Cardinale Estate is located on site of one of the older wineries in Oakville (Robert Pepi, founded 1981) and is located a short drive off of Highway 29 just north of Yountville. The hospitality center and winery are perched on top of a small natural hill. Robert Pepi winery used to specialize in Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon and Chardonnay. Robert L Pepi’s father, Robert A Pepi purchased a vineyard in Oakville in 1966 as a country retreat from their urban life and together father and son founded Robert Pepi Winery. The inaugural vintage of Robert Pepi was from 1981.
Robert Jr was winemaker and General Manager and along with his father ran Robert Pepi Winery for some 14 years, along the way earning accolades and excellent scores for their wines. They sold to Jackson Family Wines in 1994 and the name was changed to Cardinale. Incidentally after selling this property and winery Robert now operates his own boutique label called Eponymous.
Cardinale’s hospitality center is visible from the Highway 29; the stone building is classy and elegant with great views of Napa Valley especially from its north facing outdoor patio. While most wineries in Napa focus on a number of wines, it is the rare winery that puts all its effort into producing one great wine each year. Cardinale is one of these unique wineries that do so and produces a single Cabernet Sauvignon, with lesser amounts of Merlot in the blend, every vintage.
Each vintage is different and the Cardinale wine is a direct reflection of its particular vintage characteristics. However, each vintage regardless of vintage variation show intense flavors yet retains an element of elegance with often approachable structure and an inviting mouth feel (velvety at times).
The physical winery where Cardinale’s wines are made is located directly below the upstairs hospitality center. Another production facility located towards the back of the property is large by Napa standards and houses production for a select number of Jackson Family-owned wines. This particular facility also contains a sizable underground barrel room. When you reach the hospitality center and park look immediately down to the east; you will notice the roof of this cellar is entirely covered in grass. Living winery roofs are quite rare for Napa Valley wineries; others include Odette Estate and Brasswood Estate.
With such a diversity in vineyard sources, blending is a critical component of making the Cardinale wine each year and all the wine lots are kept separate before blending. Often winemaker Chris Carpenter starts with as many as 40 separate lots. The grapes are hand sorted and then typically fermented with indigenous yeasts. All oak used for aging is from France.
The vineyard sources for Cardinale’s wine are all from the nearby Mayacamas and Vaca mountain ranges. These mountains form the borders of Napa Valley running in a north/southerly direction. Their focus is on sourcing grapes from both hillsides and bench-land locations including from well-known appellations such as Diamond Mountain, Spring Mountain, Howell Mountain and Mount Veeder. Jackson Family Wines owns nearly 500 planted vineyard acres in Napa Valley including the sources for Cardinale wines. In late 2023 it was announced that all of their Napa Valley vineyards are now certified organic (CCOF).
Visitors to the property will observe that the winery is surrounded by acres of grapes growing on the valley floor located at the base of the hill. However, none of this fruit is used in the Cardinale wine; rather all these grapes are sold to other wineries.
After fermentation, all wine is placed in 100% tightly grained new French oak for extensive aging. Their goal is to create big, yet refined and elegant vintages – wines that can be consumed now if you choose, but really come into their own with some aging. The wine is bottled unfiltered for maximum flavor and color with minimal fining. Typical production of this one wine varies, in recent years from about 2,000 to 4,000 cases annually. It is selectively distributed nationally, most often at fine dining establishments.
All visits are by appointment and include a tasting of a Sauvignon Blanc called Intrada to liven up your palate, sometimes followed by a La Jota W.S Keyes Merlot and two vintages of Cardinale including a current release and a library wine (often 10 years old). The wines are paired with selective small bites & cheeses prepared by their culinary team. One should note one of the most impressive photographs we have ever seen of a vine. It is a panoramic in the main room created by a time lapse of a single vine during all four seasons. Only two of these exist.
A guest room is setup with tables adjacent to the actual tasting counter; from here on a clear day, one has stellar views looking north and to the west. A telescope is also available for more intimate viewing afar. If the weather is nice, it is worth taking a few minutes to walk outside on their patio. One doesn’t need to be very high above the valley floor to enjoy panoramic vistas.
The 2013 Cardinale Cabernet Sauvignon is 86% Cabernet Sauvignon and 14% Merlot. Remarkably fruit from ten vineyards around the hillsides of Napa Valley was used to make this wine. But not surprising is all the Merlot came from the W.S. Keyes Vineyard. This wine immediately shows an elegant bouquet with scents of Asian spices, dust and toasted oak. This wine is well layered aromatically but even more so on the palate. Dense and rich with flavor (mostly darker fruit) the wine features grape and oak tannins, grippy in nature and slightly chewy. How many years will this age? Seems like it has all the elements to cellar for at least several decades!
The 2007 Cardinale was nearly 10 years old at the time of our tasting. This wine is 86% Cabernet Sauvignon and 14% Merlot. It shows sweet aromatics which are somewhat floral; as it opens a noticeable black fig aroma is revealed. Also, there is an herbal hint, and it is somewhat savory. This bottling is very approachable on the entry showing notes of red cherry on the palate. Great acidity – mouthwatering so. The tannins are noticeable but are well integrated. Seems this wine still has plenty of life ahead of it.
An extremely unusual planting for Howell Mountain is Chardonnay; this AVA is primarily known for its mountain grown red wines. The 2020 La Jota Vineyard Co. W.S. Keyes Chardonnay (Howell Mountain) is deep gold in color; the bouquet is highly appealing and offers a diversity of aromatics including of white peach, nectarine, honeysuckle, jasmine and a hint of apricot and warm butter. The bouquet becomes a bit more sweetly fruited as it has time to open; it also shows some citrus scents including lemon and lime. The palate is mineral driven and features crisp acidity and flavors of mandarin and apple. A very subtle hint of vanilla lingers on the finish. This rare Napa Valley mountain grown Chardonnay is highly worth seeking out.
In Italian, the name Intrada refers to the entrance of a selection of music – perfectly named for its role in leading up to the red wines. And Chris often compares wine making to music (he enjoys music and occasionally plays the trombone). The 2015 Intrada is an 88% Sauvignon Blanc and 12% Sémillon blend sourced from valley floor vineyards. This is their ‘welcome wine’ as the staff puts it and is only available for purchase for on-site visitors. The 2015 vintage reveals an attractive bouquet – think springtime, elegant and floral. It sports a rounded feel on the palate accompanied by minerality notes with flavors of green apple. This wine offers some weight to the mid palate and lingers with a very flavorful finish.
The La Jota W.S. Keys Vineyard Merlot is from a vineyard on Howell Mountain (about 1,600 feet) that was originally planted in 1888. Even early on, the wines from this vineyard received acclaim – earning recognition in 1900 at the Paris Exposition. Chris calls this one of Napa’s (and beyond) best vineyard sites for this variety. And he gets to hand select grapes from the oldest and most prized block from the vineyard each year. It is fairly rare to taste a premium Merlot based wine in Napa Valley (and we have tried many Napa Merlots over the years); this is one of them.
The 2013 La Jota W.S. Keys Vineyard Merlot is 76% Merlot with the balance being Cabernet Sauvignon. Dark ruby red in the glass. Shows plenty of black fruit aromatics including black licorice complemented with an herbal note – perhaps green tea leaf. It offers a bit of dustiness as it opens; this is a very aromatic wine. Features a soft mid palate with flavors of blackberry; the dustiness from the bouquet continues onto the palate. Noticeably robust, but still balanced tannins persist on a finish that lasts for some time.
Jackson Family Wines
The remarkable success story of Jackson Family Wines began with Jess Jackson; San Francisco raised, he founded a law firm in the city in the 1950s focusing on real estate and land rights issues. Later, with his first wife Jane in 1974, he bought an old 80-acre pear and walnut orchard near Lakeport, Lake County. They converted this to Chardonnay and began selling the grapes to local wineries. Eventually the market for grapes softened and Jackson had more grapes than he could sell.
He decided to make Chardonnay – the fermentation on one of the lots ended up not fully completing leaving the resulting wine with a little bit of residual sugar. With the help of Napa Valley vintner, Ric Forman they created the first Chardonnay from a blend of multiple lots from various vineyard sources. The 1982 vintage was the first wine from Jackson Family Wines – called Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay. Priced reasonably, not to cheap and not too expensive, this was a premium made fruit-forward Chardonnay, soon made in large amounts with a flavor profile that appealed to many people.
With the popularity of the Chardonnay, Jackson began expanding to other parts of California and eventually outside of the state including international properties. The Kendall-Jackson Winery and tasting room is located in tiny Fulton, just north of Santa Rosa in Sonoma County. The company headquarters is located in Santa Rosa. Kendall was the maiden name of Jackson’s first wife.
In 2003 Jess became involved with professional horse racing including purchasing horses (some went on to stand-out careers) and establishing Stonestreet Farm (Stonestreet is Jackson’s middle name); this horse farm and racing stables is based just outside of the small town of Versailles in Kentucky. This is prime ‘horse’ country’ with numerous thoroughbred horse farms in the region. Stonestreet is also the name of their winery in Alexander Valley (not far from Field Stone Winery). And it should be no surprise that the horse stables are named after grape varieties.
In 2009 Jess was inducted into the Vintners Hall of Fame. He died in 2011; today his wife Barbara Banke oversees the every growing company and its operations. For reference, in addition to Cardinale, their Napa Valley owned wineries or brands are the following: Freemark Abbey, Galerie, La Jota Vineyard Co, Lokoya, Mt. Brave and the Spire Collection.
Stonestreet Farms, Kentucky
Cardinale’s wines have received very high ratings from The Wine Advocate and from Robert Parker before he retired.
Cardinale offers a variety of very personalized yet relaxed tasting experiences hosted in a formal setting. Advance reservations are a must. Each vintage of Cardinale is released once a year, every March. Members have access to a variety of fun events; for example some of the events have included renting out the French Laundry and visiting New Orleans for Jazzfest. For more information, to become an allocation list member of their mailing list or to schedule a tasting, visit: www.cardinale.com