California is known for its sunshine.
There are vintages where Gamble Family Vineyards winemaker Jim Close lets Mother Nature make a lot of decisions. It fits the ethos of the winery; show restraint with ripeness and use minimal intervention in the cellar.
But the veteran winemaker has proven the ability to turn out a great wine when he’s challenged.
“I’m asked all the time about what is a good year and what is a bad year,” Close said. “They are all pretty good in California. There are some that are just slightly different. But in 2011, it was wet and cold. The grapes didn’t ripen the traditional way, it seemed like nothing dried out after the rains. The seeds didn’t brown. The sugars didn’t go high. It was nerve-wracking because you reach a point where the weather turns and the grapes don’t ripen anymore.
“At some point, I had to make a decision to pick,” he said. “In great or good years you get accolades, but you’re kind of a genius for doing nothing. In 2011, I earned my money and made something good from an atypical vintage.”
And the wines?
“In the end, I really enjoyed them,” Close said. “There was almost a cool-climate, Oregon-like pinot noir pop in them which was an odd thing to have. But the wines turned out beautiful. It was one of the most satisfying, peculiar harvests in Napa.”
What Close had in 2017 though was near ideal conditions, and it showed in the wines.
At the core of the Gamble Family Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 ($60) is fruit from Oakville. Yet, vineyards from every corner of Napa Valley – Calistoga, Coombsville, Rutherford and Mount Veeder – contributed to the blend as well.
In the north, it’s Clone 6 from Calistoga that ripens later and brings a darker, earthier flavor. Far southern sites in Coombsville offered lots of red fruit, blue fruit and structure. Centrally located, Oakville is somewhere between those two lots. Just south of Oakville is Rutherford and its renowned dusty flavor, and Mount Veeder to the southwest in the Mayacamas Mountain Range offered some attitude from its rugged terrain and mountain fruit.
It’s a medium-bodied red that featured red fruits like raspberry and currant but had a charming dusty espresso note that ideally capped the experience.
“The fruit comes from different properties,” Close said. “The framework for what we are doing, our goal, is to make a balanced wine where acid and tannin are the backbone. That’s a balanced wine to me. The more ingredients I have to play with, the more interesting the wine is in the end for me.”
For the Gamble Family Vineyards Paramount 2017 ($90), Close can dial in what he loves: to craft a blended wine. The percentages of cabernet franc (50%), cabernet sauvignon (32%), merlot (29%) and petite verdot (6%) change from year to year, but Close does find a constant.
“The only thing we say with Paramount is that it is the best Napa blend we can make for the year,” Close said. “We go into harvest with a good idea of the lots that will go in, but nothing is decided until we sit down and do multiple blending and trial rounds.”
The centerpiece of the wine is the Family Home Vineyard in Oakville. The knoll-topped site has well-drained, white volcanic soil and is “almost mountain-like” due to the stress placed on the vines. A valley floor site has heavier, gravelly loam soil where the fruit provided density and texture in the wine.
Flavors of blackberry, cherry and tobacco are offset by sage and other herbal notes. They jab around cinnamon stick, anise and vanilla flavors. Before Close makes the call to harvest, he fills up a zip-top bag with grapes.
He’s got all the numbers from the lab that tell him if the grapes are ready. But he needs confirmation. He wants to have ripe tannins. So, he’ll smash up all the grapes in a bag. He wants more brown seeds than green. He chews on the skins, and when he bites into a grape, it should almost melt and shear.
“We want to show the essence of place and make the most of each site,” Close said. “The style we make fits right in my wheelhouse. We don’t want the biggest, ripest wines. Although big alcohol, ripe are delicious, I feel like you lose some varietal character and sense of place. I don’t want to go to extremes and just pick raisins. That way you don’t know where fruit is from. You can get ripeness but not extreme ripeness. I’m not afraid of the leafy, herbal qualities a wine can show, you can’t avoid pyrazines [an herbal note] completely. I’m seeking balanced wines, you need fruit but in it the herbal edge is an essence that says it’s still cabernet.”
Cline Pinot Noir 2017 ($15.99): Medium-bodied with sweet cherry, sweet pipe tobacco and loamy earth. A great value.
EX Pinot Noir 2017 ($29): A throwback wine for its terroir-driven style with briny black olive, soy, truffle and forest floor flavors. Squint and you’ll pick up some cherry notes. From Wrath Wines in Monterrey.
Frog’s Leap Molinari Vineyard Zinfandel 2019 ($75): Showed characteristics of a Cru Beaujolais and a Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Light red in the glass, lots of black pepper, blackberry cobbler with clove and lavender.
Kimsey Grenache 2016 ($65): A big, round blackberry thrill ride with gravelly tannins and a lovely perfume on the nose.
Lemelson Cuvee X Pinot Noir 2017 ($21.99): There’s a cranberry aroma on the nose with baking spices, smoky cherry and strawberry flavors. There’s a full-bodied, round texture to the wine.
Louis M. Martini Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 ($45): Few Napa Valley cabs are this good at this price point. A core of cherry flavors wrapped around a puff of cigar wrapper and a structured beam of acidity. Look for a future column on the venerable winery.
• James Nokes has been tasting, touring and collecting in the wine world for several years. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.