Spottswoode. It’s a name, particularly when paired with Cabernet Sauvignon, that tends to elicit a uniformly impressed reaction from wine lovers across a broad spectrum of palate preferences. "Why is that?" one is tempted to ask. Are the wines simply that appealing? Is there something inherently there that makes these true Napa classics? Or is there something more to the story, perhaps an evolution of style that allows so many different people to applaud the wine, though perhaps wines of a different period? There is of course only one way to find out: vertical tasting!
And so it was that I sat down with nine friends to sample most of the Spottswoode’s vintages of the 1980s and 1990s. This really was a great range of vintages, both in that it included some milestone vintages for Napa Valley, and in the sense that this covers the range of vintages that one might assume are fully mature. The wines showed erratically at best, which is to be expected with wines this old. Only great bottles, not great wines, as they say.
Before diving into the notes, perhaps a bit of history is in order. Spottswoode, the estate not the winery, can trace its roots back to 1882 when one George Shonewald purchased an estate in sleepy St. Helena, named it Esmeralda, and planted 17 acres of vines for his enjoyment.
Over the years the estate was sold and resold several times, and appearantly in keeping with the customs of the day, renamed. In 1910, Lyndenhurst (as the property was then known) was sold to Mrs. Albert Spotts, who made the fateful choice of naming the estate Spottswoode. Several years later the Spotts family also replanted the vineyard, to a period-appropriate blend of Green Hungarian, French Colombard and Petite Sirah.
For decades the Spotts family made good use of the grapes, selling them to wineries, and even surviving prohibition by selling the fruit to the Christian Brother’s Winery whose sacramental wines was a huge hit in the Christian renaissance that was prohibition.
By 1972 it was once again time for a changing of the guard, this time Dr Jack and Mary Novak became the proud owners of Spottswoode, and in a break with tradition retained the name by which it is now known. In addition to purchasing a neighboring 15-acre parcel, bring the estate to a total of 46 acres, the Novaks also replanted Spottswoode to Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc.
Another decade passed, and the tradition of selling fruit to local wineries continued, until 1982 when Mary Novak founded the Spottswoode Winery and enlisted tony Soter to begin producing their eponymous estate wine. The inaugural vintage was their 1982 Cabernet Sauvignon, a wine I was fortunate to taste this evening.
Tony Soter when on to become a legendary winemaker, in part to the holistic approach he pioneered at Spottswoode. In 1985, wanting more control over the fruit he was being given, Tony assumed control of the vineyard operations at Spottswoode and immediately began implementing an organic, sustainable approach to farming. This was virtually unheard of at the time and cemented both Spottswoode’s and Tony’s reputation in California as wine making pioneers.
Tony Soter was replaced by Pam Starr in 1992 as winemaker, though continuing until 1997 as consulting winemaker. In 1997 Pam Starr was replaced by Mary Cakebread. These changes of the guard were definitely apparent in the wines each produced and may be the key to unlocking the riddle that we started with. Why does everyone seem to like Spottswoode? Lets take a look at the notes and see what we can figure out
Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon Vertical 1982-1999
Tobacco and mushroom on the nose with slight underlying fruitiness that has a dusty leather edge. With air this definitely gains a savory sweetness like hoisin sauce. There is still some nice fruit here in the early going but it fades fairly quickly in the glass. The finish is short at first and acid-driven but while the fruit fades here the texture of the wine continues to improve with airing. A wine past peak but still showing signs of greatness. 85pts
Clean and crisp on the nose with a hint of spicy black fruit and a tarry core. At first this seems a bit soft in the mouth with some angular tannin lending the mid-palate an austere character. A bit of time in the glass allows some nice currant/raspberry fruit to emerge and while the tannins remain austere the wines gains nice balance and finishes well with good persistence of fruit and nice length. It’s fading in the glass but still has good backbone. 87pts
A touch of stemminess adds complexity to some faded black currant fruit that is edged with hints of ash and toasted chili. In the mouth this is acid-driven and a bit lean with tobacco and spice flavors in a lean, drying package. The tannins are powdery and tactile here and while this does show flashes of fruit it is limping across the finish line. 82pts
Brothy and woodsy on the nose with notes of onion powder, dried green onion, and mint. Lean, faded, simple and hollow on the palate. This does not seem to be damaged, just verging on dead. 70pts
Cedary and spicy on the nose with a nice floral top note to the crisp black fruits. There’s a touch of iron on the nose and this shows very well with restrained elegance. Layered and rich in the mouth with the ability to evolve positively over some time in the glass. The firm mid-palate displays fine mint and oak spice framed black cherry fruit in a balanced, elegant style. The finish is clipped a bit by the tannins but this comes together rather well. 90pts
Sweet with dried fruit, sweet herbs, and coffee on the nose lifted by some VA. Open on entry though a bit soft and hollow up front. The fruit is still here, black currant framed with roasted peppers, and this firms up a bit on the back end finishing with good length and some elegance to the earthy toned finale but it never fully pulls itself together. 88pts
Aromatically restrained with lots of tobacco and some cinnamon spice accenting fading cherry fruit. Bright and fresh on entry with a shallow mid-palate that is quite eucalyptus/antiseptic scented. The tannins emerge on the backend and give this a lean, dry, somewhat Bordelaise feel but there is no fruit to help balance the structure. A tough wine. 82pts
Cedary oak on the nose with leafy black fruits, cinnamon spice, black currants and coffee tones. Drying tannins in the mouth with a hint of molasses early on yielding to a core of sweet blackberry fruit. The structure is balanced, and the wine finishes with a nice red cherry note. This has all the parts of a typical Napa Cab but it somehow fails to fully come together. 88pts
A bit brothy on the nose with celery salt, chili powder and dried onion notes that clear up somewhat with air but remain accenting the faded black currant fruit. Smooth and silky in the mouth with a touch of tomato acting as a foil to the slightly stick black cherry fruit. The balance here is quite fine and the fruit remains clear and obvious, if a touch simple, but this has seen better days. 89pts
Clean and fresh on the nose with minty black currant fruit and gentle cedar accents. Nicely resolved in the mouth feeling softened but not dulled with crisp tannins supporting the slightly chocolaty, minty core of black fruits. This really has nice fruit and while it turns a bit tough on the back end it retains fine focus and has an appealing elegance to it. 90pts
A bit of mushroom and green spice early on blows off to reveal beautifully fruity red cherry and currant fruit with gentle accents of tea and wood spice. In the mouth this is soft and broad with ripe tannins and lovely, rich, fresh red fruits. There are mocha accents and some nice spice top notes that follow through along with the fruit on the fairly long finish. This is fruit bomby but very well done in this style. 92pts
Toasty oak, sweet vanilla and jammy black currants fill the nose. This is overtly sweet smelling. A bit thick and very creamy in the mouth with high alcohol showing through and a very extracted, bitter, soft mid-palate that while full of anonymous black fruit shows no detail or elegance. 80pts
Cool and layered on the nose with black cherry fruit accented by notes of leather, blood, and a toasty oak underlay. With time this gains mint and gentle floral top notes. Clean and fresh in the mouth with clarity and purity to the core of liquory wild cherry fruit. Menthol top notes add some complexity and earth and wood spice tones on the moderately long finish complete the package. This is youthful, balanced and fresh with several years of upside ahead. Really a very attractive wine. 93pts
Woody and volatile on the nose with minty, toasty aromas and not much fruit. Tactile in the mouth, thick, soft and a bit hot but packed with the soft, broad fruit that has become the standard for Napa Valley. The fruit is really sticky and it clings to the mouth on the long finish but there is very little detail or complexity here. There’s no acid to refresh the finish. 83pts
A youthful nose of jammy red currant fruit, toast, vanilla and milk chocolate greets the nose. Sweetly fruited on entry with lots of oak that adds a touch of bitterness in the mouth and gritty tannins to the finish. There’s nice fruit here, it’s a bit simple and the wine is youthfully clumsy but this shows some potential for future improvement. 87pts
So that was that. Predictably there was much to disagree about during this tasting but we all found wines that rang our respective bells. And therein lies the answer. While it appears that winemaking at Spottswoode may indeed have been erratic over the years, there have been successes in a number of vintages, many unheralded vintages at that, and the wines were certainly produced in a number of styles by a number of hands. While I don’t think Spottswoode is a wine to make old bones with, there is always something to be learned from a tasting such as this. My biggest takeaway from this tasting? The ‘experts’ are all too frequently wrong about what will turn out to be a great vintage!