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> On Time and Great Wine

By Beth Novak Milliken, Excerpt from the 2016 Newsletter

In last year’s newsletter we wrote about “somewhereness,” the idea that the finest wines are often inextricably linked to a specific and special place. As the stewards of the historic Spottswoode Estate, which we have been farming since 1972, the relationship between somewhereness and great wine has become an integral part of who we are. So has the relationship between time and greatness.

We seemingly live in an age of immediacy: immediate connectivity, immediate information, immediate fame, immediate opinions, and immediate gratification. As a counterpoint to today’s hurried pace, the culture of great wine has always prized patience, longevity, continuity, and the committed work of generations. Around the globe, the most revered wine estates almost always measure their histories in decades and generations, if not centuries. Sustained greatness is the product of passion, attention to detail and experience—it is an ongoing pursuit. It is earned. In turn, great bottles of wine are shaped by the wisdom gained through hard work, and by a constant striving to learn from the past and always do better.

With the release of our 32nd vintage of the Spottswoode Estate Cabernet, the idea of time (and its lessons) is on my mind. Back in 1972, when my parents moved our family from San Diego to Spottswoode, I was not yet a teenager. Though our childhood chores included suckering the vines and cleaning out irrigation emitters, I never really thought about a life in wine until I spent a year abroad studying in Europe. There, wine is a part of life, and the histories of the great wineries are intertwined with national identities and cultures. For someone growing up in the early days of the modern era of Napa Valley winemaking, I found the rich heritage of European culture and wineries inspiring. Though I certainly could not have articulated it at the time, it hinted at the idea that Napa Valley could be on the path toward something remarkable.

I have worked with my mother at Spottswoode for almost 30 years now. In this time, the youthful energy of my siblings and me running around the estate has been replaced by that of our collective children—they enjoy swimming, playing basketball, tennis, and running around on the lawn as much as we did! And, some have already started working in the vineyard. Spottswoode continues to be a wonderful gathering place for our family and friends. My mom still walks in the vineyard almost every day with her black lab, Riley, by her side—he is the sixth in a long line that have called Spottswoode home. In the cellar, our 34th vintage of Spottswoode Estate Cabernet has just begun its time in barrel. It is a remarkable thing to have a liquid measure of one’s work, with each bottle literally a time capsule, holding memories of each passing year. Though every growing season is unique, the vineyard and the wines that it yields are deep and defining constants.

We talk about being stewards of the vineyard, but the opposite is also true. The vineyard has looked after our family for 43 years, and as much as we have shaped it, it has shaped us just as much, if not more. Perhaps this reciprocity is one of the secrets of great wine, and why time matters so very much.

And of course it is impossible to speak about the relationship between time and wine without talking about age-worthiness. We believe, unequivocally, that the ability to age well is still a prerequisite of a great wine. This is not to say that great wines cannot be incredibly intriguing in their youth. Unlike in generations past, the best wines today all benefit from impeccable viticultural techniques and flawless winemaking. As a result they can and should taste wonderful in their youth. While these wines, when young, offer immense beauty and immediate pleasure, time will allow their various elements to evolve into something more transcendent.

Great wines, at any age, offer rewards to those who drink them. For many, the opulent generosity of a wine in its youth is greatly valued. Others prize the qualities they find in a wine throughout its life span, as it matures and evolves over time. Aging wine takes faith and patience, as even the finest Cabernets can go through awkward phases, normally found when straddling that line between the rambunctiousness of youth and the nuances that come with greater maturity. Beyond this stage, lovely layers of fruit and oak are still present, while a greater subtlety begins to develop. As new layers of complexity emerge, what was once fresh and exuberant becomes intriguing and beguiling.

Collectors know that experiencing a phenomenal, perfectly cellared wine at the plateau of its drinkability is something special (and not just because of the years of anticipation). Like seeing an old friend after many years, opening these bottles can remind us of where we came from and tie us to where we are now.

Here at Spottswoode, we assess our older vintages every year so as to gauge their evolution and share with our customers our sense of where each is in its development. To help us in this endeavor, we always include outside tasters—individuals whose palates we greatly admire. These tasters bring a new perspective to our wines, and help us from falling into the trap of having a “house palate.” In addition, tasting blind often brings wonderful surprises—it is very often true that those vintages that were not as enthusiastically received in their youth evolve into some of our most exciting and thought-provoking wines. While some of our older vintages have reached a plateau from which they might go no higher, it is a testament to the Spottswoode Estate Vineyard that none of our vintages are, as yet, “over the hill.”

Last, but most certainly not least, time is also a true measure of relationships. In the world of wine, and especially in this age of immediacy, we are honored and grateful to have so many friends who have been supporting us for years, if not decades. In many ways, we are in a golden age for Napa Valley wine, with greater across-the-board quality, and far more choices for wine enthusiasts than ever before. Given this, your loyalty, and the fact that so many of you have unbroken lines of our wines going back many vintages is an incredible compliment. It speaks to the trust you have in us, our vineyard, and our wines.

We often hear from our customers who are eager to share experiences they have had when they have opened a long-treasured bottle of Spottswoode on a special birthday, an anniversary, or a college graduation. They speak of marriage-year wines and birth-year wines, and how these Spottswoode wines have marked a meaningful moment and thereby become a memorable part of their lives.

In 1982, when we made our debut Spottswoode Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, there were many wine lovers and passionate collectors—people with a deep connection to wine, a profound appreciation for its nuance, beauty, and complexity, and a reverence for its ability to evolve over time to attain something close to timelessness. These were the people we were making wines for back then, and they still are today.

On behalf of my mother, Mary, my sisters, Lindy and Kelley, my brothers, Mike and Matt, our entire family, and all of us here at Spottswoode, thank you for your friendship and trust, for welcoming our wines into your home, and for continuing to make them a special part of your lives.