The story of Cardinale Winery differs dramatically from the average Napa Valley producer. Founded in 1982, Cardinale was created for the sole purpose of constructing the very best possible Cabernet Sauvignon based wine using all of the finest resources the valley has to offer. This unique goal manifests itself in the release of a singular wine each year at an extremely limited quantity of around 2000 cases. In order to craft that year's special bottling, the Cardinale team first sources fruit from a range of vineyards all over the valley. Grapes from Mount Veeder, Howell Mountain, Diamond Mountain, Spring Mountain, St. Helena, and Stags Leap are all farmed, harvested, and vinified separately by the Cardinale team to potentially be used in the final blend. After vinification the wines from each vineyard are kept separate and placed into primarily new French oak barrels, where they will spend time mellowing and maturing. Winemaker Chris Carpenter is in charge of concocting the final blend, and he must meticulously taste, judge, and grade each barrel to determine which lots are of the highest quality.
The final blend for each year's Cardinale bottling constantly changes, but the finished wine is always composed of mostly Cabernet Sauvignon along with a small portion of Merlot. The majority of the fruit used in this blend usually comes from high-elevation mountain vineyards, which gives the wines a dense, dark, and structured core. Stylistically Cardinale wines are aiming to be deep, contemplative, and age worthy, yet still accessible and enjoyable upon release.
We were intrigued by the Cardinale vision and chose to pay a visit to their estate during a recent trip to Napa. The Cardinale estate property is centrally located in Oakville off of Highway 29, and they operate a beautiful tasting room that sits atop a hill overlooking their estate vineyard and the rest of the valley. Interestingly no fruit from their estate vineyard actually goes into any of their wines, but rather this fruit is used by other labels in the Jackson Family Wines portfolio of which Cardinale is a part.
As we entered the estate and our tasting began it was immediately clear that we were about embark on a true luxury experience. We were greeted at the door with a taste of Cardinale's Sauvignon Blanc, called Intrada, which instantly set a high bar for our experience. It was elegant, neither weighty nor flabby, and possessed a clean focused profile and succulent fruit. We then moved to our seated tasting area where already prepared for us was a collection of four wines including two vintages of Cardinale and one wine each from Mt. Brave and La Jota, which are sister labels also owned by Jackson Family. Additionally, were presented with a selection of gourmet small bites ranging from cheese to smoked duck to enjoy with the wines.
We began our tasting with a unique Mt. Brave Zinfandel sourced from Mount Veeder, which quickly impressed us with its density, power, and balance. The 16%+ alcohol was marvelously masked by characterful brambly mountain fruit, and its intensity was a treat to experience. Next came a W.S. Keyes Vineyard Merlot from Howell Mountain, which was extremely poised and possessed astounding depth. This multidimensional wine displayed a powerful elegance not often seen from this varietal in California, and it was arguably the best example of Merlot we've encountered from Napa Valley.
Then it was time for Cardinale and we visited the 2014 vintage first. 2014 marked the third consecutive year of the now infamous California drought, which materialized in the vineyards as very low yields of intensely concentrated fruit. This wine was deep, structured, and audacious with mighty velvet tannin driving the mouth feel. Despite its imposing power there was also a sense of restrained balance present, and the robust fruit could not mask tones of tobacco and graphite vying for attention. The 2011 Cardinale came next, which was the product of a much cooler vintage that saw some rain during harvest. While nowhere near as intense and monolithic as the 2014, the 2011 had just as much to say. It was leaner and more fluid in the mouth, with pronounced secondary characteristics and more overt pyrazines. Beautifully unique in a way only wines from "off vintages" can be, the 2011 revealed the winemaking prowess of Chris Carpenter in his ability to create a masterpiece in less-than-ideal conditions.
Our visit to Cardinale came to an end but our impression of the experience will forever stick with us. Cardinale is a noble operation who makes good on their quest to produce some of the greatest wine in Napa Valley. Their execution is flawless, and it is hard to find a single fault in anything they have created. We were extremely impressed and look forward to following Cardinale as they chase and achieve greatness year after year.