Dave Dobson left a position where he turned around a merlot producer once better known for its architecture, artwork and site than its wine.
And he joined another winery that makes excellent wine, but is still better known locally for its architecture and location, in addition to a wine it no longer makes.
When the winery now called Artesa opened in Carneros Valley as Codorniu Napa in 1991, it was dedicated to producing mid-market méthode champenoise sparkling wine to compete with Domaine Chandon, Mumm and other French and Spanish producers who’d opened wineries in California. Though it was recognized for excellent wine, Codorniu Napa was more acclaimed for its innovative architecture designed to fit its hilltop site in Carneros.
The winery was established by the 15th generation of the Catalan family that owns the huge Codorniu winery in Spain and seven other wineries around the world. They soon found that California was oversupplied with sparkling wine producers and that consumers associated their name with inexpensive supermarket cava, not fine sparkling wine.
In 1997, the winery changed course. It brought in well-known winemaker Don Van Staaveren and spent $10 million converting the winery to make ultra-premium still wines. Its name became Artesa, which means “craftsman” and connotes “handcrafted” in Catalan, the language of Barcelona.
In September 1999, it introduced the first Artesa wines.
Its next big move was in 2005, when Artesa brought Dave Dobson in as vice president for production and winemaker. Dobson made the move after more than a decade of head-winemaker experience, most recently at Rutherford Hill, where he brought the merlot program high acclaim.
Dobson had earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. After becoming disillusioned with the chemical industry, he studied enology at UC Davis. Before his tenure at Rutherford Hill, Dobson was responsible for Kendall-Jackson’s premium wines.
Now Artesa makes only about 1,000 cases of high-end sparkling wine a year out of about 60,000 to 80,000 total cases of still wine per year, and it has gained a widespread reputation for its fine still wines from Napa and Sonoma grapes.
Artesa remains low in profile in Napa, however. A bit off the beaten track, it’s a destination for the knowing visitors who value the winery, the views and the wines, but it’s still not as well known as Cakebread, Duckhorn, Phelps and other iconic Napa wineries .
The winery is surrounded by a 352 acre ranch in one of the coolest portions of Napa County, a ideal location for growing pinot noir and chardonnay. Artesa also grows some other grapes there including small amounts of pinot blanc and Spanish varieties white albariño and red tempranillo, two trendy varietals along with everything else Spanish.
Over the years, however, Artesa has purchased property in the Alexander Valley of Sonoma County and in Foss Valley in the Atlas Peak appellation to plant Bordeaux varieties including cabernet sauvignon, merlot and sauvignon blanc that like more heat.
Artesa naturally focuses on the four big varieties — chardonnay, pinot noir, merlot and cabernet sauvignon — but also makes a few other wines including garnacha (another typical Catalan wine) and gewürztraminer. Those and the sparkling wine are served mostly at functions at the winery, although they are also sold on the site and to wine club members.
Artesa’s philosophy is to make more than one version of the major varietals. It groups its wines into three tiers, classic, reserve and limited release wines at prices from $20 to $70 or more for top wines.
After its $10 million conversion from sparkling wines, the winery was designed to handle numerous small lots of grapes, juice and wine individually. It makes wines separately from many single vineyard blocks, keeping them separate until deciding which will become which.
Winemaker Dobson spends a lot of time in the winery’s vineyards and said he joined the firm largely because of its extensive holdings in such diverse areas.
“It’s the part of the job I love most,” Dobson said, “because it’s where sun, rain and soil meld into something sublime. It’s where the winemaker can have a huge impact on quality by insuring even ripening and determining when to harvest and it’s where you can make a huge difference. In the winery, once you’ve got the basics down, you’re kind of working on the margins. In the vineyard, improvements can be dramatic and profound.”
Dobson works with Quinton Jay, who was formerly with Etude, Bonny Doon and Coca Cola. Jay noted Artesa’s owners are open to ideas, and “if you have a great idea, the family has the resources to let you do it.”
Last year, for example, Dobson installed sorting tables to keep undesirable material and unripe or overripe grapes out of the wines, and he’s trying a new technique called “pump-under,” which saves labor and may soften wines. He’s hired two new assistants.
The winery has been best known for Burgundian varieties. Its highest production is in chardonnay but popular pinot noir is not far behind. It’s adding cabernet, Napa’s biggest and most profitable wine.
In addition to its existing wines, it will soon introduce single vineyard wines at the top of its range, including purchased pinot noir from unique sties in Carneros.
As Dobson continues to improve and diversify the wines, Artesa is sure to gain more attention for its wines. For us here in Napa, it’s also one of the best places to take visitors to experience its stunning architecture, great views and diverse selection of wines. It participates in the Napa Valley Vintners’ Napa Neighbor Program and offers free tasting for Napa residents during the week and Friday, Saturday and Sunday before noon as weekend afternoons can be very busy.
Artesa Winery is at 1345 Henry Road, off Old Sonoma Road in Carneros. Phone number, 224-1668, Web site, www.artesawinery.com. The tasting room is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
It also has a tasting room in the new wine tasting cluster at Cornerstone Place, the interesting garden and shopping complex on Highway 12 south of Sonoma.