Taking a Chance and Beating the Odds

Often it’s the most challenging feats in life that reap the greatest rewards, whether it be putting a man on the moon, developing a life-saving vaccine, or successfully producing small-batch, off-the-grid varietals in Napa Valley— where Cabernet Sauvignon reigns king.

When vintners Laura Larson and Brian Doody launched 601 Cellars, they longed to create some of the Old World varieties such as the Sangiovese they fell in love with when they eloped in Italy. After returning to the States, they became discouraged with how difficult they were to find, especially in Napa Valley. Then, in 2015, they learned about a small block of Sangiovese grapes for sale from Solari Family Vineyards in Napa Valley. Through connections from friends in the industry and a few strokes of luck, they established their winery (named for the month and year of their elopement in June 2001) and decided to make it themselves.

The 2015 vintage was a Cinderella story. It was a challenging year to grow grapes in Napa Valley, and their yields produced less than 50 cases. Yet, against the odds, that humble batch of wine handed them a glass slipper — a Gold Medal win in the San Francisco International Wine Competition — competing against formidable producers from all over the world. So, vindicated, the duo set out on a mission to produce Napa Valley Sangiovese every year.

In 2017 they added a Super Tuscan Reserve (a blend of Napa Valley Sangiovese, Cab, and Merlot) and Grenache to their portfolio. They source their Grenache from the esteemed Heritage McGah Vineyard in Rutherford; a privilege shared only among five vintners. Today, 601 Cellars produces less than 250 cases of Sangiovese, Super Tuscan, Grenache, and 30-35 cases of McGah Vineyard Rosé of Grenache, which sells out to a waiting list each Spring.

Brian, who heads up the winemaking for 601 Cellars, incorporates a foundational approach that allows the fruit to be the star. “When you’re producing unique varietals such as ours, it’s important to find the best grapes and let them make a personal statement. They need to be able to stand on their own and express the natural characteristics of their heritage and vintage,” Brian explained.

Brian and Laura knew going in trying to market off-the-grid varietals in Napa’s Cabernet-centric wine region would be an uphill challenge, but their strategy to source premium fruit, stay small and position their wines as interesting, approachable options to open guilt-free on a Tuesday night seems to be working. “We love it when we open a bottle for someone who is not familiar with these varieties, and they become our biggest fans,” Laura said.

Outside of a handful of wine lists in their favorite Napa hangouts (Bistro Don Giovanni, Allegria, ZuZu, Pizzeria Tra Vigne, and First & Franklin), they’ve established a cadre of direct followers who keep them going. They are continually inspired by people and things they hold close, including their captivating labels, which artist friends design.

When asked what they consider to be the keys to their success, they replied, “Staying small and laser-focused helps keeps things manageable. We only make wines we love, and we try not to take things too seriously. We figure, if we can’t find it, we’ll make it, and if we don’t sell it, we’ll drink it.”

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Photo by: Marisa McCann