Partners: Finding Napa Cabernet’s Bold and Unexpected Companion | Wine Enthusiast
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Finding Napa Cabernet’s Bold and Unexpected Companion

The second-generation vintners behind Lion Tamer share how they’ve redefined Napa’s most famous wine for new generations of wine drinkers. 

Aromas of warm blueberry pie and black currant jam lift from a glass. Inky magenta swirls, leaving a trail of tannin in its wake. This may sound like a glass of your typical Napa Cabernet, but plush tannins and the scent of violets on the nose reveal something unique.

The Lion Tamer wines—a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Red Blend —are built around an unusual backbone of Malbec. Uncommonly planted in Napa Valley, the Malbec in Lion Tamer thrives in the cooler mountainous AVAs of the valley, particularly Mount Veeder.

Lion Tamer is part of the Lions Head Collection, founded by second-generation vintners Tim and Sabrina Persson in 2014 to redefine what “bold” means in Napa. Below, they share about the new Napa wines they’re cultivating with Malbec and what that means for Lion Tamer.

Tim and Sabrina Persson with winemaker Stephanie Pope walk one of their vineyards on Mount Veeder. Photo by Dawn Heumann.

Q: Lion Tamer is your take on Napa and it’s Napa through-and-through. You’re even growing the Malbec for it in Napa…is that common?

Sabrina: Not really, no. What Stephanie Pope, our winemaker, has done with Lion Tamer is really special. She’s blended dominantly with Malbec—she actually calls it her “tannin tamer”—which takes a wine like Cabernet Sauvignon and makes it more approachable, earlier in its life. Maybe Lion Tamer will spark appreciation for new styles of Cabernets and blends. I think perhaps it’s typical to only know Malbec as a varietal from Argentina or Bordeaux. People tend to be surprised by how well it grows in Napa.

Q: Why choose to grow Malbec, when you could grow more of the varietals Napa is known for?

Tim: Our cellar door on Mount Veeder overlooks some of best spots to grow Cabernet on the mountain. But we’ve found over the years that there are microclimates and certain vineyard sites that are not the right environment for Cabernet. They are right for Malbec. The elevation and climates of Mount Veeder…It’s a sweet spot for getting the right acidity, thinner skins, flavors of plum and violets, and that vibrant magenta color out of Malbec.

Sabrina: It really does make a worthy companion to the Cabernet growing in the next block over. We believe in listening to the land, paying attention to what thrives in our vineyards. Mentors and other high-elevation vintners have been a huge help—especially in Argentina, given our family’s history there. The wisdom passed down guided us to explore what Malbec could bring to our wines.

Q:  Speaking of the wines, your Lion Tamer Cabernet and Red Blend have had consistent 90+ scores. Can you speak a little about the quality?

Tim: Well, to start, we have an incredible winemaking team. They embrace the distinctive characteristics of our vineyards and have mastered the art of balance. But also, we rely on technology in the cellar—where it makes sense—whether that’s using an optical sorter to select the best grapes at harvest or using small fermentation tanks to better isolate the flavors and terroir of specific blocks.

I like how Sabrina put it—wisdom passed down. We’ve relied on that wisdom, while embracing change and a bit of an outsider’s perspective, to dare ourselves to be bold. Lion Tamer is about finding new ways to capture Napa in a bottle. To ultimately make amazing wine, by and for the next generation.

From optical sorting (left) to small fermentation tanks (middle), the Lions Head Cellar is outfitted with updated winemaking equipment. Photos by Dawn Heumann

Q: And now after 8 years, you’re producing new Napa Valley wines. What are you doing as you approach 10 years?  

Tim: Making Lion Tamer demands more from us as vintners. We must always be willing to push boundaries and be forward thinking because that’s the whole point. We’re working to start transitioning to organic practices and we’ll be maintaining water conservation efforts. We’re focused on being stewards of the land, not just for ourselves but for the generation after us. Maybe when we get to 20 years, we’ll be the ones passing down wine wisdom of our own.

Tim and Sabrina Persson walk their vineyard together, a glass of Lion Tamer Red Blend in-hand. Photo by Dawn Heumann.

Lion Tamer Cabernet Sauvignon and Lion Tamer Red Blend each have 91 points from Wine Enthusiast for the 2018 vintage. They are available through

Read more about Lion Tamer, and the Lions Head Collection, by following us on Instagram at @lionsheadwines


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