When Jen Rainin, owner of Rainin vineyards in the Diamond Mountain appellation in the hills above Calistoga, woke on New Year’s Day 2016, the first thing she did was check her email. One message informed her that a Hall wine made from their grapes had received 100 points from the influential wine critic Robert Parker Jr.
“I bounced around the room trying to contain myself so that Frances (her wife) could sleep, but that only lasted a few minutes,” Rainin said. “I asked if she’d ever heard of a 100-point wine. She said she thought that was like a unicorn or an urban myth. With a huge smile on my face, I told her that our grapes had made a unicorn!”
“We are all very excited to have made a few 100-point wines now,” said Steve Leveque, winemaker at Hall. “It takes a lot of effort from a lot of people to make any wine, but to make one that scores a perfect score from Parker means that everything had to be perfect at every step of the way. The Halls are committed to seeing the highest quality at every level — from growing or sourcing the best grapes to providing support and encouragement for the winemaking team to achieve their very best.”
Personally, I don’t think in terms of numbers, letter grades or other such measurements when I taste wine. My wine reviews focus on the experience of the wines I drink, their color, aroma, flavors, textures and if they remind me of another wine. But this has not been the norm, so to learn more about wine reviews and scores I spoke with Steve Heimoff, former editor at the Wine Enthusiast and longtime wine reviewer. Recently retired, Heimoff is a defender of the 100-point scoring system, but he also believes that such things are less relevant to today’s consumer.
“I believe in the point system, but I think the golden age of wine critics is over,” Heimoff said. “From 1978 through 2008 mostly a few white males had all the influence. The baby boomers had come of age, were culturally curious and were gaining in affluence, and the economy and the world were relatively stable. Reviewers like Parker, Lauber at the Wine Spectator, Tanzer and a few others provided exactly what the public was clamoring for — to learn more about wine. But when he retires, there will never be another Parker. Many people think social media and collective reviews, such as Yelp, will become the new norm. But, to be honest, nobody knows what is going to happen.”
But Parker has not yet retired, and he, along with other reviewers, seems enamored with Hall wines. While Leveque has overseen the winery’s portfolio of estate and single-vineyard offerings, the Halls have received more than 170 90-plus scores, including the Rainin Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, which is made from grapes grown on steep rocky soils. Once picked the grapes are sorted at the winery by an optical sorter, fermented with the utmost care and precision, aged in the finest new Taransaud French oak barrels, each step coxing out the 337 cabernet sauvignon clone’s complexity and nuance, producing a wine that Parker says earns 100 points, calling it a “provocative as well as prodigious cabernet sauvignon that’s as good as it gets.”
The day I tasted the wine, it was inky purple with garnet edges, emitting aromas of vanilla and ripe-red raspberry blending with black cherry and tarragon that lifted from the glass. In the mouth the wine was thick, blending smooth flavors of cinnamon toast and milk chocolate with sweet oak and silky tannins. A plush and persistent finish of blueberry completed the experience. This wine reminded me of the 2001 Mondavi ToKalon Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from the famed Oakville vineyard. Only 250 cases of 2013 Rainin Vineyard were made. The wine costs $325 per bottle and is available only through a waiting list.
Enamored with this and other 100-point scores, Kathryn and her husband, Craig, recently wrote and published a book titled “A Perfect Score,” which highlights their quest for producing wines of distinction and highlights both the excitement and many challenges of owning a winery in the Napa Valley. One of these is to strike a balance between sustaining a growing business by expanding and attracting new customers, while also trying to retain the beauty and rural nature of the valley.
“We consider ourselves very environmentally friendly,” said Craig. “We walk the walk — drive electric cars and built our LEED winery, which was an extra cost. For our new vineyards, we follow the rules and we’ve obtained the proper permits. We might have to remove a tree for a road, but then we might plant two. We want to talk with the people who oppose our projects (to plant more vineyards) but many of them seem to have already made up their minds without the facts. And many of the things people are saying are just not true.”
“The Hall’s newest proposed project will require the removal of 2,400 trees and will negatively affect the valley’s watershed,” said community activist Geoff Ellsworth. “The county just authorized another three wineries, and no one seems to be looking at the bigger picture. Everyone that lives here seems to love the beauty of this place, but unless we all take action now and put some limits and oversight to what is nearly unrestricted growth, then we will all lose the very thing we love.”
At this moment in our valley’s history, is there a need to rethink what it means to make and sell wine? There will always be those with strong opinions — on both sides — but as situations continue to evolve and change, is there a need for a different way to measure success in the Napa Valley?
Maybe, but for now there are many expert and passionate hands striving to make wines that resonate with reviewers using the 100-point system.
“We strive to create perfect grapes,” Rainin said. “We do everything we can to take the best possible care of our extraordinary vines, and that includes making the best partnerships possible to transform those grapes into the best possible wine. A 100-point score is external validation that we’ve made the right choices.”