Not sure how many locals had mentioned Hourglass Winery to me but enough that my whistle was sufficiently whetted. I sought out an appointment and, lucky for me, gained admission.
Driving up a small road off the Silverado Trail in Calistoga a small brass sign depicting an hourglass led me in the right direction. At the end of the drive we parked near a small private home and walked up to the winery. Its size and scope immediately impressed me, and I would soon attribute the same characteristics to CEO and Founder Jeff Smith: I would be blown away not only by an incredible tasting but also a vast winemaking knowledge I had yet to completely understand.
My hand whizzed over my notepad as fast as it could to keep up with Jeff’s family story, his own story and, when prompted by his mother that wanted him to prove himself worthy of turning her Calistoga property into a winery – his depth of understanding what it takes to make killer wine. Note to my winemaking friends: I have my notepad and you can read it all for yourself if you ask me nicely. Some of the notes I have shared here are designated as For The Wine Geek.
The cave we had our meeting in was created when extra dynamite was left over after making the barrel caves. Smith said something along the lines of, “We have extra dynamite, let’s blow something up!” And this cave was unlike any other I have seen, with fur covered chairs and inventive lighting…I kept waiting for the bear to show up. Which, now that I knew Smith’s sense of humor, he had a bear story too.
Jeff’s family moved to the area in 1964. St. Helena was a sleepy town until the Judgment of Paris. His father built the Wine Country Inn about a decade later. They planted fruit trees over the many acres of rocky land that they owned. It was at a cocktail party with Dan Duckhorn that his father was told he shouldn’t waste his time with fruit trees, he should plant Zinfandel vines – and he did. When Jeff’s father passed away in 1990 Jeff took over the vineyard. His mother was ready to sell by then, but that’s when Jeff convinced her to pull out the Zin to make room for Cab.
Jeff was only 26 at the time. He was fiddling around in college and in a band, but he was watching his neighbors. He decided to get some help from a pal at UC Davis, got them to look at his soil, and learned he did indeed have a great site.
Now here is where my notes veer into the geography of the land (streams, soil, gravel, minerals that combined would represent the “tip of narrow crossing” of an hourglass), the varietals grown (all five Bordeaux varietals), the mentors that would guide Jeff (Bob Foley helped with the early vintages, then came Tony Biagi who is the current winemaker) and his thirst (forgive the pun) in what seemed to me as a quest to learn it all.
For The Wine Geek: I asked about the use of the “cult” name and how it might relate to Hourglass. Jeff said there are only eight cult wineries, no more, and they are credited with defining a paradigm shift in winemaking and the high ph movement. And the movement “grew” out of the cult wine phenomenon.
Current Wines Available For Tasting (Note Blue Line and Hourglass are both separate estate wines, not a first and secondary label.)
2015 HG3 Hourglass Red Blend was what Jeff referred to as a “Bordelaise Stew”, it was different each year, with Merlot, Cabernet and one other, to-be-decided black fruit. The aromas alone that reminded me of incense Jeff said was sandalwood.
2015 Blueline Estate Cabernet Franc was destined to be my favorite. With aromas of wet gravel, a juicy palate and cigar – Jeff said this wine would only develop over time.
For the 2015 Blueline Estate Cabernet Sauvignon this time I got aromas of next day Bolognese spaghetti sauce, only because the second day is so much better than the first. The spice, blue to black fruit and killer aromatics brought up…you guessed it…a lesson in how those aromatics develop. For The Wine Geek: Somehow they can stop/suspend the polymerization during fermentation to shorten the tannins. “Unresolved tannins” is like that tea bag that steeped for too long. A “wet chemist”, that would be hired from veraison onward, would be the person to manage (and explain better than I can) this suspension process.
2014 Hourglass Estate Cabernet Sauvignon tasted like it was ten years older than a 2014, very mature I thought. Jeff said that “maturity was a function of the vineyard.” The wine would develop more of that “cigar box” in time and it’s the richness, medium acidity and minerality that makes you want to go in for that next sip. For The Wine Geek: Hourglass has never had an acid adjustment. The saving grace of Blueline is the minerality. Tannins bond with “salivary protein.”
A 2016 Sauvignon Blanc Hourglass Estate was the wine we finished with, and while whites are usually served first when we had this last I thought: what a great palate refresher. Made with 20% new oak, neutral oak and stainless steel I got a nice lime on the nose with balanced acidity and fresh fruit that lingered on the palate. I only wished I could’ve started tasting through these wines all over again. For The Wine Geek: The length of this wine came from the fruit. There was no “cat piss” odor as they have a warm climate that equals “less piss.”
Lastly, For The Wine Geek: As we were just about to say our goodbyes we got into a discussion about what influences people about wine. Jeff said that winemaker Clark Smith (Clark was in Santa Clarita once for a holiday tasting at Valencia Wine Co. where I met him the first time, and a second time when we judged together for the Long Beach Grand Cru.) did a “chemistry class” where different music was played while each person judged a wine. After more than three tries in rating the same wines in the same order – but with different music – Jeff got different results. He remembered what he had rated the wine before, and the wines were in the same order, but his results were still different! Beach Boys, jazz, hard rock, classic, classic with a modal change…each presented a new result. Jeff said his notes would “flip again and again” and possibly due to “input creating a change in the chemical pathways…” Totally going to try this myself!
No one in the Hourglass family lost their home, however two of their consultants did. The winemaking crew stayed on, lost power at one point and a neighbor helped them out. When their neighbor lost their power next, Hourglass was able to help them. The fire ran 100 feet per second according to CDF. They did lose some fruit from Sonoma that would’ve been used for HG3.
Tasting at Hourglass
Our goal with winery visits is to immerse the enthusiast in the art of what we do. We seek to create an intimate experience that will deliver a greater depth of knowledge of winemaking in general and a look behind the scenes at how we apply that craft. When you visit with us, plan on an hour to an hour and a half immersion that will take you into the core of the winery to include a tasting of aging wines at rest in barrel and current bottled releases. The experience will be guided by either Proprietor Jeff Smith, Operations Manager Marybeth Egner, or Director of Private Clients Ian Fenwick, all of whom have deep knowledge of Napa Valley and are well versed in every aspect of our winemaking…read more.
Eve Bushman has a Level Two Intermediate Certification from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET), a “certification in first globally-recognized course” as an American Wine Specialist ® from the North American Sommelier Association (NASA), Level 1 Sake Award from WSET, was the subject of a 60-minute Wine Immersion video, authored “Wine Etiquette for Everyone” and has served as a judge for the Long Beach Grand Cru. You can email Eve@EveWine101.com to ask a question about wine or spirits. You can also seek her marketing advice via Eve@EveBushmanConsulting.com