Gandona is a relatively new winery built on a property which has a long well-regarded vineyard history in Napa. This is Pritchard Hill, a small hillside part of Napa in the Vaca mountains, characterized by iron rich, rocky and red soils. It was named after Charles Pritchard who homesteaded the top of this knoll and planted vines in the 1880s (where Chappellet’s winery is located). Gandona’s own property was actually homesteaded even earlier than that – in 1862. Chappellet was the first winery on Pritchard Hill – founded in 1968. However the footprint for what is now Gandona’s vineyard was planted not long after – in the early 1970’s by Pritchard Hill winery pioneer, Bob Long. When he planted the first grapes on site, this was well before Napa introduced a county ordinance in the late 1990’s prohibiting vineyard plantings on steep hillside slopes and or terracing. Some of the steepest vines on Gandonas’s property approach a slope of 40%.
Proprietor, Manuel Pires is from the Douro region in northern Portugal, moved to the United States and eventually built a successful security systems company. He initially visited Napa in 1976. Over time as he describes it, “my visits increased significantly” – he would visit at least once a year in the 1980’s and by the 1990’s he was visiting every few months from his home in Connecticut. He became more serious about acquiring premium property. He was attracted to the hillsides – perhaps influenced by spending significant time in the hills of northern Portugal.
After searching for hillside locations this property was brought to his attention; he and his wife Cristina purchased it in the Spring of 2006. The property is 120 acres with less then 20 acres planted. It ranges in elevation from about 900 to 1,100 feet and is usually above the fog line.
Originally from Portugal he spent his summers on his grandfather’s farm in the Douro region – this area is known for its Port wine. His grandfather’s farm was called Quinta Fraga do Arco in tribute to a natural rock formation on the property. It was on this farm that he was introduced to farming including the backbone of Mediterranean crops: grapes, almonds, olives and chestnuts. The name Gandona is an honor to heritage – it was his grandfather’s nickname. It also translates from Portuguese to English as “humble man”.
His grandfather passed away in 1974 and subsequently the property was sold. However, sometimes things come full circle in life. In 2009 he and Cristina purchased the property that held so many memories for him – and they both began restoring it. Their Douro property is approximately 25 acres and contains some vines dating back to the 1920s.
The first Gandona vintage dates from 2007. While there was a winery on site already from the previous owners, the Longs, the first few Gandona vintages were made off site. Manuel oversaw the construction of a state-of-the-art winery and caves built on the hillside; now their estate fruit travels merely minutes away to be processed. Well regarded winemaker, Philippe Melka makes the wines – with a degree in Geology and in wine making, 20 plus years working in Napa and an exceptional palate – his services are much in demand in the valley and beyond.
Philippe has been voted American Winemaker of the year by Robert Parker in Food & Wine Magazine. He is drawn towards working with Napa hillside vineyards. As he mentioned to us several years ago, “hillside vineyards are more of a challenge”. It is always a fine line to craft wines with that special elegance and softness ready to be consumed now (especially from mountain sites), while at the same time ensuring the wine has the acidity, fruit and structure to be aged and not lose its own “personality” – in say 10 years.
Nearby vineyard neighbors include Melanson, Colgin and Chappellet. Cult powerhouse, Bryant Family is on the next ridge over. While only about a 20 minute drive from floor of the Napa Valley, this slice of Napa feels worlds removed. The roads and driveways are not much more than narrow cuts in the steep hillsides surrounded by either vineyards or native vegetation. Both roads, homes, and vineyards are perched on the edges of these rocky steep hillsides.
If views alone were indicative of quality, this vineyard certainly would produce top fruit. It has the quintessential Pritchard Hill views – looking down on rolling hills, beautiful Lake Hennessey – and even glimpses of the Napa Valley floor far in the distance. But views alone cannot be factored in for quality – the soils here are rocky – containing that reddish hue that is well known on Pritchard Hill.
The majority of their vineyard is in a unique bowl which contains much deeper soils than found on the rocky outcrops and knolls in this part of Napa. As a result Gandona is able to allow much of their vineyard to either be dry farmed or grow with very little water use. The property is 116 acres of which 17 are planted to vines ranging from 900 to 1100 feet in elevation. A number of varieties are planted here including the oldest vines on the property – Cabernet Sauvignon as well as Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and even one acre of Chardonnay.
Some of the early well regarded wines from Pritchard Hill where white wines – take the original Long Vineyards on this site – their Chardonnay and Rieslings of the 1970’s became much sought after. David Arthur produced award winning Chardonnay. Today it is a different story – the whites on “the hill” have been replaced by reds – predominately Cabernet Sauvignon. However their small Chardonnay block is inadvertently a historical nod to this varieties original “roots” on Pritchard Hill – Chardonnay certainly is not an economically viable grape to grow in this region – but Manuel enjoys having an estate white wine to complement their primary red wines.
The 2010 Encosta is sourced from younger vines in the terracing towards the top of their vineyard. This is their first wine released under this name. This name in Portuguese translates into English as sloped or hillside land – prime terroir for vines. The nose is bright and lively showing more red tone fruit aromas rather than darker fruits – as it continues to evolve notes of mocha are revealed. The initial entry is rounded; the palate maintains a tender balance between acidity, fruit and structure. Based on the pedigree of this wine – it is priced quite reasonably.
The 2010 Gandona is their flagship wine – made from the oldest Cabernet planting on the property. This wine is dark in the glass, decidedly more so than the Encosta. The bouquet is deep, dark and earthy – you can smell the soils and mineralities of Pritchard Hill in the glass. The fruit is certainly present as well and is focused more on darker fruits, blackberries and black cherries. The nose holds up well as this wine opens – revealing more fruit. It is a complex wine on the palate – rounded initially but quickly gaining in layers from the mid palate to the finish; showing mineralities and darker fruit. There is certainly some power and length on the finish – not necessarily alcohol but big fruit complemented by robust tannins.
Based on Manuel’s heritage, it makes sense that Gandona would produce a Port styled wine. Almost one half an acre was planted to the Portuguese variety, Touriga Nacional. This is a rare variety indeed in Napa – most likely they are the only winery on Pritchard Hill who has ever grown this variety. It is a notoriously difficult variety to grow but is thriving in the rocky red soil of their vineyard. Compared to Cabernet Sauvignon and other traditional varieties in the valley, it is a leafy variety – dense in foliage with large leaves. This wine is fermented in a wooden open top cask.
During our initial visit the blends had just been put together for the 2010 vintage which has now been released (as of 2015). Aromatically this variety is generous – on the palate it exudes structure and viscosity. Based on the components we tried, this will certainly be a wine worth pursuing. And like the other wines produced from the estate, this will also be very limited. Note: we later tried the finished 2010 vintage, the Fraga do Arco named after a unique natural arch rock on Manuel’s property in the Douro Valley. The wine has an interesting bouquet – including wild oregano intermingled with sweet aromas. This wine has a very nice mouth feel – with an underlying chalky velvet feel.
Visits by appointment are for serious wine enthusiasts and collectors. Tours usually include a short walk to a vineyard overlook and a quick walk through the winery. Note the intriguing tile work in the room where the tasting occurs – this is a Portuguese layout referred to as Calçada Portuguesa. Often Manuel will stop by to say hi to guests. For more information and to join their mailing list, please visit www.gandona.com