End of January, Nina and I spent a week in California. I’ll readily admit it was a nice break from the Michigan winter. We’d both never been to either Napa or Sonoma, so we decided it was time. Me being the complete newbie to wines from that region, I relied on friends and fellow bloggers to give me some direction on which wines to try. We decided to limit it to four wineries, two in Napa and two in Sonoma. We only had the weekend, and we have by now learned that tastings usually take a while and there is nothing worse than rushing away from a tasting to make the next on time.
The first thing that struck me visiting the two regions is really how much they look like other wine regions: a long, winding road in a center of a valley, with hills rising, sometimes steeper, sometimes gentler, but always surrounded by vines. There really is nothing like it, and I was not prepared for how much at home I felt immediately. And the light and slight warmth certainly helped.
Ladera Vineyards was suggested by Anatoli of Talk-a-vino. He insisted one had to try their wines, and he helped us in setting up a tasting there. The first thing I had to do was google the winery (I know, shame on me). So what did I learn? Ladera is located on Howell Mountain, one of the top spots in Napa, and its roots go back to 1886, when the first winery building was erected in that same spot it now is, with vineyards dating back to 1877 (not the vines, mind you). The winery building is still standing in all its glory, but has been completely modernized inside and a large cellar has been constructed underneath. Ladera has been owned by its current owners Pat and Anne Stotesbery since 2000 and has built an impressive reputation for Cabernet Sauvignon.
So on Sunday, around noon, we curved our way up the valley onto Howell Mountain, pretty steep at times, and then finally turned into the property of Ladera Vineyards. From the website, Nina and I were not prepared what was awaiting us at the winery. The place is an absolutely breathtaking stunner: The old winery building with its gorgeous sandstone facade, the sky was of a deep, satisfying blue, and the vineyards are gently sloping around it. It was just a wonderful piece of quiet and calm, way above the fray that can be Napa. We were really speechless for a bit. I mean, look at this:
Ladera Winery Building (and yes, that is Nina sitting in the sun)
Everything was just so peaceful, you almost wanted to speak in a hush not disturb it. The tasting room manager during our visit, Julie, was friendly and knowledgeable and was happy to share with us the story and wines of Ladera. And we were ready to have both shared with us.
Get what I mean about the sky?
We started with a 2013 Ladera Sauvignon blanc, from what I can tell the winery’s only white wine ($30). And it was a great start: The nose was full and lush, with kiwi and gooseberry aromas, some flint, slight green pepper and bitter almonds, as well as beautiful hints of cassis (yes, I am a white wine person). It was bone dry, crisp and fresh, and oh so flavorful: grapefruit and other citrus in the forefront, cassis and blackberry, but also nicely creamy and almost doughy (in a good sense – it spent 7 months on lees!). I loved the balance of it, it was the right opening for a sunny day. I could drink that any time.
On we went to the 2010 Ladera High Plateau, a mix of 98% Cabernet Sauvignon and 2% Petit Verdot ($65). The wine poured in a dark ruby red, and the nose was amazingly powerful, with what felt like many layers of blackberry, plums, cacao, and, to my surprise, what I can only describe as watermelon. I guess a hint of sweetness combined with freshness. Definitely unexpected. The wine was dry with medium tannins and body, and nicely crisp acidity. On the palate it was aromatic, with sage and brush (Julie mentioned later the vineyard is surrounded by evergreens), raspberry, mocha and bitter chocolate with a long finish. Count me as impressed: This was a Cabernet Sauvignon that made me understand why people can love that grape, which I am often ambivalent about: It had the right mix of fruit and spice, and presented itself very well.
In between, we took a tour of the facility and state of the art cellar, probably one of the most beautiful modern cellars I have ever visited. And they have a great tasting room down there as well. The press and fermenting tanks are modern and lots of steel, it was quite pretty. In general, wines are fermented in open top vats with a cold soak for two to three days.
Inside Ladera’s modern cellar
From there, we went to the 2011 Ladera Howell Mountain Reserve Cab, a just released 100% Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from the winery’s best lots in Howell Mountain ($85). It poured in a similar dark ruby that the 2010 High Plateau poured in, but the nose was a lot more powerful: plums, but then a bunch of green peppercorns, tobacco, and some smoke with definitely more prominent wood aromas in the nose. To my surprise, the palate was definitely more fruity than the nose gave away: There was a bunch of black berries and cassis, but paired with a certain rubberiness that can be expected in such a young wine of this intensity. What I loved most about this wine was its texture, which was just beautifully chewy. The acidity and the tannins were in good balance, and the wine showed a lot of promise, although I want to try it in five years when it has calmed down a bit (as most of you know, I like my reds with some age on them).
Finally, we got to try some of the 2011 Ladera Howell Mountain “S” Cabernet, another 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, but this one stemming from the one block in Howell Mountain with the oldest vines, and only the four best barrels of that. So just a teeny little amount available ($175). The wine poured in a very dark ruby, almost black. The nose was intriguing, but also a bit mystifying: some brush, some licorice, some red berries, but also a bit musty at this stage. On the palate, you could tell this is way too young right now, but it provided a nice little window into its development: It felt a bit all over the place and very intense right now. What I liked about it was its fruit and acidity with powerful tannins that need settling down. But that’s a great structure for development. The finish was great: dark chocolate for days with no end in sight. Want to try this again in seven to ten years.
For me, this visit has the potential of being transformative. I never quite got why people could be so obsessed with Cabernet Sauvignon, which to me is often just powerful with no finesse. Ladera showed me that there is a different route for that grape, and it’s definitely worth exploring more. Needless to say, Nina knew that all along and had a great time as well. So, thanks to Ladera and thanks to Anatoli for opening my mind!
And thanks to the sun, for making these wines possible and that day gorgeous. I paid it my respects: