A historic house that had fallen on dark times finds a new lease on life thanks to Charles Banks & Co. Mayacamas Vineyards has been injected with cash and passion as well as an incredible amount of technical expertise in order to resurrect its vineyards and wines. As a wine professional that fancies himself a lover “terroir” and authenticity I was very skeptical that the takeover of the iconic estate would result in anything but another over extracted, over oaked and overripe wine. So, I email Jimmy Hayes, Director of the estate to schedule a visit. After several attempts, he managed to squeeze me in.
With lots of curiosity and excitement, I drove up Oakville Grade and headed to Mayacamas Vineyard. As I drove in and through the estate I noticed several desolate patches of dirt where vines used to be. Without a doubt this must be part of the “Rehabilitation” of the estate, getting rid of all the old vines is something that is hotly contested. I can tell you from many accounts of professionals that the vineyards of Mayacamas where scarcely planted; of which many vines were diseased, frail and not producing. In many cases, the vines were infested with phylloxera. None the less the wines being produced where still pure and expressive, with a sense of authenticity rarely seen nowadays in the Napa Valley. Could it be, that the tremendous amount of stress the vines were put through was translating into incredible mineralogy and beautiful complexity? This is what I was looking to answer. Jimmy Hayes and I go back several years, we both worked for Thomas Keller and traveled through Frances' wine regions. Tasting some of the greatest wine of Champagne and Burgundy. At the time, Jimmy was the Beverage Director for TKRG and I was a mere mortal working the floor of The French Laundry as a Captain/Sommelier. These were my formative years where I was exposed to some of the greatest wines and vintages from around the world.
We continued on a winding road perched on the hillside and arrived at the iconic Mayacamas winery. Walking on the perfectly groomed terrace, with olive trees on one side and the winery on the other, the sun beaming and a cool breeze passing through, it was a perfect day. As we waited for Jimmy to show us around we sat under the shade of the olive trees and admired the beautiful views of the Mayacamas mountains and the Devils' Well Waterfall(dry at the time). Minutes later Jimmy made his way to where we were seating.
We hugged and chatted for a bit, we talked about the idea behind the project and their philosophy when it comes to vinification and enology I was apprehensive, or better said, I was skeptical. As my grandma used to say “the proof is in the pudding” and I would reserve my opinion. Jimmy must have read my mind, he stood and walked back to the cellar and poured us the Mayacamas Chardonnay. It was exceptionally well crafted, it had a perfect brilliance and beautiful delicate pale gold color. The wine tasted of just ripe fruit, with slightly sweet aromas and the right amount of acidity to make all the flavors pop. It's a great summer wine, great everyday wine.
We continued to the winery into what Jimmy called “Piemonte”. This was Mayacamas cellar. The cellar was a dark, damp room that was more akin to and old-world cellar than a California cave. The room was lined with old Botti, some Redwood some American Oak, some laying, some standing, a motley crew of casks. They looked dignified and rooted, master of good taste sharing their wealth with us. We started by tasting a 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon made by Bob Travers and we tasted a barrel sample of their would-be new release made by Andy Erikson. The wines were undeniably true to each other, expressive, delicate, fresh with aromas of red cassis, violets and stone minerality. The tannins were integrated and played off the acidity to create a vibrant wine. The wines were right on the mark, with a pronounce tether linking them to each other.
After touring the vineyards, the winery and tasting the wines, it’s evident that not only are they maintain the traditions but they are also improving upon them ever slightly. With a few technical changes here and there the wines are still true to the traditional Napa-style, the style of winegrowing that put Napa Valley on the map. So to answer my on question in a round about way, the dreadful state that the Mayacamas Vineyards were in, may have been the source of minerality and complexity but with organic and biodynamic farming and a soft hand in the cellar the team at Mayacamas is creating wines that are as good if not better than before.