The high-tension sport of racecar driving would seem to have little to do with the art of transforming humble grapes into wine sufficiently tantalizing to seduce the nose and palate of even the most jaded connoisseur. In both cases, however, the slightest miscalculation makes the difference between success and failure, and no one is more acutely aware of this than Randy Lewis, a former Formula Three racer who, in 1992, moved to Napa Valley and founded Lewis Cellars. This family-run winery has established itself over the last 15 years as one of the most consistently impressive producers in a region not wanting for superstars. Those able to find a bottle of Lewis Cellars 2002 Cuvee L Napa Valley (www.lewiscellars.com, $175), a special Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc blend, will delight in its richness. It is a creamy, gorgeously textured composition of dark berry liqueur, cocoa, smoky chaparral, and sandalwood.
Not enough can be said of the sheer physical beauty of Spring Mountain Vineyard’s 800-plus acres, which comprise some of Napa Valley’s most historic 19th-century vineyards. Nor can enough be said of what winemaker Jac Cole and vineyard manager Ron Rosenbrand have done to realize the full potential of this iconic estate. Those who have tasted some of Spring Mountain’s classic vintages—particularly the 1996 and 1997 reserve blends—will appreciate the unique terroir of the property, which emphasizes soft, velvety tannins, as well as cool, earthy, seductively dark fruit. Spring Mountain Vineyard 2002 Elivette (www.springmtn.com, $90), however, takes that dark beauty further still: Voluptuously thick, this powerful, shadowy Bordeaux blend is almost like Turkish coffee, its luxurious berry and black cherry fruit submerged in coffee, dark chocolate, and velvety tannins that should enable this wine to age indefinitely.
Another treasure of the Spring Mountain appellation, Pride Mountain Vineyards’ more than 200 acres sit at an elevation of 2,100 feet above the valley floor. The Pride family acquired their first 45 acres of what was known as Summit Ranch in 1989 and have expanded their vineyards since, while building a portfolio of wines that have become necessary components of any serious California collection. In the Pride Mountain 2004 Merlot Napa-Sonoma (www.pridemountain.com, $56), winemaker extraordinaire Bob Foley has created a masterpiece of ripe fruit—a roiling medley of dark mountain berries—through which glide sweet currents of smoky oak.
In our June 2002 issue, we observed that the L’Aventure 1998 Zinfandel was “a liquid promise of great things to come.” With his L’Aventure 2004 Estate Cuvée (www.aventurewine.com, $75), proprietor and winemaker Stephan Asseo has admirably delivered on that promise. The 2004 Estate Cuvée—which comprises 60 percent Syrah, 29 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, and 11 percent Petit Verdot, all fermented in the same tank—is not only beautifully rendered, but playful, its Bordelaise blueberry intertwining with the leathery, cigar-sweet refrains of the Syrah to create an intoxicating jazz impromptu that envelops nose and palate.
Merry Edwards is a maverick, having persevered in her goal of becoming a winemaker at a time when the profession boasted few women. She eventually landed the position of winemaker at Mount Eden Vineyards, then at Matanzas Creek, before striking out on her own. Today, many of the industry’s most celebrated winemakers are women—and Edwards is, happily, one of them. Her Sonoma Pinot Noirs are finely crafted expressions of place that combine the structural grace of great Burgundies with a distinctly Californian ripeness. The Merry Edwards 2003 Klopp Ranch Pinot Noir (www.merryedwards.com, $48) exhibits the dark color and rich texture of a Cabernet, yet its lively acids and wonderful rose-petal aromas remind one that this is Pinot at its purest.
Though Tom Beckmen founded his vineyards in 1996, the 365-acre Purisima Mountain property has in recent years yielded wines of a complexity that would suggest the vines have been putting out grapes for half a century. Focusing primarily on Rhône varietals (except for a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Sauvignon Blanc), the Beckmen family, despite their considerable acreage, work with small vineyard blocks to produce their portfolio of boutique wines. The Beckmen Vineyards 2003 Grenache Santa Ynez Valley Purisima Mountain Vineyard (www.beckmenvineyards.com, $36) offers a mischievous medley of tart berry fruit, pomegranate, and vibrant acidity—an intense and fun complement to well-spiced paella.