The origins of my wine appreciation are firmly rooted in France, from the first glass I ever remember drinking (a Pierre Sparr Riesling Schoenbourg Grand Cru) while I was a student in Strasbourg, to the countless wines I was “forced” to consume as a cycling tour guide, riding through the country’s storied wine regions.
Initially, American wine was a complete mystery to me, until I started teaching in Marin County, just north of San Francisco and just south of Napa and Sonoma Counties. At some point during those four brief years in the Golden State, I headed north on the 101, veered east onto Sears Point Road, then Route 121, and eventually to Route 29 on my first trip to Napa Valley.
For the remainder of my time in the Bay Area, the most famous of American Viticultural Areas became my sole focus, and I came to know the Valley fairly well. Like any wine neophyte, I belonged to a few wine clubs (Cosentino, Trefethen, Van der Heyden, and Mumm Napa) and I would be sure to visit those wineries (free tasting!) on each trip.
I gradually expanded my repertoire to include some of the more famous wineries that the Valley offers (although, I still have yet to set foot in Mondavi), and eventually considered myself a self-declared “expert” in all things Napa.
I would eventually move back to the East Coast, following my future wife as she pursued her career in pediatrics. We would spend the better part of the next two decades in the City of Mild-to-Severe-Brotherly Discontent, but since my wife’s parents then lived in the East Bay, we would still visit California at least twice a year. Being the dutiful son-in-law that I am, I would deliver my wife (and then later my sons) to her parents moments before navigating both north and west to Napa Valley.
Relatively early in my married life, however, my focus switched from Napa to the lesser acclaimed Valley to the West: Sonoma. The two main reasons for the switch? I prefer Pinot and Chardonnay to Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc and Napa had become increasingly more expensive (and more than a bit more pretentious).
Thus, for at least ten years or so, I did not really spend more than a fleeting moment in Napa, essentially neglecting it entirely. Starting early in 2016, though, I was lured back by a couple of invites: Cain Vineyard and Winery and Ehlers Estate, both of which caused me to reevaluate my stance on the region.
This past spring I was once again lured to Napa, this time by the wonderful people at Charles Communications Associates, who arranged three visits for me. The first was at Hourglass Vineyard, which has technically been around for 40 years, but has only relatively recently come into prominence.
I had never met Jeff Smith, one of the proprietors of Hourglass, prior to that April encounter, but there is no doubt that he had travelled my same route up to Napa Valley countless times. Born and raised in the Valley, Jeff ventured south to San Francisco with dreams of becoming a rock star while his father and mother toiled on their property, yielding fantastic Zinfandel for the better part of two decades.
When Jeff’s father succumbed to cancer (followed shortly by the vineyards being essentially eradicated by phylloxera), Jeff felt the call of familial obligation, left his rock star days behind, and drove north: back up the 101, then Sears Point Road, eventually reaching the Hourglass Estate in Calistoga, north of Napa. He took the reins of the family estate and replanted the phylloxera infected vines with Cabernet Sauvignon, thus starting anew the ascendance of the vineyard and, eventually, the brand.
A decade and a half later, Jeff and some investors purchased the Blue Line Vineyard, which would become the eventual site of the modern winery and, along with the original Hourglass Vineyard, the basis for the continued success and fame of the Hourglass wines.
On a bright March afternoon, I joined Jeff, winemaker Tony Biagi (of, most notably, Plumpjack fame), and the lovely Kimberly Charles of the aforementioned Charles Communications, as we ventured into the cellar for a tasting.
Before expounding on the tasting itself, it is worthy to note that the winery and cellar balance on the traditional/modern teeter in such a way that neither holds sway: both are equally represented, and the facility is impressive. Not in an ostentatious or overblown way (think of many of the newer wineries that have popped up along Highway 29 in the last decade or so), but in a tasteful, thoughtful manner, embracing both form and function.
The tasting, like most of my experience at Hourglass, was informal and without pretention (which I thought was outlawed in Napa, but I digress). Tony started with a brief description of the two vintages: 2015 was rich and opulent while 2016 was more reserved.
He also shared some other views on winemaking:
- Tony tries to do everything (e.g., blending) before fermentation, since it is such a violent activity.
- He would rather sacrifice aromatics for texture, which can result with many wines being rather closed initially—he feels mouthfeel is far more important.
- While there are clones with every grape variety, usually they are only mentioned when talking about Pinot. Why? Well, according to Tony “Pinot people are dorks….Really Burgundy is baseball cards for adults.”
- There are several different Cabernet clones planted at Hourglass, mostly Clones 2, 4 and See Clone (named as such since it was originally planted by Harry See of See’s Candies at what would eventually become Silverado Vineyards).
As for the wines? All were stellar….
2015 HGIII Red Blend, Napa Valley: “Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Italian Mixed Blacks.” An outgrowth of Tony’s blending philosophy. Some of the juice that does not make it into the other wines. Bright cherry and raspberry covered in mocha. Fruity on the palate with slight grip on the back-end. Outstanding. 90-92 Points.
2015 Hourglass Blueline Estate Merlot: 81% Merlot, 13% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Petit Verdot, 2% Malbec, 1% Cabernet Franc. Much bigger and more muscular than your “typical” Merlot, but still plenty of bright fruit. Needs time, but look out. Outstanding. 91-93 Points.
2015 Hourglass Blueline Estate Malbec: 100% Malbec. 100% new French oak for 17 months. Jeff, perhaps channeling his inner rock star, called this a “Panty remover.” Deep blue fruit with imami. The weight of the wine is evident but not the tannins, since, as Tony put it, “the tannins have bonded to the color.” Outstanding. 90-92 Points.
2015 Hourglass Blueline Estate Cabernet Franc: 88% Cab Franc, 12% Cabernet Sauvignon. Dark red fruit and tobacco. Whoa. Double whoa. Maybe even a triple whoa. Creamy and unctuous, this goes on forever. Outstanding Plus. 94-96 Points.
2016 Hourglass Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley: Retail $40. Bright and tart, wonderfully balanced. One of the best Napa SB that I have had. Outstanding. 92-94 Points.
As I left the winery, heading off to another appointment with Kimberly, I wished that I could have spent more time with Tony and Jeff as I saw a little of myself in each of them. Jeff was bombastic and joyous, with a deep hearty laugh while Tony was engaging, yet introspective, with his mind no doubt running at full capacity.
As I climbed back into my rental car, I had a bit of an odd feeling: Had more wineries had a similar approach to Hourglass, I perhaps would never have felt the urge to venture Westward to Sonoma.