Cornell Vineyards is physically located in Sonoma, just a mile or so beyond the Napa Valley’s Spring Mountain American Viticultural Area off St. Helena Road. But given the team’s pedigree and the style of wine — big, voluptuous yet elegant Cabernet Sauvignons — one might just assume this is a new high-end, small-lot Napa Valley wine producer.
Over nearly 20 years, the creators, Henry and Vanessa Cornell, have quietly built a foundation that might not only produce exceptional wines but may also hold a key for creating an ethos where care for both the land and the people working on it go hand in hand.
“We purchased the first property here back in 2000, which was 115 acres, but we’ve been fortunate enough to add to that and now own about 250 acres, 20 of which we’ve planted in grapes,” Henry Cornell said. “But we believe that the first vineyards were planted here back in the late 1800s, when a stagecoach road traversed the property. When we got here those vineyards had laid fallow since Prohibition.”
Although a few well-known wineries are near the Cornell Vineyards — Fisher, Pride and Philip Togni — the area remains less explored than the valleys on either side.
“The western slope of Spring Mountain is largely undiscovered territory,” Cornell said. “And every year, our experimentation reveals new insights — one of which is that we can create an environment that is both conducive to growing the finest wine grapes but also a place where the people working here can have improved lives, take care of their children, have healthcare and find a balance between living and working.”
Beyond purchasing the property, the Cornells set out to find the finest winemaking and vineyard teams to help them design and plant their vineyards and make their wines.
Most recently, they’ve hired winemaker Françoise Peschon (former winemaker at Araujo Estate and consulting winemaker at Accendo and Vine Hill Ranch) to oversee a complete makeover from the prior winemaking team. Peschon brought in Elizabeth Tangney (viticulturist and winemaker who worked formerly with winemaker Aaron Pott) and vineyard expert Phil Coturri, who created the plan to redevelop the property and convert the estate to organic farming.
Today, all farming is certified organic and done in-house, guided by the team that includes Armando Hernández (formerly at Terra Valentine), the vineyard manager who lives on the property with his family.
“We have plans to build a winery that is sensitive to the environment — we’ve designed a water system that actually puts more water into the aquifer than it takes from it, which is important to us and our neighbors,” Cornell said.
‘There’s no elevator here — only a staircase’
Raised by a single mother, Cornell grew up in New York. Eventually, he earned a law degree and joined Goldman Sachs’ Investment Banking Division in 1984. Now senior partner of Cornell Capital, he oversees operations, is the director of numerous companies and sits on the board of trustees of Mount Sinai Hospital, the Whitney Museum, The Asia Society and the Navy SEAL Foundation. He is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He and his wife have five young children.
Cornell’s life in business has led him to conclude that the right idea, together with the right team and good intentions, can go a long way toward success.
“When you have exceptional material coupled with an exceptional management team that has expertise and heart, that’s when one can begin to see the full expression of the potential of an idea, but there’s no elevator here — only a staircase,” Cornell said. “Here we’ve been blessed to engage with such a team, led by Françoise, who I believe is one of the finest winemakers to come out of Napa or Sonoma ever, in my 62 years, and so she sets the tone. She also recommended Elizabeth, to all our great fortunes.”
“The framework and the context for the wines we are making are this property and the people involved,” Tangney said. “One thing that I love about this team is that there is no direction coming from Henry and Vanessa that I don’t totally agree with — we all want to make an exceptional food-friendly wine that expresses this particular piece of land, which is a little slice of heaven.”
Although only a few miles from the Napa Valley as the crow flies, the Cornell property and vineyard feels remote and a world apart from valley-floor vineyards, with nightly fog and cool breezes drifting in from the Pacific Ocean. Many of the vines grow on steep, rocky slopes and have limited access to water. Using organic farming techniques adds another level of complexity.
“The artistry comes in how we farm and then how we make and blend the wine,” Tangney said. “We are meticulously farming each of our 20 vineyard blocks differently — many of which are half-acre sizes. We do this because each is so unique and represents its own microclimate and a different blend of our five soil types. What that means is that there is a lot of hands-on farming going on here and that we’ve come to know each section of the vineyard and understand its personality.”
Cornell said the motivation for wine styles comes from France but with a California twist.
“In terms of benchmark styles, I look to the 1989 Haut-Brion as being perfectly balanced,” Cornell said. “That wine is one of the few first-growths (Bordeaux) that paid a little homage to California through its expression of fruit as opposed to the occasionally moody France.”
Although wines were made from earlier vintages, only the 2013, 2014 and 2015 were deemed of high enough quality to be released for sale. All wines are $150 per bottle with fewer than 800 cases made for each vintage. These Bordeaux blends (primarily Cabernet Sauvignon with varying percentage additions of Merlot, Cabernet Franc or Petit Verdot) are wonderfully delicious, with a distinct increase of polish as you progress up through the vintages. Each wine maintains an expression of mountain fruit that has been farmed, harvested and fermented to exacting standards.
There are few errors in these deeply colored wines, each with varying degrees of aromatic candied violet, sun-ripened plum, red raspberry, dark cocoa and dried sage. The fine-grained tannin and distinct fruit-forwardness are balanced with a juicy-acid backbone. These wines remind me of another Sonoma vintner, Peter Michael, who has made some of the finest “Napa”- styled Cabernets from his Knights Valley mountainside property.
Cornell smiled widely about the comparison with Michael.
“We would be blessed to one day be as important as Peter Michael has been to this region and to wine because he stands for excellence, commitment to the environment and family,” Cornell said. “But all we can do is remain steadfast and strive for excellence. History will have to decide how we fared.”
Cornell wines can be purchased by signing up on the allocation list through their website or at local retail shops such as ACME in St. Helena and K. Laz Wine Collection in Yountville. Napa Valley restaurants that carry the wine include Press, The Charter Oak and Solbar. Tastings can be requested but are held off-site because the designed winery has not yet been built.