Vida Valiente in Spanish translates to a valiant life. This winery is owned by Hayes and Susana Drumwright and winemaker Sam Kaplan and his wife Nancy. The first vintage of Vida Valiente was from 2019. In 2017, Hayes and Susanna purchased a 17.5 acre property east of St. Helena on Crystal Springs Road. It is located in what will be Napa Valley’s newest sub appellation, Crystal Springs. This property was formerly owned by several families with local brands or wineries including Davies (Schramsberg) and Kornell (Paula Kornell Sparkling). And it had never been planted to grapes, rather it was an old walnut orchard.
It was planted in 2018 with the assistance of Kaplan and viticulturist Jim Barbour. Four acres of vines currently grow on the property at the base of Glass Mountain. This ‘hill’ takes its name from all the obsidian rock found in the region, including plenty of these stones scattered in the soils among their vines. Prior to the 2020 fires a small block within a colder part of the vineyard was planted to Chenin Blanc. But the fires unfortunately destroyed both these young vines and the surrounding forest which was providing shade. As a result, the vines were replanted to Cabernet Sauvignon. Plans are underway to eventually build a cave winery (the architectural firm is Signum Architecture) and a small hospitality space.
This part of Napa Valley is not far from the main valley floor but feels worlds away. There is a pleasing balance of both natural wooded landscape plus small vineyards. This premium vineyard neighborhood includes nearby winery/vintner neighbors Merus, Gibbs and Hundred Acre.
Sam was born in Boston but when he was a child moved to Oklahoma where his father was finishing his medical residency. His father and his friends developed the urge to produce home wine, purchasing grapes locally as well as from California. They made the wine in a garage. This was Sam’s first introduction to winemaking. After graduating high school he moved to Lake Oswego (near Portland, OR) and attended Lewis and Clark College with the intention of eventually becoming a doctor.
Sam went to Spain for a semester and became hooked by the food and wine culture. Upon returning he wasn’t sure he wanted to continue on the path of pre-med. One of his friend’s fathers was Gary Andrus, the co-founder of Pine Ridge and the founder of Archery Summit Winery in the Willamette Valley. He and Gary became friends. Gary noticed Sam was brewing beer in his college house and buying inexpensive wine. He told Sam that he possessed a good palate. One day he asked him what his plans were and Sam said he was going to work on a fishing boat in Alaska for several months.
Gary suggested that maybe he would consider moving to Napa Valley to work in the wine industry. But Sam first spent a summer in Alaska. Gary’s influence eventually convinced him to move to Napa Valley. Sam and his mom drove from Colorado in a 1985 Land Cruiser to Berkeley where his sister was living. Eventually he moved to Napa Valley and took his first job for Gary at Pine Ridge working in the vineyards. The following year he worked in the cellar.
One of his more educational jobs was at ZD Wines where he became the cellar master. Karen Fontanella, the wife of one of Sam’s winemaker friends Jeff, was doing some legal work for Susan and Ron Krausz who were in the early stages of developing Arkenstone, their vineyards and winery on Howell Mountain. They needed a full time winemaker who could dedicate the time to their vineyard and property. Karen recommended Sam to them; he has made all vintages of Arkenstone wines since their inaugural bottling in 2006.
He and Nancy started their own brand Maxem in 2015; both knew they wanted to focus on varieties other than Cabernet Sauvignon. Their production is on Sonoma County grown Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from premium vineyards in the west county including the Ulises Valdez Vineyard. In 2021, after a winemaker introduced them to a property, they purchased 7.5 acres near Occidental in Sonoma County which was already planted to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. They produced their first wine from this property in 2023.
The Vida Valiente wines show varying degrees of texture in their youth, but all display a firm and robust tannin profile which ultimately outpaces the fruit. These wines are certainly built to age. And the early single vineyard designates focus on wines sourced from newly planted vineyards or in the case of To Kalon, a replant.
The V in Vida Valiente is prominently incorporated into their handsome logo and is designed in such a way to visually represent the peaks and valleys that one invariably experiences during a lifetime. And in particular, the wine business.
Sam was introduced to the owners of the High Ranch Vineyard in Coombsville, Sean and Connie Gutterson (whose own brand is Freedom Estate) through another vineyard owner, Mark Davidowski, the owner of Vangone Vineyard on Atlas Peak. Sam oversaw the planting, along with viticulturist Mike Wolf of the 5 acres, entirely to Cabernet Sauvignon. 2021 was the first harvest from this hillside vineyard.
The 2021 Vida Valiente High Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon is deep ruby and opaque with an amaranthine rim in the glass; this wine like all of the other Vida Valiente wines is definitely not lacking in color. The bouquet offers aromas of petrichor, old cedar box, dried herbs including sage and a floral note including of lavender. The fruit doesn’t necessary show right away and this bottling in particular needs time to open in its youth. And when it does its core of fruit becomes much more expressive. Deeper in the aromas are hints of cardamom and clove. Full bodied, youthful and packed with flavor, the palate offers notes of plum, boysenberry and blackberry with a lingering nuance of dried tobacco leaf. The tannins are broadly distributed, not yet fully resolved in their youth and persist with a firm and grippy character.
The 2021 Vida Valiente To Kalon Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon is deep ruby and opaque in the glass; the elegant bouquet offers a diversity of aromas including of red chili spice, old cedar, sage, blueberry and some beautiful floral layers including of violets, lavender, and rose petals. Give this bottling time to breath for the layers of fruit to come forward. The palate is darkly fruited including flavors of plum, blackberry, cherry and mulberry. On the palate, this wine is like a boisterous teenager, full of energy and still blossoming into an adult. The dense, firm and grippy tannins are felt across the entire palate with a lingering chalky character. At this age, they far outpace the fruit on the extended finish and the texture is felt as a distinctive layer separate from the fruit. This bottling certainly has several decades of life ahead of it; we would love to try it again in 10 years.
This was the first time that Sam had worked with To Kalon Vineyard. The grapes for this wine were from a new planting in the western part of the vineyard.
The 2021 Vida Valiente Estate Cabernet Sauvignon St. Helena is deep ruby in color and opaque; the bouquet offers an elegance with layers of fruit including of dark raspberry, cherry and other assorted berries. Additional nuances include a sweet tobacco spice, old cedar box, violets and lavender. A lighter note of toasted oak contributes a complementary character, but it is the freshness and purity of fruit which clearly stand out here. The palate offers flavors of boysenberry, blackberry, mulberry and dark plum with a note of dark chocolate. The tannins aren’t immediately felt upon the entry but their textural grip quickly shows on the finish. They are densely packed but not angular in their feel, broadly distributed and showcase a persistent gravelly character. This wine was aged in 100% new French oak barrels for approximately 24 months prior to bottling.
The 2021 Vida Valiente The Movement Napa Valley is a barrel selection of some of the best Cabernet Sauvignon lots from High Ranch, To Kalon and the Vida Valiente estate. Opaque and deep ruby the generous bouquet offers scents of blackberry, dark cherry, cassis, black currant and Santa Rosa plum. Its aromatics show a ripeness of fruit but never crosses into the territory of being opulent. Other aromas include mole sauce, violets, dark chocolate, sweaty baseball mitt, and dried herbs including sage. The palate is equally as well-layered as the bouquet, revealing flavors of plum, blackberry, Pakistani mulberry and other assorted dark berries. This wine features a powerful presence of flavor, intensity and structure. The finish is memorable, featuring layers of grippy texture which dominates one’s palate for an extended period of time. Collectors should take note of this robust bottling. $100 from each bottle sale of The Movement™ directly supports the Vida Valiente Foundation.
And in 2023 Vida Valiente produced a single vineyard designated wine from a site in St. Helena formerly known as the Cemetery Vineyard – now known as the Graveside Vineyard. It is named due to its proximity next to the Catholic portion of the St. Helena Cemetery.
Vida Valiente Foundation
Vida Valiente Foundation supports first generation born and low-income students in the U.S. by providing leadership opportunities from role models and connecting college students with job opportunities. Susana is first generation American; her mother immigrated to the U.S. from Guatemala as a child without speaking any English and early in her life worked as a nanny in southern California. Susana started this foundation to both honor mentors in her own life including her mother, and to also to give back to students and provide them a mentorship pathway.
In late 2022, the Vida Valiente Foundation raised more than half a million dollars from their first ever charity auction held at the Montage Los Cabos, in Cabos San Lucas. This is now an annual event and includes several other premium Napa Valley wineries. A long weekend features exceptional cuisine and great wines and culminates in a Day of the Dead Gala.
To date, the recipients of their support including those awarded Vida Valiente scholarships have been students at Stanford University. These student have had to overcome hardships in their youth ranging from extreme poverty, homelessness, abuse and time in foster care. The hope is these students will eventually be in positions of being able to help others in a similar manner.
Tasting Salon, Napa
Vida Valiente hosts visitors in a tasting salon in Napa’s Tannery Bend district located a few minutes’ drive south of downtown. The space was previously used to host tastings of the Memento Mori wines. The brick building housing the space dates from the 1920s and is located next to the old wooden Sawyer Tannery building dating from the 1880s. This was once the largest tannery west of the Mississippi and where Nappa Leather originated from. Napa’s leather industry began along this part of the Napa River in 1869 and is in a part of town named after both a bend in the Napa River and the old leather tannery.
Today the Sawyer-Tannery complex is home to several under the radar appointment only tasting rooms for small Napa Valley wine brands. And at least one winery used to produce wine here; years ago we met with Matthiasson Vineyards when they were leasing a space for their production.
Their tasting salon is located very close to the Napa River; the Vine Trail (bike and pedestrian pathway) parallels the river across from the Sawyer-Tannery complex within biking or walking distance from downtown Napa. While there is no dock on the river directly in front of the tasting room, the Napa Valley Yacht Club maintains a dock within a short walk of the tasting room and allows guests boats to make a docking request and pay ahead of time via their website. One could visit the tasting room coming from boat on the Napa River. On warm days the nearby saline waters along with the aquatic plant life produce some pretty aromas.
Visits are highly personalized and are for serious wine collectors and enthusiasts. And note some of the pieces of artwork including a beautiful spray of butterflies titled, The Sum is Greater Than the Whole. This piece ties in well with the efforts of the Vida Valiente Foundation.
The wines are primarily sold direct to consumer via their mailing list with some limited distribution through Scale Wine Group. Total annual production is around 1,200 cases but will grow. Locally the wines may be available at ACME Fine Wines in St. Helena. For more information, to join the mailing list, visit: www.vidavalientewinery.com