Sawyer Cellars was founded by Charles and Joanne Sawyer in 1991 with their first vintage, 120 cases of a Cabernet Sauvignon. Charles is the former owner of a company that bears his namesake, Sawyer Gas based in Jacksonville, Florida (now part of the national AmeriGas Company). This sizable company operated from 1960 until Charles sold it in 1991; the time of his sale he had 36,000 customers. The company was involved in a number of propane applications including providing propane for both residential and commercial uses across a diversity of applications. Charles brother began the company in the 1950s; Charles bought out his brothers’ partner in the business in 1958.
Such was Charles’s contributions to the propane industry (including safety measures), that he was inducted into the LP Gas Hall of Fame as the class of 2014; yes there is such a thing and its run by the publication of the same name, serving the propane industry.
Charles and Joanne first visited the Napa Valley in 1984 and met wine maker Brad Warner at a social event in the late 1980s. Brad was working at Robert Mondavi winery at the time; he spent nearly 30 years at Mondavi from 1970 until 1999 working his way up to Mondavi’s Vice President of Production, and then Director of Property & Facilities. When he started at Mondavi, this now iconic producer was just 4 years old.
Both Charles and Brad bonded over a shared passion for wine. Brad recalls early after he had met Charles both he and the Sawyers were attending the annual Napa Valley Wine Auction at Meadowood in St. Helena when a highly usual lot came up for auction. It was a 27 Liter bottle of a rare Robert Mondavi produced sparkling wine that was hand painted by Margrit Mondavi. Brad encouraged Charles to bid on it – which he did.
Charles became more intrigued with wine and in 1994 purchased a 40 acre estate in Rutherford from long time Napa Valley growers, the Yaeger family. Charles intended to sell grapes to area wineries, as vines were already planted on site. There was no winery built – just an old barn dating from the 1930s. After selling their grapes for the 1994 harvest, the following year Brad suggested they make wine from the second crop which was under no contract.
Brad made 135 cases of a Meritage wine in 1995 while he was still working at Robert Mondavi. This was the first vintage he produced at Sawyer Cellars. He would help Charles with the wine making when time permitted – during afternoons and evenings. The vintages of 1995 through 1998 were actually made at what is now Pina Winery along the Silverado Trail, prior to Pina using the building for their own production. Some handsome scores for their wines in the early years helped grow their brand.
By this time Charles was converting the old barn into a winery and digging an underground barrel room on the Rutherford Estate with the Brad’s consulting help; soon he invited Brad to oversee his vineyards and become the winemaker. After nearly 30 years at Robert Mondavi – Brad left in February 1999; Sawyer Cellars opened later that year. Brad would base harvest decisions on taste not chemistry, although supported by certain certain chemistry analysis done in the wine lab. While the vineyard was located on the valley floor due to a variety of soil types, microclimates and other variations, they would often pick up to 20 different times during harvest for their Cabernet Sauvignon.
Their production has dropped significantly since the transition from their Rutherford estate and winery to their current location. The Sawyers sold the winery and surrounding property to Foley Family Wines in 2012. However, they did not sell the Sawyer Cellars label and continue to produce these wines at a business park location south of the city of Napa.
Today they produce under 500 cases annually with most wines crafted in the 100-case range. 2014 was the last vintage entirely from their original Rutherford estate. Starting in 2015 they continued to source some fruit from this property but now source grapes from select other vineyards in Napa Valley.
The 2014 Sawyer Cellars Sauvignon Blanc was barrel fermented and underwent no secondary fermentation. The acid is all natural. The wine is blended with a small amount of Sauvignon Musque which Brad indicates brings a pleasing sweetness of fruit to the palate. It is pale straw yellow in the glass. On the bouquet, the wine shows lively aromatics with notes of green apple and kiwi. On the palate a flinty characteristic shows along with grapefruit and red apple. This is an ideal food wine but also drinks well by itself.
The 2009 Sawyer Cellars Meritage (current release at the time of our visit) shows ripe fruit (blackberry) with tinges of cigar smoke on the bouquet and caramel notes. There is a certain savory characteristic to the aromas as well. The entry is rounded and gentle on the palate lingering with meaty, yet well integrated tannins and a pleasing tartness. Like their Sauvignon Blanc, this is also a good food wine. This wine normally sees 20-24 months in oak and then another 18 months in bottle before being released. Like when harvesting the grapes based on taste, they also choose barrel selections and make their blends based on what tastes best. There is no formula for this wine each year and the varietal percentages also vary vintage to vintage.The 2006 Sawyer Cellars Estate Sauvignon Blanc offers aromatics and also flavors and mouth feel which might lead one to believe they are drinking Chardonnay. Not so. This is a somewhat unusual Sauvignon Blanc in Napa Valley in that it was aged in oak sur lie for 8 months, which means it has a creaminess and weight on the mid palate one doesn’t normally find in Napa Valley produced Sauvignon Blancs. Rather than the cut grass and herbaceous flavors one often finds from Sauvignon Blanc sourced from cooler regions, this wine is robust with its nutty aromas, almost caramel like which transition to pineapple after the bouquet evolves in the glass. This is followed by a supple textured palate of pear and apricot flavors with noticeable mineralities.
The 2004 Sawyer Cellars Estate Merlot is 100% varietal; this is a well-balanced wine. Note the hint of oak and spices especially towards the finish. Our favorite wine from our first tasting at Sawyer Cellars was the 2004 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. The bouquet is a fruit forward wine with elegant well integrated aromas of blackberry, and cherry followed by a palate offering hints of vanilla. The finish is smooth and long. The 2018 vintage of their Merlot took the Best of Napa County award in the North Coast Wine Challenge.
NOTE: this section of the review has been identified as needing a major updating including tasting notes for current release wines.
Sawyer Gas, Hampton Florida + AmeriGas Bradenton area, Florida
Still very much family owned, Charlie’s Jacksonville, Florida based daughter Suzanne has been involved in sales for the winery for many years; another daughter Charlene also oversees marketing and other management duties.
Tastings are for Sawyer Cellar club members interested in a highly personalized tasting in their self-titled small ‘Sawyer Room’. Tastings include a flight of their current releases and often a barrel sample. A visit here is in an area of Napa referred to as the South Napa District (a business/industrial part of the Napa Valley just south of the city of Napa) – where artisan producers, often without vineyards make their wines under the radar compared to the more visible up valley wineries.
Membership entries are still available for two wine clubs, the Bradford Level and the Gold Dust – each limited to 100 members. For more information, to schedule a visit, for a list of family recipes which pair well with their wines or to purchase wines, visit: www.sawyercellars.com