When Don Long began buying property in the 1950s, his plan was to build a cattle ranch. A butcher by trade, he steadily amassed over 1,000 acres, high on Pritchard Hill in eastern Napa. By 1978, however, his plans had changed. With the help of his son, David, Don switched gears and started to clear the land for what would become David Arthur Vineyards. The first vintage was harvested in 1985. Thirty years later, David Arthur has become an icon in Napa, producing beautiful, classically styled wines that capture the ruggedness of its roost on Pritchard Hill.
The steep, rocky landscape here was formed quite a bit earlier, eons ago actually, by landslides that swept down from the mountains, creating benches and fans of red volcanic rock that stretch almost to the valley floor. Over the ages, a meager 2.5-3 feet of reddish, volcanic soils have formed through erosion and decomposition. As it turns out, this rocky ground is an excellent place to plant Cabernet Sauvignon. The vineyards at David Arthur cover 19 acres in the Vaca Mountains, above the upper limits of the Oakville Appellation. Dalla Valle, Oakville Ranch, Phelps’ Backus Vineyard, and Screaming Eagle are all just below. Ovid and Brand are neighbors, and Chappellet is just down the road.
In 1978, when Don and David began to clear this arid land for planting, David had no formal training in wine. He learned by working hands-on at Joseph Phelps and neighboring Chappellet. It took seven years to produce the first vintage and several more until Cabernet Sauvignon took hold as the dominant grape. Since then, quality has only improved. In 2008, David’s daughter, Laura, joined the team, as did winemaker Nile Zacherle. Nile has really dialed it in recently, producing an exceptional series of wines from 2012-2014.
The wines made here include the flagship bottling, Elevation 1147, a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon named for the altitude of the vineyard; Meritaggio, a Sangiovese/Bordeaux blend; Three Acre, a Cabernet Sauvignon that is sourced directly from a small block of 100% clone 337; and the Old Vine Cabernet Sauvignon, from the oldest vines on the property, planted in 1980. For its Chardonnay, David Arthur sources fruit from the Oak Knoll and Atlas Peak AVAs. They also make a Rose, a Riesling, and a tiny amount of Nebbiolo. According to Nile, managing the wines’ naturally occurring mountain structure and tannins is one of the keys to success.
When he isn’t managing the tanks at David Arthur, Nile can be found heading up winemaking at Montagna Vineyards, a second Long family winery opened just down the road from David Arthur by David’s brother, Robert, in 2000. Nile, who is married to Whitney Fisher of Fisher Vineyards, also brews organic, artisan beer under the label Mad Fritz, named for his daughter, Madeline, and son, Fritz.
Overall, the wines at David Arthur are more classically styled than modern, wrapping their beautiful, solid Cabernet fruit with the sturdy tannins and structure of their rocky red soils. To me, they conjure up images of the scrubby “garrigue,” sagebrush, and the wild, herbal character of the landscape. There is depth and intensity of fruit that never reaches super ripe or sappy sweet, and a beautiful tension and energy to top it all off. It’s safe to say that David Arthur has come a long way since 1985, and things are only getting better.