Dunne on Wine

Dunne on Wine: Napa’s Mount Veeder

Stephen Lagier and Carole Meredith grow syrah and mondeuse in their vineyard on Mount Veeder.
Stephen Lagier and Carole Meredith grow syrah and mondeuse in their vineyard on Mount Veeder.

All but one of 25 wineries to participate in an annual tasting of wines made from grapes grown on Mount Veeder in Napa Valley were pouring a cabernet sauvignon, the varietal wine most closely identified with the appellation.

The exception was Lagier Meredith Vineyard, the collaborative grape-growing and winemaking venture of longtime Napa Valley winemaker Stephen Lagier and his wife, Carole Meredith, the retired UC Davis professor and geneticist whose pioneering DNA research revealed the genetic origins and relationships of several prominent wine-grape varieties.

They were pouring four wines, including a rambunctiously herbal and spicy 2012 mondeuse ($42) and a silken and peppery 2012 syrah ($48), one of the highlights of the day, at least to this palate.

But not a single cabernet sauvignon. Why not? “We feel it’s well covered in Napa Valley,” Lagier says. “Besides, Carol doesn’t like aggressively tannic red wines.”

Meredith’s take on the matter: “We have a very cool site. Cabernet is not the best choice for our site. We’re quite cool. We can see the bay from our place. It’s an ideal site for midseason varieties, which we’ve chosen to grow, like syrah and mondeuse. Cabernet needs a lot of heat to ripen. In a cool year it can be pretty challenging (to get ripe). And there are so many Napa Valley cabernets. We want to distinguish ourselves.”

Their decision to veer from tradition on Mount Veeder looks prescient, for one distinguishing characteristic of their wines aside from fidelity to varietal is their amiability, even in their youth. “None of our wines are aggressively tannic,” Meredith says. “Our wines tend to have soft tannins, yet they age really well.” She credits the couple’s high-elevation, shallow-soil, east-facing and cool 4-acre site for the relatively soft tannins of their wines. “We’re really happy with our site. We don’t know how it does what it does. We just try to not get in the way,” Meredith says.

Beyond the Lagier Meredith table, sample pours more often than not underscored the region’s reputation for youthful cabernet sauvignons solid in structure and firm with tannins. They are “stubborn when young and idiosyncratic when mature,” wrote wine columnist Gerald Asher several years ago. Another critic, Matt Kramer, said a Mount Veeder cabernet sauvignon is “like a wild fish in a school of tank-raised trout.”

I’m not convinced that Mount Veeder cabernet sauvignon is any more rigid in its youth than cabernets from other mountain regions of Napa Valley, such as Diamond Mountain and Howell Mountain. With each, patience is rewarded. It may take 10 or 15 or more years for cabernet sauvignon from any of them to unfurl into a wine richly embracing rather than intimidating in its stringent tannins.

At the Mount Veeder tasting, that kind of payoff was provided by the buoyancy and sunshine of the Mayacamas Vineyards Napa Valley 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon, some of which recently was re-released at $165 a bottle. (The 2000 doesn’t bear the Mount Veeder appellation because Mayacamas didn’t start to use it until the 2001 vintage. Nonetheless, the 2000 was made entirely with grapes grown on Mount Veeder.)

To be sure, not all Mount Veeder cabernet sauvignons need to be socked away for a decade or more before they can be savored without the grittiness of abrasive tannins.

In that regard, sampled cabernets already approachable included the Foyt Family Wines 2010 Napa Valley Mount Veeder No. 77 Cabernet Sauvignon ($95), which while it will benefit from five more years in bottle to stretch out its tannins nevertheless can be enjoyed today for its cherry fruit and thread of minerality, especially if it is paired with a hanger or flank steak. Foyt Family Wines is the brand of Larry Foyt and A.J. Foyt IV, the son and grandson respectively of racing great A.J. Foyt. The No. 77 is a nod to 1977, when Foyt became the first driver to win the Indianapolis 500 four times.

Another was the best buy of the day, the Hess Collection 2011 Mount Veeder 19 Block Cuvee ($38), an invitingly aromatic, sweetly fruity and complex release from a difficult harvest, which gave it a more herbal underpinning than usual but with a bright current of pomegranate. The wine includes ample portions of malbec and syrah, which help explain its accessibility and layering. The 2012 version of 19 Block Cuvee also has been released, but I haven’t tasted it.

A third wine good to go now was the juicy and balanced Mt. Brave 2012 Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon ($75), which while ample in build nonetheless was conservative in tannin. It also was one of the more alluring wines of the day for its continuing unfolding flavors, variously suggestive of forest duff, mushrooms, cherries and Brie.

More traditionally structured cabernets on the day – that is, cabernets best laid down for at least a few years before their focused fruit is more flamboyant – were the O’Shaughnessy Estate Winery 2012 Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon ($120), distinctive for a thread of peppermint in its cherry fruit, and the Yates Family Vineyard 2012 Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon ($70), a bargain for the richness of its fruit.

In sum, while Mount Veeder’s reputation for rigid cabernet sauvignons in their youth is justified, the area does offer wines that can be enjoyed now as well as releases that will reward the wine enthusiast with the means and the patience to store them well over the next decade or so.

Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at dmichaeldunne