No one will dispute that Napa Valley is the region that put California wine (and all American wine for that matter) on the world wine map. And while Sonoma Valley sits just on the other side of the Mayacamas mountain range that divides the two wine regions, it has seemingly struggled with its identity. Napa is synonymous with making world-class Cabernet Sauvignon. Sonoma, on the other hand, has so much diversity amongst its 17 AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) it isn’t as easily defined by one grape varietal. For example, they make terrific Pinot Noir in the Russian River Valley, outstanding Zinfandel in the Dry Creek Valley and excellent Chardonnay in the Sonoma Coast AVA. As a result, Cabernet Sauvignon winemakers in Sonoma generally sit in the shadow of Napa Valley. Laurel Glen Vineyard is one winery in Sonoma that is putting the wine world on notice that not only do they have the ability to make Cabernet Sauvignon, they have the ability to make GREAT Cabernet Sauvignon.
Laurel Glen Vineyard is a winery that has gone through an evolution, not just in terms of ownership but also with respect to its wine. It has long produced quality Cabernet Sauvignon and still has vines on the property that were planted more than 40 years ago by Founder Patrick Campbell. In 2011, the winery was purchased by new owners setting the course for the next step in its transformation.
At the helm of the new ownership group is Bettina Sichel, a woman with an impressive background in the wine industry and a vision to match. Her warm and inviting nature belies the intense passion she has for wine and her desire to see Sonoma wine in particular get its due. Her family has been in the wine business for several generations and her family name is most well known for being behind Blue Nun. Despite the famous surname, she’s earned the respect of her peers in the industry the hard way; she’s earned it. She has spent the past 20 years working in Napa with (yes, you guessed it) plenty of Cabernet Sauvignon producers, most notably helping to launch Quintessa Winery.
As a Napa resident working with Napa Cabernet producers most of her career, it may seem surprising that she ended up acquiring a Sonoma winery. “When we started down this road of wanting to purchase a winery, at the top of my list was a very good dedicated source for the fruit—either a vineyard where there was a long term lease arrangement or a vineyard owned by the winery. Second was a name that had a positive association and good history, and the third thing we were looking for was existing distribution.” Given the fact she lives in Napa and her list of contacts is primarily in that region, she also assumed it would be Napa Valley where they’d find their winery. But everything she looked at had maybe two of the criteria she was looking for but not all three; either a vineyard that had recently been planted without much pedigree, or she found a brand with a great reputation but no dedicated source of fruit.
Bettina’s “eureka” moment occurred when she decided to look beyond Napa and was introduced to Patrick Campbell. From the moment she stepped out of the car and saw Laurel Glen, she knew she had found what she was looking for. So of course it made sense that upon an interview request, she immediately invited AdVINEtures to tour Laurel Glen’s Sonoma mountain property so that we could see firsthand what she saw several years earlier. The changes in the vineyard that she’s been able to achieve in such a relatively short period of time is the basis for the winery’s evolvement.
As we pulled up to the stunning property offering spectacular views of the valley, our first stop was to take a look at 4 acres of vines that represent some of the oldest Cabernet vines on the property. Planted in the 1970’s, they show the typical vineyard development of that era with 8×10 spacing (8 feet between plantings and 10 feet between rows), a configuration that was most convenient to the farmer and his tractor. As time went on, wine growers came to realize that planting the vines closer together created healthy competition among the plants and ended up producing grapes with far more impressive flavor characteristics and ultimately a more interesting wine. The majority of the vines at Laurel Glen are now planted to a 5×7 configuration which is fairly standard for vineyard development today.
Bettina and her team took over the property at a time when it was essentially all cane pruned. This meant multiple arms coming off the trunk, as well as multiple canes and multiple shoots. As a result, the pruning zone (centre of the vines) was very densely packed with leaves and clusters which resulted in uneven ripening. “Although the property is a great example of how things were done in the seventies, vineyard practices have changed so we implemented more modern techniques such as removing arms, canes and shoot positions and trained the canes vertically so you can see all the clusters. This ensures that every cluster gets more equal light and air.”
The vineyard now uses a trellising method called “Double Guyot” that the Bordelaise were the first to use and is a practice widely considered the gold standard for growing Cabernet Sauvignon today. It involves training just two canes along the wire resulting in fewer clusters per vine but also more concentrated fruit and much more consistent ripening. Bettina further explains, “a plant ripens first the furthest point away from the stock back towards the middle which is called ‘apical dominance’. By arching the cane we fool the plant into ripening at the highest point in addition to the furthest point on the plant so ripening happens more easily than if it were flat against the wire.”
In Patrick’s day approximately 55% of the fruit harvested from the vineyard was considered the quality Laurel Glen would be looking for with respect to their Cabernet Sauvignon today. Laurel Glen’s “modern” vineyard with its updated spacing and trellising methods means that approximately 70-75% of what they now pick meets their quality standard.
After our tour of the Sonoma mountain vineyards, we then returned to the tasting room to do a comparison of the wine itself to see whether Bettina and her team’s focus on more even ripening is noticeable in the final product. Laurel Glen prides itself on the age ability of their wine so they always have a library wine open in the tasting room. We tasted their 2013 (current release) and the 2009 which was the first vintage Bettina’s team had any influence over. “When we took over the winery the 2009 was in barrel but none of the blends had been made. We ended up selling off much of it as bulk wine and really labored to make the best blend possible.”
The 2009 represents the style of wine Laurel Glen was known for many years—beautiful structure with great acidity but a wine that takes a long time to develop. The 2013 was showing a distinct fleshiness in comparison and was much more approachable at its relatively young age, “the obsession we have about more even ripening is providing a lot more richness and lushness to the wine but all of that acidity is still there—it’s just more polished.”
It is this obsession which forms the basis of the evolution of Laurel Glen wine from producing a very good Cabernet Sauvignon to an excellent one. And it is most certainly a wine that can stand next to one of its more recognized Napa Valley neighbours knowing it can hold its own.
2016 Laurel Glen Rosé Rosella
Gorgeous pink with slight orange hue. Big , intense flavours of strawberry and rhubarb rest on a medium body. We pick up notes of grapefruit on the juicy finish. There is real excitement and vivacity to this Rosé. While it is delicious on its own, this is serious wine and would be a wonderful compliment to ceviche or spicy paella. Made from 50% Cabernet Sauvignon and 50% of a field blend of old vine plantings that not even the winery is certain as to what variety they are!
Very good/Excellent ($US30 winery club exclusive)
2014 Laurel Glen Counterpoint Cabernet Sauvignon
Aromas of black cherry are joined after some air with a slight woodsy note. The black cherry follows on to the palate where it is joined by blueberry, vanilla and hints of spices. Beautifully textured, this wine totally seduces with its soft round entry and plush mid-palate. This is a serious gateway drug to a Cabernet Sauvignon addiction! 17 months in 40% new Taransaud oak imparts a creamy texture. 10% Merlot is added to the blend; there are enough tannins to balance out all of that gorgeous fruit, but those tannins are nicely polished making this a wine that is ready to roll right now.
Very good/Excellent ($US40 at the winery)
2009 Laurel Glen Cabernet Sauvignon Estate
Made by the previous owners, tasting this wine showed the potential for ageing as well as the contrasting styles since Bettina and her team took over. Black cherry, currants and raspberry fruit are joined by subtle notes of cedar and minerals. Classically Cabernet, one could be forgiven guessing St. Estephe in a blind tasting; it had that slight rusticity to it. Medium + body with a solid structure, this showed an “old school” personality that will charm traditionalists.
2013 Laurel Glen Cabernet Sauvignon Estate
Cherry, plum and crème de cassis are rolled up together in a soft, ripe and just plain delicious aromatic and flavour profile. The balance of this wine rests right on the fulcrum; it is rich and plush but nicely structured. The body is medium+ and the finish is long and spicy. Texturally, this is quite different than the 2009, having adopted a richer, softer profile that offers early pleasure but shows the balance and structure that should see an easy decade or more of development in the cellar.
Excellent (US$75 at the winery)
2012 Laurel Glen Lot 44 Cabernet Sauvignon
The name derives from the fact that this was the 44th vintage since these lots of Cabernet Sauvignon were planted. A stringent barrel selection was used to create this tête de cuvée wine. A mélange of black fruit aromas greet your nose well above the glass. Blackberry, cassis, and black cherry flavours gain complexity from cedar and baking spice notes. Polished tannins provide solid structure and ensure a long life ahead. Detailed, intense and with a gorgeous mouthfeel, this wine will thrill lovers of bold, New World Cabernet Sauvignon. Only 114 cases made, the lucky few who manage to get their hands on a bottle will be in possession of a classic in the making.
Excellent+ (US$125 at the winery)
Laurel Glen Winery: https://www.laurelglen.com/