Visiting Quintessa in Rutherford with estate director Rodrigo Soto and winemaker Rebekah Wineburg, introduced me to an intertwined ecosystem that skillfully balances influences formed by the interface of a blue oak forest, native flora and fauna, a shimmering lake, and multiple vineyard blocks showcasing a range of diverse soil types teaming with microbial life.
The property, purchased in 1989 by Valeria and Augustin Huneeus, encompasses 280 acres located at the base of the Vaca Range and is situated between its eastern border of the Silverado Trail and the Napa River to the west.
Although many may think of the property as lying on the valley floor, its unique mosaic topography includes five hills (consequently the name Quintessa) and their connecting valleys, in three distinct ranges with each displaying its individual terroir.
The vineyards span 160 acres (divided into 26 diverse blocks) planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Carménère and Petite Verdot with Sauvignon Musque (a distinctive aromatic clone of Sauvignon Blanc) as the only white variety.
Millions of years ago, Napa Valley was underwater when violent volcanic eruptions occurred creating the Vaca Range to the east and the Mayacamas Mountains in the west.
The eastern portions of Quintessa were formed eons ago by immense megaslides off the then unstable Vaca Range, while the western side of the vineyard is influenced by proximity to the Napa River.
These two widely divergent growing areas were identified by the highly respected terroir expert Dr. Pedro Parra in a multifaceted project targeted on understanding the history of Quintessa’s soils and quantified by Brenna Quigley, a noted Napa geologist.
This comprehensive study began in 2018 with Dr. Parra digging massive exploratory pits in key areas of the vineyard to uncover the true nature of the soils and how to best farm each individual sector. On Parra’s suggestion, Quigley was brought on board in 2019 to gain an even deeper geological understanding of the estate’s origin.
Rodrigo and Rebekah are dedicated to maintaining the vineyard’s health and their ability to translate its historic character by achieving balance in the vineyard and the glass. Rodrigo maintains a commitment to organic and biodynamic farming, while Rebekah looks to the precise interplay of the vineyard blocks and their diversity complementing one another in the finished blend.
Valeria Huneeus, an accomplished microbiologist and viticulturalist, with a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Columbia University, is the architect of the Quintessa vineyard. From her very first steps on the property, she believed strongly that, “Quintessa should be farmed in a way that is respectful to the land as a living entity.”
This is now interpreted by Rodrigo as, “The land being a living organism with its own personality, attributes and defects. [As an organism], it expresses itself as a biodiverse ecosystem composed of its functioning ‘organs’ of flora and fauna along with the oak forests and vines all connected by the living soils with the lake at its epicenter.”
To maximize its “voice,” the vineyard has been farmed organically since its founding and biodynamically since 1996. However, it was only after 20 years of farming under these strict tenets, that management decided to seek the formal Demeter certification so Quintessa could properly convey its biodynamic message.
Rebekah was quick to point out the official certification was not a marketing decision. Rather it was meant to communicate in terms familiar to the industry and consumer a formal recognition of what they’d been doing for two decades.
Rodrigo sees biodynamics (now practiced in 60 countries around the world), with its emphasis on bringing life to the soil by supporting microbial diversity, as the “farming of the future” where life underground is even more important than that above.
He is a fervent believer that with age the vine becomes inextricably connected to the soil surrounding it. “Minute enzymatic secretions from the roots combine with the minerals in the soil to create a unique environment for each, and with time (vine age) an even closer symbiotic relationship develops.”
According to Rodrigo, biodynamic farming entails “listening” to the vineyard and its needs based on centuries of winegrowing history rather than trying to “dominate” it through the strict application of modern technology and technique. “Older vines must be respected as their voice is instrumental in guiding the vineyard.”
He continued, “We must be fluid in interpretating the language of the vineyard, understanding all of its organs and giving it needed space to develop. Biodynamics teaches us that what we do today determines what’s to come in the future and helps us in establishing more predictable goals.”
Quintessa only produces one red blend combining the estate’s five Bordeaux varieties. Illumination (the only white) is based on the estate-grown Sauvignon Musque along with Sauvignon Blanc, to add brightness and backbone, that is sourced from Sonoma’s cool Bennett Valley and the fog-shrouded hills of South Napa.
Rebekah’s winemaking goal is, “To interpret and translate the vineyard in every bottle so the experience from the glass is similar to a journey through the vines.” To achieve her mission, she tracks each section of the vineyard and what it adds to the final blend. The central hill borders the blue oak forest and adds strength to the blend with bold, yet supple, tannins and some sweetness to the finish.
The western hills add structure and balance, while the eastern hills contribute elegance as a continuous line from palate through finish. The bench along the Napa River contributes the flesh that gently rounds out and brings together all the component pieces.
By combining the fruit from these singular vineyard blocks, Rebekah is able to deliver a complete experience that represents the diversity of the estate and takes advantage of each in combination with the others. No one element overpowers the other as each must work in harmony to create the total vineyard expression.
During our meeting, we sampled the current releases of the 2019 Illumination and 2018 Estate Red Wine.
I was impressed to see how Rebekah demonstrated a great passion in the production of Illumination. All too often, a winery specializing in prestigious reds may treat their whites with a bit less respect. Not the case here as the 2019 Illumination steps to the front with Sauvignon Musque’s trademark expression of brilliant tropical fruits and flowers on the nose. This is followed on the textural and engaging palate with notes of fleshy tropical fruit accented by a citrus element and luscious mouthfeel. The finely structured and lengthy finish brings everything together where layers of fruit and the brightness of acidity seamlessly meld.
The 2018 Estate Red Wine is an example of power combined with elegance. It demonstrates a deep ruby hue and a complex nose of cassis with hints of tobacco and cedar. The palate also offers a great degree of complexity, balance, and structure. Blackberries and currants, cassis, and subtle notes of oak are supported by finely grained tannins and an elegant mouthfeel. The well-integrated and long-lasting finish presents a deep structure with the classic “iron fist in a velvet glove” expression seen in the finest wines of Bordeaux.
Embracing the biodiversity of the entire property from its vineyards and wooded areas to the native flora and fauna has enhanced Valeria Huneeus’ vision of respecting the land as a living entity while creating an innate sense of balance. By attaining a natural quality in the vineyard, Rebekah has been given the necessary tools to impart this universally sought-after balance to the wines.
Often, it takes a clear-cut vision to achieve a personal goal.
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Allen Balik, a Napa resident, has been a wine collector, consultant, author, fundraiser and enthusiast for more than 35 years.