A Cabernet Sauvignon Gimme at 2100 Feet
They'd been eyeing the slope for three years, so it wasn't as if they didn't understand the risks. But one night in the spring of 2010, after what Keith Emerson said might have been "one too many micro-brews," two of the top Cabernet makers in Napa Valley decided to roll the dice. A few weeks later, Keith Emerson -- head winemaker at 97pt Vineyard 29 -- and Brian Brown -- winemaker at 96pt Round Pond -- finally pulled the trigger on Bismark Mountain Ranch.
Bismark is one of the more daring Cabernet plantings in the Mayacamas. Set at nearly 2100 feet in elevation, these Cabernet vines were first carved into the southwestern facing of Mount Veeder in 1996. In auspicious vintages, Bismark was known for turning out big, rich, flashy mountain Cabernets, packed with luscious Mt. Veeder black fruit, still buttressed by sumptuous small berry tannins -- more "Les Pavots" than Howell Mountain.
But in challenging growing seasons, Bismark Cabernets lived on the edge. The exposure up here is near perfect -- yet sometimes too perfect. In dry, scorching summers, there was ample risk that an ill-timed heat spike could blister clusters on already dehydrated plants. Additionally, with a day/night temperature shift of over forty degrees, in cold years, sugars would climb before tannins ripened, potentially making for hard, unwieldy Cabernets that are tough going on release.
"Once we came back to our senses, we decided to push forward cautiously. It was really more of an experiment than a commercial endeavor. We committed to just two tons of fruit in 2010, just to see what we could do with it. Now we're kicking ourselves for not throwing caution to the wind."
A cold winter and early spring rain delayed flowering and resulted in sparse, loosely set clusters at Bismark Mountain Ranch. The vineyard crew was unusually busy all spring, adjusting canopy management to restrain vine vigor. Even as the tiny crop (yields were down close to 30% all over the valley) enjoyed glorious southwestern facing sunshine, with the cool temperature, the vines lagged behind well into late August. Then, as was so well documented by Robert Parker's Wine Advocate in its exhaustive 2010 vintage report, the heat-lamp was illuminated, bathing Bismark Mountain in warm sunshine right up until harvest in the second week of October.
This is a glorious Cabernet Sauvignon from a vintage The Advocate would call "epic." Dark purple in color, the nose is lush and sultry, laced with black fruit preserves and sweet mountain herbs, faintly tinged with chocolate. Massive on the attack, packed with lavish blueberry compote, generously dosed with creme-de-cassis, acids remain bright and mouthwatering, tannins supple, yet bracing.