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Pinning Down Pritchard Hill

The best grape-growing region in Napa Valley you’ve probably never heard of is Pritchard Hill. It’s not even an official appellation yet—and may never be one. But this high part of the Vaca Mountains, off the beaten path and remote, is producing among the most profound wines in Napa Valley.

The grape and wine of choice is Cabernet Sauvignon, sometimes blended with other Bordeaux varieties (a few vintners add Syrah). These wines are spectacular. They are Cabs of great richness, depth and length. They also are tannic, but none is so tight that it can’t be enjoyed after a few hours in the decanter.

Where is Pritchard Hill?

It’s hard to define its boundaries, since, not being a legal appellation, it doesn’t have any. Jon-Mark Chappellet, whose father, Donn, pioneered the area, describes it as “a hole” between Oakville, Howell Mountain, the Stags Leap District, Rutherford and Chiles Valley.

Most of the vineyards are higher than 800 feet above sea level, and some rise to nearly 2,000 feet. If you stand at the intersection of the Silverado Trail and the Oakville Cross Road, looking east, you’d see Dalla Valle straight ahead, up the hill. Pritchard Hill’s vineyards are even higher.

Wines grown there qualify only for a Napa Valley appellation. Blakesley Chappellet, Donn’s daughter-in-law, calls the region “a lieu-dit,” the French term for a distinctive geographic area.

Pritchard Hill’s grape-growing heritage

The hill is named for homesteader Charles Pritchard. In the 1890 vintage, he declared a crop of Zinfandel and Riesling. There was scattered grape-growing over the next century, but from a viticultural point of view, much of the action was down on the valley floor.

Pritchard Hill’s modern era began in 1967, when the Chappellets bought their property. Searching for the best site available, Donn sought the advice of André Tchelistcheff, then at Beaulieu Vineyard.

“André replied, ‘All the grapes I get come from the valley floor. If I could get grapes from a hillside, I would,’ ” says Donn. Later, an agent showed Chappellet the Pritchard Hill property, and the rest is history.

The following decade saw the arrival of two families, both named Long, but unrelated: Bob Long and his wife, Zelma (then the chief enologist for Robert Mondavi; their Long Vineyards is no longer operating), and David Arthur Long and his father, Donald, who planted their vineyard in 1978.

Today, David Arthur Vineyards is owned by David, his brother, Bob, and Bob’s wife, Joye. Bob Long also has his own brand, Montagna. The current number of wineries, brands and vineyards on the hill is about 16. The precise number depends on how you define a winery, and not all the vineyards produce a wine.

Oakville, on a mountain

Most winemakers on Pritchard Hill cite soil and elevation as keys to their wines’ quality. The dirt is red, of a series known as Sobrante, described by David Arthur’s and Montagna’s winemaker, Nile Zacherle, as “volcanic clay loam.”

The dirt is littered with huge boulders. Some wineries, like Colgin and Brand, had to dynamite their land and haul the rubble away before planting, an expensive process that can require importing soils to make up the difference.

“The thing about these soils,” says Jon-Mark Chappellet, “is that we have to poke around for areas where there’s enough [soil] to actually farm.”

The soils are well drained, making for small, intensely flavored grapes with thick skins. Yields average from less than a ton per acre to a few tons, depending on the vintage. Water is scarce, and its availability, in addition to the paucity of plantable soils, limits how many additional vineyards can be developed. The current total is only about 340 acres.

Pritchard Hill sits above the fog line. Greg Melanson, whose Melanson Vineyard and home are at 1,200 feet above sea level, describes waking up in the summer to bright sunshine, while the valley below is blanketed in white. That extra sunshine “allows us to have a photosynthetic capacity that’s enviable,” says Tim Mondavi.

The result, says consultant Philippe Melka, who makes the wines at Gandona and Brand (and who was Bryant Family’s winemaker until 2006), is what he calls “the best of both worlds: Oakville sophistication with the extra intensity of a hillside.”

An immediate effect of all this sunny ripeness, of course, is that alcohol levels tend to run high—often over 15% by volume. But I have yet to taste a Pritchard Hill wine that was hot. That warmth gives the wines a soft, round, almost Cognac-like mellowness that adds to their allure.

Will Pritchard Hill ever be an American Viticultural Area (AVA)? The man who owns the 1971 trademark—Donn Chappellet—firmly declares, “It will not.”

The inclusion of adjoining properties in any Pritchard Hill appellation causes Chappellet great concern. “If that happened, then dozens of wineries could put Pritchard Hill on the label, and destroy the valuable name,” he says.

Pritchard Hill’s character

When tasting through a dozen wines, I can’t say I detected a character that was particularly “Pritchard Hilly.” But here are some of the terms I used repeatedly in my reviews: dark, incredible aromatics, delicious, powerful, classic, fantastically rich and flashy.

For all these common tones of California-ness, there were distinctions: in approachability, in ripeness, in the precise quality of the tannins, in ageability, in how the alcohol felt and, in some cases, the role of volatile acidity.

As Jon-Mark Chappellet points out, a Pritchard Hill character “is tough to pin down, almost impossible.”

To sum it up, Ovid’s winemaker, Austin Peterson, says, “Pritchard Hill is a unique, incredible spot for wine.”

Wineries of Pritchard Hill

Melanson (1988)

Greg Melanson bought his land in 1988. It had formerly been owned by Round Pond; Bob and Zelma Long planted the original vineyard in the early 1970s. For years, Melanson sold fruit to the likes of Heidi Barrett (for La Sirena) before starting his own brand. He describes his Cabernet as “minerally” due to the rocks; I call the same quality “hard.” The vineyard consists of 10.5 acres planted to Cabernet, Chardonnay and Syrah.

Bryant Family (1992)

St. Louis-based lawyer, art collector and philanthropist Don Bryant Jr. bought his Pritchard Hill land in 1985. The all-star team includes winemaker Helen Keplinger, consultant Michel Rolland and vineyard manager David Abreu. Bryant Family’s Cabernet Sauvignon comes from the 13-acre Pritchard Hill estate vineyard.

Chappellet (1967)

When the Chappellets bought their property, there was an existing vineyard planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, Chenin Blanc, Gamay and Johannisberg Riesling. Donn gradually replaced these with Bordeaux varieties, except for a brief experiment with Chardonnay. The Chappellets’ approximately 100 acres of planted vines makes their vineyard the biggest on Pritchard Hill.

Villa del Lago (2006)

You might remember David Del Dotto for his how-to-get-rich infomercials in the 1980s. When he decided to get into wine, “I knew Pritchard Hill was one of the hot spots from drinking Bryant Family,” he says. “And I’d met David Arthur, who convinced me of the potential of these wines.” Like Ann Colgin, he considers Lake Hennessey’s proximity “the key” to his vineyard, saying, “We’re the closest to it on the hill.” He makes a range of wines under the Del Dotto label, but reserves the Villa del Lago brand for his estate Pritchard Hill Cabernet Sauvignon.

Colgin Cellars (1992)

“I’d been looking for something on a hillside that had never been planted, something to create from scratch,” Ann Colgin recalls. She says the proximity of Lake Hennessey, a 1.2-square-mile, man-made lake that sits at the northwestern corner of Pritchard Hill, brings “a cooler aspect” to her 20-acre vineyard. She also credits the site’s “being on the back side” of the hill as “protecting it from the winds that sweep up valley from San Francisco Bay,” bringing a balance of moderated heat. Colgin’s first release of the IX Estate was in 2002.

Brand (2005)

This yet-to-be released wine is made by Philippe Melka. It seems once to have been called Feathered Hill, but Melka says the brandname will be Brand when the 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon debuts this fall. The estate had been owned by Miner Family Winery and was purchased by businessman Ed Fitts.

Gandona (2006)

The ubiquitous Philippe Melka is winemaker. The owners are Portuguese; they bought the land from Bob Long (Zelma’s husband) when Long Vineyards ceased operations. Melka says the estate is nine acres, mostly planted to Cabernet Sauvignon.

Continuum Estate (2005)

Tim Mondavi famously struck off on his own after the family lost control of the Robert Mondavi Winery. He turned to Pritchard Hill for his estate. Actually, he quickly explains, “I didn’t pick ‘Pritchard Hill.’ I picked this soil, this exposure, this aspect.” He calls himself “a convert from the valley floor: being above the fog, having thin soils.” Mondavi describes his wine as “Oakville with altitude.” The vineyard is 62 acres, making it the second largest in the region.

Ovid (2003)

Dana Johnson and Mark Nelson, former software entrepreneurs, bought their vineyard land in 1998 and launched the Ovid brand five years later. To do so, they assembled a stellar team: superstar vineyard manager David Abreu, winemaker Austin Peterson (who worked with Michel Rolland at Château Le Bon Pasteur in Pomerol) and consulting winemaker Andy Erickson (formerly of Screaming Eagle, now at Dalla Valle). The Ovid wine is always a blend of several red grape varieties; the 2009 is 58% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Cabernet Franc, and smaller proportions of Merlot and Petit Verdot. “This area makes incredible Cabernet Franc. It always reminds me of our bright red soil,” says Peterson.

Montagna (2000)

David Long planted the Montagna vineyard for his brother, Bob. Nile Zacherle makes the wines, which include two block-designated Cabernets and a 100% Syrah. Zacherle, who also makes the David Arthur wines, finds “more elegance in Montagna, and more power in David Arthur,” although he says it’s hard to say exactly why.

David Arthur (1985)

David Arthur Long’s father slowly acquired the property from the late 1950s to the early 1970s. “He wanted a cattle ranch,” Long says with a smile. That didn’t quite work out. The family decided to grow Chardonnay, which they sold. Meanwhile, Long says, “I worked at Chappellet and Joseph Phelps, learning about planting, irrigation and grape stakes from the ground up.” The Chardonnay eventually was pulled out. The first red wine release was the 1991. The 19-acre vineyard averages 1,200 feet in elevation.

Tasting Pritchard Hill

In June 2012, I conducted a blind tasting at Continuum Estate, Tim Mondavi’s project, featuring 13 current releases from 10 Pritchard Hill wineries. Continuum was part of the tasting, but the review below is from an earlier blind assessment.

99 Colgin 2008 IX Estate Red Wine (Napa Valley).
This is an absolutely beautiful wine to drink now, but the richness comes at the price of considerable alcohol. The color is dark and impenetrable, the aromas huge in Cabernet-inspired blackberries and black currants, with a touch of something herbal and also a stony minerality. There’s also a fascinating peatiness, like an Islay Scotch. It really opens up in the glass, becoming ever more complex. It’s great Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, but that high alcohol may limit its ageability.
abv: 15.6%         Price: $290

99 David Arthur 2009 Elevation 1147 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley).
There are incredible aromatics on this Cabernet. It’s powerful yet subtle (how can that be?), all about sweet, crushed summer blackberries and pure cassis liqueur. Elaborate oak, in the form of buttered toast, is perfectly in balance, never overshadowing the fruit. The tannins are dry, rich and smooth, defining Napa elegance, grace and beauty. World class, dramatic and just about perfect, this gets better and better as it breathes in the glass. Drink now–2030.
abv: 14.8%         Price: $150

97 Gandona 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley).
A dramatic wine, this is rich, full bodied and incredibly complex, laced with notes of ripe, sweet blackberries and crème de cassis, with a spirituous heat from relatively high alcohol. Its pedigree is clear throughout the entire tasting experience. This is a really gorgeous Cabernet, showing refinement and grace, but it is very tannic. Give it at least 10 years. Cellar Selection.
abv: 15.1%         Price: $190

97 Ovid 2009 Red Wine (Napa Valley).
With a beautiful purple color, this wine quickly exhibits classic Cabernet aromas of black currants and cedar. In the mouth, it’s full bodied and concentrated, showing powerful, sweet blackberry fruit. It’s incredibly refined, impressively structured, massive, impeccable and frankly delicious. This should develop over the next 20 years, at least.
abv: 14.8%         Price: $195

96 Bryant Family 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley).
Rich and smooth in tannins, with some sharpness through the finish, this shows masses of ripe blackberries and dark chocolate. A bit of time in the glass reprises and accentuates the chocolaty richness. Despite its power, this is refined and high toned, a serious cellar candidate. Give it 10–15 years. Cellar Selection.
abv: 15%         Price: $335

96 Montagna 2009 La Presa One South Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley).
Absolutely delicious and a joy to drink, this tastes like fine blackberry preserves spread onto buttered whole-wheat toast, sprinkled with cinnamon and black pepper. Despite the rich sweetness, the finish is bone dry. But the tannins are considerable, giving the mouthfeel a furry astringency. This elegant, pure, young Cabernet should begin to open in 10 years. Cellar Selection.
abv: 14.9%         Price: $125

94 Chappellet 2009 Pritchard Hill Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley).
Dark and saturated in color, this has earthy and meaty aromas like bloody, rare steak and charred bone—that sort of proteinous spirit. The actual fruit flavor is incredibly rich and concentrated in blackberries, black currants and crisp bacon. The impression is of a sweet, delicious Cabernet that’s a touch warm in alcohol, but lush and refined.
abv: 15.1%         Price: $135

94 Montagna 2009 Tre Vigneti Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley).
This starts out closed and tight, shut down by tannins and immaturity, but plenty of swirling reveals elusive black-licorice and blackberry notes, accented by smoky oak. The tannins really kick in toward the middle, but hard as they are, they exhibit great breed. Despite its sweet core of fruit, this is nowhere close to being ready. Give it 10 years. Cellar Selection.
abv: 14.7%         Price: $50

94 Montagna 2009 Triangle Syrah (Napa Valley).
Made in a rich, ripe style that perhaps favors power over elegance, this is delicious from start to finish. It’s a big, intense wine, massive in blackberry and mocha flavors, with a bacon meatiness that’s part Syrah, part smoky oak. While it’s a little obvious in its appeal, it does show Syrah at its flashy Napa best.
abv: 15.1%         Price: $60

93 Melanson 2009 Matthew’s Block Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley).
A wine for the cellar. The tannins are big and hard, with a certain austerity that suggests the rocky soils of this mountain vineyard. But the fruit, packed into a dense core, is ripe and seemingly sweet in blackberries and cherries. The youthful brawniness softens after some time in the glass or decanter, but you’re best off aging it until 2019 or so. Cellar Selection.
abv: 14.8%         Price: $67

93 Villa del Lago 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley).
This starts out a bit coarse, with strong tannins that have a rough-edged feeling. It’s very rich in blackberries and black currants, but showing more power than elegance. Time in the glass certainly opens it up, revealing a rich, heady cassis note. While the alcohol is high, it may easily develop bottle complexity over the next 10–15 years.
abv: 15.4%         Price: $225

92 Chappellet 2010 Signature Chenin Blanc (Napa Valley).
Racy and brisk, clean and tart, this shows Meyer lemon, lime, white peach, mineral and white pepper aromas. Thankfully, it’s very dry in taste, with exotic tropicalfruit, cashew and white flower flavors wrapped into a creamy, smoky mouthfeel. One of the best California Chenin Blancs in recent years.
abv: 14.1%         Price: $30

92 Continuum 2009 Proprietary Red Wine (Napa Valley).
Grown on the estate vineyard in the high-rent Pritchard Hill region, east of the Silverado Trail, the ’09 Continuum proves the adage that a great winery will produce fine wine even in a compromised vintage, as 2009 was with cool conditions and rain during harvest. Dense in tannins and with a solid core of blackberries and spices, the wine shows a lovely complexity, firm and masculine in minerals. Still, it’s gritty and too young to enjoy now. Cellar it for 6–8 years. Cellar Selection.
abv: 14.7%         Price: $165