Forman Vineyard was started by long time and well respected Napa vintner Ric Forman in 1983. He studied at UC Davis in the late 1960’s and was part of the era at Davis that produced top local winemakers including Justin Meyer at Silver Oak and Nils Venge (Groth, Saddleback and others).
Ric initially starting working in Napa at wineries including Robert Mondavi and Stony Hill as well as the Sonoma County based, Kendall-Jackson. Soon after he started working with Peter Newton (well-known for founding Napa’s Sterling and Newton Vineyards). Ric was winemaker at Sterling for a number of years and helped designed their winery as well as Newton’s winery.
Peter sent Ric to France to study some of their wine making techniques. While there, Ric took copious notes (his original notes and notepads are still on hand at Forman’s tasting room). Ric was a pioneer winemaker in Napa; he introduced a number of techniques to the valley including barrel to barrel racking, one of the first vintage dated Merlots, fermenting Chardonnay to barrel while still sweet (letting the fermentation take place in the barrel rather than in tank) and a number of viticultural practices. His early influences were definitely Bordeaux in nature and today both his viticultural practices and wine making reflect that.
Presently Forman produces merely 3000 cases (about 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon and 1000 of the Chardonnay) – that number is reached because it is the caseload amount that Ric can physically produce. Not only is he the winemaker (his son Toby is the assistant winemaker), but he is also responsible for managing his entire vineyard on the 40 acres that surround his winery. He is a very hands on winemaker preferring to do even the most mundane wine making tasks himself. By doing everything himself, and producing small quantities he ensures that each bottle of wine is truly hand made while helps maintain a very high standard of quality. Ric is also a partner in several other premium Napa vineyards including the Star Vineyard in Rutherford and also the premium grape producing Thorvilos Vineyard located not far from Ric’s own property.
Harvest is always done by hand with the processing of the fruit starting almost immediately as the winery is located right next to the actual vines. The red wines are all fermented in small steel tanks; the small size helps ensure quality control. The red blend is typically aged in 80% new French oak. Blends are decided upon soon after fermentation.
Ric spent significant time looking for the “right” type of property in Napa in the late 1970’s. After three years he located a ridge location at the base of Howell Mountain. However some serious labor was required on the property before there could be a working winery. Ric fired off 500 sticks of dynamite and a bunch of blasting power – opening up room for the actual vineyard as well as building some extensive tunnels under his house and winery (for barrel aging). The vineyard sits on an ancient up-lifted river bed so there are plenty of rocks, but despite this, the soil itself is rather deep. The vines are planted very close to each other on non-terraced hillsides. During bud break its fairly easy to see the different varietal blocks within the vineyard based on the differences in each varietal’s growth patterns. Having walked through several blocks we can say that these vineyards are immaculate – each vine is carefully managed multiple times throughout the year.
Today Forman focuses on two wines each vintage, a non malolactic fermented Chablis style Chardonnay from a vineyard he owns on the Rutherford Bench and a Bordeaux styled red blend. We have yet to try the Chardonnay but will be making a future visit at some point and will update this review then. The red blend is made from grapes grown on site including Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot.
The nice thing about Forman’s wines are their balance and smoothness right out of the gate. The 2006 we tried had just been released about a week before and while very young it already had that elegance and structure that will treat this wine well in the bottle over time. The bouquet is very fruit forward with a nice terroir aspect present in both the bouquet and on the palate. Hints of dust, gravel and mocha develop, adding additional nuances to the fruit aromas as the wine opens up. The palate is balanced and has some nice spices but its really all about the fruit and it is smooth from start to finish. The finish is long, slightly smoky with structured, ripe and fine grained tannins.
Visits to Forman need to be by reservation and are for serious wine enthusiasts and collectors. While priced accordingly for the high quality and hands on work that goes into making these wines, they are certainly not priced like area cult wines. With a production of only 3000 cases there is not a lot of wine to go around. Much of it is distributed directly through their mailing list. Locally however, they do have excellent distribution and are found in a number of restaurants in the Napa Valley as well as several wine shops including Dean & Deluca and both the St. Helena Wine Merchants and St. Helena Wine Center (all located in the town of St. Helena). For more information visit: www.formanvineyard.net