Friday, April 9, 2010

Four Cairn Marks the Way

It might have been inevitable that Chris Hansen would fall in love with winemaking since he’s thinking about it nearly everyday, but not in the way you might expect. Chris sells oak barrels for Seguin Moreau, traveling up and down the west coast from Canada to California talking with winemakers about their wines, their processes and their barrel needs. As Chris describes it, “If you pay attention, it’s like going to enology school every day, learning from some great winemakers and soaking in all that specialized knowledge.”

That knowledge has also been a benefit to me as well. Making pinot noir can be particularly challenging (see my previous blog), and the proper choice of oak barrels can be an especially important tool in that process. Chris had noted over time, one particular type of barrel that had worked extremely well for many pinot noir producers, especially in Oregon – with a semi-tight grain and a longer toasting regime that in some ways was counter-intuitive to my expectations. He had even convinced Seguin Moreau to begin producing this interesting barrel, since it wasn’t in their previous barrel profiles, and suggested that I introduce it into my own program. The barrel has been simply transformative – rounding out the mid-palate, with quicker integration and lovely spicy nuances. It’s these kinds of insights that can take a wine and a winemaker’s understanding to new heights. (If you really need to know what the actual barrel profile is, call me -- I’ll give you Chris’s phone number.)

So it was probably also inevitable for someone who knows so much about barrels and winemaking to begin making wine on his own, and Chris has just done that, his debut vintage, a 2008 Napa Valley Syrah called Four Cairn, made from grapes grown on his partner and father-in-law John Mitchell’s four-acre vineyard in St. Helena.

I know you’ve seen them, neatly arranged piles of rocks set up as markers near hiking trails or placed on prominent hills, or sometimes heaped one on top of another to indicate different blocks in a field or vineyard. “It made sense to us,” Chris explained, “to use this most primitive building form – a cairn – to represent our new wine, since John’s business background is in home construction.” (By the way, a recent job of John’s was a magnificent Tuscan-styled wine country mansion for Joe Montana of San Francisco 49ers fame.)

John and his wife Karen purchased their St. Helena property in the early 1970s, complete with a run down cottage and an old rickety barn that still had the year it was built stenciled inside -- 1914. “They were a bit ahead of the times,” Chris explains, “before all the talk of wine country lifestyles and being foodies was the rage. People thought they were crazy!”

We were standing in the vineyard, getting a close up view of where Four Cairn comes from. The sun had come out this morning, which was a wonderful change of pace, winter being particularly wet and dreary this year. The vineyard was still dormant, stark trunks and canes reaching above the mustard planted as a cover crop between the rows just now beginning to sprout out in glorious yellow. John had joined us and was beaming, “I’m so glad you got to see the vineyard today, and not in the middle of a downpour.” I had to agree, it was beautiful – everything fresh and sparkling in the sunshine, the air crisp with the morning breeze. Over the years John and Karen, who also own the famous Model Bakery in St. Helena, fixed up the property into a picture book, wine country fantasy.

“The vineyard is planted in very porous soil,” John goes on, “actually it was once a dry, gravelly creek-bed. It’s all we can do give the grapes enough water through the growing season.” Chris adds, “Because of this, the grapes ripen sooner than in many vineyards surrounding it, with fantastic concentration.”

The vineyard stretches out in orderly rows on the west side of Highway 29 just behind Dean and Deluca’s. “I remember visiting Napa Valley with my dad who is a wine aficionado,” Chris continues. “If you’d have told me then that someday I’d be making wine from a vineyard block in back of Dean and Deluca’s, I’d have thought you were out of your mind.” That was before Chris met and fell in love with Sarah, John and Karen’s daughter, who grew up on the property. It was Sarah who brought Chris home to St. Helena with her to stay, and got him started in the wine trade. John had always wanted to make wine from his own grapes, but because of the bakery and his construction business, there never was the right time. The time as they say became ripe, when his son-in-law started making wine. It’s turned out to be the perfect partnership.

Later, at the winery, Chris and I taste through his barrels of 2009 Four Cairn Syrah. They share space at the Fontanella Winery in the Mt. Veeder appellation. Chris met Jeff Fontanella in 2005 selling him some barrels and becoming friends. “When we decided to start our label, Jeff Fontanella was kind enough to custom crush for us,” says Chris. The wine is still quite young, and incredibly concentrated, with a noticeable and surprising meaty, almost gamey quality. Chris says smiling, “Winemakers I’ve talked to all told me the same thing about syrah. In the first 6 to 8 months, don’t be overly concerned about its awkward development, or it’ll keep you up at night. The 2008 had the same awkward quality early on, but it eventually comes around beautifully in the end.”

The debut vintage, a stunning 2008, is immense and full-bodied, with deep, dark teeth-staining color. I’m blown away. A fantastic first wine. The wine is juicy, plush, with velvety tannins, supple and softer than what you’ll find in a typical Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Chris beams, “And this is only going to get better with bottle age.” No doubt.

The 2008 Four Cairn Napa Valley Syrah sells for $45 retail, and can be ordered through Four Cairn’s web site or by calling Chris Hansen at 707-927-0769.