Salexis Wines is run by long time Napa vintner John Gibson. At the time of this review John was entering his 30th harvest in the valley. With no background in wine while growing up, John has certainly made his mark on the Napa wine industry. After graduating from UC Davis he came straight to Napa. Initially he worked as winemaker under Warren Winiarski at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars for 12 years and helped bring their production from 20,000 cases up to 250,000 cases. As he says of his experience at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, “he took the tail of a meteor’s comet and ran with it”. He was also instrumental in helping design and develop Vine Cliff Winery and more recently was head winemaker at Frazier for 13 years. Today he is an independent winemaker; he consults and makes wine for a number of small premium producers and runs Salexis.
As John says, “anything you can do to control the process from vineyard to bottle will produce a better product”. While not owning any vineyards, John is extremely involved in the day to day operations of controlling and caring for the vineyards including pruning, picking and any decisions regarding the actual vineyard management. Andy Beckstoffer who he credits as a mentor in the industry and being instrumental in his career, actually planted several small vineyards for John 8 years before Salexis was even a commercial wine producer. Beckstoffer is one of the leading growers in the Napa Valley and beyond and during this project his name has come up on many occasions. His fruit is much sought after – just reference the November 2008 issue of Wine Spectator; the majority of the top Cabernet Sauvignons were from Beckstoffer owned vineyards.
Over the years John has made contacts with a number of other small growers in the area, some of whom also planted their vineyards with him in mind. Today he sources fruit for Salexis from some of these small high end vineyards. The first vintage of Salexis was released in 1998 and is named after his daughter Sarah Alexis. Salexis focuses its efforts on a Carneros grown Chardonnay and a Cabernet Sauvignon.
During this project we’ve tasted a number of “skewed” Chardonnays where one or more aspects of the wine are out of balance. The Salexis Chardonnay is not one of them. One well known French winemaker told John that wines are like Geometric figures with Chardonnay being a cube. It is up to the winemaker to sand off the edges so that this wine will become a “ball”. Salexis is trying to make a Chardonnay that is seamless, in other words flows together in balance from start to finish – circular if you will.
Unlike some of the larger wineries who stick to a specific bottle schedule with bottle dates decided while the juice is still fermenting, John bottles his Chardonnay strictly by taste. His Chardonnay uses wild yeast for both primary and malolactic fermentation. It sits on the lees for nearly 2 years; each vintage is different of course and the number of times the lees are stirred depends on the mouth feel and taste of that particular vintage.
A trip to Burgundy was influential on his Chardonnay winemaking and today his Chardonnay is made in a Burgundian style using similar techniques to the Grand & Premier cru vineyards in Burgundy. During a trip to France, John remembers tasting 15-20 year old Chardonnays; wines that were built to last yet still contained vibrant fruit all those years later. His own Chardonnay typically sees close to 2 years in the barrel; yet this wine is not oaky – at all. After the first year the oak “steps back” and the fruit starts to show. Producers are quick to bottle Chardonnay for a variety of reasons, the most common of which is the economics of getting a wine out into the market. Fortunately, Salexis has the luxury of waiting on their wines. With additional barrel aging (new French Oak), excellent acidity and great fruit from the source Carneros vineyard this Chardonnay also has some longevity ahead of it.
The 2004 vintage is a perfect example of the type of Chardonnay Salexis produces. Nothing is out of balance; there is just a hint of creaminess and a bit of smoky oak with rich layered fruit both on the bouquet and flavor. Pear, apple and citrus are the dominating flavors. This wine really comes alive at the mid palate leading to a vibrant long lasting finish. It has excellent acidity.
Salexis made a Pomerol styled Merlot for a number of years (a big and well structured wine) but has not made this for the past few years, rather focusing on Cabernet Sauvignon. However they do still have previous vintages for sale…and that’s not to say they won’t produce this varietal again in the future.
The 2005 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is styled to be food friendly and approachable in its youth. As a result this particular wine has been especially popular with restaurants. The nose is elegant with red fruit that leads to a palate with just the right amount of tanginess to pair with a variety of foods including meat dishes. The finish has good structure and is long but not over powering.
In contrast to the 2005 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon the 2005 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon uses entirely free run juice (the highest quality juice – not pressed). This is their answer to those who want to cellar their wine for a number of years. This wine finds the middle ground between long term age worthy wines and those ready to drink now. Only New French Oak is used during the aging and this wine sees a longer maceration time; one vintage saw nearly 50 days. This wine is very dark in the glass, the nose is full of black fruit including blackberries and black currant as well as an earthy component. This wine clearly has some weight to it. The black fruit aromas continue to the rich juicy palate as flavor which picks up notes of chocolate as well as smoky oak. The finish is bold, yet in balance.
With this attention to quality starting with the vineyards, a long history of making wine in Napa and micro-managed low production, Salexis is certainly one of the better deals coming out of the Napa Valley at their price point. Their total production runs between 700 to 1000 cases annually. Locally you may be able to find the wines at Dean & Deluca in St. Helena or sometimes the Bounty Hunter in downtown Napa, but their strongest distribution is on the East Coast and in some of the southern states. For more information visit: www.salexiswines.com