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The Spottswoode Story
By Robert Whitley
Sep 24, 2019
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On a recent tour of Southern California with longtime winemaker Aron Weinkauf in tow, Spottswoode's Beth Novak Milliken presented another stunning vintage of Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon. The 2016 Spottswoode Cab is much like every Spottswoode Cabernet that came before it — a Napa Valley classic that seems to defy vintage variation.

The late Jack and Mary Novak had no idea, of course, that they had settled upon one of America's greatest vineyard sites when they purchased the historic property in St. Helena in 1972. Their goal at the time was to move their five children from the San Diego area to a more rural setting. And given the property's history — the first wine grapes had been planted in 1882 — they became winegrowers, selling their cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc to iconic wineries such as Robert Mondavi, Caymus, Heitz and Duckhorn.

After Jack's tragic death in 1977, Mary (who passed in 2016) soldiered on. She went on to become one of the most important vintners in the Napa Valley, after close friends Dan Duckhorn and John Shafer convinced her the Spottswoode vineyard was so spectacular it deserved its own winery. Mary hired the brilliant young winemaker Tony Soter to do just that in 1982, and the rest is history.

The Spottswoode vineyard spans 37 acres along Napa Valley benchland, an alluvial fan that juts out toward the valley floor from the base of the Mayacamas Mountains on the western side of the valley. The well-draining alluvial soils are similar to those found in nearby To Kalon, Bella Oaks and Martha's vineyards and the iconic Dominus and Inglenook estates.

It is prime Napa Valley vineyard land and the backbone of the greatest cabernet sauvignon-based wines produced in the New World. If Spottswoode were suddenly dropped onto the Left Bank of Bordeaux, it would rate a First Growth classification on a par with Chateaux Margaux, Mouton or Lafite.

Over the years, I have awarded two vintages (2004 and 2012) a perfect score of 100 points, and I've never failed to rate any Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon with at least 95 points. The purity, structure, balance and remarkable complexity of Spottswoode cabernet make it one of the two or three most impressive red wines made in America. The fact that the vineyard can replicate those results regardless of growing conditions is nothing short of a miracle.

The 2016 vintage exhibits exceptional depth and is a beautiful wine in the here and now, but if it were in my cellar, I wouldn't even think about touching it for another eight to 10 years.

As if to emphasize the longevity of Spottswoode Cab, Milliken — who is president and CEO, having taken over from her mother — brought the 2008 vintage along with the 2016. At 11 years of age, the color was brilliant and the fruit very much alive. The 2016 Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon retails for a hefty $225 these days, making it something of a steal in the global order of wine.

First Growth Bordeaux fetches between $800 and $1,000 a bottle, and a grand cru Burgundy will run several hundred dollars to as much as $1,000.

And all of that makes Spottswoode's second wine, Lyndenhurst, seem modest at $85. The 2016 Lyndenhurst Cabernet Sauvignon is sourced from Napa Valley vineyards and made by Weinkauf at Spottswoode. The Lyndenhust has had a meteoric rise in recent years, moving from what Weinkauf calls "declassified" Spottswoode grapes in its initial vintages to "a Napa Valley blend" today.

While most of Spottswoode's 37 acres under vine is dedicated to cabernet sauvignon, with a touch of cabernet franc and petit verdot for the main blend, there is a small plot — a little more than acre — of estate sauvignon blanc. The sauvignon made from "Mary's Block" is sold only through the Spottswoode wine club.

"Sauvignon blanc was my mother's favorite wine," said Milliken. "She wanted Spottswoode to always have an estate sauvignon blanc."

That became especially important to Mary several years ago when the decision was made to rip out most of the existing sauvignon blanc and replace it with cabernet sauvignon, which can be sold for a far greater price.

Never fear, sauvignon lovers; Spottswoode still produces a sauvignon that is widely distributed, but the grapes are purchased from throughout the North Coast. Much like the Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon, the Spottswoode Sauvignon Blanc is one of the finest made in America. That just seems to be the Spottswoode story.

Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru.