Tom Hyland, Forbes
January 22, 2019
Spottswoode—Unparalleled Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

Originally published on

Essentially, the esteem and renown of Napa Valley can be traced to one wine—Cabernet Sauvignon. Yes, there are several other wines, be it Chardonnay, Merlot or Pinot Noir, that are also notably produced in this world-famous wine district, but Cabernet Sauvignon is not only the most widely planted variety in the area, it’s also its most celebrated, with its finest versions being ranked among the world’s greatest wines.

At the top of the quality pyramid, a few Napa Valley estates are regularly judged as among the elite. Without question, Spottswoode Estate in Saint Helena, is one of those producers. Their 2015 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon has recently been released; given that, I wanted to write about this winery and its people, as well as note the brilliance of their latest wine.

Spottswoode is situated at the end of a small road on the western edges of Saint Helena, about halfway up the valley. There is a charming pre-Prohibition Victorian house that is a welcoming sight at this property that was established in 1882. Adjacent to the house is the vineyard that is the source for the winery’s Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. This is a tranquil spot in Napa Valley, one rarely seen by those traversing the main thoroughfares of this area.

Jack and Mary Novak acquired Spottswoode in 1972 and released their initial estate Cabernet Sauvignon from the 1982 vintage. Mary was the winery’s driving force for many years after her husband passed away, and today, daughters Beth and Lindy manage the property, maintaining the vision of their mother, who died in 2016.

Today, more than 30 vintages of Spottswoode Estate Cabernet Sauvignon have been produced, and the elegant style of this wine has, for all purposes, remained remarkably consistent. It’s not difficult to produce a deeply concentrated Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa Valley, so the challenge is to craft a wine of elegance and finesse, one that has the structure for long aging—say 20 or more years—but one that has approachability upon release. That’s my take on this great wine over the years, but what does current winemaker and vineyard manager Aron Weinkauf think?

“We strive to make wines that are of a time (vintage) and a place (our Estate Vineyard), that show the variability and vintage character of each unique growing season,” remarks Weinkauf, who is assisted in his winemaking duties by James Revie. “We make wines that show great energy, persistence, and longevity. We picture them as one would a yogi master—strong, enduring and balanced. This is in contrast to the overbuilt, muscular bodybuilder.”

“As both growers and winemakers, we strive for wines that are elegant while showing great concentration, and are balanced, expressive and cerebral.”

The 2015 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon is the newest release from Spottswoode, and as that growing season was beneficial, there has been a lot of excitement about the wines from that year, and boy, has Spottswoode ever delivered! “2015 was a warm year that evolved during the peak of our most recent extended drought period,” Weinkauf comments. “Because of this, the 2015 is rich and concentrated from low natural yields. The 2015 was a vintage marked by a season of more extremes, and I think that carries through to the wine’s character. It is tannic, a hint more rustic, and dynamic and savory, fruitiness tamed by the savory side of the fruit.” The winemaker compares the 2015 with the 2013, which in his words “is as tannic, but more closed,” while the 2014 “is broad, long and rich…a vintage of more moderation.”

The 2015 is a stunning wine that combines perfect ripeness, superb varietal character and excellent depth of fruit with silky tannins, very good acidity, magnificent harmony and marvelous finesse. This is a stellar wine, and having tasted many lovely examples of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon over the past four decades, I can safely say that the 2015 Spottswoode Estate Cabernet Sauvignon may soon be compared to a few legendary Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons from the past, such as the 1970 Robert Mondavi Reserve or the 1974 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard.

I asked Lindy and Beth Novak about the most satisfying things about the 30-plus year journey at Spottswoode, and they immediately thought of their mother. “To have had the opportunity to work with our mom in shaping Spottswoode has been an immense honor,” the daughters commented. “She was so strong in keeping Spottswoode after our dad died unexpectedly five years after we moved here, and in determining to make wine from our Estate five years later, in 1982. To be a part of this, and to now be carrying our family business forward as the second generation, with the ambition to give the next generation the same opportunity, is incredible.

“By pure serendipity and luck, we are the stewards of an amazing, historic winegrowing estate in Napa Valley, which we intend to be a multi-generational family business. We consider ourselves very fortunate.”

Clearly, the Novak sisters deeply loved their mother. What are the best things they learned from her over the years? “We learned about humility and hard work, about authenticity and being honest and true to ourselves, and about the importance of maintaining a sense of humor and perspective. Our mom was very strong, yet it was an internal strength—which is to say that one always knew where she stood and what she wanted, but she presented her feelings in a thoughtful way.”

“We also learned to be realistic, as exemplified by the estate planning she undertook for well over a decade so as to give our family winegrowing business the greatest opportunity for continuation beyond her lifetime. She was an amazing human being who set a great example and lived by what she believed. We are lucky to have had such a grounded, pragmatic mom.”

Tasting Notes

2015 Spottswoode Estate Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley)

A blend of 90% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Cabernet Franc and 3% Petit Verdot. Bright purple, aromas of black plum, black currant, mint and wood notes. Medium-full with excellent concentration with a rich, layered mid-palate, good acidity and sleek, silky tannins, this is a ripe and very stylish Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon that shines! Excellent persistence and great fruit definition in the finish, along with a suppleness and harmony that is ethereal. This is a great wine that will drink well for another 20-30 years; even better is the fact that the wine is so approachable and delicious right now. In a word, brilliant!