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High hopes for Mayacamas in a new era

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For those of you who don’t understand the role Mayacamas plays in Napa Valley’s history, consider this: When a former owner produced the winery’s first Cabernet Sauvignon, in 1962, Mayacamas joined only a handful of Napa wineries (including Charles Krug, Beaulieu, Inglenook and Louis M. Martini) that specialized in the variety.

And Mayacamas is even older than that: it was originally founded in 1889, then re-established in 1941. The name most closely associated with it, Bob Travers, purchased the winery in 1968, and ran it for all these years, until selling it recently to Charles Banks.

Among critics, Mayacamas had a very special role. Bob Thompson called its Cabernets and Chardonnays (all grown on the Mount Veeder estate) “two of the region’s most praised wines.” Hugh Johnson, no huge fan of California wine, dubbed it “first rate.” When the late, great Harry Waugh (who was on the board of Chateau Latour) visited, in 1969, he declared the 1967 Cabernet “another for my collection”; even the 1968 Chardonnay was “one of the wines I would buy for my own collection.” (That was high praise indeed from old Harry.)

Travers always made his wines lean. Even as the world marched away from that spare, angular style, Bob kept at it; as a result, his critical acclaim fell, to some extent. I liked his Cabernets well enough, but the highest score I could ever give one was 92 points, for the 2004. Even in that hot year, its alcohol was only 13.8%, and the wine showed a certain ungainly character, with streamlined, herb-infused fruit cast into fierce tannins. Bob’s style was more amenable, I thought, for white wines: his Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs benefited from that grave linearity, and often reflected the terroir of their mountain soils.

I think it’s fair to say that Mayacamas, for many years, has been underperforming. Oh, I know this is all in the eye of the beholder. If you dislike that lush, fat modern style, you might find yourself inclined to favor Mayacamas. But the truth is, the modern style, which 99% of Napa has embraced, left Mayacamas at the station long ago; or perhaps Travers simply chose not to board that train. Either way, I always review its wines with a certain wistfulness. Such a great name (said to be Native American, for the howl of the mountain lion), such an iconic history, such a noble perch up there on the mountain. Surely, I always thought, Mayacamas could do better.

But there were tales of vineyards in sorry shape, of an aging leadership, of run-down facilities; and even the price of the wines, which hardly varied over  the years, put them into the dreaded “relative value” category; the Cabernet, for instance, remained at $65 for a long time. Perhaps Bob Travers felt he dare not raise the price in order to be able to afford improvements in the vineyard and barrels. Perhaps he was philosophically against high prices.

When Banks bought Mayacamas, last April, there were high hopes that he would spruce things up. After all, the guy had money (he’d formerly owned Screaming Eagle, and recently bought Qupe). He seemed to have discernment and taste. I met him only once, a few years ago, when he and his wife, Ali, brought me to dinner, just the three of us, in Los Olivos. We talked for a long time, and he convinced me of his sincere commitment to quality, in whatever properties he owned. (This isn’t always easy–I mean, convincing me. Everyone talks the talk but few walk the walk!) But Charles did. Thus, yesterday, when I got the latest Mayacamas newsletter and order form in the mail, I paid it more than the usual amount of attention.

The first thing of note is that the newsletter is signed by a familiar winemaker: Andy Erickson, who has been associated with, in one way or another, Screaming Eagle, Dalla Valle, Harlan, Spottswoode, Dancing Hares and Ovid. Banks, I’m sure, has offered Andy a great deal of money to oversee the renaissance of Mayacamas, but it will have been money well spent.

Andy vows “to continue crafting wines of elegance, longevity, and rustic mountain power.” I don’t think he would come right out and say that he’s going to entirely revamp Bob Travers’ approach; that would be disrespectful. But reading between the lines, you can infer that Andy knows exactly what’s wrong up on Mount Veeder, and how he intends to fix it, starting with the vineyard. “We’ve also been analyzing the unique soils and how they contribute to making such distinctive wines,” he writes, suggesting that “new vines planted this year” will help bring about a quality revolution in the near future.

And Banks himself, in his cover letter, says “We’ll be…upgrading winery equipment, and renovating some of the facilities.” More money out of pocket: Ka-ching! But that’s what it takes. In this day and age, you can’t make great wine on the cheap.

I’m thrilled to see what’s happening at Mayacamas, and can’t wait to follow their progress, especially the Cabernets!

  1. Thank you Steve for the current status of this Napa Valley Icon.

  2. Ed Masciana says:

    I’ve been loving Mayacamas. and especially Bob Travers, for over 40 years and they will always have a special place in my life. His wines are nothing short of spectacular, but only for the patient. Even the Chardonnays need 10 years. The Cabernets 20 and often are still singing at 40.

    Unless you have that kind of history with a winery of this caliber, you just don’t know.

    I hope Banks preserves the legacy and especially the wines. There are so many “me too” wines out there. Mayacamas, as is the other Bob, Sessions of Hanzel, are jewels amongst the stones.

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