One of the many perks of living in the Napa Valley is learning about the launch of new, unheard-of wines before they’re released to the public.
Many of these wines are made in minuscule quantities, so finding them early can ensure placement on their allocation list. After their release these highly sought-after wines are often gobbled up by hungry wine collectors who are eager to hoard such treasures. The yet-to-be-released Aileron Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc are just such finds.
Aileron is the creation of husband-and-wife team Shannon O’Shaughnessy and Matt Schiefferly. Both have deep ties to the Napa Valley. Beyond working for the Henry Wine Group and Duckhorn Winery, O’Shaughnessy spent time working at her family’s winery — O’Shaughnessy Estate Winery on Howell Mountain — that her parents founded in 1996.
Schiefferly grew up in Napa, graduated from Vintage High School in 1987 and then went on to help build and eventually retire from Paul Hanson Partners, an insurance brokerage specializing in moving and storage and transportation logistics.
“I worked with my mom at the winery early on but there has always been this desire within me to make something special on my own,” O’Shaughnessy said. “You live here long enough with a vineyard in your front yard and there tends to be a little bit of ‘I kind of want to do something with that,’ feeling.”
Many wine lovers and “experts” from around the globe who have not visited and aren’t familiar with the valley’s nuanced growing conditions might believe that Cabernet Sauvignon is the only grape grown here. And although Cabernet Sauvignon vines do represent a large proportion of the wine grapes grown, there are areas within the valley that are perfectly suited to other varietals, including Sauvignon Blanc.
“Having access to quality fruit is essential to making great wine,” Betty O’Shaughnessy said. “I am pleased to offer Shannon and Matt (Cabernet Sauvignon) grapes from the O’Shaughnessy Howell Mountain vineyard. The home they purchased from Andy Erickson (and his wife, Annie Favia) a few years ago had 1 1/2 acres of dry-farmed Sauvignon Blanc planted.”
The mentioning of Howell Mountain or Erickson/Favia in nearly any context associated with a new wine project provides credibility straightaway. Grapes grown on the rugged slopes of Howell Mountain often result in wines with an array of distinctive flavors — red and blue fruit, dried herbs and dusty stones — as well as textures — big, soft tannins.
Erickson/Favia make up one of the best-known and respected wine teams in the valley. So because they planted the Aileron Sauvignon Blanc vineyard this suggests a high level of quality before even tasting the wine.
Robbie MeyerBeyond making wine for Aileron, the winemaker, Robbie Meyer, has many clients in addition to his own wine brand, Peirson Meyer Wines.
Prior to being a consulting winemaker, Meyer made wine at Peter Michael, Lewis Cellars, and Jericho Canyon. Since O’Shaughnessy and Schiefferly do not have their own winery, Meyer makes their wine at the Brasswood Winery in St. Helena.
Like many other small wine producers, Aileron is made in a shared facility in a process often referred to as “custom crush.” Given the extreme cost, environmental impact and challenges of permitting a new winery, shared wineries have become an accepted way to make a small wine brand possible.
Another benefit is that small wine producers are able to use the shared facility to hold wine-tastings and other events because having such activities at a non-winery location is often prohibited.
The Aileron Sauvignon Blanc ($80 a bottle and 200 cases made) is a stunning example of a varietal that is sometimes viewed as a wine unworthy of serious contemplation. Unlike many Sauv Blancs that have grassy or underripe flavors that can often hint at cat pee, this straw-golden wine vibrates with energetic creamy aromas of mango peel, Key lime zest, beeswax and river rock.
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The texture of this wine is such that if you close your eyes you might imagine you’re drinking a Pinot Noir from the way it spreads laterally across the palate. The complexity of flavors includes barely ripe apricot, citrus, thyme and graphite and finishes with a hint of roasted macadamia nuts and fresh fig.
Showcasing its high-elevation origins, the Aileron Cabernet Sauvignon (price not agreed on yet but just over $150 a bottle with 150 cases made) is inky-violet in color with distinct aromas of raspberry liqueur, mulberry and chervil.
In the mouth, this well-textured chewy wine has red- and blue-fruit flavors and finishes with wood-fired grilled shiitake mushrooms and a surprise of cassis and sweet oak. For comparison, this wine has similarities to Abreu Las Posadas, which is also made with grapes from Howell Mountain and often sells for many hundreds of dollars per bottle.
The word “aileron” is derived from French (“little wing” or “fin”) and is the flap on the back edge of an aircraft’s wing that turns the plane or keeps it level.
Both O’Shaughnessy and Schiefferly are pilots. They own a 2006 Piper Saratoga TII and often spend weekends flying to places such as Bend, Oregon, or other relatively quiet destinations where they might visit family and friends or make new ones. They often bring along a bottle or two of wine to share, and now they can bring their own.
“We landed on the name because we know that even a small change in direction can place you in a very different spot in life,” O’Shaughnessy said. “Back when I was in my late 30s, before I started flying, I needed to have part of my lung removed. They weren’t even sure if I’d live. That experience sent me on a different path, one where I wanted to live each day, surrounded by people I love and acting with intention and meaning.”
They also use their plane to help transport rescued animals through a program called Pilots N Paws.
“We think it’s important to give back, and helping animals that are in need in remote locations to receive medical care or to join them with families who’d like to adopt them makes a great way to spend a weekend,” O’Shaughnessy said.
I had driven to meet the couple at their Napa Valley home to taste their wine and hear their story. The expertly manicured Sauvignon Blanc vineyard lined the driveway and led to an open-format barn-garage that houses a collection of vintage sports cars and bikes.
They greeted me warmly, and we chatted as we strolled into the expansive backyard that features a pool, a westward open view of the verdant valley and the purple-blue Mayacamas Mountains beyond. Near where we sat, aromas of earth and growing things from the family’s nearby organic garden — overflowing with ripe tomatillos and cucumbers, a few plum trees heavy with fruit — lent a sense of comfort and familiarity.
Up to that point, I hadn’t noticed the label. Looking more closely I was surprised to find that the newly created wine-bottle label was a simple sketch of a paper airplane and not the fixed-wing aircraft I had anticipated.
“We want to go with a paper airplane because once you make it and then throw it, you never really know where it’s going to go,” Schiefferly said. “And that’s what we imagine we are doing now. Creating a rarity without compromise, releasing it to the world and then seeing where it goes.”
Two Aileron wines will be released to the public this fall. Those interested in securing an allocation are encouraged to visit their website (www.aileronwines.com) and sign up on the mailing list.