I’ve visited a lot of wine tasting rooms in my days, but the most unique experience may very well have been at Caldwell Winery in Napa, owned by Joy and John Caldwell. The experience was unique not only because of the awesome cave in which Caldwell Winery’s production and tasting room is located, but also because of John Caldwell himself, a playful, fascinating and very intelligent character.
Caldwell Winery and Vineyard is located in the Coombsville AVA on the southeastern end of the Napa Valley’s grape growing region. The Coombsville region finally became an approved American Viticultural Area in December of 2011, due much to the hard work and persistence of John Caldwell.
We arrived for our scheduled tasting appointment and were greeted by Mr. Caldwell himself, along with Caldwell’s winemaker Marbue Marke. We were led into their 20,000 square foot cave and walked along barrels of fermenting wine into the tasting area. Awaiting us were local meats & cheeses, breadsticks, crackers and a wide variety of Caldwell wines.
The wines we tasted included:
2010 Syrah Rose – This wine had a dark pink hue, with some nice cherry and spice on the nose. There was some strawberry and red currant on the palate.
2009 Chardonnay – This is a lovely Burgundian style Chardonnay with granny smith apple and great acidity!
2010 Sauvignon Blanc – The Sauv Blanc had a lot of tropical fruits on the nose and palate.
2009 Syrah Clone 470 – This is a big, inky Syrah with blackberry and black pepper. This wine needs some time, so I bought a couple and tucked them safely away in my cellar to enjoy in a few years.
2008 Rocket Science – This is a blend of 47% Syrah, 24% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Merlot, 4% Tannat and 3% Petit Verdot. It has lots of dark fruit on the nose with some cherry and dark chocolate on the palate. This is a great wine and comes in a fun shaped bottle.
2008 Caldwell Gold – This is a beauty, with lots of blackberry, vanilla and chocolate on the nose and dark currant, cherry and chocolate on the palate. This is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon.
2008 Syrah Port – We finished the tasting with the Syrah Port, which my husband especially loved. It has a nose of vanilla and chocolate, with cherry and plum on the palate and a finish filled with vanilla.
Throughout the tasting John Caldwell talked with us about our lives, the wines and his fascinating history.
He was originally in the shoe business, and bought this land as a real estate investment, dividing the land into 10-acre lots and building a road. When he was ready to start selling the lots, the Napa Planning Commission nixed these sorts of deals claiming that the growth was harmful to the area. He felt stuck, and wasn’t sure where to go from there, but decided to plant grapes.
A trip to France where he visited the famous Chateau Haut Brion piqued his interest in clones. He heard of a grower in Canada who imported French clones for his vineyard on the Niagara Peninsula and who also had a nursery for clone propagation. Caldwell decided to buy! This was extremely risky, as it is illegal to bring plants from other countries into the United States. He successfully got 4300 grape vines over the border, but there were 1500 more waiting, and he wanted them all. Caldwell went east for a New York shoe show and developed his scheme. He needed a car with a large trunk and found on a Rent-a-Wreck in Buffalo. After the show, he flew there and drove to pick up the grapes. The pickup went smoothly, but crossing back into the states did not. The border police checked his trunk and found the grapevines. After being interrogated at length, swallowing the receipts for the vines to hide the evidence and catching a lucky break by knowing the right person, he was released from custody.
The smuggled vines he planted produced wines receiving high praise, and he began selling his fruit to many well-established wineries.
Today his list of clients includes Pahlmeyer, Viader and Joseph Phelps, to name just a few. Thankfully he also uses some of his grapes to make Caldwell wines as well.
I barely touch on his amazing story here, so be sure to learn more about the interesting life and clone smuggling adventures of John Caldwell, and the amazing conclusion of this story, at: http://www.caldwellvineyard.com/downloads/Caldwell-TheWorldofFineWine.pdf
My guess is that someday his story will be made into a movie!
Be sure to visit Caldwell Winery the next time you’re in Napa. Remember, you’ll need an appointment! www.caldwellvineyard.com