Saxum, Sine Qua Non and Other California Cult Wines

By: Dara Vandor

Some of the most interesting wine in the world is coming out of California

Experimental techniques and a freedom from tradition has allowed an exciting wave of winemakers to emerge from areas like the Napa Valley and Paso Robles. Unfortunately, the word is out, and many of these dynamic wines can be very difficult to acquire, especially here in Canada. Many winemakers sell only through carefully curated mailing lists, which in turn have long waitlists.

We are pleased to offer an eclectic selection of California cult wines in our Spring Fine Wine auction (May 25 – June 2), allowing collectors to jump the queue and acquire some of these masterpieces for themselves—no waitlist required! 

Saxum

There is a seven-year waitlist to get on the mailing list for these Rhône-inspired reds, which should give you an idea of how covetable these wines are. 

Unlike the four Napa wines listed below, Saxum is grown in the Willow Creek district of Paso Robles, which is located halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Founder Justin Smith grew up in the area, the son of a grapegrower who sold fruit to other vintners. 

The name, “Saxum,” comes from the Latin word for “stone,” which resonated with Smith due to both the landscape and his family’s tradition of giving each other rock-related nicknames: “Pebble” is his father’s moniker, while siblings have been dubbed “Brick,” “Rocky” and “Sandy.” 

Saxum Vineyards is focused on producing Grenache, Syrah, and Mataro-based blends, and is located in one of the most temperate areas of Paso Robles, due to cooling ocean breezes. Vines grow from rocky limestone hillsides at an elevation of 1,200 feet above sea level, producing a high degree of minerality and purity of fruit. Smith credits the limestone soil for allowing the grapes to maintain acidity even when they are ripe. Farming is done without chemical fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides.

Saxum produces around 5,000 to 6,000 cases per year split between nine different cuvees: Broken Stones, James Berry Vineyard, G2 Vineyard, Bone Rock, Rocket Block, Booker Vineyard, Paderewski Vineyard, Heart Stone Vineyard, and Terry Hoage Vineyard. 

A selection of Saxum wine can be found from Lots 131 – 144.

Sine Qua Non 

You won’t stumble upon Sine Qua Non on store shelves. Made by Manfred and Elaine Krankl in Ventura County, California, this winery is known for two things: exceptional Rhône-style blends and the difficulty clients have in procuring it. Small-scale production coupled with a devoted fanbase—Robert Parker described Manfred Krankl as “one of the most creative and multidimensional winemakers on Planet Earth”—means that getting your hands on a bottle is more than just difficult. All of the wine made by the Krankls is sold directly to the consumer through a tightly controlled mailing list, and the waitlist to join the mailing list is estimated to be around nine years. If 2029 sounds too far away to sample this California superstar, we’d like to direct your attention to lots 148 – 151.

Founded in 1994, the Krankls’ began making wine without a vineyard, or even grapes of their own, making their first wines with fruit bought from other growers. The wine was blended in what Parker described as “a Mad Max- junkyard dog sort of winery in one of the ugliest sections of Ventura.” The Krankls’ first attempt yielded four and a half barrels of Syrah that they named “The Queen of Spades,” which became a smash hit.

Subsequent vintages were each given a completely new name as well as a new look, as an expression of the Krankls’ “aversion to labels and dogmas,” as well as a belief that if each vintage is unique, the packaging should reflect that. The success of their wines allowed the Krankls to purchase four vineyards and work with their own fruit. The annual production of Sine Qua Non averages 3,500 cases.

BOND 

BOND Wine could be described as a cult-within-a-cult. To understand what makes this wine so covetable, it is worth understanding the history of its creator, Bill Harlan, and his role in helping to create the “cult” California cab.

Harlan himself admits to being in the right place at the right time. Studying at Berkeley, he would visit Napa on weekends for the free tastings resulting in an interest in wine. After graduation, Harlan meandered through stints as a high-stakes poker player, sailor, motorcycle racer and pilot, before co-founding Pacific Union, a real estate company in San Francisco, in 1975. The success of the company enabled Harlan to buy Meadowood, a country club in St. Helena that had gone to seed, with a view to opening a vineyard on the property. A conversation with winemaker Robert Mondavi convinced him that the site was less than ideal for growing grapes, but it could instead be transformed into something else. Meadowood became a spa retreat boasting extensive sports facilities as well as a three-star Michelin restaurant. 

Harlan’s dream of making wine came to fruition with his co-founding of Merryvale winery in 1986, followed by Harlan Estates in 1990. Harlan became known for his exacting standards, refusing to release any wine that he believes will score less than 95 points. Indeed, the first several vintages produced by Harlan Estates were not commercially released. After ten years of making wine on the Estate, Harlan asked Robert Parker to privately sample the vintages so as to give him an idea of where his wines would sit amongst the world’s great reds. Harlan recalls of Parker:

He tasted the 1987 and 1988. He said no. He thought the 1989 was better and by the time he tasted the 1990 he thought it was pretty good. Then he tasted the 1991, 1992 and 1993. He felt that the wines were getting better fast and once we got to 1994 he felt that we were definitely in the right place.

Harlan’s perfectionism and determination has paid off: after the first release of the 1990 vintage, no less than 12 of his wines have received perfect scores from the critic, and is one of the most sought-after wines on the market. Harlan Estates and Harlan himself can be credited with helping create and foster the cult of California Cabernet around the world, producing wines with massive structure and a slow aging curve. For fans of Harlan Estate, please note that lot 146 includes a bottle of Harlan Estate 2003 WA 98+

Over many years of working with vineyards in the Napa Valley, Harlan and winemaker Bob Levy came to realize that there were a handful of sites in the area that stood out from the rest in terms of the quality of their output. The two had a vision of a new wine built around these non-contiguous hillside vineyards, which resulted in BOND wines being founded in 1997. The BOND sites combined form about 50 acres and produce between 2,500 and 2,700 cases per year, compared to Harlan Estate’s output of 1,700 to 2,000 cases.

If you’re interested in tasting BOND, we invite you to look at lot 254.

Outpost Wines

It was big news in 2018 when AXA Millésimes purchased Outpost Winery. A division of the multinational insurance firm AXA Group, the French company has been building a prestigious luxury winery and vineyard portfolio since the 1980s, a group that includes Château Pichon-Baron and Château Pibran in Pauillac, Château Petit-Village in Pomerol and Château Suduiraut in Sauternes as well as Domaine de l’Arlot in Burgundy, Disznókő in Tokaj, Hungary, and Quinta do Noval in Portugal. For Outpost to be entering into this rarified Old World coterie was no mean feat for a California winery only in its 20th year. 

Established in 1998, the Outpost land sits high on the Howell Mountain, 2,200 feet above sea level. The uppermost reaches of the Howell Mountain receive intense weather that would be foreign to lower-altitude Napa Valley neighbours, and include high winds, hail, snow and dense fogs. However, these dramatic conditions also come with abundant sunshine and a cooler summer, which allows the grapes to mature more slowly and maintain a higher level of acidity. Combined with hard, rocky red volcanic soil and southwestern exposure, Outpost wines have a distinct spice note. 

Outpost has been under the guiding hand of winemaker Thomas Rivers Brown from early on, and many credit him for the success of the vineyard alongside owners Frank and Kathy Dotzler. Brown will continue to hone his vision at Outpost under AXA Millésimes. 

The 28-acre estate vineyards on Howell Mountain currently grow Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache and Petite Sirah, while the nine-acre True vineyard grows a combination of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Grapes are picked very late in the season and are then processed with as little intervention as possible, and are neither fined nor filtered. Less than 3,000 cases are released per year, making Outpost wines difficult to acquire. 

Looking to jump the queue and taste Outpost for yourself? Please see lot 147.

Ovid

Although named for the Classical Roman poet Publius Ovidius Naso, Ovid’s wines are the result of a very contemporary success story. Owner Mark Nelson founded Ovid Technologies, a New York-based software business, in the 1980s; the sale of the company in 1998 allowed Nelson and his wife Dana Johnson to purchase land on Pritchard Hill, just east of Oakville in the Napa Valley. With an elevation of 1,400 feet above sea level, the 15-acre plot is located in one of the rockiest areas of Napa, and had no vineyard when the Nelsons took ownership. Indeed, the couple moved to Napa with a fondness for the weather and wine, but with no plans to start a vineyard of their own. A conversation with noted viticulturist David Abreu convinced them that they had purchased land with more potential than they had considered, and should be put under vine. With Abreu’s help, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot were planted in the rocky red volcanic soils in 2000.

Ovid’s first commercial release was in 2005. Around 2,000 cases are produced annually, and are mainly sold direct to consumer. Grapes are organically farmed, and are fermented using only native yeasts. Wines are bottled without fining or filtering. Ovid produces four distinct red wine bottlings: the main wine, known as OVID Napa Valley, made from Cabernet Sauvignon; Hexameter, made from Cabernet Franc; Loc. Cit., produced from two adjacent blocks of Cabernet Sauvignon; and an estate Syrah. There is a fifth wine produced by the estate that is known as the “Experiment” wine, which varies every year in terms of its origin, blend, varietals and winemaking practices. Ovid’s winemaker, Austin Peterson, explains that “the blends revolve around ideas we’re thinking about as we’re making the wines, from alternative closures, to the effects of fermentation vessels—concrete or oak—to how barrel size affects the aging of wines, to selections of rootstock and clones in the vineyard.” He notes that these changes help to make the larger bottlings better, and allow for a safe testing ground that informs the estate’s methods.

In 2017, Ovid sold a majority share of their business to Silver Oak, a large California winery with deep roots in Napa Valley. Nelson and Johnson felt they needed a partner in order for their operation to thrive; Silver Oak has stated that they have little interest in changing the character or methods that Ovid has practiced since its inception. 

We’re pleased to offer Ovid wine such as lot 256.

Find out More

Waddington’s is excited to present this exciting selection of wines in our Spring Fine Wine auction. We also invite you to peruse our Fine Spirits auction.

Both auctions run online from May 25 to June 2, 2020. We are always delighted to answer any questions you may have about current offerings, how to buy, building a collection, or consigning wine and spirits.

Please contact Joann Maplesden at 416-847-6182 jmm@waddingtons.ca or
Devin Hatfield at 416-847-6181
dh@waddingtons.ca


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