Bruce and Heather Phillips of Napa Valley’s Vine Hill Ranch recently visited London with a strong sense of purpose.
“We’re on a quest to show Napa Valley as it is now,” Bruce explained. “We want collectors to see how things have changed since the 1990s.” Even among producers who used to make large, extracted kinds of wine, there has been a shift… Newcomers to the market first sought easy-to-appreciate wines, but that is changing. From huge Meritage blends to delicate single-vineyard expressions, we’ve come a long way.”
The notion of exporting their wines was planted during visits to China in 2017 and 2019. “We saw a lot of low-grade, high-volume wines being promoted as high quality,” Bruce remarked. “We were disappointed that Napa Valley wasn’t putting on its best front.” So, confident in the great quality of their own Napa Valley Cabernets, a belief shared by me and their meticulous new UK importers, Justerini & Brooks, they began sending a few cases to the United Kingdom, which they characterize as “the most competitive market in the world: ground zero.”
“There was a boom of new brands [in Napa Valley] in the 1990s,” Bruce said, “many of them created by people who didn’t have a lot of experience.” “However, the most well-known estate programs are currently reducing the amount of wine they produce. There’s also what’s known as the ‘locavore movement.’” “Farm to table,” Heather added.
Authenticity and traceability are unquestionably hallmarks of the twenty-first century. With them has come a significant increase in vineyard-designated wines around the world.
This is where Vine Hill Ranch enters the picture. The place is so revered in the foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains, on the cooler, east-facing side of the valley, in the southern reaches of Oakville, that its name appears on many prestigious Napa Valley labels. The Phillipses consider themselves to be grape farmers rather than winemakers. They sell between 85 and 90 percent of their grapes to only 13 vintners, and they have only been making their own wine since 2008, dubbed VHR, Vine Hill Ranch, to distinguish it from other producers’ vineyard-designated bottlings of their fruit.
In terms of modern Napa Valley wine, Bruce’s maternal grandfather constructed the house on the ranch in 1956, which is prehistory. Bruce’s banker father Bob, on the other hand, came to Oakville in 1978 and secured the estate’s status as a top Cabernet Sauvignon producer.
Vine Hill Ranch’s Cabernet grapes had only one customer in the 1960s and 1970s: renowned oenologist André Tchelistcheff, who utilized them to create Beaulieu Vineyard’s iconic Georges de Latour bottling. Robert Mondavi was inspired by this wine to open his Oakville winery in 1966, kicking off Napa Valley’s boom. Bob made the foresightful decision to focus on Cabernet Sauvignon in the mid-1980s, which was unique at the time. This was during a period when white wine in general, and Chardonnay in particular, was all the rage; Chardonnay grapes were more expensive than Cabernet grapes.
By this time, it was obvious that the most prevalent vine rootstock at the time, AxR1, was not resistant to the lethal phylloxera louse. Three-quarters of the vines at Vine Hill Ranch died and had to be replaced. Bob was foresighted enough to replant the entire vineyard with Cabernet Sauvignon. His brother was skeptical; he was more concerned in selling a variety of grape types that met market demands. As a result, the property was eventually divided in half.
Bob was left with 70 acres of vines, which he was determined to make the best of. “My father was quite skilled at identifying the proper experts,” his son says. In the late 1980s, he brought in Tony Soter as a consultant, which was his crowning achievement. Tony had his feet in all of Napa’s finest Cabernet vineyards.”
In addition, dirt pits were dug across the land, and the vineyard was separated into 12 heterogeneous blocks, which was rare for the period, which was long before precision viticulture became a thing. [Bob’s] “goal as a planter was to optimize all these diverse different expressions, with their varied soils, rootstocks, orientations, and so on, in order to earn the maximum price for his grapes,” according to Bruce. “People don’t frequently talk about growers and prices, but we’re all highly competitive,” he continued intriguingly.
Bill Harlan of the prestigious Harlan Estate had been buying Vine Hill Ranch grapes since 1992, indicating their greatness. Since 1999, designated areas of Vine Hill Ranch’s blocks 1 and 6 have been the exclusive source of Vecina, a pillar of Harlan’s BOND range of single-estate wines. “I see Vecina as the wise elder,” Harlan winemaker Cory Empting told me via email. It exudes a stern resolve that is both forceful and soothing. The capacity of these vines to anticipate and synergize the whims of the natural world without drama never ceases to surprise me. (Examples include 2011, which ripened despite the odds, and 2017, which ripened earlier than ever before, allowing us to harvest everything before the flames.)”
The Phillips family began supplying grapes to Robert Mondavi, the man who put California on the world wine map, in 1974. From 2000 until 2009, Mondavi’s company produced a vineyard-designated Vine Hill Ranch bottling, but the new owners, Constellation Brands, discontinued it. Vine Hill Ranch recently parted ways with Cakebread Cellars, with whom they had been selling grapes for 43 years. These are long-term connections, and Bruce refers to the grape buyers (mentioned above) as “vintner partners” rather than “customers.” Is there ever a time when he refuses to sell his grapes? He assured me, “Oh yes.”
The Napa Valley’s hundreds of grower-vintner connections were put to the test with the 2020 vintage. Due to wildfires that scorched the periphery of Napa Valley just before harvest, a considerable, though rarely mentioned, proportion of grapes were severely affected by smoke taint. Many winemakers refused to purchase the fruit they had been purchasing for years. Crop insurance was only used by around 40% of growers, including the Phillipses. Requests to analyze grapes for the chemicals linked to smoke taint flooded labs across the United States. The lawyers rubbed their hands together. Bruce, on the other hand, was pleased to report that “80% of our fruit got delivered.” The 2020 wines have a warm flavor to them, but they lack the brightness of the 2014 to 2016 vintages. They’re going to be dense.” The average price paid for untouched 2021 grapes at Vine Hill Ranch is reportedly at $28,000 per ton. (Napa Cabernet grapes cost around $8,000 on average.)
Vine Hill Ranch’s vines are managed by a vineyard management company, in this case Mike Wolf’s, as is customary in Napa Valley. When Wolf left Andy Beckstoffer, Napa Valley’s most famous vineyard owner, and went out on his own, the ranch was his first client. When the Phillipses decided to brew their own wine from a variety of various blocks on the ranch, they hired Françoise Peschon as their winemaker, who is noted for her wines’ subtlety and expressiveness. She used to make Araujo Estate’s impeccable wines until it was purchased by François Pinault’s Artémis Domaines. She is currently also the winemaker for Accendo, the new label founded by the former proprietors.
I recently drank vintages of VHR wine from even-numbered years from 2008 to 2018. They were quite spectacular without being overdone. “Napa Valley nowadays is full of egotists who don’t have a great degree of perspective, often making mistakes that I’ve already witnessed,” Bruce said mid-tasting.
He refused to say who was to blame or what the errors were, just remarking that, in this period of water scarcity, the trend of squeezing as many vines as possible into an acre should be well and completely over.
In London, he also conveyed a feeling with which I can only agree. “I’d like to see more of our vintners present their wines here and put the 1990s-style of large, extracted wines from Napa behind us.” I’m curious how many Britons will be willing to put their preconceptions aside and pay more than £200 for a bottle of VHR 2018? They appear to be content to pay that much for a good Pomerol.
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