Mark Aselstine
November 8, 2013 | Mark Aselstine

Blackbird Vineyards A New Napa Classic

Blackbird VineyardsThere’s been a ton of debate about Napa vs Bordeaux for well over a generation now.  I’ve always been somewhat frustrated by the whole idea that as an industry we have to decide who makes better Cabernet Sauvignon, can’t we simply agree that it’s good for the world of wine and wine drinkers that two regions on two continents make outstanding Cabernet, in largely divergent styles.

Part of that divergence comes from the fact that Bordeaux tends (well, if you eliminate the first growth’s that let’s be honest, few of us can afford anyway) to source grapes from multiple vineyard locations in a contiguous location to craft their wines.  Part of the reason for that difference, which is a rather large one when we’re talking about how wine is made, is how vineyard sites were drawn up in Bordeaux and truly across much of wine country in France.  The French created their vineyard plots by looking at terroir or the natural geography of the land, before defining ownership.  In California, even Napa Valley the ownership piece has always come first, it’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it has lead to many more single vineyard offerings in Napa than you’ll often see in Bordeaux, if you compare similar price points.

The VineyardAt Blackbird Vineyards, there is a certain European and French sensibility to their wine, which comes from both ownership and their winemaker as well.  The winemaker on site is Aaron Pott who comes with two unique experiences which likely make him uniquely qualified to make a French inspired Cabernet in Napa Valley.  First, he tells the story about learning about wine for the first time in a Parisian Bistro at the age of 9.  He ordered a glass of milk, only to be told that milk is for babies and being brought a watered down glass of red wine.  I haven’t spent an inordinate amount of time in Paris, but anyone who has traveled there of late can probably both appreciate the story and believe that it probably happens more than we know.  Secondly, Pott spent 6 vintages working in St. Emillion after meeting and befriending winemaker and winery consultant extraordinaire Michele Rolland while working at Newton.  Newton itself is a hot bed of sorts of European influence within Napa, having employed several winemakers of European descent over the years.  In any case, if you want a French inspired Cabernet, finding a winemaker with a UC Davis viticulture degree and experience making wine in both Napa and Bordeaux makes a lot of sense. We’ll talk about Aaron’s work here and elsewhere at a later date, but we hope it suffices to say that the winery is in exceedingly good hands here with Food & Wine’s Winemaker of the Year for 2012 at the helm.

Anyone running a business knows that good hires and smart planning takes someone to set up a business in such a way to allow those type of smart decisions to happen, so we should mention that here’s where I think Blackbird shines when compared to other wine projects.  Founder Michael Polenske comes to the world of wine with a financial planning background and he has taken that focus and applied it to the wine industry. 

Arise MerlotFrankly, that isn’t something that we see all the time, too often winery projects get out of hand in terms of pricing vs quality as they serve only as an ego building exercises for the owner/founder and never end up being run like a real business.  That’s why you end up seeing so much $100+ Napa Cabernet sitting on the secondary market.  Polenske says that he is now in the business of leisure, which is just better stated than we ever could, but it’s important to note that he also owns a variety of sites around Napa devoted to food, art and furnishings.  We don’t typically mention business arrangements in this space, but it’s refreshing to see simply because I’d love to see more of these targeted and focused projects around the valley.  It frankly makes my job easier when a winery offers an interesting take on Napa Valley Cabernet, does it well and offers the wine at a fair price point given the quality.

These are wines that we can ship in any of our wine clubs and we think, they are wines that you, as a consumer should be aware of.

Specifically, their Arise red wine (which contains almost enough Merlot to be so named, not like any winery would make that choice given the current sales environment swirling around the varietal), priced at $50 is a wine that deserves notice by consumers for a few reasons.  First, as you might expect, it is more European in style meaning you’ll find more acid and less fruit forwardness especially in the 2011 which was produced in a cooler Napa Valley vintage.  Arise hits the mark in terms of great Merlot, which unfortunately many American wine drinkers wouldn’t recognize even if it were sitting on their dinner table.  The wine is dry, yet brings a certain sweetness which is another of the trademarks of the grape, although it’s one usually only found in high end French versions of the grape.


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