Cathiard Family Estate. Over the decades, this property has featured numerous owners and vineyard and winemaking heritage. Its roots began as a very small part of a nearly 18,000 acre land grant called Rancho Carne Humana, given to Dr. Edward Bale at age 30 by General Vallejo. This was roughly the entire valley between present day Tubbs Lane just north of Calistoga all the way down to Galleron Lane in Rutherford (today with no traffic about a 20 minute drive); records show that this was the 6th land grant given out by General Vallejo – the first being to George Yount. Eventually 15 land grants in the Napa Valley would be issued prior to California statehood in 1850. Bale’s homestead, built in the early 1840s was anchored by a two-story adobe home on the west end of what is now Whitehall Lane (very close and just south of Cathiard Family Estate). A grist mill was also on site. The adobe structure stood until 1931 when it was destroyed by a farmer. Bale owned one of the early vineyards in the Napa Valley – having planted Mission grapes on his property in the 1840s.
After Bale died, his wife began selling off portions of the huge property and gave away one piece to her daughter Ana who didn’t get to enjoy the property very long before she passed. Records show the property was then sold to a man named James Thompson in 1869 who sold it to Captain George Gluyas in 1874 (owner of Sutter Iron Works in San Francisco). Gluyas sold the property for $17,000 to a man named Martin Furstenfeld in 1881 – by that time the property was 210 acres and included vineyards in the sale. An article from the March 23, 1883 in the St. Helena Star references the property containing, “some of the choicest hill vineyard land we have ever seen”. The article also mentions a 2,500 gallon spring fed reservoir already on the property and Furstenfeld’s plans for eventually building a fish pond.
Two brothers, James and William Rennie (sons of an Irish iron manufacturer) immigrated from Scotland via Australia to the Napa Valley, and in 1887 purchased the property from Furstenfeld. They planted 60 acres of grapes and began construction on their stone gravity flow winery in 1888. The brothers hired Hamden McIntyre who was in part responsible for the Greystone building currently occupied by the Culinary Institute of America and Eschol Winery – now owned by Trefethen Family Vineyards. Hamden was the Howard Backen of the times; Howard is a well-respected contemporary architect responsible for some of Napa’s most creative and innovative wineries.
While certainly not the first winery in the valley, their operations were notable because they were the first winery in the state to use a gasoline powered engine to crush the grapes. Rennie Brothers Winery was completed in 1900. But then two unfortunate situations arose. Soon after finishing the winery, a fire broke out later that year burning their press and all their barrels of wine. This was a total disaster and coupled with the fact that phylloxera was making its way throughout Napa Valley and into their own vineyards, the brothers soon found themselves out of business.
The property changed hands several times, closed down during Prohibition and was eventually purchased in 1933, by Louis M Martini and his wife Assunta – the same year he founded Martini Winery in St. Helena. While Martini never used the old winery for wine making (rather it was used for storage and aging wines) he sourced some of the grapes growing on the property for use at Martini Winery.
In 1977, the Komes family (Jerry – a former President of Bechtel Corporation and his wife Flora) purchased 325 acres of land from the Martini estate (Louis and Assunta had died several years earlier) including the stone Rennie Brothers Winery and the old Brokehoff Winery (1885) and a home built in 1946 which was at one point was lived in by Louis M. Martini and his family.
The Komes were close to purchasing another winery and property on the Silverado Trail before that deal went through. Incidentally Elton John also put a bid on the property at the same time as the Komes.
Jerry and Flora planned to use the site as a retirement property and grow and sell grapes. However, their children, John and Julie soon became interested in resurrecting the old winery and producing their own wine. In 1977, the buildings were in bad shape; the Rennie Brothers Winery still had burn marks from the devastating fire 77 years prior and John recalls the roof was falling apart and the floor was still dirt (common in wineries of this era and earlier). John was involved in construction at the time, focusing on building mausoleums in the San Francisco Bay Area. Eventually he moved his construction business to the Napa Valley and over the years built or remodeled some of Napa’s most prominent wineries including Far Niente – along with restoring the stone winery on the Flora Springs property.
Perhaps there were plans for caves dating from the original winery – in the late 1800’s an archway was built in the winery next to the hillside indicating potential plans for drilling caves. Those plans didn’t come to fruition until 100+ years later when 13,000 square feet of caves were drilled at various intervals in the late 1990s.
In early 2020, Flora Springs Winery was sold, including 200 acres of which 58 are planted to vine, to Daniel and Florence Cathiard of Bordeaux, France. Not included in the sale was the Flora Springs brand, The Room – the winery’s tasting room on Highway 29 and additional vineyard property owned by the Komes family. Owners of Bordeaux’s Chateau Smith-Haut-Lafitte, the Cathiards (purchased in 1990 and is also their primary residence) own several other winery properties in France including Château Le Thil, Château Cantelys, Château Beauregard and Château Bastor-Lamontagne.
Both Daniel and Florence are champion downhill skiers and were on the French Olympic ski team. They built other careers outside of the wine industry including in advertising and supermarket stores. And they also own several hotels and spas and a ski chalet.
Cathiard Family Estate is perched slightly above the valley floor on the lower slopes of the Mayacamas mountains with vineyards straddling both the Rutherford and St. Helena appellations. The views on a clear day looking to the east are quintessentially Napa – rows of grapevines stretch out as far as one can see until meeting the slopes of the Vaca mountains on the other side of the valley.
The first vintage harvested and produced at the winery was from 2020, overseen by an interim winemaker – an extremely challenging vintage for numerous reasons including due to COVID and some of the most destructive fires in recent memory in the Napa Valley. The fruit that was harvested between the LNU Complex Fire and the Glass Fire was treated gently at first – put into neutral oak after fermentation and later racked into new French oak barrels. It has not shown any signs of smoke taint.
In April 2021 Justine Labbé arrived to the property from France to become the General Manager & Winemaker. While she previously worked a harvest at Pine Ridge Winery, the first time she visited Cathiard Family Estate was in April. Some of her previous experiences included working two harvests at Château Smith Haut Lafitte, a harvest at Moss Creek in Margaret River, Australia and living in very rural Cambodia for the better part of a year introducing agricultural practices and specific crops including permaculture to villages.
The Cathiard’s and Justine’s vision is long term; it is an exciting one that requires significant initial investment and time to elevate the quality of the wines produced. At the time of our visit, numerous soil pits had been dug to analyze differences between several of the vineyard blocks and sub blocks and parts of the vineyard had been replanted. In addition, after the ownership change, the vineyard transitioned to organic farming with biodynamic practices, a new winery building is being built, hospitality spaces are being renovated and significant changes are being made in the cellar including updating winemaking equipment.
Some of the choicest blocks are located on the hillsides, hidden from view from the lower parts of the property. A highly appealing attribute of this property is its natural diversity – as a significant portion of the hillside land remains forested. Several small ponds are used to provide irrigation water as needed. The largest pond is Lake Cathiard/Sinegal, shared with their winery neighbor, Sinegal Estate.
The oldest vines date from 1983; currently the property is planted to a majority of Cabernet Sauvignon, along with Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec. Well regarded Bettinelli Vineyard Management Company oversees the management of the vines. In addition to replanting sections of the vineyard, parts of the hillside have not been planted for more than 20 years and are slated to be planted again.
The changes currently being made to the property are being conducted with purpose and are thoughtfully planned out, both in the vineyard and the cellar. Keep a very close eye on this winery over the coming years and their subsequent wines.
NOTE: this review will continue to be updated closely over the next few years – with another trip to France required to visit the Cathiard owned Bordeaux properties.
For more information visit: www.cathiardfamilyestate.com
BORDEAUX CHATEAU PROPERTIES
Château Smith Haut Lafitte
Daniel and Florence purchased this property in 1990 (records show vines were planted on site in the 14th century) and have elevated the stature of the site and its resulting wines significantly over the decades. It is an extremely picturesque property, with gardens and outdoor art sculptures. Highly unusual for a winery is they own their own cooperage, located on the property. Their control of their barrel program is impressive – from picking out which oak trees to harvest to the seasoning of the staves and assembly of the final barrels.
The 2016 Château Smith Haut Lafitte, Pessac-Leognan (65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 4% Cabernet Franc and 1% Petit Verdot) is deep ruby in color with initial aromas showing notes of mushroom, smoked meats and dried herbs. Its profile is somewhat savory. However, give this wine time to open, and it does so beautifully, quickly evolving to elegant aromatics of raspberry, blackberry and red cherry. One can almost taste the terroir in this wine. Shows an earthiness mid palate through to the finish. The tannins are present but in a complementary role – rounded, slightly chalky and harmonious on the finish. Lingers with mouth watering acidity and flavors of red cherry and currant. Not tart but bright. Begs another sip. This is an extremely well balanced wine which drinks nicely in its youth and certainly will retain its vitality for many years to come. Beautifully done.
Château Let Thil
Les Sources de Caudalie is located across from Château Smith Haut Lafitte and features three restaurant, a spa and a resort.