Yesterday Bob and I had the rare opportunity to sit down with winemaker and co-owner Gerhard Reisacher of Delectus Winery for the entire day. An El Nino storm was in full effect, so we chose to find shelter inside the Saint Helena tasting room rather than walk the slippery, steep vineyard. Over delicious wine and cheese we learned a lot about Gerhard and Delectus.
The first thing we noticed was the soil on display, showing how the estate vineyards are unique from other Napa sites. Many of the rocks were as big as my fist and there was lots of pebbles and sand with a little dirt in there. It was easy to envision how the soil acted as a sieve for the rain water, yielding very little surface water and forcing the vines' roots to dive deep for a water source. It also means the grapes are not really affected when it rains near harvest time. I asked Gerhard if this was the key element to why mountain fruit was so superb and coveted, but he quickly answered "No." It is only one of many reasons why the grapes flourish. Another reason is the climate and mountain temperatures are more temperate than valley locations - warmer in the morning and cooler at midday, but still with plenty of night-time cooling to achieve nice acidity in the wine.
Climate affects, among other things, how the vines "work" during the day to ripen the fruit. According to Gerhard, at temperatures above 94 deg-F grape plants essentially shut down for self-preservation. You can imagine a typical summer day for a valley grape vine that starts "working" after the fog burns off at 11am, shuts off a couple hours later when the temperature spikes at 99 deg-F, then maybe "works" another hour or two before sunset. Mountain vines, on the other hand, which are situated well above the fog line of 900 feet, allow the grapevines to start "working" at sunrise and keep "working" until sunset. The result is a shorter growing cycle for Mountain fruit, less scorching from the extreme temperatures, and the wines are more concentrated, tannic, and inky.
For Gerhard, a mountain site was his singular focus when purchasing land to build his Delectus estate vineyards, which he finally found in 2005 in the Knights Valley area of the Mayacamas mountain range. Gerhard named this property "The Ranch," which has south-facing exposure and the potential for 40 plantable acres at elevations of 1200-2200 feet. The property, formerly a summer residence for poet and writer Robert Louis Stevenson, is the uphill neighbor to Peter Michael. The last remnants of the previous mining and trade that existed in Knights Valley before the vineyards moved in burned in a massive wildfire that swept through much of Knights Valley in 1963. Cattle ranches and vineyards are the only surviving trades today.
By this time in the sit-down with Gerhard we had sampled most of his wines and I was reminded why I love them so much. They are all so balanced and graceful, and the flavors he describes in his tasting notes sound strong, but are quite subtle and elegant. Just beautiful! To date, The Ranch is planted with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cab Franc and his current releases reflect this. You might find several other non-estate Delectus wines available for sale, but most of that was from fruit he began sourcing in 1995 prior to purchasing and planting The Ranch. Gerhard chooses to make his wines to age a long time – they aren’t meant to be drunk until they have spent at least 3-5 years in the bottle – so the wines we tasted were from the 2009 and 2010 vintages. And those are the only wines he allows to be sold because he knows it’s hard for people to wait.
I love all the Delectus wines, but the Bear Crossing Cabernet is a tie with Cuvee Julia for my favorite. Evidently Robert Parker thinks so too, as he rated the 2013 vintage of this wine at 94+ and 96+ points, respectively. His rave reviews said the wine “reminds [him] of some of the late 1960s and early 1970s vintages of famous Mayacamas from Mount Veeder when it was almost like Port in its extraction and richness.” It is clear that the Delectus wines are on the way up for demand.
The fact that Delectus has become a success did not come as a surprise to me after learning about Gerhard’s winemaking and risk-taking history. As an eighth generation winemaker from Austria, Gerhard has winemaking in his blood. During college, he had the opportunity to taste wines from California and set his sights on building a life in Napa Valley. After completing his studies, attaining four degrees in winemaking and viticulture, he packed up his belongings and flew to America in 1986 with only a bit of cash in his pocket and a letter from Monticello Cellars. With no maps, unable to speak English, and no way to contact his acquaintance at Monticello he somehow found his way from SFO to Napa Valley. The following day he was able to meet with another Monticello employee, who hired Gerhard on the spot. He spoke positively of all his learning experiences at Monticello, Far Niente, Pine Ridge and Clos Du Val. Clearly, his determination and vision are also key elements to his winemaking success.
In my experience it is rare to find a winemaker who makes wine that, to properly introduce them to an impatient consumer, must be held on their books for years before release. The combination of soil, elevation, and microclimate at the Ranch, with the experience and tenacity Gerhard embodies, is what makes Delectus so special. If you haven’t yet tasted wine from Delectus, you definitely should!