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Tasting notes from California

text and photographs © 2013 Tom Cannavan

These notes accompany our in-depth feature on California.


Danielle Driving up and up the winding road from the valley floor in St Helena, and it soon becomes obvious that Howell Mountain does what it says on the tin: Cade Estate's stunning property sits at around 1800 feet of elevation, high above the fog line of the valley below.

Cade is a relatively new operation, planted in 2003 and the first vintage released in 2007. It is part of a small group of wineries that also includes two other Napa properties, Plumpjack in Oakville and Odette in Stag's Leap. Cade's dramatic and beautful winery and visitor centre is a show-piece, designed by Mexican architect Juan Carlos Fernandez. Money has not been spared here, but then the Plumpjack group of wineries, hotels and restaurants was co-founded by Gordon Getty, heir to the J. Paul Getty fortune.

I met up with Cade's charming winemaker, Danielle Cyrot (right), on a beautiful morning filled with sunlight where we briefly surveyed the estate's vineyards. Twenty one of the 54 acres are planted to Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, with Sauvingnon Blanc sourced from vineyards in the valley. The vineyards run from around 1500 to 1880 feet, planted on volcanic soils. "The yields are fairly low here," Daniella told me, "much of the planting is on a solid rock base where we had to blast a hole to plant a vines." Above the fog-line, it is hotter on average than the valley, but cooler nights mean that bud break can be three weeks later and a longer growing season means harvest is often four weeks later. "We get very small berries," says Danielle, "and a high skin to juice ratio."

Defying her youthful looks, Danielle is a UC Davis graduate who spent two years as a cellar hand in France, mainly Alsace, and in Australia before coming back to make wine at Stag's Leap for six year, then St Clement Vineyards for seven years. She joined Cade in 2012. I suggest that this must be a dream job, and ask her what it's like to make wines for Cade? "It's a combination of really precise management of the vineyards to make sure every grape is optimum, then using all my chemistry and the tools at my disposal in the winery too," says Danielle. "At the end of the day I have no excuses if the wine doesn't turn out right."


Cade winery and vineyards. Click photo for bigger version.

The vineyards are certified organic and all are certified sustainable too. In the winery there are banks of small-lot fermentation tanks, including some barrel ferment for red wines, and I spot a few clay amphorae too. In "a good year," Cade will only produce around 14,000 cases, and although the wines are not currently in the UK, Danielle tells me that the Plumpjack group is "actively looking," to export.

In common with several Napa winemakers, Danielle does have worries over water. "Our property has a well," she tells me, "but let's see what happens in 20 years. The task for many growers will be to transition vineyards either to dry farming or at least minimal irrigation. California is going to have to change its agricultrure in general - almonds, for example, are one of the most water-consuming trees, so in the future they may have no place in the valley."

the wines

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Cade, Napa Valley Sauvingon Blanc 2012, California
Just a touch (5%) new oak "to give it texture and mid-palate weight." Very nice, fresh apple nose with a touch of tropical fruit coming through, with a lovely pithy lemony palate, lots of freshness. There's a bit of phenolic character, but that gives a nice savoury grip. 14.2% abv. 87/100.

Cade, Esate Sauvignon Blanc 2011, California
For the estate wine 30% is barrel fermented and partly fermented in concrete eggs. Blended with a little Semillon and Viognier. Nice nose, with a mealiness but a cool apple and citrus fruit character, a touch of something herby, maybe sage, and the palate has lovely texture and a mouth-filling creaminess. Sells locally for around $40 dollars and only 300 cases are made. 89-90/100.

cade, Napa Valley Cuvée Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, California
A little Merlot and Petit Verdot, "mainly for aromatics," says Danielle. "We spend a lot of time managing the tannins in this wine, making sure I am not over extracting, as this is an approachable, ready to drink wine." Fruit for this comes from Rutherford, St Helena, Oakville and other valley floor vineyards including the Beckstoffer Dr Crane. It sees 50% new French oak from several different coopers. Wonderfully juicy, fat and expressive creamy black fruit, a touch of menthol and lots of ripeness, though there is a pleasing touch of tomato leaf that just gives it a softening edge. Really juicy, delicious black fruit freshness and bite, a tart fruit-skin grip and savoury quality. The tannins are smooth, but just roughen things up enough to leave this easy to drink but with a bit of structure. Delicious wine. 91/100. $60 locally.

Cade, Howell Mountain Caberent Sauvignon 2009, California
Cabernet with 4% Merlot, aged in 70% new French oak. Much more restrained aromatically, deep and dramatically dark, a ripeness of fruit comes through, cassis and a deep, fleshy plum charcter, a touch of chocolate and a touch of mint. The palate is much firmer than the Napa Cuvée, liquorice and very tight fruit concentration, the tannins grippy but very supple and fine, and the acidity nice and natural with a tart blackcurrant juiciness and a touch of cocoa and endive. 92-93/100. $80 locally.

Cade, Estate Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, California
100% Cabernet Sauvignon, aged in 100% new French oak, Dianne makes a "very strict and serious," barrel selection from the estate fruit, but three of the five blocks have emerged as the ones that make it into this wine, all clone 7 and 337. This has a great herb and slightly wild, garrigue note, but a fine meaty, meat-stock aromatic too giving a savoury depth. The blackcurrent purty of the fruit is there, and comes through beautifully, always retaining that juicy quality, the fruit-skin tart edges, the very supple, chocolaty tannins giving a smooth textural finish, and thenm a grippy, fresh finish. 94/100. 500 cases, sells for $300 per two pack, one in cork and one in screwcap. "We're trying to convince consumers that screwcap is a valid closure. Feedback is 50/50 in favour of each," says Danielle.

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