28th Sep 2022
28th Sep 2022
In June this year, I embarked on a two-day tasting of a complete vertical of Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon at the estate’s winery in Napa Valley. The tasting was presented to the successful bidders of this rare Auction Napa Valley lot donated by the winery. I appreciate that wine lovers living outside the USA may not have heard of Spottswoode since it rarely seems to make it out of the country or even beyond the cellars of those that purchase direct. But, if you’re driving through the valley, it’s easy to spot. Look for the winery with a halo.
Located in the town of St. Helena, in the foothills of the Mayacamas mountains, the history of Spottswoode goes back to 1882 when 17 acres of vines were planted for wine production. In 1972, the property was purchased by Jack and Mary Novak. The Novak family has been at the heart of Spottswoode Estate since. In 1977, Jack sadly passed away from a heart attack; he was only 44 years old. Mary assumed management of the estate, selling the grapes to local wineries while raising five young children by herself. In 1982, Mary produced the first Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon.
The vineyard has been dramatically developed over the last forty years. The Novak family soon purchased contiguous land, so the single parcel surrounding the homestead is now 46 acres with 37 acres under vine, separated into more than twenty distinct blocks. The inaugural 1982 and 1983 Spottswoodes were 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from their first 1973 and 1975 plantings, laid out in a classic California sprawl. Unfortunately, all these vines were on AxR1 rootstock and would succumb to phylloxera in the late 1980s.
“We discovered we had phylloxera in 1988,” said Spottswoode’s CEO Beth Novak Milliken. “So, the replanting process started in 1991.”
The backbone variety at the estate is Cabernet Sauvignon. Since 1984, there has always been a splash of Cabernet Franc (usually 3-10%) in the wine. From 2009, a small proportion of Petit Verdot has been included.
The first vintages of Spottswoode, from 1982 to 1989, were made by local winemaker legend Tony Soter. In 1990, Tony’s co-worker, Mia Klein, became the winemaker and stayed until 1992, when Pam Starr took over. Rosemary Cakebread and Jennifer Williams were the winemakers for stints before the current winemaker, Aron Weinkauf, came on board.
"We discovered we had phylloxera in 1988. So, the replanting process started in 1991."
Beth Novak Milliken with Aron Weinkauf
Until 1999, everything had to be processed off-site.
“We didn’t even have the winery property back in the beginning,” said Beth. “The site where our winery is now was bought in 1989. From 1983 through 1986, the wines were made at the Robert Pepi winery (now Cardinale) and at Rombauer from 1987 to 1996. Then we made them at the Napa Wine Company in 1997 and 1998. Finally, in 1999, we started making the wine here.”
By the early 1990s, two of Mary’s daughters had joined the winery—Beth and Lindy—and the vineyard’s grapes were devoted exclusively to the Spottswoode label. In 2016, Mary Novak passed away at the age of 86, leaving behind a legacy of what is now, undoubtedly, one of Napa Valley’s first growth estates.
Today, Beth Novak Milliken is the president and CEO of the estate, and Lindy Novak is Marketing Ambassador. They continue to be pioneers in the region for sustainable practices and helping their community. Indeed, Spottswoode Estate has been at the forefront of sustainability in Napa Valley for over 30 years. The estate was transitioned to organic farming in 1985, earning organic certification in 1992, one of only two organic vineyards in the valley at the time. In addition to organic farming, Spottswoode’s commitment to environmental stewardship is reflected in its biodynamic practices, almost exclusive use of solar power, preservation and conservation efforts, and its philanthropic practice of donating 1% of annual profits to environmental organizations.
In 2020, Spottswoode was the first winery in Napa Valley and the third in California to earn the B Corp designation for its social and environmental business practices. B Corp measures a company’s entire social and environmental performance, including independent third-party assessments of a company’s impact on its workers, community, environment, and customers.
Nestled within a residential neighborhood of St. Helena, within walking distance of Main Street, and very close to Beckstoffer’s Dr. Crane vineyard and Abreu’s Madrona Ranch, Spottswoode’s vineyard takes advantage of the optimal ripeness that can be achieved in this Napa Valley hot spot. Yet a signature that invariably shines through in the wines—even in the warmest vintages—is its brightness. The wines shimmer. If many of the top Napa Valley Cabs are charging bulls, Spottswoode is a gazelle. Alcohols tend to be on the moderate side here, usually under or close to 14%. This is a remarkable achievement, considering the jaw-dropping levels of phenolic and flavor ripeness that are regularly achieved.
This is not because it cannot raise its prices; there are plenty who would buy it at higher price tags. But the owners would prefer to maintain their core of loyal customers who have purchased direct for many years. How refreshing is that?
Article & Reviews by Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW
Photos by Svante Örnberg
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