Cuvaison Estate Wines (Carneros) is located directly across from the Domain Carneros winery driveway on Duhig Road (the road is named after the family that farmed this part of Carneros). People who are not familiar with the Cuvaison label often stumble across their Carneros winery after visiting Domain Carneros. As a result, unintentionally this turned out to be a good marketing decision as a related result of Cuvaison being located across from such a well known and popular winery.
The roots of Cuvaison began when Silicon Valley based engineer Thomas Parkhall began making home wine in the early to mid 1960’s. He came to the Napa Valley in 1967 looking to purchase premium grapes. In 1969 he partnered with Tom Cotrell (a Silicon Valley based laser physicist who would go on to become Pine Ridge’s founding winemaker) to start Cuvaison. Rather then name the winery after themselves, they chose the French word referring to the period of time during fermentation when the fermenting juice is kept in contact with the seeds and skins so as to transfer color, structure and aroma to the actual wine. This period of time takes place both during fermentation and after fermentation (maceration).
Their first vintage was a 1969 Napa Valley Chardonnay. Any Napa winery still in existence whose first vintage is from the 1960’s or earlier is in very rare company. Cuvaison was originally established on a hillside property just south of Calistoga in the northern part of the Napa Valley.
Co-founder Tom Cotrell was hooked by the wine world in a big way – he would go on to have a long career in the wine industry including improving standards for winery wastewater management, became Cornell University’s first Professor of Enology and helped provide guidance to various New York based wineries. In the late 1980’s he was also instrumental in significantly increasing production at various wineries including Sonoma County based Chalk Hill and Rhode Island based Sakonnet Vineyard. A prolific lecturer, author and wine judge his contributions to the wine industry have been significant.
Cotrell and Parkhall sold Cuvaison in 1974 to New York publisher Oakleigh Thorne. After the sale, one of Napa’s iconic well under the radar winemakers – Philip Togni began making some of Cuvaison’s early vintages. Cuvaison was sold again in 1979 to Alexander Schmidheiny from Zurich, Switzerland. After Alexander’s untimely passing in 1992, the winery was transferred to his brother Thomas Schmidheiny (the current owner). The Schmidheinys operate a global construction materials business including concrete and bricks (reference Holcim).
Along with the sale in 1979, the Schmidheiny family purchased 400 additional acres in Carneros; today approximately 280 of these acres are planted to vine. Prior to the winery being built on site, Cuvaison would truck grapes all the way up to the original winery location in Calistoga. A 32,000 square foot state of the art winery was built on their Carneros estate in 2009. The winery includes an optical sorting system and tanks specifically selected to correspond to specific vineyard blocks. In 2015 Cuvaison sold their original Calistoga property, winery (also known for being a custom crush facility where other wineries rented out space for their own wine making) and tasting room to San Francisco based Brandon Chaney and Anthony Zabit who soon after the sale, founded Fairwinds Estate on the site.
Cuvaison also produces Brandlin Wines from their Mt. Veeder estate that the Schmidheiny’s purchased in 1998. Mt. Veeder is a rugged mountain appellation located north west of their Carneros property. The historic Brandlin Vineyard (named after the Brandlin family who originally settled this part of Napa in the 1870’s) is all mountain grown fruit, located along a steep ridge ranging in elevation from 900 to 1,150 feet. The focus on this label is on Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon. Other much smaller blocks growing here include Malbec, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. The total Brandlin estate is 170 acres of which slightly less then 50 acres are currently planted.
The winery uses 100% recycled water in their operations. Several thousand solar cells are installed on site providing about 85% of their overall power needs.
All visits to the winery are strictly by appointment. Guests can choose several tasting flights, typically containing wines that are not nationally distributed. Tastings focus on both their Carneros and Brandlin estate produced wines. No bar here, all tastings are seated – either indoors or outdoors. Regardless of the weather, from their hilltop perch there are excellent views of the surrounding rolling hills of the Carneros region and overlooking the vineyards. The sizable glass doors on the tasting room will be open when the weather is pleasant so that a tasting experience is a bit blurred in feel between both the outdoors and indoors.
As a result of the great views, if the weather permits, we recommend the sit down tasting outside of the actual tasting room on their ‘deck’. Our wine recommendations are their Pinot Noir, Chardonnays and the cool weather Syrah grown on site which makes an excellent wine (clay Carneros soils coupled with the moderating breezes from the nearby San Pablo Bay).
Cuvaison has a block of their Carneros estate planted to Mariafeld Pinot Noir, a variation of this variety commonly planted in Switzerland. The 2015 Mariafeld Pinot Noir offers bright aromatics with hints aromas of raspberry, strawberry and hints of cedar spice. Soft on the entry and throughout – it is not a light wine, rather it shows an intensity of flavor (red and darker cherry) and depth on the palate. The tannins are fine grained, noticeable and slightly earthy. They linger nicely for quite some time – no harsh edges here.
The 2015 Brandlin Vineyard Zinfandel is 100% varietal from a block of this vineyard planted in the 1960’s. The wine shows bright and ripe fruit driven aromatics but not over ripe. Shows aromas of plum and blueberry. Balanced but big on the palate – there are flavors of plum and black cherry. It is lively in the mouth with big flavors anchored by good acidity. Drying slightly chewy tannins linger for quite some time.
Cuvaison produces a vintage Port-style wine (Espiritu) made from Petite Sirah grapes and blended with a Zinfandel based brandy. The 2014 saw a production of slightly less then 200 cases. It is very dark in the glass as wines from this variety often are – dark purple and red. A sweetness of fruit shows on the bouquet, hinting at the sweetness to come on the palate. Shows aromas of blackberry and bittersweet chocolate. There is a softness on the palate – it is very flavorful but with a noticeable lightness in feel. It is very sweet finishing with well-integrated slightly dusty tannins. This wine takes its name from Eduardo Espiritu, who worked at Cuvaison for some 30 years.
The Warhol Connection: Andy Warhol was a family friend of Alexander Schmidheiny (not the first Napa winery owner to have a connection to Warhol – reference Greg Gorman of GKG Cellars who took an iconic photograph of Warhol). Alexander was a prolific collector of art; during a dinner party in Switzerland in 1981 hosted by Schmidheiny and attended by Warhol, Schmidheiny opened a bottle of Cuvaison wine – and after Warhol made a disparaging comment about their existing label, he was challenged to create something better.
Ultimately Warhol created 50 labels, some of which Cuvaison has used for a collectible series of wine. These limited wines are bottled under the Andy Warhol by Cuvaison Collection and are available for purchase at the winery or online.