Black Cat Vineyard was founded by Tracey Reichow in 1996; her first commercial vintage was in 2004. Prior to her career in wine, she was one of the first women to work the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. In the early 1980s she visited Napa Valley because of some work she was doing for Robert Mondavi Winery. Upon returning home she informed her husband Rick about the beauty of Napa Valley. As she says, “we started accruing frequent flyer miles” and ultimately, she and Rick moved to the valley.
They purchased a small piece of raw land in the southern part of the valley (today known as Coombsville) and Tracey soon found herself becoming interested in how to grow grapes. She and Rick had long enjoyed drinking Rhône Valley style Syrah wines, and this was the variety they decided to plant despite some advising her it was too cold in this particular location. Soon she enrolled in viticulture classes at Napa Valley College and followed that by taking wine-making classes at UC Davis. Much of her early viticulture knowledge was self-taught as the development of her vines were outpacing the time, she was able to spend taking classes.
Tracey planted her 4-acre estate vineyard to Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon in 1996. Her children helped plant more than 3,500 rootstock. She recalls vintner, John Caldwell stopping by to introduce himself and when he found out she was planting Syrah he told her the site was ideally suited to this variety. Carneros vintners, Tony and Jo Ann Truchard’s son, John Anthony who was 17 at the time, helped her secure cuttings of the Durell clone of Syrah from Truchard Vineyard to graft onto the rootstock on the Black Cat property. The name of this clone is tied to the Durrell Ranch in neighboring Sonoma County; a part of the ranch was originally budded over to this particular Syrah clone in 1980 and over years it simply became known as the Durrell clone.
Tracey began producing her first wine in 1999 and has made a vintage every year since then, but it wasn’t until 2004 that she felt the quality met her exacting specifications; that year was her first commercial vintage. She made her wine at the old Star Hill Winery just east of the town of Napa for a number of years, until this property was sold and unfortunately the winery was torn down. Today she makes her wine in a business park south of the city of Napa.
Her philosophy when it comes to wine making is viticulture is about being ‘present’. She has created a number of phrases to describe just this including ‘first-person winemaking’, ‘boots on the ground’, ‘feeling the soil’ and ‘capturing the soul of the vineyard’ among others. Every time she walks into a vineyard, she admits that she learns something new … even after more than 20 years of tending vines.
She currently works with not only her estate vineyard but several other vineyards in Coombsville as well as on Howell Mountain, Rutherford and St. Helena. While she does not own the other vineyards she maintains vineyard leases that allow her full control of managing the vines. Tracey compares having multiple vineyards to having multiple pairs of shoes – enjoying the diversity that additional sources of grapes bring to her wines as well as allowing her to make a variety of wines.
Tracey’s wine-making style focuses on small lots – using tanks that are no more than a ton. The wines are made in an artisan style and each block from her vineyards are hand selected and all fermentation takes place in open-top fermenters. One of her favorite parts of winemaking is doing everything herself – she calls this her preference for “doing” rather than “being”. This includes what would seem like a mundane operation (tank punch-downs). However, doing something as repetitious as a punch-down gives her intimate knowledge of each fermentation – allowing her to notice certain smells, color extraction or lack thereof or temperature issues.
Cleanliness is extremely important in any winery – Tracey is obsessive about keeping her winery extremely clean (even other winemakers have commented about this when they visit her winery!).
Tracey produces Chardonnay that she refers to as her ‘goldilocks wine’, crafted in a style that straddles the traditional California oaky buttery bottlings and the leaner crisp tank fermented wines of this variety. She gently whole cluster presses the grapes after harvest with the resulting juice fermented in French oak barrels. The wine is aged in French oak barrels for 10 months sur lie with stirring occurring twice a month. In order to minimize diacetyl production (the compound that contributes a perceived buttery characteristic from malolactic fermentation, especially in Chardonnay), she utilizes a few processes during winemaking including using Lalvin VP41 yeast (known to limit the diacetyl produced) and allows the wine to only go through partial malolactic fermentation.
The 2018 Black Cat Chardonnay Carneros is deep gold in color; the bouquet offers aromas of crème Brule, warm butter, hazelnut, baked apple, a lemon zest and tropical fruit notes including ripe mango, pineapple and papaya. The bouquet shows more California style while the palate, although intensely flavored is balanced nicely by its bright acidity. This wine offers a light creamy texture with flavors of melon, pear and Golden Delicious apple with a lingering citrus and slightly toasted oak nuance. This bottling offers a bright zesty quality which is especially noticeable on the lively and mouthwatering finish. We tasted this wine 4 years post vintage and it still has plenty of life ahead of it.
The Black Cat Napa Valley Syrah is sourced from her four-acre vineyard in Coombsville; Tracey has to net this vineyard each year to prevent bird damage and hand selects only the best clusters of grapes for this bottling. The 2019 Black Cat Napa Valley Estate Syrah is dark ruby in color; the bouquet is generous and diverse, offering a pretty union of both primary and secondary aromatics including dark plum, ripe blackberry, a pronounced floral note including of violets, dried herbs, peppermint, espresso, mocha and vanilla bean. The aromatics are not overly spicy or dark in nature which are characteristics sometimes associated with this variety. Simply put, this wine smells beautiful in its youth. The palate offers primarily darker fruits including Santa Rosa plum and blackberry along with a dark licorice note. This wine is anchored by a juicy and bright acidity. The oak and grape tannins are very well integrated and linger with a savory dark spice and crushed peppercorn filled finish.
The 2013 Black Cat Napa Valley Syrah was a young wine (at the time of our tasting); it shows lively and generous fruit aromatics which are long lasting in the glass, continuing to develop and show additional layers of depth. Notes of black cherry, cherry liqueur, hints of sage, a savory component and a hint of mocha show on the bouquet. The voluptuous palate shows a beautiful soft and supple characteristic with tannins that are delicate, rounded, slightly dusty and well-integrated in the overall structure of this wine.
The Black Cat Family Cuvée is Tracey’s most produced wine and is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon with lesser amounts of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Of all the wines she produces, this is the only non-single vineyard bottling. The 2019 Black Cat Family Cuvée is dark ruby in color; the bouquet broods for a while until its it gets a handle on its ’emotions’ and then its core of fruit finally is revealed. Initially this wine offers savory aromatics including of mushroom, dark spices including pepper and some meaty nuances. The palate offers bright acidity with flavors of red cherry and cranberry along with old leather. The tannins are gravelly, dusty and very long lasting with with a final note of dried tobacco leaf deeper into the finish. Tracey has often thought about putting a warning label on this particular bottle of wine which would state something like, “Warning: do not open this bottle if you are alone with a pizza”.
The 2012 Black Cat Howell Mountain Cabernet is aromatically rich and offers a sweet note of aroma, like ripe blackberries complemented with notes of elegant cedar box and a hint of mocha. As the wine opens more red fruit aromatics show along with baking spices (brown sugar). There is plenty of depth in both the bouquet and the palate. A pleasing textural roundness shows from start to finish; this wine offers flavors of plum, red currant and chocolate with slightly dusty tannins which linger softly.
The Black Cat Zinfandel is Tracey’s “retro zin”, as she calls it. She and Rick were tired of the high alcohol wines of this variety and certain Zinfandel characteristics such as spice and its fruit characteristics were being lost. Tracey keeps this wine under 15% and the 2013 vintage is slightly lower than that. We have had wines in this alcohol range that taste jammy and even ‘hot’; this is not one of them. These grapes are older and are dry farmed high on Howell Mountain. Even during drought years, Tracey has noticed these grapes ripen around the same time each year and produce similar volumes (even in 2015 when in general production was significantly lower than prior years). This is her only wine is aged in American oak.
The 2013 Black Cat Zinfandel shows plenty of fruit on the bouquet including raspberry and red cherry along with a noticeable note of vanilla. There is a perceived sweetness of fruit initially on the bouquet – perhaps from the oak influence (this wine like all Black Cat wines is fermented to dryness). The wine has good acidity; Tracey often enjoys this wine with a variety of BBQ dishes. The finish is anchored by robust and very long lasting tannins.
All the Black Cat wines are numbered with each bottle number listed prominently on the front label along with the alcohol content.
Curious about the name of the winery? This is the only Napa Valley based winery we know of that named after a particular feline. When Tracey and her family lived in Pittsburgh, PA they housed a feral black cat who later accompanied them during their move west to Napa Valley. During Tracey’s time developing the vineyard this cat was as much a part of her world as the vines. And over the decades since their family has lived on the property, Tracey estimates over 20 cats have also lived here.
Rather than at restaurants or wine shops, all the wine is sold direct to consumer. Tracey relishes the fact that she has met and spent time with nearly all her customers. Her wine is shipped to mailing club members three times a year and is allocated to a 3 bottle per shipment (9 bottles total per year per member). Clients can customize each shipment as needed. Total production is around 2,500 cases each year with most wines produced under 200 cases; this amount is what Tracey is comfortable making and selling. For more information and to join the allocation club, visit: www.blackcatvineyard.com
Star Hill Winery (where Tracey used to make Black Cat) (we keep these photographs here for historical purposes)