Blankiet Estate is perched in the western foothills of the Mayacamas range, above the town of Yountville, with a commanding view of Dominus Estate and the valley below. If you ever make the drive up past the winery to the Blankiet’s incredible, Tuscan-like medieval castle, you will understand why it is called Paradise Hills Vineyard.
Claude Blankiet was born and raised in Burgundy into a family in the textile business. He moved to the U.S. in 1976 and built a company that finished denim for the booming designer jeans market — think stonewashed, distressed, and all the other trends. When NAFTA passed, he realized a global expansion would happen, with much of the processing moving to India and Mexico. Claude decided after years of successfully growing the business that it was time to slow down rather than take on the incredible time and travel that would be required for further expansion. A lifelong lover of wine, he had spent a lot of time in San Francisco and Napa (Levi Strauss was a client, as was GAP), and in 1993 he began looking for the perfect site to build a home, plant some vines, and maybe make a small amount of wine — more for fun than anything. The search continued, but he never found the right spot. That is, until 1996, when an incredible opportunity fell in his lap.
That year, Claude got a call about a parcel of land that might suit him — hillside location, western side of the valley in Yountville, overlooking Dominus. To say he was intrigued would be an understatement, but there was one caveat: he only had 24 hours to decide to purchase the estate or not. Claude drove up to look around, made the deal on the spot, and one of Napa’s top domaines was born.
The phenomenal property that became Blankiet’s Paradise Valley Vineyard had been owned by Domaine Chandon for years, and while they cleared and planted some of it, it was never right for their goals of growing grapes for sparkling wine. The hills were too expensive to farm and it was too warm for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Later, John Wright, who used to run Domaine Chandon, traded 100 acres he owned on Mount Veeder to Chandon for the 45 acres that now make up Blankiet. He planted some of the property, but never really made a go of it, and as a result much of the land lay fallow for years.
Thus finding himself the owner of a largely unplanted property and recognizing his limited knowledge of winemaking, Claude decided he needed expert advice. As an early buyer of Marcassin wines, Claude had gotten to know Helen Turley, so he brought her and her husband, John Wetlaufer, in to have a look at the property (secretly hoping she would be interested in the project). One look around and Helen too saw the potential of the site and agreed to come on board. Next was David Abreu, who agreed to design and plant the vineyard.
Helen took the winery from zero to 60 in a few short years. The first eight vintages received high praise from critics. She was followed by Martha McClellan-Levy, who took over the reins for the 2006, 2007, and 2008 vintages, along with Michel Rolland as consultant, continuing the evolution and progress Helen had begun.
Through all this time, Claude was observing and refining his own vision for the property and the wines, learning and incorporating the parts he liked from some of the best in the business, changing those he didn’t. Walking the vineyards with him, you quickly realize he is deeply involved and tuned in to the property. In 2009, Denis Malbec, former maître de Chais at Château Latour, became the winemaker. Claude will tell you that they are in sync, not only in their joint preference for more elegantly styled wines, but also regarding the methods and processes employed to make the wines — both in the vineyard and the cellar. They both speak of a desire to guide the wines gently through the winemaking process so that they can speak of the terroir where are they born.
Sixteen of the estate’s 45 acres are planted, and there is a diversity of soils, exposures, and microclimates throughout. There are basically five volcanic hills separated by small valleys, which contain more alluvial soil. As you drive up to the winery, Merlot is planted on the left of the lane in the reddish-brown clay soils that have washed down from the hills above. Cabernet Sauvignon is planted toward the back of the winery, where there is a hill of rocky white volcanic soils that slopes steeply down to the valley below. Across the drive, above the Merlot, there is a sloping bowl planted with Cabernet Franc and a little Petit Verdot. Everything from harvest to vinification takes place on a Burgundian scale — small and highly individualized.
Claude arrived at this philosophy after many years of observing and learning from the great winemakers who have worked here. Their legacies inform the approach that Denis and Claude take in the vineyard and the cellar, and in their understanding of the terroir. By extension, Claude and Denis have instituted many changes of their own, including more blending and selection, increasing the number of picks (17 or more) during harvest, and installing all new equipment which allows parcels to be handled separately. There is less extraction during fermentation and lower toast on barrels, plus a general movement towards more balanced, lower alcohol wines that are focused more on finesse and elegance than sheer power. Perhaps that is inevitable with two Frenchmen at the helm.
The wines include a unique barrel-fermented rosé, an estate-grown second label, a Pomerol/Saint Émilion-inspired blend called Rive Droite, and the Proprietary Red, a Médoc-inspired blend usually composed of 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10-12% Merlot, and a little Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. In 2012 there was also a new wine, Mythicus, a tiny selection of 100% Cabernet Sauvignon made from a few barrels that stood out. It was the first single-varietal wine made since Helen Turley was winemaker.
2012 also marked the beginning of a new era of success for Denis and the winery as a whole. With the 2010 and 2011 vintages under his belt, and armed with a more profound knowledge of the vineyards, Denis crafted a spectacular streak of wines from 2012 through 2014. The lineup I tasted was nothing short of brilliant. Balance and elegance were beautifully captured, with no lack of depth or body — these wines have a polished, classy character that speaks of a winery that has truly found its voice.