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 inadvertent geographical location 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 – in the early years they produced a Chenin Blanc, a Napa Gamay and their first Cabernet Sauvignon was from the 1971 vintage. 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 off of the Silverado Trail in the northern part of the Napa Valley.
Winemaker Philip Togni informed us of some intriguing history as it relates to Cuvaison. The winery had very strong ties with Marin County in those early days. In 1969 the parent company of Commerce Clearing House (CCH) built an impressive and highly visible 74,009 square foot building seen from the 101 freeway at 1 Thorndale in San Rafael. This was the world headquarters for Commerce Clearing House Publishing Company. The structure was designed by San Francisco based architects, Marquis and Stoller (a partnership between Robert B. Marquis and Claude Stoller, active from 1956-1974). The building is still being used today and houses a number of offices for various companies.
Overseen by Richard Duncan, who decided the grounds around the building needed some sort of landscaping, 8 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon were planted in 1968 (from Emmolo Nursery in Rutherford at the time) on the west facing steeply sloped hill below the building (not seen from the 101 freeway due to its location on the opposite side of the building. The vine rows are all terraced following the contour of the hills.
The first grapes harvested from this site called Quail Hill was in 1973, only 1/7th of a ton and then 2 tons in 1974. These grapes were trucked up to the winery in Calistoga and vinified. Cuvaison made their first wine from this property with the release of the “Lot 7374” Marin County Cabernet Sauvignon – a blend of both vintages from Quail Hill plus grapes from the 5 acre vineyard at Pacheco Ranch, also in Marin County right next to the 101 freeway. This was the first ever bottle of wine to display a Marin County Cabernet Sauvignon designation on the label. Incidentally Pacheco Ranch sold grapes to Cuvaison from 1973 through 1978 and their vineyard is still actively producing.
Remarkably, as of late 2021 this vineyard is still growing although it is not being maintained very well at all. During a visit it appeared that a number of replants were added to the site in the last year or two. Numerous old vines had passed on but a number were still living – albeit their fruit output was marginal at best with extremely tiny berries filled primarily with seeds.
1 Thorndale Building
Quail Hill Vineyard
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 1973 to New York based CT Corp (founded 1892) including including one of their owners, publisher Oakleigh Thorne. CT Corp is still in existence, a part of Netherlands based Wolters Kluwer (founded in 1836), an international information services based company.
At the time of the sale, Tom Cotrell was the other shareholder in the company. After the sale, one of Napa’s iconic well under the radar winemakers – Philip Togni began making some of Cuvaison’s early vintages.
Over the decades the family has grown and diversified their operations among various family members; today they control businesses across a wide spectrum including significant investments in real estate and a major global construction materials business focused on concrete and bricks (reference Holcim/Lafarge-Holcim and the Eternit Group). Cumulatively, the family has also been associated with manufacturing cameras, Swiss watches (instrumental in the success of Swatch), sporting goods, steel production, beer, film, forestry & wood products (GrupoNueva, Costa Rica based), the banking industry, art collections and philanthropy among many other endeavors.
And the family has been involved in the wine business for many years; the siblings’ grandfather Ernst Schmidheiny co-founded the Balgach wine cooperative in Switzerland. In addition to Cuvaison, Thomas also owns the following wineries: Finca Decero in Mendoza Argentina and in Switzerland, Schmidheiny Winery in the Sankt Gallen Rhine Valley and Höcklistein winery at Lake Zurich. He sold Australian based Chapel Hill Winery in 2019.
And in 1978, Napa Valley based Wilson Daniels was founded – a still operating premier wine marketing and sales firm with both domestic and international representation. Winston Wilson, one of the founding partners of Wilson Daniels began working with Cuvaison in 1975 and after Wilson Daniels was founded, Cuvaison became one of their early clients, a relationship which lasted until 1983; Wilson Daniels was an integral part of Cuvaison’s early success.
Along with the sale in 1979, the Schmidheiny family purchased 400 additional acres in Carneros and began planting vines in 1980; today approximately 220 of these acres are planted to vine with the majority of the vines being Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. 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. Unfortunately the majority of the buildings on site burned to the ground or were severely damaged in the Glass Fire of 2020.
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, first used by Cuvaison for some magnum bottles of Merlot from the 1984 vintage and more recently 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.
INTERNATIONAL PROPERTIES/FAMILY CONNECTIONS
Visit, description and photography to this small village coming by 2021 or 2022.
Daros Collection, Fondation Beyeler, Riehen Switzerland
Visit, description and photography coming by 2022 or 2022.
Höcklistein Winery, Switzerland
Visit, description and photography coming by 2022 or 2023.
Finca Decero, Mendoza Argentina
Visit, description and photography coming by 2022 or 2023.
Schmidheiny Winery, Switzerland
Visit, description and photography coming by 2022 or 2023.