There’s a long history of cross-pollination between the Napa Valley and Santa Barbara wine countries, but the recent move south by one of the men primarily responsible for arguably America’s most expensive wine may one day mark a tipping point in the ongoing saga of whether Napa’s esteem will ever be eclipsed by somewhere else. Of course, the humble, laid-back, Louisville, Kentucky-raised winemaker involved wouldn’t put it exactly that way.
“When you’re running around the winery and punching down the grapes and handling the wine, you aren’t thinking that it will cost $700 a bottle,” said Adam Henkel of his eight vintages at Harlan Estates, which fights a continual price-raising war with Screaming Eagle, Napa’s competing cult winery. “All you are thinking about is how to make the best wine possible. That’s what I’m here to do.”
“Here” is Crown Point Vineyards, a property that was founded more than a decade ago as Cimarone with Silicon Valley money by Roger and Priscilla Higgins in the heart of the relatively new Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara appellation. In 2012, the Higginses — whose label, now made by Andrew Murray, still exists via a tasting room in Los Olivos — sold the 100-acre property, on-site winery, and 30 or so acres of vineyards to Roger Bower, a Texan who made his millions producing fire-fighting foam and contracting a private fire-fighting squad to battle problematic blazes in the Gulf of Mexico and Middle East. After selling his company in 2011, Bower’s love of fine wine and horses led him straight to Happy Canyon, home to both thoroughbred facilites and vineyards specializing in Bordeaux varietals. His hunt for a winemaker dovetailed with Henkel’s desire to spread his wings, so the two teamed up in April 2013, and have been plotting a shakeup of Santa Barbara’s comparably modest pricepoints ever since.
The plan, much like Harlan and Screaming Eagle, is to produce a singular wine known as Crown Point, starting with the 2013 vintage, which probably won’t be released until 2016 or 2017. Early rumors were that the very limited release would be offered for something like $300 — which is virtually unheard of in Santa Barbara County, except for the lavish prices paid for Manfred Krankl’s Sin Qua Non bottles, and those are technically made in Ventura County. During a tour of the property last week, Henkel said that the price, much like everything else in Crown Point’s early stages, is nowhere near being decided — hinting that it may eventually be closer to $200, and will certainly be more than $100 — but did offer, “It is going to be one of the most expensive wines in the area.”
Though sure to spark a bit of sticker shock for Santa Barbara wine fans accustomed to fantastic wines in the $25 to $60 range, there are bottom-line reasons for a multi-Benjamin bottling. Once he moved his wife, four kids, and nanny down to Santa Ynez, the 39-year-old Henkel — who is Crown Point’s only current employee — set about ordering top-of-the-line equipment, such as upright oak cask fermenters and custom-crafted concrete tanks, and refurbishing the winery, including the creation of “mission control station” to control both the hot and cold glycol lines that he installed to keep temperatures ideal as the grapes ferment. While plenty of Santa Barbara wineries use glycol-lined tanks to keep their juice cold, Henkel got funny looks when he inquired around about hot glycol, which he admitted is a “luxury in winemaking” but said “everyone” uses in Napa to ensure “long, warm macerations” that fight against “hard, angular tannins.” He explained, “You’re not going to change the flavors of the fruit you get out of the vineyard, but you can make the yeast happy.”
Expressing surprise that more Santa Barbarans haven’t already launched luxury-level bottlings, Henkel comes to Happy Canyon at a critical time, as the fledgling appellation strives to distinguish itself as home for Bordeaux varietals like cabernet sauvignon in a region known more for the Burgundian grapes of pinot noir and chardonnay as well as the Rhône Valley’s syrah. To Henkel, the difference between cab in Napa and Happy Canyon is really about density, with thicker, jammier juice more present up north. “People always say that Napa Valley is making these fruit bombs, but that’s what the grapes are giving you,” said Henkel, who believes that Happy Canyon may offer more of a distinct typicity to each varietal, and he’s especially excited about the “undervalued” malbec. “The fruit down here has a lot of character to it, a lot of soul to it, but maybe it’s not as dense and rich and big.”
Those seeking a taste of Henkel’s work needn’t take out a second mortgage yet or wait until 2017 either. The second part of the Crown Point plan was the purchase of the existing Westerly brand, which Henkel is refocusing to shine a more affordable light on Santa Barbara, from Happy Canyon to the Sta. Rita Hills, with current releases — some of which he blended, some not — of pinot, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, cab, merlot, white and red blends known as Fletcher’s, and the syrah-viognier Cote Blonde ranging in price from $20 to $75. To bolster both projects, Henkel hopes to have expanded the estate vineyards to 44 acres by 2015, and says that there may be a third project in the works as well.
“My goal with Crown Point is to put together the best blend we can for this property,” he said of his main charge. “I’m looking to make a well-structured, Left Bank-style Bordeaux blend that will drink well for a long time. I believe the quality will justify the price.”