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Arrow and Branch

Every once in a while, life deserves a splurge don’t you think?

The next time you’re looking for a splurge from Napa, think about an offering fromArrow and Branch. Instead of Duckhorn or Cakebread, try something smaller and more authentic in Arrow and Branch.  Here’s why:

Arrow and Branch was one of the more active participants in the recent San Francisco Family Winemaker’s event, even taking the time to send out an email to other members of the trade inviting us to visit their table.

Arrow and Branch Red Wine 2009The draw with Arrow and Branch for most consumers, is their high end red wine blend, called outstanding in virtually every vintage, by every significant wine critic.  It’s also fairly unique, being based largely on Cabernet Franc, using Cabernet Sauvignon as a blending agent instead of the other way around.  One thing you’ll note is that the percentages change, often dramatically from vintage to vintage.  To me that says a few things, first they aren’t looking for a specific taste or a formulaic wine.  Second, they’re actually looking at the vineyard and seeing what each specific vintage decided to produce.  There are a select few high end wineries in Napa Valley willing to do that, as consistent house styles have become the norm instead of the exception.  From the 09 to the 10 vintages of the Arrow and Branch red wine though you see 20%+ changes in the amount of specific varietals in the wine, in this case trading Cabernet Franc for Merlot-which will certainly change the taste and likely the texture of the wine.

The first thing we typically talk about with a wine, is where the grapes came from.  The Arrow and Branch estate vineyard is located in Coombsville, the newest AVA within Napa Valley.  Our good friends at Vellum Wine Craft source from Coombsville as well, so we know the region a little bit at least.  It is gaining a following and some distinction among Cabernet growers and vintners because it is perhaps the coolest AVA within Napa Valley.  That coolness allows winemakers to produce wines which are more reminiscent of the old world, than many of their neighbors in Rutherford. Frankly, we’ve always been impressed with the fruit and the higher levels of acidity which seem possible when made well.  Additionally, Arrow and Branch sources some of its fruit from the historic and well known Stagecoach Vineyard on Atlas Peak.  Atlas Peak is really one of the last unknown spots in Napa to source fruit.  A recent trip up the hill greatly surprised us, both in terms of the small town feel (local residents still waive at cars since there are so few tourists) as well as the simple wildness of the area.  From the vineyard at Vinroc, you can see Stagecoach almost glistening in the distance on the next hill, but there are few, if any other vineyards visible.  It’s a dichotomy that it’s strange yet, exciting to not have as many developed vineyards in an area getting known more seemingly by the minute. The mountain fruit from Atlas Peak offers some of the gritty aspects that we all expect from Cabernet Sauvignon, in addition to some real depth to the wine.  Personally speaking, I can see the draw of combining grapes from Coombsville and Atlas Peak.

Atlas PeakAt the end of the day, winemakers have become celebrities and while the reasons for that sea change are both complex and varied, it’s the world we all live in.  Consumers can often readily identify a handful of winemakers, but couldn’t name a single vineyard or even a single district within Napa Valley.  I bring that all up in spite of the fact that winemakers are incredibly important to the wine production process, at least as important as the fruit with which they work, no matter how much they try and convince all of us otherwise.  At Arrow and Branch Jennifer Williams is the lead winemaker, having spent time at such highly thought of wineries as Araujo and Spottswoode while also learning from some of the top names in the industry like Cakebread and Sotor, her pedigree certainly isn’t at issue.  Personally speaking, it’s always nice to hear about people that grew up close to where you did, with Southern California roots, that can be rare in the wine industry.  Williams grew up in Valley Center, a farming community only a few miles from my own outpost in north inland San Diego and one I remember well having taken a seemingly endless number of trips as a kid.  I’ve mentioned it here in this space, but my dad owned a Dairy Queen, which included an Orange Julius which went through a few hundred pounds of oranges every week.  We took trips to Valley Center to load up his van, which incidently was one of my few excursions to a true farming community during my suburban upbringing.  While the folks out in Valley Center are known more for oranges and avocado’s than grapes (they’re trying in some spots, but it’s really too hot to grow wine grapes) the community aspect and respect for the farming process is still evident and I think probably made for a smooth transition to winemaking for Jennifer.  She also crafts a personal label (as every great winemaker does) called Zeitgeist, itself a well respected Napa Valley Cabernet label.

Lastly, one can’t write anything about a high end Napa winery without mentioning the people behind the label, the owners.  Arrow and Branch is owned by Steve and Seanne Contursi, who came into the wine industry in northern California after falling in love, both with each other and with Bordeaux.  That part of their story isn’t surprising, but what is surprising is how the money behind the estate looks to have been made.  While we see many winery owners having made their fortune’s as either high tech professionals or financial executives, Steve is a rare coin dealer with roots in that industry dating back to his college days in the 70’s.  Of course, as the parent of a toddler myself (anyone who calls during off hours is likely to hear him running around the house behind me) I can’t help but mention that the family also boasts five children of their own, something that I imagine keeps them busy even as the kids move toward adulthood.

As you might expect, this is a winery which we hope beings showing up in our wine clubs in the near future.

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