Marston Family Vineyard is located all the way at the end of White Sulphur Springs Road – west of the town of St. Helena. The drive into the winery property is fantastic; once you leave St. Helena you are driving on a very narrow windy road and you soon pass the historic White Sulphur Springs Resort. It was a resort for about 154 years and was one of California’s oldest (founded in 1853), but it is no longer open to the public. If you drive by in the summer you will have a blast of the sulfur smell for a few minutes (not as bad in the wintertime). The road takes you next to a small creek through some redwoods until you reach Marston’s moss covered gate and then up to the vineyard estate. There are excellent views of the rolling hills, planted vineyards and the actual valley floor far below.
History of grapes on the property dates back to the late 1890’s when access to the vineyard was on the old Wells Fargo Stage Coach road which ran all the way to Santa Rosa. A drive up this road is through part of the Mayacamas mountains which form the western boundary of Napa Valley and separate Sonoma County to the west.
The accomplished actor, Clark Gable used to visit frequently. He was also the best man at the wedding of the wineries’ post World War II owner, Al Menasco – an aviation pioneer in his own right. Clark Gable actually spent his honeymoon in the main house on the property. The Marston’s purchased this property in 1969 with several other couples (by 1974 they had purchased the interests of the other partners and were the sole owners). This winery used to be known as Lyncrest Vineyards.
Until the late 90’s, Marston exclusively sold their grapes to other wineries including Beringer who currently manages the estate vineyards. This property has long been planted to vineyards and even famed winemaker and soils expert André Tchelistcheff helped craft wine from the estate as did iconic Napa winemaker Philip Togni. The Marstons have only 10% of the entire 400 acre estate planted to vine, with much of the surrounding hillsides covered with native vegetation. They donated 200 acres of their property to the Napa Land Trust where it will remain as is.
1998 was the first commercial release. Marston is known for their hand crafted and balanced Cabernet Sauvignon and there is a reason for this. Combine world class hillside terroir, incredible attention to detail in the vineyard (we’ve heard their vineyard manager speak of what goes on in the “fields” and it is extensive), and top winemaking skills and you have the perfect wine recipe for success.
The total annual production of the Marston Estate wine is always around 500 cases exclusively of one wine, a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. The 2004 is a very dark inky wine. The aromas are initially almost gravelly and as it opens up reveals additional mineralites and fruit including blackberry. The mouth feel is soft, well balanced and oh so smooth with a structured yet delicate tannins on the finish. It is extremely drinkable now yet has that bright fruit, lively acidity and structure to ensure that this wine will age successfully for a number of years.
The 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon is even smoother than the 2004 although it is still very full bodied. The nose has some floral characteristics with nuances of berry fruit and cocoa and chocolate appear as the bouquet opens. Rich ripe fruit dominates the palate, this wine pairs extremely well with food. In 2005 the wine-making program was changed so that the wine was aged in 400-liter puncheons (larger sized then normal wine barrels) which are custom made in France. These are actually rotated each day during the fermentation, rather than doing the standard punch-downs. The thinking behind this is the turning of the barrel allows the wine to receive less agitation than punch-downs. Once fermentation is complete, the wine is removed, pressed and then put back into the same puncheons for its aging. Marston’s philosophy is to ensure the fermentation goes smoothly but with minimal intervention. It is always a challenge to tame mountain grown tannins and the 2005 vintage is a clear reflection of how successfully they were able to do this.
Two other more recent additions to the family portfolio are Albion – a Sauvignon blanc sourced from Yountville and the elizabethjohn, a non-vintage Cabernet Sauvignon styled to be approachable on release.
For a number of years their wine maker was Philippe Melka who currently works with select premium Napa wineries – in the past he has been voted American Winemaker of the year by Robert Parker in Food & Wine Magazine. Marston was fortunate to acquire his services fairly early in his career as currently his time is much sought after. Philippe has a Geology degree (he knows his Napa terroir very well) and loves working with Napa hillside vineyards. As he mentioned to us during one of our earlier visit to Marston Estate, “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, while at the same time ensuring the wine has the acidity, fruit and structure to be aged and not be flat in say 10 years. This is a line that Philippe walks well – Marston’s older vintages if you can find them, are drinking very well now.
Today their winemaker is Marbue Marke – Marbue is a talented winemaker and is one of the few African American winemakers in Napa Valley.
Marston’s Cabernet Sauvignon is available through their mailing list, select restaurants and select retail stores. One year, their wine was voted the top ranked Cabernet Sauvignon by Wine News Magazine. You can also find it locally in St. Helena at Dean & Deluca.
Visits are for mailing list members or serious wine enthusiasts and collectors. Tastings are with proprietor Elizabeth Marston or her husband and usually last at least 90 minutes. Visit: www.marstonfamilyvineyard.com