Spring 2022 Release
I cannot tell you how excited I am to share this allocation with you all. 2019 was a banner year in our winemaking journey, which capped off the Twenty-teens, my first full decade of winemaking, in an incredible fashion.
We are releasing our first white wine, the 2021 GC Blanc, as well as Cabernet Sauvignon wines from Atlas Peak and Saint Helena. Here is a bit about each offering.
2021 GC BLANC is 100% Musque Clone Sauvignon Blanc from Wolf Family Vineyard, located on the Southern edge of St. Helena’s valley floor, almost exactly in the middle of the Mayacamas to the west and the Vaca range to the east, at one of the Valley’s most narrow points.
The grapes are pressed whole cluster and fermented in stainless steel and concrete tanks with no ML conversion. 1 small concrete tank, 1 stainless drum and 1 neutral oak barrel produced.
The Musque clone is on full display in our inaugural vintage of GC Blanc, showing a rounder, more luxurious style than its clone 1 counterpart. Aromatically stunning, with high tuned citrus, ripe pineapple and mango popping from the glass. On the palette the tropical fruit becomes the focus with meyer lemon custard undertones. The mouthfeel is vibrant with curves in all the right places. A victory for the winemaking team, our inaugural GC Blanc has set the bar high for our exploration of Napa Valley.
2019 LIFTED was created to showcase mountain-grown Cabernet Sauvignon. The elevation and soils give the wines a lift in tannin and natural acidity.
Hendrickson Family Ranch is located just south of Stage Coach Vineyard at the end of Soda Canyon Rd. Clone 7 thrives in the iron rich, red soils. The views from the site are incredible. The first visit feels like seeing a monument for the first time, truly one of the wonders of the wine world. On a clear day you can see the valley floor and the San Pablo. The green foliage, red landscape and blue skies make for a view that cannot be described in words.
We utilize pulse air and carefully monitor phenolics during fermentation, occasionally pressing early if we hit our color goals and start to see tannins rising. The wine was aged 20 months in 100% French Oak, 70% New (Taransaud, Francois Frerres, Leroi, Remond, Boute) 4 barrels produced
In the spectrum of our single vineyard wines, LIFTED delivers all you would expect from Atlas Peak grown Cabernet. Dark berry overtures with higher tuned red fruit are framed by moderate acidity and gripping tannins. Age-worthy Cabernet that will gain complexity for years to come.
2019 NEXT EPISODE was also grown at Wolf Family Vineyard. Saint Helena’s location up-valley makes for warm days with cooling effects in the evening from the chalk hill gap through the Mayacamas to the west and the San Pablo bay to the south.
Cabernet grown here does not struggle to get ripe and produces mouth filling, rich fruited wines framed well with acidity and tannin. Saint Helena’s valley floor is Napa Valley’s work horse, the backbone of many of our favorite wines from the region.
The wine was aged for 22 months in 100% French Oak, 75% New Oak. (Taransaud, Leroi) 4 barrels produced
The warm days, cool nights and well drained soils of Wolf Family vineyard are on full display in this Saint Helena grown show stopper. The 2019 is rich, complex and packed with dark berry fruit, with supple, silky tannins and juicy red undertones. The intensity of fruit is a signature of the region and is in line with the opulent, mouth-filling style of Napa Valley Cabernet that put the region on the map.
Extremely small volumes of each of these wines were produced and we anticipate a sellout during this allocation period. We have set aside a small volume for our library and for visitors at our tasting room. The team and I could not be more proud of the wines in this release and we cannot wait to share them with you all.
Our bags were packed, the wheels were in motion. Fires or not - we were in the process and there was no going back. We were Napa bound.
As winemakers, we seem to remember events that take place each year, particularly as it relates to weather and the growing season. Most winemakers I know remember a strange amount of details about each year (myself included). We are reminded of the conditions of the vintage each time we visit any wine, we can immediately correlate flavors, aromatics and textures to the year the wine was produced.
We also remember details about relationships that were formed, and in some cases moving on from others, and other factors that played a role in our winemaking journey for that year. It could be a new discovery, equipment upgrades, new, pivotal knowledge, having a kid, moving, or other major life occurrences that ultimately shape who we are.
2021 had all of that and more for me.
Moving production and launching Grape Culture has been a collaborative endeavor that many have had hands, eyes and hearts on. I am grateful for the communal effort of my team, the support of my family, and the willingness to take a major chance from everyone involved. So far, we are thrilled with what we have accomplished in our short time here, but the things I think I will forever remember are the gritty details about how it went from idea to reality.
We started the year with a signed lease at our new facility and design completed for construction. As soon as the previous tenant was out, we got busy taking our construction as far as we could while waiting for permits from the city. Then the process of moving a winery began.
I think I spent a solid 300 hours on the road driving massive trucks up and down the 680 from Livermore to Napa. Hauling barrels, equipment, furniture, etc. It was a sing along every day, blasting music singing at the top of my lungs. Maybe it was Too Short one day, Tom Petty another, the next day it was Toby Keith. After the summer of 2021, I am adequately prepared to go toe to toe in a Karaoke battle with anyone! I also think I found every pothole from Livermore to Napa, and when you're in oversized trucks you feel those things.
The day the cranes came to move our tanks, press, and other large equipment out of Livermore was when it finally set in. This was real. Oh, and my baby girl was a few weeks away from being born.
July came quickly, and we were way behind the curve in terms of having this place ready to go for harvest. As my wife and I were preparing for Carly to be born, we were also looking for a place to move to Napa to live. This was also quite the process. Most moms-to-be are nesting, getting ready for life at home with a newborn. And most dads are getting ready to take some time off to help out. We didn't stop.
Before I could blink, Carly Rose Cranor was born on July 15. My wife and I moved to our new home August 1. 2 week old baby, harvest breathing down our necks at the winery where we were still looking at a trench with no concrete poured, framed walls with no sheetrock, conduit hung with no wire pulled, and a massive list of things to do to be ready to make wine in this building. The seasons don’t wait, and I have never felt the pressure of time squeezing in on both ends like I did in 2021. I will forever be grateful for my wife for dealing with my crazy timelines, especially like she did last year.
Fruit started hitting the pad as we got busy wrapping up construction. I like to say we were like the Death Star in Star Wars that was certainly incomplete esthetically, but fully operational. There were days that we had 10-15 tons of fruit on the deck and a crew of people hanging sheetrock. Our lab was finished mid-way through harvest. Admittedly we were like cavemen early in the vintage, working with less data than we are typically comfortable with. Long days here were followed by going and helping my wife with our newborn.
In October we officially launched Grape Culture. We had an incredible campaign that laid down the foundation to how the brand will develop.
As I am writing this I am actually realizing 2021 is a year that I will remember all of the other things aside from winegrowing related details. After all, they played a bigger role in shaping me and the vintage than anything climatic or weather related. Typically this time of year I can tell you how everything went in every vineyard, yields, etc. But to be honest I think I spent less time in our vineyards in 2021 than I have in any other harvest and the things that usually role off my tongue when talking about a given year are hard for me to put together. Instead I remember more about the work involved, and ultimately a successful harvest here, the fact that my family was here most days, and my son got to help on crush days.
Even with all of the challenges we faced and the fact that we spent more time building and cleaning than we did winegrowing or winemaking, Craig and I feel like we made the best wines of our career in 2021. We bottle our 2021 GC Blanc today, the day this post goes live. And it is a wine that I will always remember. Not because of the growing season, but because of all the things that happened in my life that shaped this year.
New home, new winery, new addition to the family, and the beginning of our new lives here in Napa Valley.
We were riding into Harvest 2020 ready for war. In the building we were throwing words around we never thought possible. "Oakville! Rutherford! Veeder! GIII!!! LFG!!!" It was all starting to happen. And it was sort of a farewell tour in our production facility. We had found a new home to start building in Napa.
We were riding high, feeling good. Until August 17, 2020. We all remember waking up in the middle of the night to the sound of thunder, looking outside and watching the most intense lightning storm. And in true 2020 fashion, a new wave of shit was thrown at humanity in the shape of fire. Everywhere.
We were lucky enough to have picked our Sauvignon Blanc from Saint Helena before the fires took place, and we worked quickly with Brenae Royale at Monte Rosso to get our Zin off quickly. The harvest was spent driving all over the place, pulling samples, sending them to labs all over, bucket ferments, waiting on results. Watching fruit over ripen, wondering if its smoke tainted. Wanting to make wine but being told no by growers, and in some cases pulling the plug as we are setting up to pick.
It ended with Craig and I finding a small lot of Pinot Noir down in Santa Rita Hills the Saturday the Glass Fire broke out. We went down, dropped bins, picked them up at 3 am, drove back to Livermore to process and then loaded 2 trucks for a 10 ton pick in Saint Helena, which we had received results with only moderate smoke taint indicators. We were going to take a chance.
As we were driving into Napa, the Glass Fire had jumped from Vaca Side to Spring Mountain, and it was erupting as we were pulling into town with two massive streams of smoke way high in the sky, but relatively clear where we were. I am calling Craig, confident and excited, "We're gonna do this!" A large ploom about a mile as the bird flies pops off, and like someone hit the lightswitch, the pressure changed and smoke and ash started raining on us. The crew was getting ready to start, but within seconds we couldn't see 10 feet in front of ourselves.
We sent the crew home, loaded our trucks back up and left Saint Helena. We didn't know this at the time but Calistoga and some of St Helena was being evacuated. I remember sitting in traffic, smoke all around, and haven't slept in two days thinking, "are we the only idiots leaving a wine growing region that doesn't typically deal with fires and moving to Napa?"
Chapter 5: 2020 Vision
I was very very sick on New Years going into 2020. I spent a week in my room with a fever that got up to 105. I ended up going to emergency room and had pneumonia. Never felt worse in my life. A few months later it all would make sense.
In January, I made a request for some fruit from one of our big suppliers in Livermore Valley. In January 2020 the grape market in Napa Valley and statewide was even more buyer friendly than the year before. Even still - I was going to give Livermore one more run. We were going to scale and take it to the streets again. Take a big chance once again on our home region.
When the pandemic began to become an issue we were already in sort of a reworking of our future.
When we were instructed to stay home “for two weeks to flatten the curve” I was told by a friend in the medical field that they didn’t think this was going to be two weeks. And that I really needed to take a look at my business and start thinking about new ways to reach people. Especially if we were counting on visitors in our tasting room.
We got busy. While a lot of folks were sort of waiting around to reopen the tasting room we rebuilt the website and made buying wine online as easy as possible. It didn’t matter what your job was, your job is now to sell wine. Curbside, zooms, etc. whatever it takes. “Two more weeks” quickly became months, and now over a year.
Like many people, the pandemic forced us to really take stock of who we are, what we value, and how we were going to achieve our goals.
In May, I finally got a response from our large Livermore Valley supplier about my grape request in January. Price increases again. At the lowest point of the grape market statewide, in the midst of an international pandemic. From a region who’s strong point is DTC through tasting rooms, and those were shutdown.
The pandemic sped up the part that I was so concerned would happen. It no longer was going to be financially viable to operate in Livermore Valley the way we do.
Craig and I went on a mission to secure the best vineyard partners we could in Napa Valley in 2020. We absolutely stacked our deck with powerhouse vineyards.
Timing is everything. And as it turns out, our leases at our warehouses in Livermore were coming to an end. We started looking around. Everywhere from Healdsburg, to Sebastopol, to Petaluma, Santa Rosa. We didn’t think Napa was an option. Too big for our britches.
We were cruising into harvest, stacked with a set of vineyards that would excite any winemaker and knowing that this would be the final vintage we would produce in the building. We didn’t know where we were going but we knew it was time to go.
2019 was a strange year. The pressure in Livermore Valley was growing on many fronts. Political battles for downtown development, the bubble beginning to burst on the rising costs of fruit vs. the region's reputation in the market. This is the moment I was worried about years before, and when I tried to express that with my colleagues I was basically dismissed.
My friends Jason Montero and Jeremy Troupe-‘Masi and I started a podcast to highlight some of our region's best producers of food, wine, beer, etc. The underlying theme of the show was finding the call to action that we could get the region behind.
In March my son Cole was born. When Cole came into this world my priorities changed. It’s different when the kid comes, and the goal became a multi-generational winery. The urgency to get our business where it needed to be became the only concern. That meant I better get busy!
Another strange thing was happening. In Napa Valley the grape market was soft. Like, really soft. Like, amazing vineyards available for the first time in years, some fruit not getting picked because no one would buy it. It was ugly for some growers.
We started asking ourselves, do we continue on this path that is predictably heading towards major economic challenges - or - finally act on that career-long curiosity about what we could do in Napa. There was a window here to explore new options.
We started meeting growers all over Napa Valley and came across a handful of vineyards. Doug Hill from Oak Knoll Farming was a huge help finding us a handful of small picks in Calistoga, St Helena, and Yountville. He really helped us get a look at many different growing conditions.
We made another major partnership in 2019. We started buying grapes from Beckstoffer Vineyard Georges III. This lone purchase meant there were some major changes coming.
In order to make this happen, we had to make some changes to our normal programming at Nottingham Cellars. We backed away in Livermore (with the exception of one grower, more on that later) to make room in our budget for our new Napa projects.
One of our existing growers proposed a challenge. If we took the same approach to ferment the wines from our existing vineyards, which wines will come out on top from a phenolic standpoint? (Phenolics 101)
We were excited. We were producing wine from Livermore Valley’s best Cabernet vineyards alongside iconic vineyards in Calistoga, St. Helena, Rutherford, Yountville, and Atlas Peak. West of 29, trailside, hills, flats, mountains. We were going to be learning a lot about Napa Valley and its many soils and other major regional terroir drivers.
It was sort of a Ford vs. Ferrari moment for us.
The podcast was starting to pick up steam, and we were growing as a company and I had the chance to bring Jeremy on to the team at NC. He helped Craig and me during harvest before getting ready to pound the pavement in 2020.
We had a few hiccups that harvest. Craig took a crowbar to the face, I fell off a ladder. The press failed with 5 tons of Sonoma Coast Pinot in it. Funny to look back at it all now.
We made it through, and more importantly made the best wines of our career. We had some results from our Livermore Valley vs Napa. Like we thought would happen, the spread was large when it comes to tannin and color. St Helena and Rutherford produced the most color. Atlas Peak has by far the most tannin, and also very high color. The best Livermore Valley vineyards performed very well, landing slightly above the middle of the pack. Some sights in Calistoga and St Helena were a bit weak, but we were rushing to pick to beat the smoke from the Kincade fire.
We were getting pumped for 2020.
Looking back, we wrapped up our 2014 harvest and It was a long one. A year of so many programs with fewer people in production. It was the year that I remember thinking, “what the hell are we doing?” We were six vintages in but by all accounts in the wine industry we were still a startup. We had grown to a collection of three brands with about 40 different products. From a winemaking perspective, I was certainly satisfying my curiosity. And in those 6 short years, we got hands-on experience working with a multitude of wines in many ways.
While Cabernet and its Bordeaux counterparts were always the driving force, we had several ancillary projects always going. White Rhône’s from Central Coast, 100+ year old contra costa Carignan and Grenache, and Chardonnay from several regions.
I always had young, eager, and talented assistant winemakers at my side and we were all truly curious. We ran intense trials, in fact, pretty much everything was a trial. On Rhône’s, we experimented with whole cluster ferments, carbonic maceration, and native fermentations with minimal intervention. Other times we’d throw the kitchen sink at lots. We worked with several different coopers, barrel fermenters, stainless tanks, open tops, closed tops you name it. Reductive vs oxidative ferments, varying lees capture, time on lees, etc. We answered a lot of questions, oftentimes what to not do but with the help of many great mentors, I had more or less taught myself winemaking and more importantly winery operations.
In 2015 I really started to try to dial it in. I was becoming a jack of all trades, master of none. We started the process of dialing back our SKU count, focusing on our best wines and really digging into each vineyard, and learning how we could get the most from each site.
While the wines were improving we were really starting to hit a wall financially. The cost of fruit in Livermore Valley was skyrocketing but Livermore as a region was still not getting the market respect needed to hit margins that were sustainable. For many years a handful of us small producers were fighting to create an identity for the region. It was simple, every great region is known for something. A variety, a blend, or something that says this is “burgundy” or this is “Napa Valley”.
I quickly became obsessed with monitoring phenolics and testing wines we liked to drink. We added wine x-ray into our production protocol and have never looked at Winemaking the same. We learned we were doing a very good job of managing our phenolic load in fermenters without really knowing why, all the way. We had ideas. Our protocols were not some sort of secret recipe. It was things we had picked up meeting winemakers that shared knowledge, tried in our own place with success, then scaled those trials to go to the lion's share of production. We always felt like we were making wines with balanced fruit density, tannins, etc but it was reassuring to quantify these things.
A great piece of advice was given to me - and I am glad I listened. Understanding phenolics in wine does not mean that making a wine with a massive phenolic load means success. Managing tannin and color means keeping things in balance.
Over the next couple of vintages, we began eliminating vineyards and programs, fermentation protocols, and cooperages. We stripped the fat off the program and were dialing things in, and in 2016 and 2017 we made some absolutely incredible wines.
A great thing happened in 2018. I was able to hire my good friend Craig Ploof as our Director of Winemaking. We had started a small Pinot Noir project the year before and I knew we would work great together. Craig is a meticulous winemaker. Like me, he has always been one to run trials in the winery. However, Craig brought a level of discipline and consistency to the program that we absolutely needed.
That year we really stepped our game up. We had more or less dialed in protocols for all of our vineyards, things we had trialed and mastered in previous vintages and decided work well for us. We went from 20 or so cooperages with various toasts, sources, etc. to 3 or 4 excellent producers. We shrank our set of SKUs and focused production on our most successful programs.
The realities our region was facing were becoming more and more of a problem. The lack of identity and rising costs were pulling the money in both directions. Livermore Valley is capable of growing some really delicious wine. But the whimsical approach and lack of focus was and still is holding the region back. We were quite vocal about the need to be known for something and that we needed to get busy. We were experiencing it in our own winery. The jack of all trades route is a sure-fire way to get lost in the mix and devalue your effort. And we were seeing the benefits of focusing our efforts. It’s amazing what efficiency does for a program.
Despite the challenges of the region, we were beginning to see some financial turnaround. We landed a couple of big deals that are still active today that have carried us through and got us out of some really tough times. Even at our lowest of lows, the mentality in the winery and with our growing partners never relented - we were going to make wines as good as anywhere.
With some financial pressure off and us coming off of what Craig and I thought was our best vintage to date in 2018, we began thinking about other options outside of Livermore Valley. Craig and I were making Pinot, so that program had already put us in new territories. And the craziest thing began to happen: people wanted to taste the wines. New people. The same people that wouldn’t touch Livermore Valley. That regional reputation is what gets real wine people interested. People that embrace the culture, expect excellence, and that understand that great wine is grown with purpose.
It’s a sad thing that Livermore Valley has the reputation it does. But it is a thing. Perception is reality. We had both spent over a decade trying to fight the good fight, put the region on our backs with a handful of serious winemakers and take it to the streets. But you can’t shake the reputation of a region that doesn’t want to be shook. And certainly not with our 10-15k cases of wine. That’s just not going to reach a lot of people.
I remember the first time I asked Craig, “what do you think we could do if we were to get our hands on some great Napa Cab?” That question was the beginning of a major pivot in our story. We didn’t know it yet, but our lives were about to change.
I was fortunate enough to grow up in the bay area with a family that loves and appreciates wine. From as far back as I can remember, my parents would make trips up to Napa Valley and Sonoma County to visit some of their favorite producers like Duckhorn, Cakebread, and Silver Oak. I can remember them enjoying wines in quiet tasting rooms, often in private settings, while my brother and sister and I would run around these incredible properties.
I lived my life not really thinking about wine or paying much attention to it, but it was always around and all my dad’s friends had dubbed him “the wine guy”. We grew up in Castro Valley, a suburb of Oakland in the east bay. In 2006 when my dad was venturing into retirement, he started working with a friend on a small wine project which was basically a négociant that would buy premium lots of bulk wine, bottles and sold directly to a members-only list.
After a couple of vintages, it was clear that the model, operation, and pretty much the entire program was not performing at a level that was sustainable. In 2008 after a series of questionable decisions, and even worse execution, my dad and his partner began thinking about dissolving the company. They still had some wine on hand and no real thought of how to sell it.
Another thing was happening. I was beginning to find real interest in wine. While the business was struggling, it did open my eyes to the industry. I had helped ferment a couple of small lots with our winemaker, I was involved in a couple of blending sessions and cleaned up behind him as he worked barrels and other cellar tasks. More importantly, I was often tasked with driving tanks to wineries where we were buying bulk and I’d end up meeting talented people in beautiful places. It was interesting and fun, and nothing like my job as a Glazier working highrise construction.
Livermore Valley was also starting to gain some momentum and recognition for improvements in quality. We discovered that there was excellent wine being produced in Livermore Valley. There was high-quality fruit being grown all around, and great Cabernet could be had for a fraction of the prices of Napa and Sonoma. My family and I saw real potential here and began learning more about who was farming, what was available, and where we might be able to set up shop.
First order of business—we were going to work through our existing inventory that was mostly purchased bulk wine and abandon the négociant model. Going forward, we were going to produce our own wines with a focus on single-vineyard offerings from the region’s most respected growers and vineyards. In 2009 we produced our first wines from grape to bottle and by November, we secured warehouse space in town and launched a brand based on Livermore Valley wines. This was the birth of Nottingham Cellars. These wines were met with great praise from the press, with many accolades, and almost overnight Nottingham Cellars was a force in Livermore Valley.
Over the next 3-4 years we saw tremendous growth. We continued to grow our footprint adding more warehouse space and were moving some real volume. By 2013 we had grown to almost 20,000 cases. We landed a deal with one of CA’s bigger distributors, we were shipping wine to multiple brokers and small distributors across the country. Locally, we were on fire.
We were not the only ones experiencing growth locally, it seemed as though the region was hitting a stride and we were riding the wave. The quality of wines across the region was continuing to improve, we were reaching new people, and the trade was finally showing interest in Livermore Valley. I was the youngest winemaker in town making some pretty good wines and people were digging it. Virginie Boone from Wine Enthusiast was giving the region some solid coverage, which at the time was huge. Until then none of the big media outlets would touch Livermore Valley.
As many small wineries do, we started experimenting with many grapes. I was young, curious, and was under the impression I could sell anything we made. We quickly grew the portfolio to a collection of a few brands and a SKU count of 25 plus.
In 2014 we had a serious reality check. The cost of fruit in Livermore started to rise significantly. Which at the time we believed was a good thing. If growers make more, they can invest more in the vineyard, grow better fruit, and in the end, our wines would be worth more.
That logic looks great on paper, but it wasn’t the reality that we lived. The prices were rising to levels of more prestigious regions but our reputation was not. Actually, Livermore Valley seemed to be losing steam in the market. Virgine, who was basically our lifeline to the rest of the wine world, had just been asked to start covering Napa and Sonoma and would no longer cover Livermore Valley. It seemed like right when we were hitting a stride as a region, the rug was pulled out from under us. Admittedly, early on we were mavericks. We took on a lot of wine, vineyards, and programs and the momentum had us confident.
The next couple of years were filled with major challenges, sleepless nights, and exhausting days. We felt like we were running in mud and going nowhere fast. The thought of dissolving the business was real, and on several occasions, we started planning for the end.
Grape Culture is a celebration of wine, the industry, its history, and all of the people who have and continue to play a role in shaping it. It is made possible by my family and the team that I get to spend most of my days with. People that I am forever grateful for.
The name is inspired by a work of literature written by Agoston Haraszthy, the founder of the Buena Vista Vinicultural Society and “The Godfather of California Wine”. The book is essentially a series of journal entries from his travels through Europe in 1858 where he tasked himself with bringing back knowledge of the growing process, grape varieties, and what conditions they thrive to California vintners just figuring out how to get started. The book outlines the potential for commercial success for California pioneers, but more importantly the quality of living when grape growing and winemaking is at the core of the community.
Our brand is focused on site-driven Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. My family and I have been making wine since 2009 and we are excited to launch this new project. Hararszthy’s story is quite colorful. The man thrived and failed at extreme levels. My mom used to tell me all the time, “one day you’re drinking the wine, the next day you’re picking the grapes.” Hararszthy personifies this sentiment.
This is the surface-level description of what Grape Culture is. But as the saying goes, the devil is in the details. How we got here is truly a story filled with many highs and lows, hard work, heartache, bounce backs, blowout fights, and sleepless nights. It’s been a wild ride but it has shaped who we are and what we want to be. In this “Stories” section we will share stories from our experiences in the industry as well as revisit some of Hararszthy’s. Here we will introduce all of the people and ideas that have shaped who we are and what you can expect when you open a bottle of one of our wines.
Like any great story, perhaps it is best to go back to the beginning.