Our Jericho Canyon Vineyard wine dinner was not exactly what I had first expected.
Some Napa Valley wineries have a reputation for snobbery. We know it is not an across-the-board indictment, because we know lots of warm, friendly people from Napa. But many of them we met and got to know before we knew their winery. Just hearing “Napa” takes me back to when I was just the underpaid school principal’s kid, and the fathers of everyone in my Sunday School were doctors, or lawyers or captains of industry. Way above my family in the social-pecking order.
So when Julie Ann Kodmur asked if we would like to meet with associate winemaker Nicholas Bleecher, I was anticipating a rather formal “get-to-know” the winery dinner. As the date got closer, I looked through the website to learn a little more about the wine and the property. I got a pleasant surprise. There is such a feeling of “family” I looked forward to meeting him and learning about their wine.
Then Julie said that Tara Hole from the winery, would also be attending.
You say ‘Terra,’ We Say ‘Tara’
I have a good friend named Tara. (Let’s call her Tara L.) Her name is pronounced “TAR-uh” (rhymes with ‘car, huh?’). But it was not always so. When the cherished daughter first arrived, Tara was pronounced “Terra” like the famous Georgia plantation in “Gone with the Wind.” She tells a story that her mother had a tough time bringing her into the world, so while her mother stayed a bit in the hospital, Tara came home with her father. Tara’s Dad, who, she will be the first to tell you is a “Yankee,” called her “TAR-uh” instead of “Terra,” for the first few days of her life. By the time her mother got home and discovered the switch, she tried to call her “Terra.” Tara’s dad kept calling her “TAR-uh.” Maybe it had something to do with the whole Yankee business.
Tara L.’s mom knew that either she or Tara’s dad was going to have to concede. “She knew my Dad wasn’t going to give in,” Tara L. says. So “TAR-uh” she became and has been ever since. Tara worked with me on a litigation project, and no matter how many times she corrected people on the project, especially men, they continued to pronounce her name like the Southern plantation. (Bless Their Hearts.)
I, too, know how irritating it is when people refuse to correctly say your name. You see “Corron” is pronounced like foreign, not Karen or Cuh-RHONE, or Core-ON. Native English speakers rarely get it right, and most folks just continued to pronounce it wrong, after correction. When I married Joe, I kept my last name Corron and just added Power –no “S.” One Almighty Power — not many smaller ones. But to this day people who have known me for years will introduce me as Amy Cuh-RHONE Powers, or Amy Powers. Annoying, to say the least.
So as not to be yet another source of irritation to my dear friend, I worked very hard at pronouncing her name correctly. So much so that when I talk about other Taras, like Tara Thornton, the True Blood character played by Rutina Wesley, I pronounce the name the same way. When I learned we were having dinner with someone named Tara, my first comment to my friend Tara L. was, “I wonder if this one pronounces her name ‘correctly.'”
When Joe and I met Nicholas and Tara at III Forks in Downtown Houston, I was delighted when she introduced herself as “TAR-uh.” Hooray! It sort of set the mood for the evening.
III Forks in Houston
While III Forks has delicious food with lovely presentation, it is not the best place to have a fact-gathering conversation about wine. When the place gets crowded, as places with good food tend to do, it is very hard to hear the person sitting next to you. My fault. I suggested the restaurant because it was near my office and I knew they had a wine focus. But the GreenStreet venue puts the “din” in dinner. While the ambiance is romantically candlelit, it is also too dark to take pictures of your food. But if you simply like to enjoy the food and wine without capturing every moment for social media, III Forks is a good place to go in Houston. They also do a 4-7 p.m. Happy Hour nightly where you can see and be seen, sampling some of the tasty food without need of your Gold Card.
Tara Katrina Hole is friendly and bubbly. She is refreshingly authentic. It is easy to see why she in charge of Business Development — because she makes you feel immediately right at home. At first Nick seems more serious and reserved. As he and Joe found some common topics of conversation, he opened up and was equally charming. They are a great pair — high school sweethearts.
But it was not always so.
Finding Each Other – Tara and Nick
They first met freshman year of high school in a Humanities class and were assigned to work as a team to do a report on Picasso. Tara thought Nick was “rather full of himself” when he insisted they focus on Guenica, a 1937 mural Picasso painted for the Spanish Pavilion of the World’s Fair in Paris. Nicholas had seen the original as a 5th grader living with his family in Madrid. An indictment of war and Fascism, the original is now housed at the Reina Sofía, Spain’s national museum of modern art.
“I was less than thrilled with having to work with Nicholas at the time,” she says, adding, “Years later, we now work together by choice and make quite an effective team.”
It is that kind of tight-knit team work that helps make Jericho Canyon Vineyard wines special. Nicholas and Tara are continuing where Nick’s parents Dale and Marla began.
Finding Each Other – Marla and Dale
Dale and Marla met in Italian Class at the University of Oregon. Dale grew up in West Chester, Pennsylvania, but left at 16 to travel the world. He tended bar in Sicily, hitchhiked across North Africa and studied Spanish and Mexican History in Guadalajara. He says his longest stint in one place was the 3 years he spent in Italy where he found a love and respect for the world of winemaking. But when he returned to the United States, he says he was lured to Oregon by the “promise of $6/hr wages offered by the logging industry.” After a couple of years he decided that perhaps college might be a better route, and it was there he met Marla DeDomenico.
Marla’s family is Sicilian. Her grandfather left Sicily in 1890, settling in San Francisco where he founded The Golden Grain Macaroni Company, a factory that sold pasta to Italian stores and restaurants. Her late father, Vincent M. DeDomenico, Sr., and his two brothers invented Rice-A-Roni (The San Francisco treat!) in 1958, and acquired Ghiradelli (Chocolate) in 1964, selling it to Quaker Oats in 1986. A year later, Marla’s father bought 21 miles of Southern Pacific Railroad track in the Napa Valley, restored some 1915 Pullman cars and started the Napa Valley Wine Train, where you can enjoy a glass of Jericho Canyon Vineyard wines, among other Napa Valley wines, while riding through the valley.
Marla and Dale Bleecher purchased the 135-acre property that is now Jericho Canyon Vineyard in 1989, after spotting a small “for Sale by Owner” ad in the San Francisco Chronicle for a cattle ranch west of Calistoga.
We knew the spot the moment we saw it. After three years of searching, we came upon a beautiful cattle ranch at the northeast end of Napa Valley outside of Calistoga. With Mt. St. Helena and the Palisades ringing the canyon, the site was breathtaking. – Marla Bleecher
Visitors remark the site is indeed breathtaking, one that actor Robert Redford enjoyed when he lived in the house before the Bleechers made it their permanent home.
Originally given in a land grant to a veteran of the Civil War as payment for his services, the ranch is situated along the road to the old Silverado Mine, a spot made famous by Robert Lewis Stevenson in his book Silverado Squatters. The property had been used as a cattle ranch since the 1930s, but it showed evidence of a pre-Prohibition vineyard alongside of Jericho Creek.
The Bleechers planted vines on 20 acres in 1990 and another 20 in 1991 creating a steeply terraced vineyard. That doesn’t make for easy harvesting, so everything must be harvested by hand.
“The saying goes that “one acre of hillside is the same as 40 acres of valley floor,” says Tara when describing the work required to harvest grapes from slopes that range from 10 to 45 degrees.
From Grapes to Wine
In the early years, the Bleechers sold their fruit to other wineries, like neighboring Chateau Montelena. Summers in the vineyard meant each of the three Bleecher children, daughters Oriana and Vanessa, and the youngest, son Nick each had to work 3 hours each day in the field.
So Nick grew up spending summers working in the fields daily while living in the 100-year old farm house on property. During the school year, he attended Hawai’i Preparatory Academy on the Big Island of Hawai’i, where his mother taught English. That is where he met Tara.
From 2001 – 2005 the Bleechers’ fruit went to Ramey Wine Cellars, which produced a Jericho Canyon vineyard designate wine. Winemaker David Ramey also produced an ultra-premium wine for their own label, Jericho Canyon Vineyard.
When Nick graduated high school in 2006, the Bleechers turned full attention to the property, completing their 6,000-square-foot cave and adjacent winery. You can find a write-up of the cave in the beautiful pictorial, Into the Earth: A Wine Cave Renaissance. In 2006, the Bleechers stopped selling their grapes to others, and produced their first estate wines.
With the winery facility only steps away from the vineyard, we are able to keep a watchful eye on our vines as we wait for optimal grape development. Once harvested, the fruit takes the short trip to the winery where we carefully and attentively process each small lot. – Marla Bleecher
Jericho Canyon 2012 Sauvignon Blanc
With just 2.8 acres planted, the Jericho Canyon single vineyard limited production hillside Estate Sauvignon Blanc is rare treat, and had been bottled just a few weeks before we tasted it. A perfect balance of crisp acidity and creaminess, the Sauvignon Blanc was a wonderful companion to the seared scallops starter, and my salad of field greens, apple slices, walnuts and blue cheese. I saved some to taste with Joe’s Sautéed Spinach and my Fresh Asparagus — heaven.
I found it hard to express in words at the time, but my first thought was “round.” It is safe to say that the blend of Stainless steel and neutral French Oak fermentation was to credit. This wine represents Napa Valley’s first Aaron Pott and Michel Rolland collaboration Sauvignon Blanc. At $40 a bottle, its taste was worth every penny. With only 263 cases produced, alas, the wine has already sold out. I would suggest getting on the allocations list to make sure you get a bottle of the next release.
JCV is permitted to ship to the following states: Alaska, California, Colorado, Florida, Hawai’i, Minnesota, Montana, North Carolina, Nevada, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Texas and Washington State, so please plan accordingly.
Jericho Canyon Vineyard 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon
Renowned wine critics like Robert Parker, Jr., James Laude and James Suckling heap solid praise on Jericho Canyon Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, which is bottled in three selections, the Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, the Jericho Canyon Cabernet Sauvignon and the Jericho Creek Cabernet Sauvignon.
We tasted the 2009 Jericho Canyon Cabernet Sauvignon. Dark, lush and bold, this is a big Bordeaux-style wine. 95% Cabernet Sauvignon with 5% Merlot, 20 months in French oak (74% new) gives this wine a strong tannic backbone that makes it perfect for aging for up to 20 years. Wine for a man’s man, it is also the perfect complement now to the juicy Prime Rib we chose as its sidekick. An espresso-rubbed bone-in New York Strip would also be to die-for, to meld with the wine’s notes of espresso, hint of mandarin zest and rich toffee flavors over black cherry and currant. I can see myself drinking a glass on a sumptuous leather sofa in a den with bookshelf-lined walls, or by the fireplace under the mounted Long Horn Steer in Austin’s Driskill Hotel Bar. You get the idea. 420 cases produced, you can purchase a bottle for a Benjamin, here.
JCV also bottles Chardonnay and a Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah blend called Table Rock Red. They sound lovely and we hope to taste them and share our notes with you at a later date. They also bottle olive oil from hand- picked olives of the 50 trees situated at the top of their vineyard.
Responsible Land Stewards
Jericho Canyon Vineyard is a Certified Napa Green Winery, Napa Green Land, California Sustainable, Napa County Green Business, and Fish Friendly Farming. In the winery, the Bleechers installed water saving devices, energy-saving light fixtures and skylights. They age their wines in a naturally climate controlled cave, which means there is no need for air conditioning.
They help maintain the canyon ecosystem, employing tools like no-till farming, insectaries, bird boxes, and erosion control. No-till farming reduces wind and water erosion and provides crucial habitat for beneficial insects. Insectaries also provide habitat for beneficial insects which keeps Jericho Canyon insecticide free. Within the vineyard, owl boxes attract nesting owls who provide rodent control, and bluebird boxes invite bug-eating birds to call the canyon home.
Visiting The Winery
Jericho Canyon Vineyard is just over a mile off Hwy 29 on Old Lolley Toll Road in Calistoga, California. A beautifully-understated redwood winery features art by Sibylle Szaggars. Guests can visit Jericho Canyon Vineyard by appointment only, and there are only a few appointments per day. You can request a scheduled visit via their website, or by e-mailing them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
After “decades of waking at dawn to prune vines, run vineyard irrigation, pick grapes, clean barrels, and serve as an all around ‘cellar rat’, Nicholas Bleecher returned to Jericho in 2011.” He had graduated from UC Davis where he earned a BS in Viticulture and Enology as well as a degree in Managerial Economics and then worked in other vineyards abroad, learning techniques from other winemakers. While Nick assists in all aspects of operations, his main role is working alongside winemaker, Aaron Pott, and blending consultant, Michel Rolland, to produce wines true to their hillside origins.
We asked Nick about his siblings – Nick laughingly told us that his two older sisters had “escaped” all the hard work of the winery.
“But I really wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,” he says.