If you ever wondered why a Napa Valley label on a bottle of wine usually comes with a premium price, here’s a clue. According to the website Vinovest, a planted vineyard in Sonoma County starts at about $70,000 per acre. Napa Valley, on the other hand, will cost about $250,000 per acre for an entry-level vineyard. In order for Napa producers to get a decent return on investment, they must sell wine at higher prices.
We recently spoke to Ralf Holdenried, director of winemaking at Black Stallion Winery, to learn about this relative newcomer to Napa Valley and to taste a sampling of his wines.
Holdenried grew up in German wine country with parents who were winemakers. He decamped to California, earning a fermentation science degree and an MBA at UC Davis. After winemaking stints at other California wineries, including William Hill and Louis M. Martini, Holdenried joined Black Stallion Winery, which is owned by Delicato Family Wines in Napa.
The start-up years at Black Stallion have been complicated by the ubiquitous fires that have plagued California in recent years. According to Holdenried, the winery almost burned in 2017, but the wildfire stopped across the street. Still, half of the 2020 crop was lost to fires.
Smoke taint is a recurring problem for all California wineries. Holdenried explained that some grape varieties are more vulnerable to it, with chardonnay less susceptible and pinot noir the most threatened. In addition, drought is an ongoing problem, although Holdenried explained they have enough water for ongoing operations.
The winery owns about 22 acres of vineyards and also purchases grapes from 35 to 40 growers from most of Napa Valley’s AVAs. That gives Holdenried a diverse palette to work with. He visits his producers frequently, spending as much time with his growers as his own vineyards and invites growers to taste their wines before blending.
We tasted three of the Black Stallion offerings, starting with an unusual albarino. Some grape transplants from the Old World work extremely well in California, with cabernet sauvignon, merlot, pinot noir and chardonnay starring in most California table wines and, in some cases, rivaling their European ancestors. Grapes, such as sangiovese, haven’t fared as well after the initial enthusiasm faded.
We were happily surprised by the 2019 Black Stallion Limited Release Napa Valley Albarino ($40). This example was true to its Spanish Rias Baixas roots and would fit comfortably in an all-Spanish lineup. Bright acidity, lime and some floral notes form the base for this very tasty wine. Unfortunately, it is only available online or at their tasting room.
The descriptors “reasonably priced, high quality, and Napa Valley” aren’t often paired in a sentence. However, the 2018 Black Stallion Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley ($30) may be the exception to this rule. Presenting well-balanced plum and blackberry notes with a distinctive brightness, this well-made red wine comes from a range of vineyards and includes mountain fruit from Atlas Peak. It is composed of 87 percent cabernet sauvignon with a dash of petite verdot, syrah merlot and malbec. It is aged in new and used French and American oak barrels.
The 2016 Black Stallion Transcendent Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley ($150) is sourced from the producer’s 20 best barrels sourced mostly from higher elevation vineyards. It’s 100 percent cabernet sauvignon and 28 months of all new French oak barrel aging have resulted in a sensational ultra-premium Napa Valley wine that competes favorably with others in this price category. Very dense but with soft tannins. Black cherry and cassis notes flavor, this offering that is ready to enjoy.
Poggio Anima Asmodeus Nero d’Avola 2018 ($15). A perfectly plump wine for burgers and ribs on the grill, this Sicilian wine has jammy black cherry and plum notes with a dash of black pepper.
Geodesy Chehalem Moutain Vineyard Pinot Noir 2018 ($80). Judy Jordan, formerly of J Vineyards and Winery, has focused her talents on an outstanding portfolio of wines and WG Edge (Women Gaining an Edge), a development program for young women entering the agricultural workforce. This luxurious pinot noir, like others in the collection, has a lot of elegance. Generous strawberry aromas with fresh raspberry and cocoa flavors with a hint of spice.
Benziger Vineyards Bella Luna Vineyard Pinot Noir 2018 ($49). We can’t lay enough platitudes on this rich and lush pinot noir from a biodynamically farmed vineyard in the Russian Valley. By harvesting grapes by hand at night, the winemaker has been able to keep the fruit fresh and the acid bright. Pure black cherry flavors with a hint of cinnamon.
Concha Y Toro Frontera Cabernet Sauvignon Central Valley 2019 ($7). Nothing complicated here, just a pleasant berry- and cherry-flavored cabernet sauvignon that will please almost all pocketbooks. Buy this for a crowd at your next barbecue.
Dry Creek Vineyards Fume Blanc Sonoma County 2020 ($18). If you like sancerre, give this California cousin a try. A very good blend of citrus notes and crisp minerality, accented by a hint of herbs, create a very agreeable and drinkable sauvignon blanc.
Villa Creek Grenache Adelaida District Paso Robles 2018 ($75). All organic, this luscious and juicy 100% grenache is what first drew us to grenache years ago. Black raspberry and cherry notes are accented with a hint of smoke. Decadent!