Aspen Times Weekly WineInk: Ringing my Bell
BELL WINE CELLARS
To buy the wines of Bell or to join their wine club you can find them here:
6200 Washington Street
Yountville CA 94599
Tasting Room Direct Line: 707-944-1564
“Close your eyes” was the admonition from Sandra Hewitt Bell as she hovered behind me, a glass in each hand. “Tell me what you smell.” I was suddenly wrapped in the aromas of fresh pears. Then, just as suddenly, the sensation changed and the smell of coconuts filled my nostrils.
Not only did the fragrances stimulate the senses, but Sandra’s sensory seminar had reiterated that a world of beauty can be found in a glass of wine if you simply put your nose to it. One by one I inhaled the smells from the dozen or so glasses that had been set before me. Each had been filled with a product that represented the components of what makes up the aromas of a wine. There were blackberries in one, raspberries in another. A handful of dirt and mushrooms in still another. There was even one filled with Jolly Rancher candies. The vivid smells made it much easier to identify the same aromas when it came to sniffing a glass of wine.
I had come to Bell Wine Cellars for the final event of a media week in Yountville, Calif., a wine town at the southern end of the Napa Valley that serves as a gateway to wine country and is a culinary capital as well. All week long I had been with a group of journalists, exploring the great restaurants of the town’s mile-long main drag (Four Michelin stars hang in the small community) and tasting great wines. But this morning at Bell was our first foray of the trip into an actual winery with the attendant tanks, barrels and other winemaking equipment.
While I consider myself to be more than fairly familiar with the wineries of the Napa Valley, I had never heard of Bell before. So when we traveled just a mile or so south of Yountville on Washington Street and turned into the winery, I was unprepared for what awaited — a gorgeous winery, a great visiting/tasting experience and a winemaker with both a pedigree and a passion. So much so that it made me happy to realize that if you look a little deeper there are still people and stories to find in a Valley where things sometimes seem a little jaded. Silly me.
The winemaker is Anthony Bell, a South African by birth, who was raised in a prominent wine family in Stellenbosch, perhaps the most beautiful wine region on earth. As he youth he studied viticulture and made wine in both Spain and Bordeaux before coming to California to attain a Master’s in Enology at UC Davis in the late 1970s. He matriculated to Napa thereafter and has never left. Anthony began working under the tutelage of the legendary André Tchelistcheff at Beaulieu Vineyards, or BV, which, at the time, was considered to be the epitome of a California Cabernet house. This would be the wine equivalent of being an assistant coach for Vince Lombardi.
In the early 1980s, Anthony was intrigued with the plethora of possibilities that the Napa Valley afforded for producing great Cabernet. Remember, at that time, Napa was still in its relative youth as a grape growing region and experimentation was critical to learning what would grow well. Against that backdrop, Anthony undertook a project to plant 14 separate clones of Cabernet Sauvignon on one vineyard at BV.
A clone is the plant material of a specific grapevine that has its own unique and identifiable characteristics. The clone will influence, amongst many other things, the size of the grapes or crops it produces, the period it takes to ripen fruit, or its ability to resist disease. Clones are the backbone of any wine.
One of these 14 plantings was from a vine Anthony had found in the Sierra foothills in a vineyard long abandoned. The clone was originally from Bordeaux and had arrived in California with settlers around the time of the California Gold Rush in the 1840s and 1850s. As the grapes grew from this clone, it did not look to be the best in show. The berries were small and the clusters less than vibrant. Ah, but the wine was magnificent. Anthony had found the clone he was looking for.
This clone, dubbed Clone 6, was grafted onto 10 acres of vines in nearby Rutherford and it has become legendary in the Valley. It is also the basis for some of Bell Wine Cellars best wines including the 20th anniversary edition of their Clone 6 Cabernet Sauvignon that was sourced from the magnificent 2010 vintage.
All of this is important because it is indicative of the intensity and focus that Anthony Bell puts into his bottlings. A walk through the cellar or a glance at a Bell Wine Cellars label causes one to consider that Anthony is not only a great winemaker, but a man obsessed with details. Pick date, brix (sugar) levels, oak regimen, case production and more are all depicted on each bottle produced.
Anthony has been on the lovely vineyard south of Yountville since 1991, but a partnership between the Bells and members of two prominent California families in 2002 (one being the Spanos, who are best know as the owners of the San Diego Chargers) helped take things to another level. Today Bell Wine Cellars boasts one of the most accommodating winery and visitor centers in the entire Valley. A magnificent stone edifice opens to a welcoming tasting room and a patio, anchored by a pizza oven, that spills out into the vineyards.
While the Clone 6 Cabernet is the centerpiece of the showcase wines from Bell, some Bell lovers prefer a wine called “Big Guy Red.” Sure, the juice in this big BBQ-style wine is great, a blend led by lush Syrah from the Canterbury Vineyard in the Sierra Foothills that is supported by four other grapes grown in the Napa Valley. But the real attraction of the wine for many may be the image that graces the label.
The “Big Guy” is named for the Bell’s late, great, Soft-Coated Wheaton Terrier, Ty, who left the winery a couple of years back after eight solid vintages as the vineyard dog. While Ty has gone on to a first-growth Chateau in the sky, he lives on, not just on the labels of the 3,000 or so cases that sell for $16 a bottle, but in the wine that bears his name as well. Beloved by all who knew him and those who visited the winery, Anthony and Sandra continue to include Ty’s image in current staff photos. Ah, the wonders of photo shop.
Not quite a clone, but still a valued member of the Bell Cellars team.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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