The Wine Diva of Napa
When the final bid came in at $500,000 for a 6-L bottle of 1992 Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon at the Napa Valley Wine Auction two years ago, there was a moment of stunned silence. Then the audience broke into applause. It was (and still is) the highest price ever paid for a bottle of wine. The proceeds went not to the woman who made the vintage, Heidi Peterson Barrett, but to fund social services in Napa Valley. But the sale cemented Barrett's reputation as one of the world's top winemakers.
One recent Tuesday, as the grape harvest was beginning, Barrett strolled through a vineyard, picking fruit from the sunny and shady sides of the trellis, chewing on the grape skins. In her hand was a printout of grape-sugar levels that were tested overnight. "But you can't measure for flavor," she says. "There is no hint of any green flavor, all black and red fruit, blackberry and cherry flavors. I think we are real close, Friday, maybe."
Barrett, who has a degree in oenology from the University of California at Davis, has worked with winemakers in Australia and Germany. Today for the owners of Screaming Eagle, she makes just 500 cases a year; all are sold in advance to established customers. Resale price of a new bottle: $1,000 plus. She also makes Cabernet Sauvignon for Barbour and Showket Vineyards, among others. Her private label, La Sirena, sells for $125 a bottle.
As harvest time approaches each year, Barrett gets tense. "Screaming Eagle grapes are $4,500 a ton," she says, compared with $2,000 a ton for a typical Napa vineyard's. "You have got to get the harvest date correct. Then you're halfway there." Screaming Eagle is blended from six to eight lots of Cabernet Sauvignon. Smaller amounts of Merlot and Cabernet Franc are added. When the grapes are picked and crushed, Barrett must decide what kind of yeast to add and how long to leave the juice to ferment. She likes to work on her own, which is why she keeps her vintages small. After 18 months in oak barrels, the wine is blended before being bottled. "I do it with a taste test with a count of six," during which the different grape tastes should hit the drinker's palate. "I want all those stages, one through six, to be seamless and full." And Barrett usually gets what she wants.--T.M View all Amuse Bouche Wines
About Napa ValleyView a map of Napa Valley wineries
It's hard not to think of Napa Valley when thinking of California wines. The region is, after all, the one that brought world recognition to California wine making. The area was settled by a few choice wine families in the 1960's who bet that the wines of the area would grow and flourish. They were right. The Napa wine industry really took off in the 1980's, when vineyard lands were scooped up and vines were planted throughout the county. A number of wineries emerged, from large conglomerates to small boutiques to cult classics. Cabernet Sauvignon is definitely the grape of choice here, with many winemakers also focusing on Bordeaux Blends. Whites are usually Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.
Notable FactsWithin the Napa Valley lie smaller sub-AVAs that lend even more character specifics to the wines. Furthest south is Carneros, followed by Yountville, Oakville & Rutherford. Above those two is St.-Helena and finally, just grated an AVA, Calistoga. These areas are situated on the valley floor and are known for creating rich, smooth Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay. There are a few mountain regions as well, nestled on the slopes overlooking the valley AVAs. Those include Howell Mountain, Stags Leap and Mount Veeder. Wines from the mountain regions are often more structured and firm, benefiting from more time in the bottle to evolve and soften.
The most famous of the California wine regions is Napa Valley, and these wines are certainly outstanding – but it's not as broad and diverse as its larger neighbor, Sonoma County. Down south, Santa Barbara's Santa Maria Valley is well-known for its Rhône blends, as well as cool-climate varieties like Pinot and Chardonnay. The Central Coast, the largest California AVA, has many different microclimates that lead to a wide range of wines with many sub-AVAs.