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Cuvaison looks at 50

October 29, 2018

Cuvaison Winery celebrates 50 years in 2019.

In 2019, Napa Valley vintner Cuvaison Winery will celebrate 50 years in the California wine industry. We’ve asked winemaker Steve Rogstad to look back – and forward – on the award-winning winery’s past, present and future.

 

I was 8 years old in 1969 and living in North Dakota. Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and the Vietnam War was on the television, like, every day. My sister and I liked a show called Dark Shadows about vampires in Maine. My brothers listened to Frank Zappa at high volume and giggled a lot.

Apparently, the 1969 vintage in Napa was stellar and I’ve even heard that the 1969 Chappellet Cabernet Sauvignon, made by eventual Cuvaison winemaker Philip Togni, was the greatest Napa wine ever made.

Cuvaison was founded in the same vintage year, and one could expect a terrific season with the opportunity to craft some beautiful wines.

There were only 20-some bonded wineries back then, no general consensus on what varieties to plant and grow and no real market of any note for the wines. Trained professionals were hard to come by so everyone was looking to the University of California-Davis and the handful of successful wineries for guidance and advice, making the industry more collegial than perhaps it is today. I experienced that to a large degree when I began in the wine industry and producers of Pinot Noir in particular were all pulling together to better their vineyards and wines.

Winemaker Steve Rogstad

Back then, Cuvaison was still in its infancy and experimental stage. We were making Napa Gamay and Grey Riesling, and trying to find our voice. That would happen with Cabernet Sauvignon in the mid-1970s, but truly with Chardonnay, and with the founding of the Cuvaison Estate Vineyard in Los Carneros in 1979.

Napa old timers have told me that you couldn’t dine in your backyard on a summer evening without a warm jacket, and perhaps that is less true today. In my own experience the seasons seem more variable then when I started making wines 25 years ago.

The cold vintages can be quite cool, and the hot ones seem warmer, with more heat spikes. I would also say that Napa is far more Cab-centric than it was back then, and Cabernet Sauvignon is a late ripening variety. Stylistically, wineries are often harvesting at higher sugar levels than in the 1960s, so there’s a longer hang-time, but with likely lower yields than were averaged back then, which would help offset the longer ripening.

What’s ahead? I am a climate-change believer and, for me, the first real difference is that the winters are warmer and the vines come out of dormancy earlier, which shifts the whole growing season forward in the calendar. This has been true the previous five vintages and would have held true this year if we hadn’t shifted into a cold spring and our first generally cool vintage since 2012.

If the Pacific starts to warm off the California coast, we will have warmer seasons on average in Napa, which will still be quite suitable for Cabernet Sauvignon, but perhaps more challenging for Burgundian varieties 50 years hence. If the sea warms it will likely be wetter as well, which creates its own impacts.

One caveat is that the engine that cools Napa in the summer is the lifting of hot air in the central valley. As these thermals increase in strength or frequency, they will pull cool air off the Pacific and across the region. The biggest offset to this are high pressure systems that build over the desert southwest, funneling hot air eastward across the state and pushing the cool marine layer back out to sea.

I would guess the seasonal swings of these two climatic features will intensify and we will have seasons that are much bumpier weather-wise, and maybe not so boring. The old joke about California was that we didn’t have vintages like those in Europe because the weather was so benign. But now it feels like more of a roller coaster ride, and knowing your vintages will be more important to wine consumers in the future.

The business of growing grapes is becoming ever more technical with shade cloths of differing colors, micro-misters and emitters, and individual sensors for vines. As technologies like robotics, drones and AI continue to gain traction, the farming will be ever more responsive to the changing environment.

In 50 years I’ll be walking on the moon with all the old dogs that passed before me, but I believe the primary wines of Napa – Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux blends – will still rule the valley.

 

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