranch. Generally the way we consider winemakers is the same way winemakers consider growers - The top names are who we want to work with, or in other words follow the winemaker and they take you to the dirt.
In February, I attended the Napa Valley Vintners Premiere Napa Valley, the winter barrel auction. It is to wine as Cannes is to film; everyone in town is either a distributor, broker, retailer, restauranteur, sommelier or writer. Over the past couple years an unofficial trade-only tasting happens the day before in the caves of a winery on Silverado Trail put on by broker, Kimberly Jones whose portfolio of wines is more like a gallery of carefully curated works. If you knew nothing about wine walking in you would leave three hours later having been exposed to wall to wall excellence. Because I expect nothing but the best when I attend, the event is always a pleasure and even more so when I meet a new producer.
People in the wine business are a collegial bunch, and we trade tips freely on what to try. Generally I pay attention when somebody tells me ‘you NEED to taste this or that!’ So after I heard several comments about newcomer, Vine Hill Ranch, I made my way to the table which happened to be mobbed by at least a dozen people. Two people were behind the table, I recognized one of them and only then did I understand what the fuss was about - It was the winemaker, Francoise Peschon who has only been associated with the best as long as I have known her; Araujo, where she started in 1993, and Drinkward-Peschon, her own project that was an overnight success, literally, during my time at Dean & Deluca. Instantly, I felt about 70% of what i needed to know was standing in front of me. If I follow her, I will know the rest. The man with her was Bruce Phillips, proprietor of Vine Hill Ranch. He was patiently answering questions posed by a man who to the rest of seemed to be conducting an impromptu interview. Francoise saw me and was able to get a quick pour in my glass and after a few minutes introduced me to Bruce for no more than just a quick handshake.
I got a chance to visit a little longer with both at the Oakville Grower’s Tasting in April. Both tasting opportunities so far indicated very high quality in the bottle. The more I learned about the project on paper convinced me that it needed to be on the short list of places I personally visit before the launch of purely domestic wine report. After a little planning around calendars, the three of us finally got together for a visit yesterday. Francoise suggested that I ‘bring my boots’ since a trip to a vineyard for the first time is more about understanding the different blocks before tasting the wine, which in the case of Vine Hill Ranch is their premiere release of 300 cases. I should point out they do not have a tasting room, nor are they open to the public.
We set out from the farmhouse on foot to transit the entire seven blocks of vines comprising seventy acres whose production, with the exception of a sliver of each retained by the grower, is contracted out to other wineries. Bruce’s family acquired the property in 1959 (through his grandfather) with the focus being toward grape-growing. The history of the property is documented in archival preserved pages of county farm records from as far back as 1884 and that link to to farming heritage is intrinsic in the message of the new winery— “Land is at the heart of the story”. Boundried by neighbors, Dominus Estate to the southeast and Harlan to the northwest, the western perimeter is forested slopes of the Mayacamas range. The well drained soils and eastern exposure along with a flexible, three wire canopy management system make this a textbook place to grow cabernet sauvignon. After completing the walk we returned to the farmhouse where Bruce shared the inspiration of the label and packaging with me. I look at a lot of labels and realize more than most that in most instances, the story is very short and the collateral material is fairly simple. In this case (literally) you get a sense of the history of the place—a cedar wood box with what looks to be brass nails affixing the lid hold three bottles of VHR, tissue-wrapped with a print of the 1884 farm record. What is very different and reminds of how things were done by hand in another era is the label (shown left) is designed like a farm tax ledger. It contains seven columns representing the distinctive blocks that are available and every year the label will display ‘hole punches’ indicating the blocks used along with the vine count, harvest dates and acreage.
To me there is a tremendous amount of appeal to the packaging, so carefully conceived and executed with a design and quality of finish that I imagine were consistent with 1884, and maybe even 1959.
The success of the premiere release is a given however there are no plans to dramatically increase production from the estate. "We have always been about growing fruit for others", said Phillips, “we intend that to continue for generations”.