Cathy Corison has been crafting some of the most exquisitely balanced, elegant, and expressive wines in Napa Valley for more than 30 years. She got her start working at Freemark Abbey, Robert Sinskey, and Chappellet, but has made wine under her own eponymous label since 1987. Focusing on Cabernet Sauvignon from prime vineyards located in a small stretch of bale loam soils on the Rutherford Bench, she has never strayed from her ideals or yielded to the pressures to pump up her wines. There is something to be said for this kind of commitment and continuity — one winemaker, one region, and many years of experience.
I sold Corison wines retail for many years, and they were always built for classicists, enjoyed by those inclined to Europe's more restrained wine styles than the typical Napa Cabernet client who was monitoring the scores and seeking ever increasing amounts of power, oak, and mass. I am sure it was not the easiest path to take, and there must have been days when doubt and the reality of the bottom line crept into Cathy’s thoughts. She surely deserves a medal for persevering.
Cathy’s steadfastness and commitment to her winemaking philosophy begins in the vineyard. A joke told yearly around harvest time in Napa goes, “Cathy’s picking, think we better start sampling?” While other producers wait until the last minute to harvest super-ripe grapes, Cathy has other ideas. “I just need to get past green and I can then capture the full spectrum of flavors and aromas I want, from red and blue to darker purple and black fruits, with focus of freshness and acidity, and avoidance of desiccation, and other roasted and over-ripe notes.” Clearly there are many different ideas on what “ripeness” is all about. Hallelujah!
Early on in her career, Cathy received only sporadic coverage in the press — her style simply wasn’t that popular. Recently though, there seems to be a groundswell in California, away from the extremes of ripeness, sweetness, and sheer size, towards a slightly more elegant and detailed expression of Napa Cab’s charms and diverse terroirs. Through this shift, Cathy has been hailed as the real deal. After drinking her wine, Alder Yarrow of Vinography said, “This is how integrity tastes.” The New York Times’ Eric Asimov went even further, exclaiming that, “Corison is one of the greatest producers of Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa Valley today.” The icing on the cake may have been her award as “Winemaker of the Year” from The San Francisco Chronicle in 2011. Perhaps the best revenge is surviving long enough to come back into fashion, but I can honestly say, having tasted dozens of her wines over the years, that Cathy always had it right, fashion be damned.
The downside to her recent success? Purely selfish! Prices have crept up a bit, and deservedly so, though they are still quite reasonable in comparison to other wines of similar quality. Also, Cathy’s once ample supply of library wines has been depleted, scooped up by savvy buyers. While older vintages are still on offer, there are fewer than there were just a few short years ago when I attended a spectacular retrospective of her wines from 1987, 1989, 1991, 1994-1997, 2001, and 2004-2008. On that day I witnessed an incredible display of the age-worthiness and consistent, impeccable quality of Cathy’s wines — power and elegance, seamlessly interwoven, capturing the Rutherford Bench character through the lens of each vintage’s personality, with finesse, detail, and incredible freshness and precision.
Fruit for the wines is both sourced and estate grown. The crown jewel of Cathy’s holdings is undoubtedly the extraordinary Kronos vineyard, an 8-acre parcel that surrounds the winery in Rutherford. Planted in 1971, these gnarled old vines have been organically farmed for 19 years and are on Saint George rootstock, a rarity in these parts. Yields have averaged a scant 1.25 tons per acre over the entire 19-year span she has owned it (great for quality, tough on profit!), and she crafts a tiny amount of single-vineyard wine from a selection of the best grapes. The vineyard is dry farmed for the most part, although in extreme situations she has the ability to irrigate. Cathy monitors the vineyards incessantly (in addition to the national weather service, checking in every six hours or so) to keep ahead of the weather and make fine adjustments in canopy, crop load, and soil moisture content. While Cathy manages all the vineyards that she sources grapes from, she notes, “I’ll only make a single-vineyard wine from a vineyard I own. And not only does it have to be of superb quality, it has to have something to unique to say — an individualistic and recognizable character.” There is no doubt that the wizened old Kronos vines have a story to tell.
On my visit, Cathy told me that she had also purchased another vineyard — a 7-acre parcel on Inglewood Road, just a couple of blocks north of Kronos. This vineyard, whose name is still being registered, belonged to three different owners before Cathy was able to snatch it up. She was already familiar with it, however, having sourced the vineyard’s fruit several times for her Napa cuvée. This is a younger vineyard — the vines were replanted some 15-20 years ago due to phylloxera. It was exciting (and an honor!) to be one of the very first to taste it from barrel.
The winery is housed in a refurbished farmhouse, originally built in 1898. Classic, elegant, and understated, the design mirrors the wines produced here. There are several large stainless steel tanks for custom crush clients and several smaller ones, which Cathy uses for her own wines. The smaller tanks allow her to handle very precise picks and fermentations on an individual scale. Cathy’s winemaking process is straightforward, with no additions or acidification. Wines are usually aged in 50% new oak barrels, but there are no rigid formulas — each year, it all depends on what the wines are telling her.