Dana Estates (pronounced da-nuh) is located in the heart of Rutherford on benchland soils just above the valley floor nestled against the edge of the Mayacamas mountains. This estate is historically rich; it is home to a ghost winery (stone wineries that were built before prohibition) founded in 1883 by H.W. Helms, a German immigrant and viticulturist.
The winery closed during Prohibition and grapes from the property were not used for making wine until John (a petroleum engineer and geologist by training) and Diane Livingston purchased the site in 1976 and crafted their first wine in 1984 labeled as Livingston Vineyards, later the name was changed to Livingston-Moffet. A number of accomplished winemakers worked with Livingston-Moffet over the years including Randy Dunn (Dunn Vineyards), John Kongsgaard (Kongsgaard Cellars), Marco Di Giulio and Juan Mercado (Realm Cellars). While Livingston-Moffet produced wine from the property, they never actually produced wine on site.
Dana Estates is owned by South Korean businessman Hi Sang Lee; he has been involved in a wide diversity of businesses over a lengthy career including flour, pet foods and grain production, a car dealership, a restaurant and a wine bar among other ventures. Mr. Lee has been an avid wine collector and enthusiast for many years and founded Nara Cellar in 1997, a fine wine distribution company headquartered in Seoul, South Korea. During Lee’s travels around the world, he would visit wine regions including Napa Valley seeking out premium wines and ultimately introduced a number of the Napa Valley’s finest wines to the South Korean luxury market. He has long appreciated Napa Valley, especially for its Cabernet Sauvignon.
His introduction to Napa Valley came from the late Tom Shelton (former President and CEO of Joseph Phelps). Trips to Napa became more frequent; during one trip he was scheduled to visit a number of properties potentially for sale. Livingston-Moffet was his first stop and last stop – he immediately fell in love with the property and John and Diane’s rooster collection – Lee was born in the year of the rooster. In 2005 he purchased this property from John and Diane who were forced to sell after the infamous Mare Island warehouse fire destroyed all of their library wines and current release wines leaving them in a matter of hours, without any product to sell. For more information about that tragedy reference, Tangled Vines: Greed, Murder, Obsession, and an Arsonist in the Vineyards of California, by author Frances the book by Frances Dinkelspiel.
At the time of his purchase the old ghost winery was crumbling and only parts of 4 walls were standing. Mr. Lee interviewed seven different architectural firms – six of whom wanted to remove the old walls and start from scratch. Fortunately, one of the seven firms led by well-known architect, Howard Backen of Backen & Gillam Architects had another idea. He told Mr. Lee they should preserve and incorporate the old stone walls into the winery. Backen’s firm has designed a number of premium wineries in the Napa Valley including Harlan Estate, BOND and Futo Estate among others – as well as Poetry Inn, Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute in Utah and other prominent international designs. Later solar panels in the hills just west of the winery were installed by SolarCraft – and today powers all the winery’s electrical needs.
After all the renovations, the old ghost winery is now a beautiful blend between history, function and visual appeal. The winery is state of the art while the hospitality space offers a feel of sophisticated elegance. Note the groves cut into part of the rocks on the floor of the courtyard, extending into the winery. These were crafted to resemble the look of rooves on houses in Korea. This might just be our favorite Backen designed winery in all of Napa Valley.
This is a “winemaker’s winery” and is setup entirely with their vineyards and small lots in mind. Unlike nearly all other Napa wineries we have visited to date, stainless steel tanks are nowhere to be found – they are not used for fermentations. Three individual fermentation rooms correspond to three of their vineyard sites. The Helms Cabernet Sauvignon is fermented in large, customized oak tanks. Much of the Hershey Vineyard wines are barrel fermented in French oak barriques of various sizes located inside the Hershey room; this part of the cave can be heated and cooled as needed. Tts interior is framed by curved metal arches meant to resemble the hoops on oak barrels. Grapes from the Lotus Vineyard are fermented in several sized concrete vessels with the idea that these particular vessels help soften some of the robust tannins that the Lotus Vineyard is known for. Some of the wines are also fermented within oak barrels; these are located on OXO rollers so that the barrels can be rolled during fermentation to maximize extraction.
Well-regarded Philippe Melka has been the consulting winemaker since the inaugural vintage; he also offered significant input during the design and construction phase. With his expertise in the vineyards including a background in geology, his wine making prowess and blending mastery, he is one of the Napa Valley’s most sought-after winemakers. Several winemakers have worked with Philippe at Dana Estates over the years including Cameron Vawter and current winemaker Chris Cooney (formerly of Provenance Vineyards).
How wastewater is handled is always an important component of wineries but falls into one of the non glamorous topics, rarely discussed. Dana Estates uses two AdvanTex AX100 treatment units installed by Sutherlin, Oregon based Orenco Systems. These units are designed to handle up to more than 2,650 gallons a day. Two additional units are used to treat all the wastewater from the tasting room.
The estate is 30 acres of which 6 are currently planted to vine (Helms Vineyard). Vines were originally planted on site in 1880, a time when this part of the valley was starting experience a significant vineyard expansions. Several old stone wineries dating from the 1880s are located within close proximity to Dana Estates including Cathiard Family Estate.
Their property sits in the northeast portion of the Rutherford appellation, just south of the St. Helena appellation and is located on the Rutherford Bench; soils that are not directly on the valley floor yet not a part of the Mayacamas mountains either. This is a slightly elevated section of land on the western side of the Rutherford appellation that has formed during millions of years through erosion. As a result, these soils are composed of both gravel and loam and provide excellent drainage. Benchland soils next to both the Mayacamas and Vaca mountain ranges are among some of the most coveted sites in Napa Valley for planting vineyards.
Their other three vineyards are hillside, located on the other side of the valley in the Vaca mountains. The Hershey Vineyard is located at about 1,800 feet on Howell Mountain and is planted to nearly 35 acres of vines. Winemaker Chris Cooney calls this their most complex vineyard site with its multiple exposures, numerous soil types and growing six varieties including Sauvignon Blanc. The Lotus Vineyard is around 1200 feet on the slopes just below the Howell Mountain appellation and lies directly above the Crystal Springs Vineyard which is around 800 feet in elevation.
All their vineyards are all farmed organically; attention to detail is paramount – the vineyards are farmed vine by vine based on each vine’s individual need. Yields are also low especially from their hillside vineyards and are usually under 2 tons per acre. Total planted vineyard acreage among their four properties is around 60 acres.
Dana Estates presently focuses their winemaking efforts on producing several unique wines, single 100% Cabernet Sauvignon bottlings from each of their 3 vineyards. Production will remain small. Their first few vintages in total were under 500 cases.
Dana Estates cultivates a 1.64 acre block of a ‘mystery clone’ Sauvignon Blanc planted at the Hersey Vineyard at about 1,800 feet on Howell Mountain. This rare hillside planting produces one of Napa Valley’s most exceptional and exciting bottlings (and most expensive). In 2018, only 90 cases of this wine were produced, and it is only sold at the winery. This thoughtfully made wine is fermented in a variety of different sized oak vessels including cigar shaped barrels and larger puncheons. During its aging it undergoes regular battonage which helps build weight and contributes to the wine’s overall mouth feel.
The 2018 Dana Estates Sauvignon Blanc (100% varietal) is medium gold in color offering bright aromatics on the bouquet including chamomile, lemongrass, cut grass, young fir tips crushed between one’s fingers and a lemon zest. The bouquet offers some herbal characteristics but without any greenness. And this wine is so well layered it needs time for these layers to fully express themselves. As the wine evolves it offers additional scents of vanilla, a honeyed note and assorted stone fruits. We have tried this bottling several times over the years. Our most recent tasting was 5 years post vintage; it clearly still has plenty of life ahead of it. At this age this wine is singing an inspirational operatic movement between racy acidity, an intensity of flavor, and appealing texture. It sports flavors of mandarin, apple, and a citrus zest. And it lingers bright with long lasting fruit. Beautifully done.
The 2019 Dana Estates Cabernet Sauvignon Hershey Vineyard is 100% varietal and was produced from two clones of Cabernet Sauvignon including See and 191. This wine is deep ruby and opaque in the glass; the bouquet sports aromas of plum, boysenberries, old cedar box, dried herbs, black olives and crushed rocks. Strapping in its youth, its full-bodied and powerful character is immediately evident. It offers layers of both flavor and texture including of plum, blackberry and blueberry along with dried herbs mirroring one of the aromas. The finish offers pixelated and broadly distributed tannins with a persistent drying character accompanied by dark spices including a note of pepper. We tried this bottling 4 years post vintage; it still shows as extremely youthful. The finish is big and memorable – this wine has several decades of life ahead of it with the proper aging.
The 2006 Dana Estates Helms Cabernet Sauvignon is dark ruby in color; the bouquet is and reveals enticing aromas of both darker spices, with red and dark fruits along with a pleasing floral character. The palate expresses layers of flavor tending more towards dark fruit including black cherry and black currant. The finish shows a dustiness accompanied by broadly distributed and ripe tannins. The long finish hangs on the back of the palate for quite some time. This is a rare wine which shows both elegance and power.
The 2006 Dana Estates Lotus Vineyard is a big dark mountain grown wine which delivers an unbridled richness in its youth, both in the nose and on the palate. Aromatically the bouquet is quite appealing; it is complex “candy store” offering scents of black licorice, baking spices, black fig and other notes of dark fruit. This aromatic intensity and richness is echoed on the palate with dark fruit including black licorice, black cherry and blackberry. There are also hints of mineralities and an earthiness. These layers of flavor lead to a robust finish with broad structured tannins. Again, this wine features an extended and most satisfying finish.
The wines of Dana Estates are carefully hand-crafted with an inherent respect for terroir; these bottlings will appeal to serious wine enthusiasts and collectors. They have the power to age gracefully for several decades yet the elegance to drink now. With the structure, fruit, acidity and balance, these wines will continue to evolve and develop additional intriguing complexities given time.
The name Dana is Sanskrit, translating to “the spirit of generosity” and ties in to the “generosity” that nature hopefully gives each year with its production. In addition, it was Hi Sang Lee’s childhood nickname. Every bottle of Dana Estates contains 12 lotus flowers, each representing the 12 months of the calendar year. Lotus flowers also signify rebirth and, in this case, symbolize the rebirth that the vineyards experience every year.
The first vintage of VASO Cellars was in 2006 and until 2012 was exclusively sold in the South Korean market. 2013 was the first release to the international market, including domestically. VASO Cellars (meaning cup or vessel and inspired by the white porcelain Korean Moon Jar, national treasures, the earliest of which date back some 600+ years) was created to introduce wines (at a lower price point then the extremely limited production Dana Estate wines) to a wider audience of serious wine enthusiasts. The backbone of VASO Cellar are grapes from the Hershey Vineyard.
The 2013 VASO Cellars Sauvignon Blanc from their Hershey Vineyard is golden yellow in the glass with a distinctive bouquet featuring a diversity of aromas including pear, red apple and papaya along with subtle dessert spices. A thread of sweetness also shows with more subtle notes of lemon zest. Features a lovely balance on the palate with a rounded creamy almost briny texture complemented nicely by good acidity. Even six years after the vintage date at the time of our tasting, the finish is still bright and energetic. This wine was aged for 18 months in 13% new French oak, 72% once used French oak barrels and 15% stainless steel vessels. It underwent battonage for the first 9 months of its aging, then was racked once for blending just prior to bottling.
The 2019 VASO Cellars Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (also blended with Malbec and Merlot) is deep ruby in color; the bouquet is not shy offering plenty of ripe fruit including dark plum, black cherry, blackberry, boysenberry and plum accompanied by scents of freshly tilled dry soil, cedar wood, dark chocolate, mocha and Graham cracker. It offers an initial sweetness of fruit on the front including of dark cherry and raspberry along with some dried herbs towards the back of the palate; the flavors drop off fairly quickly and are hidden to some extent by it’s texture. The grainy, drying and broadly distributed tannins contained within continue to persist for quite some time on the long finish. These are primarily felt as grape tannins, not wood tannins as the influence of oak seems on the lighter side. The majority of the grapes for this wine came from the Hershey Vineyard on Howell Mountain.
The 2013 VASO Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon (a blend of also 5% Malbec, 3% Merlot and 3% Petit Verdot) is a darker shade of garnet; the bouquet immediately offers dark fruit aromatics – it is layered and continues to evolve nicely as the wine opens showing more fruit. There is also a dessert spice nuance including of vanilla and darker chocolate. Expansive in its flavor profile with mostly darker fruit including ripe blackberry. Firm, still youngish tannins anchor a mouthwatering finish. This wine definitely has plenty of age ahead of it.
Compared to the 2013 vintage in Napa Valley, in general the 2014 vintage tended to be more approachable in its youth. However, Chris noticed that their 2014 wines as they have aged in the bottle have developed more complexities and power since their initial releases. The 2014 VASO Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon offers a medley of aromas including darker berry fruits, vintage cedar box, a dusty nuance, tobacco and a slight hint of menthol. Well layered on the palate with flavors of darker cherry and blackberry. The tannins show a firm grip but are cohesive in their feel and integration on the finish.
Limited appointments are available to taste the wines of VASO Cellars. For more information and to request an appointment, visit: www.vasocellars.com
Onda is a Cabernet Sauvignon based blend sourced from grapes from their four vineyards.
The 2019 Onda Napa Valley is a blend of 97% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Petit Verdot and 1% Cabernet Franc. This wine is dark ruby in color; the sweetly fruited aromatics also offer a savory character, we don’t often associate these two characteristics with each other especially from Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. The nose offers scents of dark plum, red licorice, cranberry, old cedar box and dried herbs. Some of these savory characters are also expressed on the rich palate which sports flavors of plum, cherry, and currant. The tannins are well-integrated and slightly grainy or granulated in their textural feel. A dusty nuance along with some darker spices continues to persist on the bright, fresh and long finish.
The 2015 Onda is deep ruby and opaque in the glass. The bouquet is clearly focused on the purity of fruit. It offer aromas of red berries including raspberry and currant along with a note of red plum. This wine smells more youthful than perhaps its actual age (8 years post vintage at the time of our tasting). The palate is superbly balanced with a savory finish including a woodsy spice and a note of crushed black pepper. The long lasting tannins eventually outpace the fruit on the finish.
ORIGINAL BUSINESSES, SOUTH KOREA
NARA CELLAR Co., Ltd
was established in Korea in 1997. Based in Seoul in the H Business Park on the 7th floor of Tower A Building this is South Korea’s leading supplier of international wines – with more than 500 wines represented from wine regions around the globe (primarily Europe and the USA). In 2023, Nara Cellar went public and is traded on the KOSDAQ index as A405920.
As expected, their portfolio includes numerous wines from Napa Valley including some of the valley’s most coveted brands (Colgin, Harlan Estate, Screaming Eagle and Grace Family among others).
Four other integral parts of the company include Dana Glass & Beverage (importing stemware from Germany and VOSS water from Norway), Winetime (select retail stores in Seoul), Oaklime (importing domestic and foreign beverages) and The Box, an eCommerce system in China directed to Chinese consumers.
vin.ga Wine Bar (this space is permanently closed, we keep our notes here for historical reference)
is located within about a 10-minute walk from the Apgujeong Metro stop on the orange line (line number 3) in Seoul South Korea. This chic wine bar founded in 2005 and owned by Hi Sang Lee is located one floor below the street level. Dimly lit this space offers small plates along with an impressive wine list from around the world (over 700 selections) with a focus on Europe along with numerous heavy hitters from the Napa Valley. Also, older vintages available for purchase. All visits per table require the purchase of at least one bottle of wine.
Seating is at the bar, inside the circular wine room or at any one of the tables in the primary dining space. A small stage is setup – musicians often perform Jazz. Has received recognition for their wine selections from the Wine Spectator. Arguably the best wine bar in the country. Valet parking is available.
As of the latest update to this review, Nara Cellar operates 7 Winetime branches (most are within Seoul and several are outside of Seoul) including at the following locations: Apgujeong, Songpa Branch, Jongno Branch, Yeouido Branch, Samsung Branch, Pangyo Branch and Busan Branch. But note that this information may be out of date.
These shops are small and focus on the wines that Nara Cellars imports into Korea. Stemware from German and VOSS Water are also available for purchase.
Wine education events are sometimes offered with visiting sommeliers and winemaker dinners. Nara Cellar also operates Exfoliate Wine Shop (opened in 2021).
Dana Estates sells through their mailing list, to visitors to the winery and a very limited number of brick and mortar and online retailers. One can also find their wine locally at several premium wine shops in Napa Valley including ACME Fine Wines and the Oakville Grocery and neighboring Oakville Wine Merchant. For more information visit: www.danaestates.com
Helms, Winery Estate
Hershey, Howell Mountain