Of the hundreds of pre-prohibition wineries in Napa Valley, only 5 remained open during the period. Larkmead was one of those wineries. Selling wine for sacramental purposes comprised the above board business. Other revenues derived from selling non-alcoholic dehydrated grapes that simply required customers to ‘add water’ and let the native yeasts make wine in their own homes.
More importantly, Larkmead is an icon of Calistoga and one of the original wineries of Napa. Founded in the late 1800’s by the Coit family, in 1895 the Salmina family took over the estate and began turning it into one of the greats of the valley. After prohibition, the Salminas cemented that reputation alongside the likes of Inglenook, Beringer, and Beaulieu. In 1948 Larry Solari purchased the property and the Solari family continues to own the land today.
Though the Larkmead brand was not properly maintained by the Solaris for many years (not unlike Inglenook), the land remained in their hands. In its 1930’s heyday, Larkmead was host to important clonal research conducted by Harold Olmo and, due to continuity of ownership, the diversity of clonal material remains today. Now, Larkmead comprises 113 planted acres with some very old vines. Soils are a mix of clay and gravel loams. As with all Calistoga vineyards, Larkmead must fend against frost from the cold mountain airs in the winter while managing levels of heat more than 6 degrees celsius warmer on average than the southern Napa.
Winemaking is overseen by Dan Petroski, a brilliant wine-maker who has turned these wines into some of the best Cabernet Sauvignon made in the United States. He also has a personal project called Massican that makes wonderful Italian-variety wines from the valley.
In my view, Larkmead is now consistently hitting their wines out of the park and I expect this winery has a lot more to say going forward. The wines are not made in an opulent Napa style, but are careful with their power, coupling it with minerality, dusty tannins and longevity. What struck me upon visiting the estate in early Spring (at the same time as Galloni no less) was the humble manner in which it presented itself, the simple beauty of the estate, with a bevy of blue-birds keeping pests at bay, and the age of the vines. These are great wines made in a new mold inspired but not constrained by classic Napa.
Firebelle 2014: The Merlot dominant wine is approachable with peppy red fruit and bright fresh acidity. Aged in two third new French oak and one third used. 14.9% ABV. Very Good to Very Good+. $150 USD at the winery.
Cabernet Sauvignon 2014: 93% Cab Sauv and 7% Petit Verdot. Made from the estate’s young vines. Fresh wine now but saw some acidification. Elegant and long but not a big wine. Very fine sneaky tannins. Pretty wine. Aged in 75% new French oak – the rest used. 14.7% ABV. Very Good+ to Excellent. $135 USD at the winery.
Dr. Olmo 2014: A wonderful, aromatic Cab blend with a lifted floral component. The tannins are potent but ripe. Nice intensity that needs to unwind. Black fruits and a bit of pepper round out the palate. Really impressive. MAde with 100% Eisele clone Cabernet Sauvignon. 20 months in 62% French Oak (new). 14.5% ABV. Excellent to Excellent+. $180 USD at the winery.
Solari 2014: Another 100% Cabernet from gravel soils. A meaty aroma with more fruit than the Dr. Olmo. Firm tannin. A sweeter fruitier wine that is less elegant than the Olmo but that also needs a few years. 80% new oak. 14.9% ABV. Excellent. $225 USD at the winery.
Solari 2004: Reminds me a bit of px sherry. Fig and chocolate but bright acidity and solid length with a touch of a metallic edge on the finish. This avoids being cloying. The wine may be slightly past peak but still very enjoyable. Very Good+.