08th Jun 2023
08th Jun 2023
I can’t let sorrow
Try and pull ol’ Frankie down
Live for tomorrow I have found you
I’m going straight up to the top
Up where the air is fresh and clean
- Tom Waits
“You know why Baron Phillippe de Rothschild wanted to do Opus One with my father?” Tim Mondavi recently asked me.
I shake my head.
“Baron Philippe said, ‘I pursued my young friend Bob (Mondavi) because I wanted to keep Mouton young. Mouton moves at an oxen’s pace.’”
Like his father—the late Robert Mondavi—Tim Mondavi does not move at an oxen’s pace.
The Mondavis have been making wine in Napa Valley for over a hundred years. In 1966, Robert Mondavi broke away from his family’s estate—Charles Krug—and founded his namesake winery, the first new winery built in Napa Valley after Prohibition.
Tim Mondavi worked closely with his father. In 1974, Tim was put in charge of the vineyard. Later, he managed joint ventures and acquisitions, including the complicated negotiations with Frescobaldi in Italy, leading to their joint purchase of Ornellaia. Then in 2004, Robert Mondavi Winery was sold to Constellation Brands. The sale left Tim, and other family members devastated but not broken. Using the financial windfall from the sale, the very next year, he and his sister Marcia founded Continuum, the name alluding to the continuation of the family’s winemaking legacy.
Continuum Estate and its surrounding Sage Mountain Vineyard is a jaw-dropping visit. At the top of Pritchard Hill, next door to Colgin IX Estate and Ovid, apart from the view over Oakville’s valley floor from an altitude of around 1,500 feet, the sheer scale of the operation is impressive. Of the 170+ acres owned by the estate, 62.85 acres are planted: 37.51 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, 15.07 acres of Cabernet Franc, 6.84 acres of Petit Verdot, and 3.43 acres of Merlot, with another 4.07 acres of viable vineyard land. Mainly because some of the fruit is sold to other wineries and to avoid confusion with Continuum Estate, the vineyard is called Sage Mountain Vineyard, referencing the abundance of wild sage growing throughout this area. Thirty-eight acres were planted in 1991 and 1996 by the previous owners. The rest was planted in 2010, following the purchase by the Mondavi siblings in 2008.
The vineyard is divided into small, one- to two-acre blocks of varying soil types, aspects, and altitudes, planted to compatible clones and rootstocks, each block managed separately. The low-vigor, rocky soils keep average yields modest, at around 1.8 tons per acre on average, although some vintages, such as 2015, have been as painfully small as half a ton to the acre.
Like many areas of Pritchard Hill, there’s not a lot of soil here. The land is pretty much all rocks. A long, arcing line of brick-red boulders unearthed from the vineyard has been arranged around Sage Mountain Vineyard’s perimeter, which Tim calls the “string of pearls.” But the largest boulders were just left in the vineyard and are worked around. These sparse, nutrient-poor soils have a relatively high mineral content, including a fair bit of iron ore, casting a rusty, moon-scape hue over the area.
He has a certain point. The characters of this area tend to run the whole gamut of red, blue, and black fruits, whereas areas of the valley floor may be equally complex but more focused on the blue and black fruit spectrums, so the layers are perhaps not quite so well-defined.
The first three vintages of Continuum—2005, 2006, and 2007, made before the purchase of the land on Pritchard Hill—mainly consist of fruit from Robert Mondavi Winery’s To Kalon vineyard. The 2008 vintage was 71% Continuum estate fruit. From 2010 all the fruit came from Pritchard Hill, although it was not yet all from the estate. In 2011, 98.5% came from Continuum’s estate vineyard, and then from 2012 onward, the flagship wine was 100% estate grown. The fruit from younger estate vines now goes into Continuum’s second label, called Noviciuum.
Continuum’s impressive winery and tasting facilities were completed in 2013—designed by Backen, Gillam, & Kroeger Architects, who also designed Harlan Estate, Ovid, Larkmead, and dozens more prestigious Californian wineries.
“2013 was the first vintage at this winery,” said Tim as we checked out what appears, in some ways, to be a mini version of the Mondavi winery. “I bought my own oak fermenters for here, like the ones we had at Mondavi. 2013 was special because it would have been my father’s 100th year. He was born in 1913.
“Our barrel aging is more Burgundian than Bordelaise,” he mentions as we come to the barrel cellar. “The wines age a long time on the lees.”
While the wines spend a considerable amount of time in French oak barriques (approximately two-thirds new) at around 20-22 months, purity of fruit is maintained via this extended time on the lees, evident in the remarkably vibrant style of the wines.
More recent vintages, from 2015 onwards, have seen an increase in the proportion of Cabernet Franc versus Cabernet Sauvignon. Previous vintages contained around 60% to 80% Cabernet Sauvignon with 10% to 25% Cabernet Franc. In both 2015 and 2016, the blends were composed of 46% Cabernet Sauvignon and 31% Cabernet Franc, with the remaining proportion made up of Petit Verdot with a dollop of Merlot. The current release, 2019, has the highest proportion of Franc yet—37%—and it’s a knock-out! I find the Cabernet Franc from here lends a compelling freshness to the otherwise rich, concentrated palate. It’s a liveliness that does not come from acidity alone but from exhilarating bright red fruit and dried herbs sparks. In essence, the vineyard’s strengths are amplified by the increase in Franc. Furthermore, these recent vintages are more savory than fruit-driven, even early on in their evolution.
“The drought is a big issue this year,” Tim told me during my most recent visit to the estate in late 2022. “We haven’t had a real rainfall this year. The high level of stress in the vineyard is bringing forward phenolic ripeness. And we have a lot more vibrancy even in hot years because it is cooler up here.”
When we leave the tasting room at the winery, Tim cannot help but pause beside his father’s bronze bust, resting in the shade of a cluster of old olive trees.
Because of the proximity of the Hennessey Fire in 2020, no flagship wine was made that year.
Article & Reviews by Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW
Photography by Johan Berglund
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