Dave Ficeli was horrified.
All he could do was stand and watch. In October 2017, the co-founder and vintner of C. Elizabeth was on the Oakville winery’s crush pad. The idyllic view he and his wife and co-founder Christi Ficeli loved so dearly was being overcome by a rapidly spreading wildfire.
Samples of the just-pressed grape must told Dave and winemaker Bill Nancarrow they were onto something special with their cabernet sauvignon program. But, the destruction being levied around him frightened him to his core.
“Tasting the 2017 takes me back to a strange, bittersweet moment,” Dave said. “Here we are surrounded by the Vaca Mountain Range with the Mount Veeder Range behind us, sitting on the crush pad tasting fermenting wine must and looking at fires and thinking, ‘How can we taste something so out-of-this-world, so wonderful, and be watching a terrifying tragedy unfold?’
“It was a juxtaposition my feeble brain couldn’t make sense of,” he said. “Bill and I marveled at what was in our cup, but couldn’t make sense of the world around us. This is my favorite vintage; we’d finally had things figured out, but Mother Nature let us know she’s still in control.”
The Ficelis sprang into action to support relief efforts. For six weeks between February and March of 2017, 50% of all sales of the C. Elizabeth Game Farm Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 ($150) was donated to the Napa Valley Community Foundation.
“It was a terrible tragedy, but this vintage reignited our philanthropic efforts,” Dave said. “It’ll always be an epic and special vintage that holds a place in my heart. I chose to remember how we all came together in (Napa) Valley.”
The philanthropic move traced back to the roots of Christi’s family. Long before their first vintage in 2002, the newly engaged couple devised the C. Elizabeth brand. For three generations, Elizabeth has either been a first or middle name in Christi’s family. While they took time to properly seek out the property and style of the project, they had a name before they “nailed out the details,” she said.
“Elizabeth is a big, bold, beautiful cabernet for the big, bold, beautiful women in my life,” Christi said. “The name belonged to my grandmother, it was my mother’s and daughter’s middle name. All of the Elizabeths move to the beat of their own drum. It reminds me to stand on my own and do something unique.”
In 2014, fruit from the Game Farm Vineyard started the C. Elizabeth Cabernet Sauvignon ($150) program with the unique usage of American oak in barrel aging. Only 100 cases were made as they’d test their cooperage theories, and get to know the estate vineyard and the Rock Pit Block thusly named for its predominant feature.
“It’s pure rock and free draining,” Nancarrow said. “It’s a sheltered space with trees around it. It’s in a slight depression. The vines look pretty gnarly, you can’t grow anything else in there. No mowing or disking. You occasionally feel like you are going to break an ankle walking through there. But, the rocks offer heat retention and reflection, which gives us a slightly different growing season. No one else has a soil profile like that.”
From a low-yielding drought year, the C. Elizabeth Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 ($150) was the showiest of the wine. Currant flavors were ripe and flashy, there was a blackberry note and vanilla bean spice. The mouthfeel was lush and filling, and matched the instant pleasure of the fruit flavors.
There was no “doughnut” in the C. Elizabeth Cabernet Sauvignon 2016 ($150), a cheeky term given to the hole sometimes found in the varietal. Cabernet can deliver bold upfront flavors and have a long finish. But, there’s a lift, whether texture or flavor, that can sometimes fall flat in the middle part of the wine.
For the first time, fruit from the Trail Side part of the vineyard was added to the blend. They’d doubled up on the components, and brought a darker fruit profile to the wine.
“I was really happy with the results in 2016, I enjoyed what the Trail Side brought to the wine,” Nancarrow said. “We evolved a lot from 2014 and 2015. In some ways, I am old school in terms of the wine style I like. So far, this is my favorite. It’s got classic cabernet characteristics in it.”
The wine had dark chocolate shavings, blueberry cobbler, hints of fresh-picked mint and iron-like minerality; it was very textured and approachable.
In the C. Elizabeth Cabernet Sauvignon 2017, there was cassis, spice rack and a refreshing minerality. Nancarrow said the key was to “capture the spice and nuance in the oak,” in what was a “really tricky growing season.”
In July, three days of 100 degree temperatures were followed by a rare summer hail storm. A Labor Day heat wave sent temperatures over 100 degrees for a week. A patient Nancarrow waited three weeks for sugars to come down, and made a fortuitous call to start harvest. Two passes through the vineyards took place just two days before the fires broke out.
Joyce Wine Company, Submarine Canyon, Monterey County Pinot Noir 2019 ($25): A nose that’s easy to fall in love with; bacon fat, orange peel and red fruit with pomegranate and cherry flavors.
Nielson Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir 2019 ($19): The best deal of the summer. Simply sit poolside and sip this amazing bargain. Look for a future column on a wine loaded with interesting spice, earth, and black cherry on the nose. The tobacco and spice rack flavors play off the loamy earth notes. Black cherry and sweet raspberry swoop in on the finish.
Sequoia Grove Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 ($50): Persistent with its rich currant and juicy blackberry favors; a subtle touch of cardamom spice adds an extra dimension.
Some Young Punks, “The Squid’s Fist,” Clare Valley 2017 ($22): Ripe cherry, tar and blueberry jam mingle on an awesome Aussie blend of 65% sangiovese and 35% shiraz.
• James Nokes has been tasting, touring and collecting in the wine world for several years. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.