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A New Take on Terroir
By Norm Roby
Jun 8, 2021
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“Terroir” in wine talk has been around for years but it is more often brought up today in discussions of French wines.  When it comes to California wines, it is only occasionally mentioned in the popular press probably because it seems so obviously pretentious and ultra-geeky.  After all, it comes from the French phrase, ”gout de terroir,” and was always a bit too complicated to explain.  But I’m now seeing signs that several new, small wineries are going all out to make wines that are “terroir driven,” ones that capture a sense of place.

With so many new wineries trying to make a name for themselves in today’s crowded market, it seems reasonable for them to set their sights on making wines that stand out from the crowd by capturing what is best described as “terroir.”  At last count, according to the Napa Vintners Association, there are 475 wineries, 1,000 different brands and 700 growers—in Napa alone.  If you add the many private labels making Napa Cabernets from bulk wines, the number of brands soars much higher.  

When recently evaluating wines from La Pelle Winery, I learned that this new Napa winery was founded, “With a mission to create terroir-driven wines that are the ultimate expression of the sites from which the fruit is sourced.”  And, indeed, the La Pelle wines are quite distinctive.  The 2018 Reserve Napa Cabernet struck me as “classic Napa Cabernet,” rather than a winemaker tour de force or blockbuster.

Shannon O’Shaughnessy of newcomer Altimer wines, added a new voice to the possible trend when she was quoted saying, “It sounds cliché, but I want to make the best wines possible that are characteristic of their place and of the vintage.”  Another new Napa Valley winery, Ashes & Diamonds, has this as its motto: “Our winemaking philosophy is simple: quality farming and healthy cellar conditions allow for light-handed winemaking and transparency of terroir.”

The “light-handed winemaking” phrase was an attention getter, a new way of talking about terroir.  After all, terroir to the French is the sum of all the natural elements affecting that site, not just the soil and climate.  The high-tech stuff done in the cellar does not contribute or add to the gout.  All those cellar tricks like micro-oxidation, tannin management, acid adjustments, and lengthy macerations are heavy-handed or at least quite interventionist.

Founded in 2016, Ashes & Diamonds is the brainchild of Kashy Khaledi (42), son of Darioush Khaledi (owner of Darioush Winery), and he says his goal is the “old-school style of classic Napa Cabernet Sauvignon.”  To achieve that goal, he notes, “We certainly won’t manipulate the wines in the cellar.”

Now I’m really “stoked” or pumped or whatever cliche comes to mind.  “Classic, old school style and non-manipulative seems to be taking us back in time to, well, the pre-Parker era.  In fact Kashy mentions the winery’s focus is wines from the 60s and 70s, “like Mayacamas, Robert Mondavi, and Inglenook.”  That’s certainly before the 100-point system took over in the 1980s.  Kashy says he is not anti-Parker.  However, he adds: “The wines they made in the yesteryear, the ones that put Napa Valley on the map in the 70’s, are what we admire the most and the path we chose.”

Ashes & Diamonds first came to my attention in early 2020 when wineries were shutting their doors to visitors.  From the very beginning the winery staff went out of their way to personally deliver wines to members of the wine club through several drop-off places.  A little research revealed Kashy Khaledi was a multimedia and advertising executive at Capitol Records, Live Nation, and MTV before dropping all that to build a winery.

The Ashes & Diamonds name is based upon a Polish war film made in 1958.  Obviously, it made a lasting impression on him. The film was based on a poem by Cyprian Norwid, and several lines of the poem are printed on each cork. That’s correct, you can read the cork after sniffing!

So, no surprise that the winery and visitor’s center are not typical Napa.  In fact, they are the opposite of Darioush, which is a bit over-the-top.  The main building is a stark white rectangle with an odd, zig-zag roof and port-hole windows.  It seems to be trying to attract a young crowd by being open longer hours and by hiring a young chef who helped put Scribe Cellars on the millennial radar.

And there is some Instagram-like corniness in the winery’s motto: “Ashes & Diamonds Winery is a love letter to Napa as it was when it first took the world stage in the 1960s.”

But as good and fascinating as the narrative for Ashes & Diamonds may be, the ultimate success rides on the wines and how well they back up the philosophy.  There are two winemakers. Steve Matthiasson makes the Cabernet Francs. Diana Snowden Seyesses, who also works at Snowden and Domaine Dujac, makes the other wines, including those reviewed here.  Both know their way around Napa’s most intriguing, unusual vineyards but reached out to Santa Cruz for the 2017 Bates Ranch Vineyard Cabernet.

The winemakers seem to favor mountain vineyards, but Kashy explained the focus falls on vineyards that are dry-farmed, or minimally irrigated and wines that are restrained, relatively low in alcohol, with good acidity and pH.

Based upon the impressive 2017 wines tasted, it may be time to start talking about terroir in California Cabernets.  It is too early to say whether these wines represent a trend or not. But they are a refreshing change from the hedonistic, blockbuster, super-polished, ultra-ripe style that dominates the world of Cabernets and Bordeaux blends today.

Ashes & Diamonds, Mount Veeder - Napa Valley, Saffron Vineyard Mountain Cuvée #2, 2017 ($75):  From a high elevation, dry-farmed site planted in 2000, this wine consists of 55% Merlot, 20% Cabernet, and 25% Cab Franc.  After a cold-soaking and a native yeast fermentation, the wine was blended and aged for 19th months in French and American oak, 30% new.  Dark and youthful in appearance, the wine shows vibrant herbal and plum aromas with a touch of cocoa.  On the palate, it seems light and bright with refined delicate berry/fruit flavors, rounded by ultra-soft tannins. It has a delightful long finish.  The oak remains in the background but should come into play with cellaring.  Mount Veeder is one of Napa’s coolest sites for Bordeaux varieties.  Overall, a charming, refined wine reminiscent of a Margaux.  321 cases produced.  94

Ashes & Diamonds, Atlas Peak - Napa Valley, Mountain Peak Vineyard, Cabernet Sauvignon No. 2, 2017 ($125):  From a high altitude (1,400 feet) vineyard established in 2000, this 100% Cabernet Sauvignon was also fermented by native yeasts and aged in French Oak (30% new) for 19 months.  It is dark garnet in color.  With moderate alcohol, it charms from the outset with a delicate aromatic mélange of ripe berry, clove, black tea and subtle toasty oak.  Savory and seamless on the palate, its flavors are refined berry and spice with light gentle tannin rounding it out.  In a word: “beautiful.”  This has the balance and all the parts to reward cellaring.  95

Ashes & Diamonds Oak Knoll District - Napa Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Hen Vineyard #2, 2017 ($85):  From four distinct blocks of the Araujo-owned vineyard along the Napa Valley floor, this wine is 100% Cabernet.  It comes across as the most concentrated of the 2017s. The aromas gradually unfold to highlight a ripe cherry, earthy, briary side of Cabernet with a floral touch of floral and a hint of dried sage.  This is surprisingly vibrant and silky as the tannins create a round impression.  It was aged 19 months in French oak (35% new), but the oak remains in the background.  Needs a few years, but may be the longest-lived of the Cabernets tasted.  96

Ashes & Diamonds, Oakville - Napa Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon, Rancho Pequeno Vineyard, 2016 ($125):  From an Oakville vineyard along the Napa Valley floor also owned by the Araujo family, this is another 100% Cabernet aged for 20 months in French oak.  Initially, it is briary and shows an oaky side, but with time, raspberry and black cherry fruit notes poke through.  On the palate, it is medium bodied with plenty of ripe fruit and tannins coming through in the finish.  Unlike the 2017s, this one is straightforward Cabernet that is pleasing and well-made.  But it does not display the charm and subtle complexities that are on display in the 2017s.  Oh well, still enjoyable.  91           

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