Winemaker talks terroir

Bill Daley
Contact ReporterThe Daley Question

Cathy Corison produces only up to 3,000 cases at her eponymous winery in California's Napa Valley. She sells just two cabernet sauvignons nationally. There's a staff of only three. Yet her influence on winemaking is being increasingly felt in the United States and around the world.

Eloquent of speech and a graceful writer (read her often poetical tweets on Twitter: @cathycorison), Corison has been a tireless champion of "terroir"-driven wines, wines ripe with the unique flavor of region and vine, but also what is in the heart and mind of the winemaker.

"After making wine for others for many years, I made my first Corison cabernet with a clear stylistic vision of what I was trying to do," Corison wrote in an e-mail. "My goal is to make Napa Valley benchland cabernet with both power and elegance that graces the table and enjoys a long, distinguished life. Of course each vintage deals us a new hand, but the vision is still the same. I hope I've gotten better and better at realizing it."

With her top-of-the-line cab from her cherished Kronos Vineyard selling for about $100, Corison realizes she has to deliver.

"At the high end, a wine must distinguish itself from others or perish eventually. It needs to have something to say," she explained.

Corison, too, has plenty to say about why such wines, carefully, lovingly and traditionally made, are growing in relevance today.

Q: You say there's a renewed interest in a "wine's ability to express time and place." What do you mean by time and place? Why is that important?

A: Where and how a grapevine grows has a direct impact on the way a wine tastes. Everything that touches a vineyard contributes to a sense of place, beginning with the soil and climate and including the people involved and everything they do.

Time comes into play in many ways. Every vintage is different because the weather varies, so we can't make exactly the same wine twice, even from the same vineyard. As winemakers, we are always operating in several time frames at once, watching our library vintages evolve, working with two vintages in the cellar and growing the grapes this year for the upcoming harvest. Even if we live a very long life, our vintages are numbered. Age-worthy wines mark time as they age, unlike almost anything else. The aromas and flavors of wine have an uncanny ability to evoke memories and emotions.

Q: How is that interest in time and place manifested?

A: Renewed talk of terroir is in the air again with both winemakers and consumers. Perhaps it's a reaction against sameness? A search for meaning? Wine is great for washing down your food, but it can be so much more. Wine with a soul can give you something to think about and feel. It is alive, and like an interesting person, fun to follow through the ups and downs of a long life.

Q: But aren't we seeing worldwide a trend toward consolidation of ownership, industrialization of the winemaking process and a whole lot of anonymous plonk meant to be drunk right now? How does one fight that?

A: Stubbornness, I guess. In the end all anyone has to sell is their integrity, and for me, that is honoring the vineyard. I take it as a moral obligation to let these great vineyards speak and make wines with a chance at a long, interesting life. I believe that the Napa Valley can produce cabernet as well or better than anywhere else in the world. I am so lucky to have the chance to spend my life helping great vineyards express themselves.

The wines Cathy Corison makes a number of wines, but only two are widely available outside the winery. Our tasting panel sampled both late in 2009, giving both a rating of "very good."

2005 Corison Cabernet Sauvignon Kronos Vineyard: A super-smooth cab with raspberry and violets on the nose and a flavor that combines berry, wood, spice and mint into a seamless whole. Long, spicy finish ends with a dash of black pepper. Serve with rack of lamb, beef tenderloin. $98

2006 Corison Cabernet Sauvignon: So purple it almost looks like blueberry juice, this Napa cab is smooth and silky, with a nose of plum and incense and a slow-building berry flavor that fades into a long finish. Deceptively powerful. Serve with beef roulade, filet mignon, rack of lamb. $70

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