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Napa Valley Pioneer Cuvaison Looking Good at 50
By Robert Whitley
Jul 3, 2018
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The Napa Valley Winery Cuvaison would appear to be a model of continuity in a business that is constantly shifting and evolving.

Cuvaison is coming up on its 50th anniversary, which makes it one of the earliest pioneers in the modern era of California wine. Founded in 1969, Cuvaison long ago made its mark as a purveyor of fine Napa Valley Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. It was purchased in 1979 by the Schmidheiny family of Switzerland and has been in the same hands ever since. Winemaker Steve Rogstad has been in the job for the past 16 years.

But it turns out there’s a whole lot of shaking going on at Cuvaison.

Over a recent lunch I innocently asked Rogstad and Cuvaison GM Dan Zepponi, "what’s new?"

Well, for one thing, Zepponi is relatively new. A longtime operations manager for Treasury Wine Estates, primarily overseeing winemaking and viticulture for Treasury operations in California’s Central Coast, Zepponi only joined Cuvaison in 2016. But he arrived with deep Napa Valley roots. Dan’s father, Gino Zepponi, co-founded the iconic ZD winery the same year Cuvaison opened its doors for the first time.

Right off the bat Rogstad put a 2017 Rosé of Pinot Noir ($20) in front of me. Yes, Cuvaison was now on the rosé bandwagon. It’s a beautiful dry rosé produced from grapes grown specifically for rose. This makes a huge difference in terms of freshness and crispness. The other method used to produce rose, called “saignee,” involves bleeding off a portion of the pressed juice for red-wine production. Saignee rose is typically not as delicate or subtle and generally is darker in color. Both methods make nice wines, but I prefer rose made from grapes grown for that purpose.

But it hardly stopped there.

“We’re making a lot of changes to take Cuvaison to a higher level,” said Zepponi. “We’re replanting 35 acres of Pinot Noir. We want that purity of site. The owners have said to me, ‘Let the land tell the best story that it can.’”

All of the Cuvaison wines are made from estate-grown grapes on its 400-plus-acre property in the Carneros district of the Napa Valley. The region, hard by the San Pablo Bay, is conducive to cool-climate grapes such as chardonnay, pinot noir and merlot. Even Sauvignon Blanc. Cuvaison will have about 225 acres under vine once the Pinot Noir replanting is complete.

A portion of what Cuvaison grows is sold off to other wineries.

With all that vineyard land, I wondered, Cuvaison must have some unique vineyard blocks that merit special attention. As if Rogstad had been reading my mind, he placed a bottle of Pinot in front of me. It was the 2016 Pinot Noir Mariafeld ($46).

Mariafeld is an old Pinot Noir clone that was planted by the previous winemaker, John Thacher. Cuvaison is now making this single block separately.

“It’s just one block,” said Rogstad. “It develops great color and tannin in a cool climate. It’s unique. It has a lot of perfume and dark fruit flavors.”

My tasting notes reflect all of that, plus a seductive spice note. I also noted that the price seemed to me to be well below other Pinot Noirs of this stature and scarcity, given that only a few hundred cases are produced.

Wonder followed wonder. The “special” Chardonnay the Cuvaison boys brought to the table was their 2016 Chardonnay Coeurtina ($60). The name is a play on the well-drained Cortina soil that runs through the heart (Coeur) of some of the winery’s chardonnay vineyard blocks.

This wine is pure magic, and one of the finest chardonnays made in California. The “magic” is that rare combination of richness and freshness that is easy to love but difficult to find. Beautifully structured, layered, complex and spicy, this is that unique California Chardonnay that will continue to improve with age if cellared properly (meaning a dark, cool spot in the house).

Of course, for those who have less appetite for adventure and intrigue, there is always the Cuvaison of old.

“The retail focus remains on our (basic) Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon blanc,” Zepponi noted. “It is easy to tell the story of a winery that is that narrowly focused.”

Indeed, but it leaves so much unsaid. Rest assured, Cuvaison is hardly resting on its hard-earned laurels.

Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru.