Our Napa Valley tour continues. After an extravagant whole day at Opus One (read here), we continue to dip our toes into this gilded pool with a stop at Jarvis Estate.
William Jarvis went from the Navy, to college and much travel, to found his own telecommunications company (you may have heard of HP) in Silicone Valley. Loaded, living part-time at his Chateau in France led him to wine. As one does, he bought an 1,320 acre retreat in SE Napa Valley, near Coombsville, and planted 37 acres of vines over ten years.
But Jarvis faced a dilemma. When swimming in money, he could not just build any old winery. SE Napa is hot, hilly, and dry. His solution, instead of buying an AC unit: put his barrels in a cave like the ancient French. Caves stay cool and damp year round, which barrels prefer. However, Napa lacks natural caves. So, dig it and they will come.
Remember those Chunnel diggers that connected France to the UK? Well, they also dug 45,000 square feet, aka an acre, of Jarvis cave into Vaca Mountain. That matches a Borders’ Books or large grocery store. Why so large? Well, it not only ages barrels, but crams the first whole winery underground: from fermentation, barreling, to bottling, even boxing.
But what is it like inside? Actually, quite elegant and alien.
Finely crafted bronze doors lead to intertwining, parabolic arched tunnels, lined with barrels.
Let us take a walk through:
Their rotary fermentors are pretty cool. Their spinning allows for gentle and constant extraction of skin tannins, colors, and flavors that punch downs or pump overs merely mimic.
Offices lay just past the tanks. I expect to find the Mole People, Batman, or at least a Bond villain. But inside we find winemaker Scott Morrison hiding behind a picture of winemaker Scott Morrison wearing nearly the same plaid shirt.
Once I know which Scott to talk to, the real one walks us through his process, which by necessity is intricate given their limited 37 acres, extended aging program, and 100% varietal wines.
To prove Jarvis has its own in-cave bottling line, ta da!
In a rare moment of normality, we find stock-standard crock pots used for wax-capping bottles.
But to remind us we are still peasants, we pass through those automatic bronze doors and enter the crystal hall. The ceiling doubles in height. Paint goes from beige to white. Crystals the size of people load its nitches.
And this is just the entrance to the Inner Circle Ballroom… OK. Pause. I need to ask a question. Does all this extravagance make good wine? We head to the ominous-sounding Associate Vintners’ Chamber to find out.
I will rank them as we go:
#6 Jarvis, Estate Chardonnay, Finch Hollow, Napa Valley CA 2014
Finch Hollow is a shallow soil plot. APPEARANCE looks bright, golden, and leggy. Moderate AROMAS of honeydew mellon, pineapple juice, and vanilla smell pleasant. The PALATE feels so fruity I could swear it was off dry. The body is medium. The viscous texture feels decently lifted but a touch too warm. FLAVORS are intense including nectarine, pineapple, and salted butter that last a medium plus length. It is very good (4 of 5). A nice glass to drink now, not needing food, or hold for five years.
Their Unfiltered Chardonnay is even fruitier, plusher, and more tropical if you can imagine that.
Ooh! Tempranillo, cool right?
#5 Jarvis, Tempranillo, Napa Valley CA 2013 $85
A clear, purple core runs to a pale purple rim. AROMAS smell packed with spice, leather, cigar box, turpentine, and back up vocals of boysenberry and cassis. The PALATE is dry, with a boost of acidity one medium tannins and alcohol making for a lean, raw silk textured wine. FLAVORS chat about dried cherry skin, orange juice, cranberry, and flint. Jarvis’ Tempranillo is lean, lifted, and dusty: very good (4 of 5).
Will, son of William Jarvis, in eighth grade cooked up a Cab Franc blend and small barrel-aged it until legally old enough to drink it. Iconic consultant Dimitri Tchelistcheff loved it enough to put it into production.
#1 Jarvis, Will Jarvis’ Science Project, Napa Valley, CA 2013 $140 95% Cab Franc 5% Merlot
A deep purple core with a lean wash make up the APPEARANCE. Notable AROMAS and FLAVORS glow with warm cranberry sauce, raspberry, mocha mint and tomato leaf. The PALATE feels dry with amped up acidity, tight lean dusty tannins, a medium body and silky slippery finish. Of all the wines, this needs food: lean meats, young brie, charcuterie. Fascinating, complex, and very good (4 of 5).
#2 Next, 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon (100%) Napa Valley CA 2012 $160
The APPEARANCE looks a bold ruby with inky legs. AROMAS crackle with toasted toffee and hazelnut, vanilla overlaying blue and blackberry jams and a dash of mint and an odd orange peel finish. The dry PALATE has synced fresh acidity, muscular tannins, alcohol, and a medium plus body. It feels like thick velvet. Jarvis’ 2012 Cab is classic Napa Cab: very good (4 of 5) drink now or to 2020. But it ends oddly citric and falls apart over time to merit perfection. So close!
#4 Lake William Red, Napa Valley CA 2012 $180 42% Cab Sauv 30% Cab Franc 26% Merlot 2% Petit Verdot
APPEARANCE show a deep ruby core that runs to the edge with tears. AROMAS and FLAVORS seem shy right now with moderate mocha, fresh plum, cassis, tobacco and dry forest. The dry PALATE jumps with surprising acidity, woody tannins, medium alcohol and body. Lake William is very good (4 of 5) but needs five years.
Lastly, #3 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (100%) Napa Valley CA 2007 $260
We loved the earthy 2007 Opus One. How is Jarvis’ 2007? Only two of the last five vintages made the cut. 25 months in barrels expand it.
The APPEARANCE looks a rich ruby with tinted thick thick legs. Intense AROMAS and FLAVORS exude dried rosemary, forest floor, cocoa powder, petrol, and tomato leaf that all hang over a core of black raspberry compote. The PALATE has enough acidity, extra tannins, and a pretty full body. 2007 is a tertiary takeover, all earth and spice and very good (4 of 5). It lacks that something though, the finish does not persist enough and it feels ever so slightly hollow.
So, like choosing children: #1 Science Project Cab Franc, #2 Cab Sauv, #3 Reserve Cab, #4 Lake William Red, #5 Tempranillo, #6 Finch Chardonnay
They are all very good, interesting wines. But none moved me. Maybe the extravagant space made me expect too much. Such a cool cave context should foster extremely unique wines, right? The batcave has Batman. Who knows. Maybe overly safe methods, or the SE Napa vineyards do not lend themselves to either perfection or that intangible quality. More likely, this trip has spoiled me irrevocably.
But if you like rarity, Opus One’s 25,000 cases of one wine make Jarvis’ 5,000 cases seem like an island in a sea. Break that into eleven wines and you have real rarity. To succeed on such a small scale, Jarvis allocates most to members. Their descriptors hope you “make those you share it with feel privilaged”: aspirational drinking at its height. To amp up exclusivity, only members can attend the biennial Inner Circle Ball held in the deepest, largest cavern. And yes, it is mask optional. Jarvis knows its audience.