Working at Crush Wine & Spirits in New York City was an experience I'll always be grateful for. Along with learning from the very best and most generous folks in the business, I had opportunities to meet winemakers as well. The most significant introduction began on a summer afternoon when a regular customer approached me and asked if I'd like to join a wine dinner with a young Cabernet Sauvignon producer from Napa. Something didn't quite add up. This customer's interests were thoroughly planted in the old world, and if we ever spoke of Napa Valley it was of a bygone era. But, my palate and his totally aligned so I was 100% in his hands as we trekked to Brooklyn.
The backdrop of the dinner an iconic name: To-Kalon. Located in west Oakville, To-Kalon can accurately be described as the most hallowed vineyard in all of California, planted in the 1870's. Most notably, it's been a main component of Robert Mondavi's Reserve and To-Kalon cuvées. Along with Mondavi's own holdings they also buy fruit from growers. One of these growers is the MacDonald family, whose parcel sits at the desirable westernmost part of the vineyard at the base of the Mayacamas Mountain Range. For 60 years the family farmed their head-trained Cabernet Sauvignon and sold all the grapes to Mondavi. In 2009 that all changed.
Graeme MacDonald studied wine at UC Davis, and then worked at Opus One, Colgin, Kongsgaard, and finally with Abe Schoener at Scholium Project. His resume was impressive, but the most difficult task before him was convincing his family to let him farm and produce wine from their sacred To-Kalon vines. After all, at over $20,000 per ton they had more than a sure thing selling grapes to Mondavi. The idea of a very ownMacDonald label was the great unknown. Graeme, and his brother Alex, negotiated with their family to begin to harvest a small portion of their vines. With the 2010 vintage they announced their first release.
Back to the dinner: The likeminded attendees tasted the brand new release with Graeme, alongside back-vintage Napa wines each had brought to share. For me, the dinner was a profoundly eye-opening experience into understanding this cherished terroir, and tasting what's capable when an approach is intrinsically tied to the past.
Graeme's philosophy is as old school as the 19th century maps and photos that fill the walls of his small farmhouse on To-Kalon, where he lives with his wife and young daughter. His vines are dry-farmed and organic viticulture is applied on all parcels. The rare California Sprawl vine training allows the canopy to shade grapes, helping prevent sun damage and preserve freshness. Yields on average are kept to about 2 tons per acre, and some old vines produce far less. As neighbors are tearing out vines that aren't capable of giving 6 tons/acre, Graeme is taking steps to ensure the oldest vines in all of To-Kalon continue to strive - albeit with smaller quantities than any board of directors would ever approve.
The name To-Kalon translates to "The Highest Beauty". However, its first owner Henry W. Crabb was fond of calling it "The Boss Vineyard". The unique location of Graeme and Alex's parcel puts the gravel content at over 90%, vs. as low as 15% in parts of the vineyard closer to highway 29 that runs through valley. This gravel (pictured below) provides optimal drainage. The greater percentage of gravel, the further the vines have to travel below for water and nutrients. Within the context of the Grand Cru To-Kalon, MacDonald sits in the sweetest spot.
MacDonald's Cabernet is full beauty and full boss. Incredibly structured with hints of black olive, bitter chocolate, and graphite met with gorgeous violet tones. While the fruit spectrum is certainly dark, there's a bright and vivid raspberry note that points to Graeme's insistence on picking to preserve freshness and avoiding the overripe stewed notes that have permeated Napa Valley over the last decades.
Sniffing and tasting To-Kalon from MacDonald pulls me back to a forgotten era. Graeme and Alex are taking the steps now to preserve this land and its ancient vines for their family's generations to come. Negotiations with the family have gotten smoother now that the annual release sells out in less than an hour. I feel lucky to have been included in the journey from the start.
The 2014 vintage will be arriving later this fall. The wines are being offered today only to our mailing list.
2011 MacDonald To-Kalon Cabernet Sauvignon
$469 per bottle.
2013 MacDonald To-Kalon Cabernet Sauvignon
$527 per bottle.
2014 MacDonald To-Kalon Cabernet Sauvignon
$527 per bottle.