Mar 2009 issue

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PAGES (48-50) March 2009

WINERY SPOTLIGHT Robert Foley Vineyards, Napa Valley, California Benjamin T. Weinberg

Snuggled up to the backside of Howell Mountain, away from the hustle of Napa but close enough to drive in for dinner, lies Robert Foley’s new winery.

It’s the first crush facility and wine cave he’s ever owned, after decades of turning other people’s visions into wine. So as I barged in at lunchtime on a beautiful September day during harvest, I expected he would be pleased with his new domain. But that turned out to be an understatement.

“Welcome to the compound!” he shouted from his seat at the far end of the table, over the buzz of hungry cellar rats devouring their noon meal. “Have a sandwich.” He waved his hand—the one not wrapped around turkey on wheat—in my general direction, then pointed toward the wall at my back, beyond which resided his crush pad. “It may not look like much, but we haven’t finished moving in yet. I’ve got 500 barrels coming tomorrow; it’s controlled chaos,” he told me. “But here I can make the best wines possible. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.”

Foley admitted that not everything had gone precisely as planned in the winery last fall, but that spells of cool weather had spread out the harvest, allowing him to fine-tune the facility on the fly. The outdoor crush pad and fermentation area is indeed quite spartan, representing no-frills winemaking at its best, with little investment to this point on nonessentials like landscaping. Or a roof. As it turned out, after 15 minutes, we didn’t even have Foley, who had to leave for the airport. But his nephew Peter Foley and Kelly Peterson-Holmes of Switchback Ridge led me through a tasting of the current releases of both Robert Foley Vineyards and Switchback Ridge (see box) and gave me a tour of the property.

We started with the alfresco work area, which was designed for easy, methodical access during the craziness of crush. Then we descended into the wine cave, a labyrinthine, newly bored tunnel dug deep into the mountain, with tracks laid along the floor to make transporting barrels a more automated chore. Utilitarian, to be sure, but also strangely beautiful when the dark rocks offset the cream-colored barrels as they marched into the distance.

The level of thought, detail, and planning that had gone into the execution of Foley’s vision was impressive. When I mentioned this, he just smiled and asked, “Isn’t that the whole point?” The same philosophy permeates all of Foley’s Napa Valley projects.

ROBERT FOLEY VINEYARDS

“As a Napa Valley winemaker since 1977, I thoroughly enjoy working with some of the finest grapes in the world,” Foley says on his website. His favorite terroirs combine mountainous, well-drained soils and the exposure of high elevations to concentrate aromas, flavors, color, and density. The goal is to make the most expressive wines imaginable using traditional techniques and hands-on care.

Robert Foley Vineyards produces about 8,000 cases a year, divided among six varietals. His own 5-acre Howell Mountain vineyard is a major contributor of Cabernet Sauvignon for the winery.

SWITCHBACK RIDGE

Peterson Ranch lies in the northeastern part of Napa, where the Silverado Trail intersects Dutch Henry Canyon Road. Although it has been owned by the Peterson family since the early 1900s, its modern history starts in 1990, when some old prune orchards were replanted with 20 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Petite Sirah. Switchback Ridge now produces about 2,500 cases annually.

“Our relationship with Bob is more friendship than business,” Peterson-Homes told me. “As far as I’m concerned, he’s family. He makes our wine, for which we do pay him, and we share fruit from our vineyard for his Robert Foley wines. There is no formal contract or agreement. It’s just an understanding we have to help each other out as best we can.”

Like the family’s relationship with Foley, the wines are full of energy and warmth; they’re also among the most sought-after collectibles in the Napa Valley. This year’s harvest, the second-lightest on record, concluded in mid-September, the earliest Peterson-Holmes could recall. That timing was a far cry from 2006, the current release, when the Petersons’ last block was picked on Nov. 8.

HOURGLASS

In 1992, Dr. Mark Kliewer, dean of viticulture at the University of California-Davis, told Jeff Smith that the hill he had bought north of St. Helena could become one of Napa’s premier Cabernet Sauvignon locations. Kliewer explained that the valley is shaped like an hourglass, with Smith’s site defining the narrowest point in an area that was already home to Grace Family Vineyards, Colgin’s Tychson Hill Vineyard, Duckhorn Vineyards, and Vineyard 29.

Smith enlisted the help of his family friend and fellow rock-bandmate, Bob Foley, and his annual production now hovers just below 1,000 cases, with a new winery in Calistoga to be completed next year. Hourglass has come a long way since Smith crafted his original mission statement, in which he vowed “to make wines that don’t suck, in the event we have to drink them all ourselves.”

Happily for all the owners of Foley’s projects—but perhaps unhappily for the thousands still on his waiting lists—that’s no longer a problem.

Robert Foley Vineyards
P.O. Box 847
Angwin, CA 94508
(707) 965-2669
www.robertfoleyvineyards.com

Switchback Ridge
P.O. Box 856
Calistoga, CA 94515
(707) 967-8987
www.switchbackridge.com

Hourglass
1104 Adams St.
Suite 103
St. Helena, CA 94574
(707) 968-9332
www.hourglasswines.com