HUNNICUTT Wines is owned and operated by Justin Hunnicutt Stephens and his wife Seana. The winery takes its name from Justin’s grandmother, Nora Hunnicutt. After college Justin immediately entered the fast paced world of commercial real estate. During a flight back from a business trip it occurred to himself that he was always reading articles about wine making, wine regions and grape varieties; if he was really interested in real estate he admits he would have been reading real estate journals. This was an “awakening” if you will, a point in his life where he found himself not following his passion and wishing he was.
Justin realized this, changed careers and moved back to the Napa Valley and began learning the hands on part of the business at Miner Family Winery. Soon thereafter he worked at other notable Napa Valley based wineries gaining additional wine making knowledge including as General Manager at Saddleback Cellars, Venge Vineyards and Seavey Vineyards.
HUNNICUTT Wines purchased a beautiful piece of property (15 acres – mostly hillside) in 2008 on the Silverado Trail about halfway between the towns of Calistoga and St. Helena. The prior owner Les Behrens of Behrens Family Winery had already gained valuable permits for building a winery prior to the sale. An extensive 18,000 square foot cave was built into the hillside taking 18 months to drill out. The winery was functional in time for the harvest in 2011. This cave not only houses the HUNNICUTT Wines but also the wines for D.R. Stephens Estate. There are no vineyards planted on site.
Their first commercial vintage was from the 2002 vintage and for the first several vintages production remained under 500 cases of two wines; Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel. Their production has grown over the years and as of our latest update to this review is around 3,500 cases annually. Since their inaugural vintage, all their wines have been crafted under the management and direction of well-known winemaker, Kirk Venge – one of Justin’s close friends. Both Kirk and his father Nils have a long history of making wine in the Napa Valley and both own wineries as well as consults for several premium Napa Valley based brands. Seana is also involved having joined the winery in 2010 – relying on her previous experience in advertising to help promote HUNNICUTT.
And HUNNICUTT is also known among local vintners as being a premium custom crush winery – allowing other wineries to ‘rent’ space within their cave to make their own wines. Different somewhat then other wineries that rent out space, HUNNICUTT allows the winemakers for the individual brands to oversee each of their own brands. Walking through the cave is like being in a candy shop for premium Napa Valley boutique producers – with wine from some of Napa’s finest under the radar producers crafted here.
And there are other advantages to making wine here – from a winemaking perspective, one is surrounded by extremely talented vintners who all have access to premiere vineyards. A think tank so to speak where one can bounce ideas of others and relationships are cultivated.
Tastings are always private for visitors, sometimes with Justin (he may stop by if he is on site), and are for serious wine enthusiasts and are hosted in their cozy lounge decorated with old barrel staves, vintage skis, a pair of lacrosse sticks and a road bike. The forested property is located in a quieter part of the Napa Valley accessible via a steep driveway leading up from the windy Silverado Trail. HUNNICUTT shares the initial part of the driveway with their winery neighbor, Failla Vineyards.
Sometimes one can hear the wind whistling through the trees – with no vineyards in site one could almost be in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains rather then the Napa Valley.
HUNNICUTT has never owned any vineyards – rather they source from premium vineyards sites, primarily in the Napa Valley but also from neighboring Sonoma County. Their wines are reasonably priced based on the source vineyards and the expertise and knowledge of Kirk Venge.
One of their more popular wines is the Fearless Red – a red varietal blend in which the percentages change every year. Begun in 2007 with Syrah from a friend’s vineyard which they blended with Zinfandel and Petite Syrah. The 2016 Fearless Red, Sonoma County is an intriguing blend of 36% Zinfandel, 33% Merlot, 25% Syrah and perhaps surprisingly, 6% Pinot Noir. Shows a diversity of aroma including darker fruit (ripe blackberry) complemented by darker spices, tobacco leaf and toasted cedar. Somewhat brooding in its aromatic presentation. Flavors of plum and currant are anchored by gritty tannins and a finish the features darker spices including crushed pepper.
The 2016 HUNNICUTT Cabernet Sauvignon, Brinkman Block from the Beckstoffer Georges III Vineyard in Rutherford (right next to Caymus Winery) is 100% varietal. Named after Justin’s mothers maiden name (Christina Brinkman Stephens) this wine is noticeably dark in the glass – immediately offers an intensity of dark fruit aromatics including blackberry and blueberry framed with aromas of old cedar box and dark chocolate. Slightly briary. Features plenty of depth of flavor – a big wine but balanced. Shows notes of dust, plum, and spices on the finish including white pepper. Great texture – we love the way this wine feels across the palate. Lingers with long lasting persistent chewy tannins.
A companion brand called CUTT was created in 2007, typically focusing on one-off wines or from vineyard sources they may only have limited-time access to. The 2016 CUTT Merlot, Knights Valley is a wine presumably most people would not be able to identify as Merlot in a blind tasting. It is 100% varietal. Dark ruby in color it offers a diversity of aromas including mushroom, forest floor, blueberry and hints of sage. Also a sweetness of fruit. A robust wine (especially compared to other Napa Valley produced wines from this variety) across the palate with excellent depth of flavor and structure with gritty long lasting tannins on a mouth watering finish. Very good acidity.
Their 2005 Zinfandel was sourced from the Chiles Valley region one of the Napa Valley’s 16 sub appellations (east of the main valley floor). This is a very fruit forward wine meant to be consumed with food. The 2005 HUNNICUTT Zinfandel offers aromas which slightly hint of oak and white pepper complemented primarily by cherries leading to a palate with additional ripe cherry and strawberry flavors.
The 2005 HUNNICUTT Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon was not yet released at the time of one of our early visits due to the wine needing additional bottle aging. The fruit for this wine came from three premium vineyard sites sourced from Rutherford, Spring Mountain and St. Helena. Each vineyard produces wine that is remarkably different from each other but when combined, forms a very elegant wine. Trying barrel samples allows one to observe the very distinct taste, color and aroma differences between each vineyard’s fruit. For example the particular wine from the Rutherford vineyard features more earthiness along with subtle fruit aromatics as compared to the St. Helena vineyard which offers much more fruit driven aromatics – also noticeable on the palate. The tannins are firm yet delicate throughout and end with a silky smooth finish. This is a well-balanced wine and is an excellent value.
HUNNICUTT Wines also produces 9-3-5, their most premium Cabernet Sauvignon offering (with two meanings behind the name, but the most obvious one being Justin and Seana’s wedding date). This wine is a barrel selection and is not produced every year – only crafted when they have exceptional fruit. Primarily a red wine producer, HUNNICUTT produces one white wine, a Chardonnay.
It should be noted that the HUNNICUTT red wines age very well – we tried a 2001 vintage of their Cabernet Sauvignon after 10 years. The wine had held its fruit and structure beautifully – there is a reason one ages wine and this vintage is an ideal example of the importance of time in fully integrating wine’s many facets.
And their sister brand, wines from the D.R. Stephens Estate are produced here – DR Stephens (Justin’s father) produced his first wine in 1996. Unlike HUNNICUTT which does not own vineyard property, DR Stephens owns a vineyard nestled in a gorgeous location just below Howell Mountain.
Those interested in their wines can join one of their wine club options. The wines are also found locally at ACME Fine Wines located in St. Helena. Sometimes the winery offers select wine focused cruises (both for members and non members). For more information or to schedule an appointment, visit: www.hunnicuttwines.com