Caldwell vineyards is owned by one of the more colorful characters in Napa Valley, John Caldwell, who wound up owning a prime chunk of land by virtue of a derailed real estate development project in the 1970s.
John had no designs on the wine business when he started the venture which now bears his name. He was making his living in retail, selling clothes, shoes, and other goods to the new Napa monied class and the tourists that were starting to arrive in droves. With land prices starting to rise, John took a chance and purchased a tract of land in the quiet, rural Coombsville area east of Napa, making plans to develop it into mini-ranches and home sites. Back then, John jokes, it was “Coombs-where?” The deal was struck, with Caldwell buying 54 acres of land, one half-mile long and 847 feet wide, for $120,000. As cash was scarce, he offered the seller full price if he could swing the deal with only $5,000 down instead of the 20% they were asking for upfront. The seller agreed, and the land was his. John began by building a road into the property for access, but shortly after the whole project was brought to a screeching halt when the zoning board put a moratorium on building. “I was stuck with a half-mile long road to nowhere, and a bunch of land I couldn’t develop.”
Someone suggested John plant grapes to sell to the growing number wineries that were now on the rise in Napa, so in the 1980s he put in a few acres of Chardonnay — at that time the experts thought Coombsville was too cool for red varieties. Now in the farming business, John decided he would learn as much as he could, so he set off to Bordeaux to see how the pros did it. He came back with plenty of ideas, including bringing back rootstocks that he thought would be best suited for his vineyard. Upon returning to the states, he planted Bordeaux varieties in the well-drained volcanic soils. He also began a nursery business to sell the rootstocks, which he later sold in order to focus his energies entirely on winemaking and grape growing.
Soon the reputation of John’s fruit grew. Phelps bought it for Insignia, and Pahlmeyer and many others sought it out for their top wines. In 1997, John hired Philippe Melka to make Caldwell’s first wine, the Silver Proprietary Red. Today they produce a range of wines in tiny quantities, some of which are sold into limited distribution and others solely to private clients through the mailing list.
Caldwell is also one of the very few wineries to make their own barrels, with a master cooper on site. The idea came around after they began to experiment with barrel fermentation. They popped the top off the barrels to add the fruit, and began to see huge variations in the degree of toast — things you wouldn’t see otherwise. John started to wonder just how many barrels over the years had been declassified due to the oak, rather than the fruit, and decided to bring the process in house — he is even considering selecting a few trees in France to have the ability to oversee the process from start to finish.
The winemaker at Caldwell, Marbue Marke, is originally from Sierra Leone. He came to the U.S. and UC Davis to become a doctor, but quickly realized that if blood makes you queasy, you really can’t fake it, so he switched sciences, got into the enology program and never looked back. He worked at Cosentino, RH Phillips, J Winery, Benziger, and Gallo, but found that big winemaking wasn’t for him. In 2005 he hooked up with Philippe Melka at Caldwell, taking over as Philippe became busier with his consulting business, and has been crafting beautiful wines from this prime Coombsville terroir ever since.
The property is now a total of 123 acres, 65 of which are planted, with a 20,000 square foot cave and winemaking facility where the wines are made, along with those from a handful of other tiny, top notch Napa producers. They sell off about half the fruit, and with the price of top quality Napa Cabernet regularly in the five figure range, John’s investment seems to have turned out to be a pretty good deal. As John will tell you, he considers himself about the luckiest guy in Napa.