James Cole Estate Winery is located a short distance off of the Silverado Trail at the junction of the Oak Knoll Crossroad – the winery is very easy to find. They specialize in estate grown and produced Cabernet Sauvignon which makes sense based on their location just south of the famous Stags Leap Wine District – one of most well-known Cabernet Sauvignon producing districts in Napa Valley.
The winery name combines James’ first name and part of his wife Colleen’s first name. James was born outside of Edmonton Alberta; he has enjoyed a long career centered around wine. As soon as he graduated from Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, he took a job at Vincor International (now part of Constellation brands); by the time he left Vincor he was their Vice President of Marketing. James worked for Inniskillin Winery for some time – famous for their ice wines (more about that later). And he spent some time at Mission Hill Winery in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, arguably the most well-known winery in the Okanagan Valley. Mission Hill was founded in 1966; during a personal visit to their picturesque property, it felt of the caliber and pedigree of Robert Mondavi Winery. Incidentally the founder of Mission Hill, Anthony von Mandl also began Mike’s Hard Lemonade Co. After moving to California, James worked for Napa based Wilson Daniels (a prominent wine marketing company) and then later, together with long time Napa vintner Jim Regusci began and eventually sold Nine North Wine Company (responsible for creating and marketing a number of negociant type brands).
The James Cole logo is not a Texas Longhorn however inviting it might be to think that when one sees a bottle of their wine. Rather, this logo is derived from a beautiful metal sculpture made by a Hispanic artist whose artwork focuses on sculptures of the human form. James and Colleen spotted this piece of art in a gallery in Laguna Beach (Southern California); it now resides in the winery across from the tasting counter.
Colleen is from Whittier in Los Angeles County – after graduating from USC with a Communications degree she worked in the finance sector. Eventually she started her own financial agency in San Francisco.
James and Colleen purchased this 11-acre property in 2000; they planted the vineyard soon after their purchase. The site used to be an old dilapidated equestrian center and the winery building sits in the footprint of one of the original buildings. Nine of the eleven acres are planted to three clones of Cabernet Sauvignon. Fruit from each clone is kept separate during the aging and then blended for the final wine. All production is very limited with each wine in the 100 to 400 case range with total production around 750 cases.
The fist vintage of James Cole was from 2003. Prior to the winery being built, they made the first few vintages of the James Cole wines at Regusci Winery until their own winery was completed in 2007. The winery building was designed by architect John David Rulon, whose company Rulon Works also worked on several other Napa Valley based wineries including Amulet Estate and Revana Vineyards.
The tasting experience is relaxing with very knowledgeable and friendly staff and is held indoors at the tasting counter or at tables outside, weather permitting.
The James Cole 2015 Il Mostro is a blend of 76% Zinfandel with most of this variety coming from older vines growing on the highest vineyard on Howell Mountain (Black Sears) and 24% Petite Sirah from Oakville. Initially shows aromas of toasted oak, cedar and as the wine opens pretty dessert spices including mocha and toffee. The bouquet features plenty of fruit including blackberry and baked cherry along with black licorice. Both red and darker fruits show on the palate; nicely balanced, this medium bodied wine features slightly dusty tannins anchoring a long finish showing a sweetness of fruit, a spice component and good acidity.
The James Cole 2016 Malbec is 100% varietal (fairly rare to find in the Napa Valley). This wine was sourced from Trefethen Vineyards (only Trefethen and James Cole have access to this limited planting in the Oak Knoll District). The bouquet is decidedly fruit forward (as opposed to some Malbecs which tend to be more earthy in nature). Shows aromas of raspberry and Asian spice. Has plenty of depth on the palate and packs loads of flavor. The tannins are still a bit wound in its youth – they are long lasting with a firm grip on the finish.
The 2006 James Cole Chardonnay saw minimal malolactic fermentation and oak aging; it is crisp and full of fruit flavors including nuances of apple and pear. It’s extremely hard to find a 100% varietal Malbec in Napa (think Mendoza, Argentina), but James Cole does a very nice job with this wine. The 2005 James Cole Malbec was made with fruit from the Oakville district. It is a concentrated wine with great color – very dark and inky in the glass offering flavors of licorice and cherry on the palate – this is a good wine for aging.
The 2004 James Cole Cabernet Sauvignon is a medium bodied wine but not as robust as the style of many Napa grown & produced contemporary Cabernet Sauvignon wines. The nose is very earthy with dominating notes of black cherries and the mouth feel is full bodied and smooth. Food friendly, certainly.
In what used to be a very unique offering for a Napa based winery, for a number of years James Cole tasted visitors on the Jaden Pinot Noir Icewine from the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia. This was a rare wine that was made in extremely small quantities; James Cole only received 75 cases of the 2004 vintage and a typical vintage was under 100 cases. James’ brother Jeff used to farm this vineyard. James Cole no longer offers this wine, but Jeff is still very much involved in the Oakanagan wine scene – he owns and operates Ex Nihilo Winery and vineyards (see our notes below).
This was a wine that was quite difficult to make for many reasons. The grapes hang on the vine well after the normal harvest often until the end of December and they have to be netted to keep out all the hungry birds and other animals. By regulation, the temperature for 3 consecutive nights must be -8C or lower and then what little juice you can get from these desiccated grapes comes from pressing them right in the vineyards. The Brix (sugar level) is usually in the upper 30’s low 40’s. This wine was then aged in small Acacia wood barrels which helped impart a honey spiciness into the wine.
The 2004 Jaden Pinot Noir offers a pretty nose with some hints of flowers including roses and freshly cut ripe red apple; the feel on the palate is crisp (due to excellent acidity) and is not overly sweet. This is definitely one of the highlights of the dessert wines that we have tasted on our journey through Napa Valley.
The barrel room contains a large sit-down table; and sometimes they show movies from the projector on site. The staff tends to prefer Rolling Stones music so this is most often what you will hear playing at the winery. This is a boutique winery that while visible from the Silverado Trail prefers to keep a lower profile compared to some of their neighbors. The wines are only available at the winery as they offer no retail distribution.
And in October 2017 their property was right next to the terrible fires that razed a number of their neighbors’ homes and completely burned the nearby Signorello Estate Winery to the ground. In fact, the fire came onto their property and burned a few small buildings but fortunately the winery is built of stone and did not burn.
Current total production is around 2,500 cases annually – with distribution 100% direct to consumer. For more information and or to join one of their wine club membership levels, visit: www.jamescolewinery.com
Ex Nihilo Vineyards & CHAOS Bistro
Ex Nihilo Vineyards is located in the Okanagan Valley about a 30-minute drive north of Kelowna on a hill perched above Okanagan Lake. This is Canada’s second largest wine region (behind Niagara) and produces the majority of wine in British Columbia. Grapes were first planted in the region beginning in 1859. Like the U.S. Canada also had Prohibition in the 1900s both for a short time during World War I but also at other intervals enacted by provinces and this impacted grape growing in the region. Unlike Napa Valley, which is primarily a monoculture focusing on wine grapes, the Okanagan Valley produces numerous other crops including plenty of cherry orchards. The Okanagan Valley is located at the same latitude at Champagne, France but differs in that the Okanagan Lake helps moderate the climate. The oldest winery in British Columbia is Calona Vineyards founded in 1932 (located in Kelowna).
The winery was founded by Jim Harder’s brother, Jeff Harder and his wife Decoa on site of an old apple orchard; they purchased the site which would become their vineyard and winery in 2003. While living in Calgary, Jeff and Decoa took a trip to Napa Valley in 1999; during the second week of their trip, they spotted a model replica of the Ex Nihilo sculpture at a gallery in San Francisco. Ex Nihilio is the largest by far in a series of creation sculptures by 20th century sculptor, Frederick Hart who spent 10 years working on these particular pieces of art. His original marble sculpture (21 feet long and approximately two stories high) is located on the Washington National Cathedral. Inspired by both Napa Valley and this sculpture, Jeff and Decoa began to more seriously consider getting into the wine business.
Referring back to Hart’s sculpture, Jeff and Decoa chose to name their winery Ex Nihilo, which means to make something from nothing. When they purchased this property there were no vines and no winery. They have built their business from the ground up. The small winery is located on the lower level with both individual tank and cellar rooms.
Visits are fun and educational with experiences built around guests having a great time. One of the axioms at Ex Nihilio is that guests arrive as strangers but leave as friends. Through CHAOS Bistro on site, Ex Nihilo offers seasonal farm to table dinners available by reservation (an experience completely different than any winery in Napa Valley where restaurants are kept completely separate from wineries). The focus of CHAOS Bistro is strongly on local – sourcing from regional growers and purveyors. And conveniently, each item on the CHAOS Bistro menu is listed with a suggested Ex Nihilio wine pairing.
And Ex Nihilo operates Creatio Ex Nihilo, a gallery at the winery showcasing select works of local artists through a partnership with Gallery 421 in Kelowna.
The focus of their winemaking is on using both estate fruit from the vineyard surrounding the winery and hospitality center, a second vineyard under ownership (Rise Vineyard) and from grapes sourced from select growers in the region. Ex Nihilo Vineyards produces wines bottled under four distinctive labels: Ex Nihilo, XXX, Privata and Black Star x Ex Nihilo.
The 2021 Ex Nihilo Vineyards Riesling is 100% varietal. The bouquet offers aromas of honeysuckle and some tropical floral notes jasmine. Also honeycomb. Simply put, the aromas smell wonderful. As the nose opens further, shows additional notes of citrus including citrus blossom. This wine is clean, crisp and not complicated. Offers flavors of lemon/lime.
The 2020 Ex Nihilo Vineyards XXX Gewürztraminer is pale straw in color. Features a sweetness deeper in the aromatics. The bouquet primarily shows guava, lychee, pineapple and mango. There are also some nuances of papaya and candied pear. The texture is slightly creamy with a very subtle bitter note on entry. This is a rich showing across the palate with flavors of stone fruits including nectarine and white peach. The fruit filled finish is persistent and keeps one going back for another sip. This is the first ever Ex Nihilo bottling of Gewürztraminer and is a wine well worth seeking out.
The 2021 Ex Nihilo Vineyards Pinot Gris offers layers of citrus aromas on the bouquet including of lemon zest and citrus blossom along with gooseberry and green apple. The texture is noticeably light across the palate with flavors of gooseberry and some minerality notes. This is an easy drinking wine.
The 2020 Ex Nihilo Vineyards Privata Chardonnay was aged for 10 months in oak. This wine offers excellent acidity across the palate complemented nicely by a roundness which is slightly creamy in texture. Offers flavors of green apple, and citrus including a lemon zest. Slightly grassy. The colorful artwork contributed on this bottle and other Privata bottlings were created by Jeff’s three sons.
The 2020 Ex Nihilo Vineyards Pinot Noir is pale ruby. The bouquet offers aromatics showing more strawberry than raspberry. It also offers aromas of rhubarb, white pepper and red cherry. This wine smells like the variety. Features flavors of red cherry, cranberry and red plum. It is higher toned on palate. One can feel the light texture of tannins on the finish along with notes of green tea leaf.
The 2019 Ex Nihilo Vineyards Merlot is medium ruby color; the bouquet offers a variety of aromatics including a woodsy spice note, red licorice, tobacco and crushed peppercorn. The palate offers flavors of cranberry, red currant and not quite ripe red cherry. High acid. Higher toned. The tannins are light gravely in texture and they persist for some time, lingering with a brightness of acidity.
The 2019 Ex Nihilo Vineyards Malbec offers a diversity of aromatics including an earthy note combined with red fruits and crushed pepper. The palate is a bit savory with flavors of cherry and red plum. Features mouthwatering acidity lingering on the finish. The tannins are lighter style and of a gravely texture.
The 2019 Ex Nihilo Vineyards Night Bordeaux blend is medium ruby in color. The bouquet offers aromas of dried tobacco, pepper, a hint of old saddle leather and plenty of darker fruit. Also offers some earth notes. The palate features flavors of black currant, raspberry, red plum skin, cranberry and sour cherry. This wine showcases excellent acidity and is very well balanced. Lingers savory for quite some time on the finish showcasing darker tannins, cracked pepper and a noticeable brightness of acidity. This wine has plenty of life ahead of it. This is the flagship bottling from Ex Nihilo.
The 2018 Ex Nihilo Vineyards Riesling Ice Wine. Medium gold color. Offers aromas of honey, apricot, nectarine and dried straw. The nose is sweet smelling but not overly so. The palate shows flavors of peaches in canned syrup but without the syrupy characteristics. This wine features a vibrant acid backbone along with a noticeable intensity of flavor including of apricot. The texture is slightly rounded.
Total production varies each year but is usually between 12,000 and 15,000 cases. Several wine club options are available, including the option for guests to customize their shipments. Wine club members are all from Canada. For more information, visit: www.exnihilovineyards.com