20th Jul 2023
20th Jul 2023
"I think I didn’t choose Pope Valley, but Pope Valley chose me. It is wild and rugged, had everything I was looking for, the AVA, seclusion, and wildlife. It really is Napa Valley’s last frontier."
- Xavier Cervantes
A few years ago, I sat with consultant winemaker Andy Erickson to taste one of his new projects. It came from Pope Valley. Huh. Not a lot of Napa Valley wines profess to come from this outlier area. Fruit from Pope Valley is usually a secret-sauce component for Napa Valley AVA blends. I can count the number of superstar winemakers who claim to make wines from Pope Valley on two fingers. (Thomas Rivers Brown also makes a great value Cab from Pope Valley under his Caterwaul label.) But this 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon Erickson showed me was not just outstanding; it was captivating. Wanting to check out this vineyard, I was informed that the location and nature of the site made it a whole-day commitment. This May, after meeting the owner, Xavier, and tasting every vintage he has made, I visited Hine Ranch, the source of Cervantes.
Xavier Cervantes is a businessman from Mexico City who fell in love with wine culture from an early age.
“I think I became interested in wine since childhood, as my father loved to cook and pair with wine,” he tells me. “I was born into a big family. I had seven siblings, and my parents enjoyed hosting. They didn’t have a lot of resources but loved to host, and their home was an open house for everyone. They somehow were always able to manage to have a lot of family and friends at our table, and that really resonated with me. It was through food and wine that we all connected, and hours and hours around the table, laughing, singing, drinking wine, and sharing memories, sharing time.”
Some years later, Xavier entered into a business partnership with Christian Wölffer, owner of Wölffer Estate Vineyard in Long Island, New York, who became a friend and wine mentor. Xavier was invited to join Wölffer in the Long Island wine project. Although he was not ready to get involved in making wine at that time, it planted a seed that would eventually grow into a powerful desire.
“On my journeys, I started to taste and learn more about wines and the different wine regions,” says Xavier. “I fell in love with France and Bordeaux wines at first and then Napa Valley wines. I was amazed by everything in this valley. Location, surroundings, its history, and how the winegrowers were able to bring excellence into their craftsmanship and the quality of their wines and lifestyle. I guess it was my passion for wine that got out of control that brought me here. After seven years of searching, I discovered Pope Valley.”
Pope Valley is within Napa Valley, yet set well apart from the better-known valley floor and mountain AVAs, located on the far northeastern border of the generic AVA, due east of Calistoga. The summers are known to be hot and dry, which is pretty much the same for most of Napa nowadays, but the bigger reason that I believe it is Napa’s last frontier is because it is so off the beaten trail. To get here, you need to cross over the Vaca Mountains—one way long, narrow, winding way or another. I drove over Howell Mountain, a route that takes a good hour from Oakville. On the other side of the mountains, expect to lose cell phone service, expect to get a little lost. Here, there is nothing but woodland, open fields, and farmland. There are a lot of vineyards, too—St. Supery’s Dollarhide Ranch, Pope Valley Winery, and Hardin have substantial areas under vine. In fact, many Napa Valley vintners make wine from this fruit, but hardly anyone mentions Pope Valley on the label.
When I arrive, I’m greeted by Xavier and his whole family.
“I think the most important part of this story is my family,” he tells me as he and his wife, Cecilia, welcome me through the doors of their ranch house.
This is not a public tasting room or tourist facility. This is a family home, albeit very impressive, designed by Howard Backen, who also did the architectural designs for Harlan Estate, Bond, and Promontory.
“Cecilia has been supportive of this journey, and my children Jeronimo, Ana, and Ximena not only embrace it but love it and are very passionate about it. This has been key for me, as I’m working together with them shoulder to shoulder to make it happen. Ceci is a beautiful host. Jero runs most of the wine company operations, management, PR, and sales, and my daughters guide and create our branding, marketing, and social media. Now, my godson Mauricio works with me on the vineyard side and Andy (Erickson) and me on winemaking. I also take care of planning, strategy, and corporate matters. It really is a family affair. It makes things better for me as it is my legacy for them, and they are already helping me build this place. It is a beautiful endeavor to steward this land and create a unique wine and lifestyle for generations to come.”
Xavier warned me in advance that if I really want to see and understand his property, we’d need to tour it by horseback. When we set off, I know why. Fortunately, I grew up riding horses.
“I was looking for a big ranch,” he says as our horses head up a narrow, overgrown mountain path through the woods. “A place that not only could grow wine but also have land for horses and wildlife. It was not an easy task as property in Napa is usually only smaller parcels and very expensive because of the AVA. So, we have a 1,100-acre ranch in the far northeastern reaches of Napa Valley, four lakes with oak and cypress woods, and only three neighbors next to us. There’s the Hardin Family, who have been cattle growers since 1956. The Cedar Rough Wilderness (BLM), with 16,000 acres of preserved land, and the Dollarhide Ranch, owned by Alain and Gerard Wertheimer, owners of Chanel. We are in the center of all these properties, giving us a massive piece of wild land in Napa Valley.”
Our horses pause at the edge of a cliff overlooking Pope Valley. The view is breathtaking.
“So, I started to research the vineyards and obviously the terroir and the sense of place here,” Xavier says, gazing over his land. “Pope Valley’s characteristics, geography, and geology, and its history. The perception held by people, and I felt it too, is that I’d found an undiscovered land in many ways—a place kept secret by its people. I was lucky to have Andy Erickson as a friend long before the acquisition, not only for his wit and advice but for his personal style—always humble, creative, and unafraid. He loves the challenge, but more than anything, he understands and respects the land. I guess he knew, and he was willing to work with me and grow what our land can give us.”
The journey takes us past a lake with a dock for swimming and fishing. Below this lies a considerable, newly planted apple orchard. And beyond this, the vineyard begins.
“We have a 100-acre vineyard today,” explains Xavier. "Thirty acres were planted in 1999, and we planted another seventy in 2017 after knowing and understanding our land better. I’d met Andy Erickson through Lee Hudson in the early 2000s. Lee became more than a friend and my mentor in this new venture, the keystone in our new land. I can’t say enough how grateful I am to have met him and listened to his experiences and advice. He has been instrumental in our achievements today. Lee, Andy, and I have all become very close. It took many years before we were able to find the right place. But we were blessed to have Lee’s and Andy’s friendship right from the start. So many memories and experiences together, and it was a learning process for me regarding vineyards and wines with them.”
The first vintage of Cervantes was produced in 2015.
“2015 was the first vintage, but I got distracted,” he laughs. “My daughter got married, and then we drank most of it at the wedding. So, I didn’t release it then, although we still have around 200 cases. Now, because we don’t have any 2020 (due to the proximity of the wildfires that year), we decided to release this 2015.”
The first official release of Cervantes was the 2016, focused on a Cabernet Sauvignon-based cuvée. In 2017, Xavier and Andy created a new proprietary blend to showcase some of the other varieties on the property and not be restricted to the majority of Cabernet Sauvignon. The core of the blend changes every year, containing major proportions of Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petite Sirah, as well as Cabernet Sauvignon. This label is called Blacktail, named for the deer that roam the property.
“I wanted to grow mountain fruit, and Pope Valley is in the mountains where wild deer and bears still roam, giving the feeling of an uncharted feral frontier to our elegant and polished wines. I guess this is why I loved Pope Valley. I came to this valley for my love of wine and outdoor life, but the best thing I found was its people. They are successful but humble, kind, and caring. They have built a strong community, and I wouldn’t be where we are now without the advice and support of many people like Lee and Cristina Hudson and Andy and Annie Erickson, among others.”
Article & Reviews by Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW
Photography by Johan Berglund
Aubert 2021s and 2022s
Taittinger Comtes de Champagne 2013
Château Montrose 1893-2021
Château Cheval Blanc 1967-2012