WineInk: Rockin’ in the Wine World
Cliff Lede’s “Rock Blocks” deliver an experience
Are you experienced?
While that Jimi Hendrix song is not the name of one of the Cliff Lede Vineyards “Rock Blocks” it well could be. Perhaps it should be.
“We are all about providing guests who come to Napa an unforgettable experience that includes not just our wines, but great food, music, architecture and art in a beautiful setting,” said Jason Lede, the winery’s hospitality manager and the founder’s son.
As he spoke, he was flanked by a pair of burnished bronze hearts, created by acclaimed artist Jim Dine, in the tasting garden of the eponymous Lede winery. The piece, titled “Twin 6′ Hearts,” are reminders of both the love of art and the passion for the good life that are pillars of the Cliff Lede Vineyards projects in the Napa and Anderson Valley regions of California. It is just one of the many museum-quality pieces on the property.
Founded in 2002, Cliff Lede Vineyards is a distinctly modern 21st century winery. Over the past 19 years since Canadian construction mogul Cliff Lede (pronounced lay-dee) purchased a coveted 60-acre property on the corner of the Silverado Trail and the Yountville Cross in the Stags Leap District of Napa Valley, the focus has been on the production of world-class wines and experiences. Little expense has been spared to achieve those goals and, just two decades in, the proof of concept resides in the bottles of Cliff Lede Vineyards Bordeaux–inspired wines from Napa and the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines produced under the FEL label from the cooler climate Anderson Valley.
The experiential refrain is also on exhibit above the Napa Valley floor at what may be the crown jewel of the Lede holdings: the ultra-luxe Poetry Inn.
Perched on a hillside with commanding views of the entire Stags Leap District, the five-room property has the feel of a warm and inviting elegant home. Breakfast on the patio, watching the shadows disappear across the rows of vines below as the hot air balloons float in the distance is unforgettable. Designed by wine country’s most revered architect, Howard Backen, the property feels simultaneously expansive and as comfortable as a cozy treehouse. Currently, the rooms in the Inn — which are, of course, all named for poets (I recommend the e.e. cummings suite) — are receiving an update from Erin Martin, a noted Napa Valley interior designer who promises to “turn it up to eleven.”
BLOCKS AND ROCK
But before we get much further, what the hell is a “Rock Block”? Well, to help organize vineyards and grapes, wineries designate specific “blocks” of vines. A block may signify a single variety of grape or a unique type of soil or a topographic feature. It basically is a way to partition a vineyard. Most wineries use a numerical system, and sometimes wines are produced from individual blocks with a number. In Australia, Penfolds Block 42 Kalimna Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, is made from grapes that grow in the Kalimna vineyard’s Block 42.
But Lede, who has a love of classic rock ‘n’ roll, was a bit more clever. The overall vineyard property is named Twin Peaks, but rather than designate the blocks numerically he decided to identify them with the names of the classic rock songs that have inspired and informed his life. So now, as one walks the Twin Peaks Vineyard, the signs on the wooden posts at the end of the vine rows read “Pinball Wizard,” “Ziggy Stardust,” “Stairway to Heaven” and other assorted classics from bands like The Rolling Stones, Queen, Humble Pie and yes, Yes (“Roundabout”).
“Cliff brings a freshness and creativity to the valley,” said Tony Baldini, president and chief operating officer of the company, about his boss. Baldini spoke as we stood in the middle of the vineyards (between “Rocket Man” and “Dark Side of the Moon”) on a crystal-clear summer morning before tasting a selection of recent releases. “I think we want people to really enjoy their experience (there’s that word again) when they come visit the Napa Valley. What Cliff does is make things fun and understandable.”
Indeed, in keeping with the theme, a blend of two blocks of Rock Block wines is produced for Lede wine club members each year. The most recent release, from the 2018 vintage, is a “mash-up” of fruit grown in the “Magic Bus” block of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot sourced from the block named for the Moody Blues classic “Nights in White Satin.” The name of the wine? “Magic Nights.”
It sells for $110 a bottle and you can bet that all 2,180 cases will sell out to afficionados of the Lede wine who love both The Who and the Magnificent Moodies. Oh, and to accompany said wines, Jason Lede has put together a 46-song Spotify playlist for those who wish to listen as they sip. To date, the Jimi Hendrix “Are You Experienced” cut from the album of the same name has yet to make the Lede play list. But one can hope.
The rock ‘n’ roll themes extend to an art gallery/tasting room off the gardens that is titled the Backstage Tasting Lounge. In the spring of 2019, Bernie Taupin, the lyricist for Elton John’s catalog of hits, debuted new artwork in the gallery. And today those who book into the room for a tasting can do so surrounded by impressive works created by Grace Slick of the Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship. As the writer of the epic “White Rabbit,” Slick, appropriately, has painted several rabbit themed pieces. When sitting below a White Rabbit with a glass of say, the 2018 Lede “Poetry” Cabernet Sauvignon in hand, it is easy to “Remember what the dormouse said: feed your head.”
LEDE AND FEL WINES
But don’t think this whimsy overpowers the headline act of the Lede wines. After acquiring the vineyard property at the beginning of this century Lede turned to accomplished vineyard architect David Abreu to plan and plant the vineyards in Stags Leap to five red Bordeaux varieties with a smattering of Sauvignon Blanc. Today, under the tutelage of Christopher Tynan, director of winemaking for the Cliff Lede and Poetry wines, estate wines led by Cabernet Sauvignon are showing the elegance and complexity of what the Stag’s Leap District can offer.
Lede followed his Bordeaux project with one focusing on the Burgundy grapes of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the Anderson Valley. He named the project FEL, a tribute to his mother, Florence Elsie Lede, who inspired his initial love of wine. FEL is anchored by one of the premier vineyards in the region, the Savoy Vineyard, and the wines produced by winemaker Ryan Hodgins, just a decade into the process, are outstanding. I wrote in an earlier column that they are “neither Burgundian nor typically Californian in style,” meaning that both varieties under the FEL label
provide a taste of both worlds. The raw emotion and flavor of the forested Pacific Coast and the elegance of the motherland in France.
They are, if you will, wines that need to be experienced.
2019 FEL Savoy Vineyard Chardonnay
Ryan Hodgins, the FEL winemaker, has worked with the Savoy Vineyard since 2011 and now, a decade in, has a true feel and understanding for the blocks in this special site. “We are in the ‘Deep End’ of the Anderson Valley,” is how Ryan explained it. “The warmest of the coldest section.” The Chardonnay that Ryan makes here has a silky-smooth feel in the mouth. There is a toasty, nuttiness to the wine that mingles with the tropical melons and honey notes that coat the palate. If the FEL and Lede wines were albums, I’d choose this wine for the hit single.
The Staggs Leap Estate, Poetry Inn and FEL vineyards tasting room in Yountville all offer a variety of tasting and hospitality experiences.
Go the website and click visit.
Cliff Lede Vineyards
1473 Yountville Cross Road, Yountville, California