Jericho Canyon is an idyllic piece of property on the historic Old Lawley Toll Road, not far from where where Robert Louis Stevenson’s travel memoir, “The Silverado Squatters,” was set. Mount St. Helena is immediately to the north — the rocky Palisades are to the south and west. The estate was originally a 135-acre homestead given to a Civil War veteran as payment for his services. There is some evidence of a pre-prohibition vineyard planted near Jericho Creek, but beginning in the 1930s the property was used mainly as a cattle ranch. In 1989, current owners Dale and Marla Bleecher purchased the land after a long search for a vineyard property in a rural environment where they could raise a family. They lived in the beautiful original farmhouse until 2006, the same year their son, Nicholas, left for the University of California at Davis. Nicholas joined the winery full-time after completing his studies and now lives in the farmhouse. His parents reside in a new home above the vineyards.
The Bleechers planted vines in 1989, constructing terraces and eking out 40 acres in the steep hillsides, dodging the strict regulations imposed on new planting in 1990 that would have prohibited some of the steepest sections today. The focus is on Cabernet Sauvignon, which covers 28.9 vineyard acres, followed by 4.1 acres of Cabernet Franc, 3.6 of Merlot, 2.8 acres of Sauvignon Blanc, and less than an acre combined of Petit Verdot and Syrah. In some places it looks more like the northern Rhone than Calistoga.
Fruit from the earliest vintages was sold to neighboring Chateau Montelena, and several other high-end wineries. In 1998, celebrated winemaker, David Ramey, discovered the estate and began purchasing its fruit for Rudd Winery. His vineyard designate wine from that same year earned a cool 95-point score from Robert Parker. Between 2001 and 2005 the fruit was sold to David Ramey for his own label, Ramey Wine Cellars. Finally, in 2006, after a brand new winery was completed, the first Jericho Canyon estate wines were made. Winemakers Aaron Pott and Michel Rolland are at the helm today (a lot of firepower for a 1,500-case winery), and they are working closely with Nicholas Bleecher, who will one day take the reigns.
Soils on the property are compressed volcanic ash/rock and volcanic Boomer gravelly clay loam. The vineyards are on steep slopes on opposite sides of a creek that divides the estate. When they first purchased the estate, Dale and Marla had never farmed before, let alone on a rugged piece of land like this. Had they known it would take seven to nine years to get a crop (as opposed to three to five years for most new vineyards) and that the extremely stressed vines would yield an average of only 1.2 tons per acre, they might have had second thoughts. But now, with the vines reaching 25 years old, they are finally in the sweet spot.
Farming is done sustainably and includes eco-friendly practices such as the use of cover crops and insectaries. Much of the work is done by hand. The harvest can often entail as many as 40 micro-picks, each fermented separately for optimal grape maturity and control of the fermentations. Oak use varies by vintage and lot but ranges from about 50-75% new oak for the Jericho cuvée to nearly 100% for the Reserve. The wines age in barrel for about two years.
Since 2012, the Jericho lineup has included a new wine called Chimera alongside the estate Jericho Canyon Cabernet Sauvignon, and in the years where it is warranted, a Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. These are beautiful, powerful Cabernets that reflect their rugged environment yet also have a degree of class and polish.