Photo by Lowell Downey, Art & Clarity

For many reasons, some vintners and growers in Napa Valley are starting to cast wider nets when determining which varietals to produce, breaking the conventional mold of making Napa Valley Cabernet. Whether it be warmer growing seasons due to climate change, competitive pressures tied to increasing prices, or the up-and-coming generation of adventure drinkers and vintners with a passion for breaking tradition, the opportunity to discover some of the region’s lesser-known varietals is ripe for the taking.

For Napa Valley vintners Brian Doody and Laura Larson at 601 Cellars, whose specialty is producing small batch, old-world varietals, the timing couldn’t be better. The duo is passionate about finding and making off the grid varietals, particularly from the Napa Valley terroir, where grapes are picked later than their European iterations, resulting in more fruit-forward, elegant, and complex wines. Along with their award-winning Sangiovese and Super Tuscan labels, they also produce Grenache. They started dabbling with the grape in 2017 with fruit they sourced from The Duarte Georgetown Vineyard in the Sierra Foothills. Intrigued with its lightness in style and rugged elegance, they found it to be a perfect juxtaposition of an easy-drinking wine that was complex enough to pair with almost any food. The following year, in collaboration with industry winemaking veteran Rudy Zuidema, they were offered an opportunity to obtain grapes from the acclaimed Heritage McGah Vineyard in Napa’s Rutherford AVA. Renowned for its exceptional fruit, the five-acre vineyard is looked after and sourced by a handful of vintners, including Zuidema, who produces Grenache under his wine label, Zuidema Wine Co. “We grow the grapes old-world style, keeping costs down by head training the vines and keeping it simple. Everyone seems pleased. The fruit coming out of McGah is exceptional,” said Zuidema.

And that it is. 601 Cellars’ first vintage in 2018 is well-structured and has a rich, ruby hue with pops of red cherry and bright acidity. Its versatility is light enough to sip on its own and incredible with food. The 2019 vintage, which will be released this Fall, expresses similar character, elegant structure, and balance, reflecting an exceptional growing season. Each Spring, they also produce a small lot of Rosé from Heritage McGah, which sells out to a waiting list each year.

Brian, who heads up the winemaking for 601 Cellars, incorporates a foundational approach that allows the fruit to be the star, letting the grapes express the natural characteristics of each vintage. He uses neutral French oak barrels and ages each vintage at least two years in barrel and 12- 16 months in the bottle. Every bottle is handcrafted, with less than 300 cases produced each vintage.

When asked how they compete in Napa Valley’s ‘Cabernet Country,’ their answer is straightforward. “We see ourselves in a more approachable niche, whether it be the palate or the price point. Our wines are ones you can drink anytime. They’re fun, food-friendly, and since almost every bottle is between $30 and $60, they can be opened any day of the week. The way we see it, every day is a special occasion.”

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