Its hard as hell to make a wine, a Napa Cabernet no less, that can stand out amongst the storied bottles in one of the world’s most storied regions. But I have a story for that. And who doesn’t love a good story? Especially when it’s a love story. And the story of C.Elizabeth Winery is a passion project, one of the best types of love stories. A love of family, a love of wine, a love of Napa. And a story that took almost 15 years to be realized.
The love of family and the desire to create something first and foremost for themselves (they both previously worked for large beverage brands), but that could become generational is what drove Napa-based Christi and Dave Ficeli to create their wine brand C.Elizabeth. The name “C.Elizabeth” comes from four generations of “Elizabeths” on Christi’s side of the family. Each ‘Elizabeth’ shares traits of strength, confidence, grace, passion, and each “marches to the beat of their own drum,” shares Christi. The couple couldn’t imagine crafting anything other than a premium Cabernet Sauvignon with its power, grace, complexity, and longevity. They envisioned a “big bold beautiful Cabernet for the big bold beautiful women in my life,” says Christi. Searching vineyards from California’s central coast up to Washington State, they spent years looking for the perfect spot to grow their fruit. But wouldn’t you know it that home, in Napa where their search actually began, is where lighting would strike.
From the moment they saw the vineyard, they knew it would be the place that would help them create the style of Cabernet Sauvignon that they wanted. The Game Farm Vineyard is nestled in the heart of Oakville in Napa Valley and is comprised of two distinct blocks. The southern half of the vineyard, known as the “Rock Pit” block, is so named due to its rocky vineyards that are reminiscent of the galets in France’s Châteauneuf-du-Pape. And what a site it is. “I would look over the creek and try to avoid all the rattlesnakes and see these cabernet vines growing out of rocks. And I was like ‘man, that looks like a crazy place to have a vineyard,” muses veteran Napa Valley winemaker Bill Nancarrow. “But I always thought cabernet from here would be really interesting. Game Farm was really a place that intrigued me.” The northern half of the vineyard, the “Trailside” block is also somewhat rocky but stands out more for its red loam topsoil which enhances the texture of the grapes. Both blocks are home to mature vines with stressed roots which translates to intense, concentrated and expressive wines.
So how do you make a relatively new Cabernet Sauvignon that stands out from the crowd? First, you make a wine that you truly love and that brings you joy. After that, you hope others that you love and beyond will appreciate it as much as you do. After all, as Dave says, “what’s more genuine than doing something that you like?”
And what they found was that they liked American oak – far from the norm in Napa Valley. The couple spent years traveling and tasting while trying to nail down their vision of a “perfect for them wine.” During that time, particular traits from several Australian and California cabernets started to emerge and stand out. “One thing, and it did somewhat surprise us, that really rose to the top was certain wines had this nuance that we couldn’t quite describe,” recalls Dave. “This spice, this flavor, this essence and when it came down to it, it was American oak.” But it wasn’t all American oak wines, it was specific wines, notably wines like Penfolds 707 and Ridge Monte Bello.
As a result, C.Elizabeth is crafted using only select American oak. And this was part of the vision of Christi and Dave from the beginning to help them to achieve a specific, richer palate expression. “Initially, when Christi and Dave said they wanted to use American oak only, it kind of threw me a little bit. But after a little bit of thought, I thought this was really cool because they weren’t looking to replicate anything else,” says Nancarrow. While there were characteristics of other American oak wines that they liked, they were looking to make something distinctly their own.
The rigorous barrel program at C.Elizabeth is just as important a part of the winemaking process as the superlative fruit from the Game Farm vineyard. Multiple trials with different barrels over the years have helped them zero in on a few select coopergaes and regions within Pennsylvania and Missouri. The Pennsylvania cooperage goes the extra mile to meet Christi and Dave’s exacting standards creating specific, small pore American oak barrels with water bent staves. This helps provide the textural elements and flavor profile that they’re after.
OK, so I’ll admit that when I read that the C.Elizabeth wines were made with 100% American oak, I was somewhat skeptical. When it comes to Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, the conventional wisdom (with a couple of exceptions) is that French oak rules. Far from being an oak expert, I’ve learned that French oak, which is less dense, leads to more subtle, savory, elegant wines with silky tannins while American oak, which is more dense, provides more pronounced flavors and leads to wines that have sweeter fruit, vanilla, and spice characteristics. But a trained winemaker with a deft hand, can wield the oak so that it doesn’t take over. To be sure, American oak has come a long way and producers the likes of Ridge, Peter Michael, and Silver Oak have made wonderful wines with it. It’s the proper treatment of the oak that has been a game changer.
So far there have been four vintages of the amazing C.Elizabeth wines – from the inaugural 2104 bottling to the 2017 vintage released earlier this year. Every detail from vineyard to bottling to aging is painstakingly thought out. Those meticulous details are certainly reflected in the bottle. These are specialized boutique wines (only a couple hundred cases a year) that command a higher price tag. The most recent vintages are $150 a bottle. So while not an everyday wine for many, these wines make a nice addition to any cellar as well as allow a tasty way to toast a special occasion.
*Cover Image Courtesy of C.Elizabeth Winery