The origin of Bryant Family Vineyard dates to 1985 when Don Bryant purchased a 13-acre estate in Pritchard Hill. The first vintage was released in 1992, with winemaker Helen Turley, and her husband, Jon Wetlaufer, at the helm. After a tasting, Robert Parker presciently advised his readers to “be on the lookout for some of the 1,000 case production of Don Bryant's Cabernet Sauvignon.” In a flash, the fledgling winery raced to the top of the charts.
A string of 98-99 point releases, and a 100-point vintage in 1997, launched Bryant into the rarified air of cult winery status. Turley and Wetlaufer stayed on until 2001, when things went sour, ultimately ending in a lawsuit with Don Bryant. Several winemakers have come and gone in the years since, including luminaries, Philippe Melka, Ross Wallace, Mark Aubert, Helen Keplinger, and Todd Alexander.
Marc Gagnon is the newest winemaker here, on board since 2014. He is working alongside David Abreu’s team in the vineyard and Michel Rolland, as consulting winemaker. Both Rolland and Abreu have been here for more than 10 years, perhaps providing a semblance of continuity while the cast of winemakers has been in flux (the level of quality has remained pretty consistently high). On my visit, I took a walk in the vineyards with Marc. It was fascinating to see firsthand how he has delved into understanding the nuances and unique personality traits of this tiny vineyard — very impressive.
Marc brings experience working with wine superstars and superstar wineries alike. He cut his teeth under Thomas Rivers Brown and Andy Erickson, among others, and has spent time at New Zealand’s Craggy Range Vineyards, Round Pond Estate, and most recently, Screaming Eagle, where he was assistant winemaker for three years. Though he holds the hallowed terroir at Screaming Eagle in high esteem, he thinks just as much of his new site. “It’s different, to be sure,” he said, “but just as good.” With Bryant’s Bettina cuvée (and the DB4), he has the opportunity to work on an even deeper level with David Abreu, sourcing grapes for those wines from some of David’s (and Napa’s) top vineyard sites.
The estate is perched on a stunningly beautiful hillside overlooking Lake Hennessey in the Pritchard Hill area — many consider it to be one of Napa’s “Grand Cru” terroirs. The vineyard is west facing, influenced by cool breezes off the lake and sheltered from the hot, dry winds that can blow through the canyons. There have been vines planted here since the 1950s, and possibly even before, but that’s as far back as the records go. Today there are 13 acres under vine. “It is a dynamic property,” Gagnon told me, as we walked the steeply pitched hillside. The difficult terrain lends itself to very intense, hands-on management. In 2014, for instance, the harvest entailed an incredible 49 micro-picks over a period beginning on August 27th, and ending on October 5th — practically unthinkable for only 13 acres of vines. “The drought years in particular require precise selections to bring grapes in with optimal ripeness,” Marc noted, “otherwise they can get away from you pretty quickly.”
The vineyard itself is on a volcanic ridge line that ends at the site of the property and resurfaces on the other side of the lake, continuing all the way to Mount Saint Helena. The base soils are Sobrante loam series, but vary widely within the vineyard depending on the degree of slope and relative position on the ridge. When the magma that now forms the ridge was still hot, different cooling rates resulted in the formation of different soil types. The surface magma cooled more quickly, forming more friable rocks, with gas trapped inside. The deeper magma took longer to cool, resulting in soil that is harder and more basalt, andesitic, and rhyolitic in nature. These variations are reflected in the vineyard, with the north side composed of larger rocks, and the south side composed of finer, deeper soils, though still well drained. The vines on the rockier soils have very little root zone and are irrigated, others are dry farmed.
“There are several tiers to the vineyard,” Marc explained. “The bottom is flatter, then it gets pretty damn steep, flatter again, then really steep, and flatter again at the top.” Originally, the orientation of the rows was geared more towards ease of farming than for optimal ripening. David Abreu and his team changed that, replanting the core block in 1996. Further replanting took place in 1998, 2001, and 2006. The core block, located in the center of the vineyard, makes up 90-95% of the estate wine. “It is really the vineyard that dictates the wine’s style,” Marc said. “We can make a 100% Cabernet because of the variation in the terroir.” The meticulous harvest protocol, careful fermentations, and cellar selection (only about 20 barrels make the cut for the estate Cabernet) also add to the complexity of the wine, even with the single varietal makeup.
In the winery, Marc sees his role as simply guiding the wines along, trying to allow the unique nature of the site to make itself known. “I wouldn’t even be on the website if I didn’t have to,” he said, “I’d just put a picture of the vineyard.” Gotta love that approach! The winery facility is well-designed and efficient, with grapes moved by gravity flow. Fermentations take place in an assortment of stainless steel, barrel, puncheon and concrete tanks (plus the terra cotta Marc is bringing in for 2015), all designed to match the various sectors of the vineyard and the many different picks during the harvest.
There is no doubt that this is one of Napa’s top vineyard sites, and it will be interesting to see where Marc takes the wines as he settles in. Meanwhile, good luck getting your hands on a bottle! The Bryant website says they are currently adding people to the mailing list who signed up way back in 2010. For those willing to shell out some extra bucks, however, there are several listings available online.