WineInk: Plump it Up

Grenache Wine Grapes
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The PlumpJack Group’s California Hotels

NAPA VALLEY: The Carneros Inn; The Orchard

SQUAW VALLEY: The PlumpJack Squaw; Valley Inn


The PlumpJack Group’s Restaurants

SAN FRANCISCO: Balboa Cafe; MatrixFillmore

NAPA VALLEY: The Boon Fly Café; Farm; Market

SQUAW VALLEY: PlumpJack Cafe

MILL VALLEY: Balboa Cafe


The PlumpJack Group’s Napa Wineries



Odette Estate

“Want to try something good?” It was a question John Conover, general manager of the PlumpJack Group’s Napa Valley wineries, has asked a number of times in the past. I knew enough to answer in the affirmative.

As we stood, surrounded by French oak barrels in the freshly excavated cave below the recently christened Odette Estate winery, I nodded and offered a glass to Jeff Owens, the young winemaker in charge at this, PlumpJack’s third Napa winery. He extracted some juice from the barrel and said with understatement as he released it into my glass, “Here’s the 2012 Reserve Cab; we think it’s tasting pretty good.”

The wine, still months from release, was extraordinary. The fruit, from a vintage which may well be the one “they” talk about years after I am gone, was filled with the flavors of cherries, black currants and a touch of earth. But what made it so compelling was the way it felt in the mouth. Powerful yet silky; smooth, but with evolving tannins complementing rather than obscuring the experience. All this from a first release wine in its literal infancy.

Clearly the next phase of PlumpJack’s wine adventure, built on a solid triangle of outstanding terroir, a great young winemaker and a state- of-the-art, LEED-certified winery, has the potential to become one of this century’s epic Napa properties.

Conover first offered me a taste of “something good” back in 2003 at the tasting room of the PlumpJack Estate on Napa’s Oakville Cross. I had come to learn more about a blasphemous experiment he had undertaken when he bottled half of the 1997 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon under Stelvin closures — better known as screwcaps.

Conover had wanted to test his theory that the closures would be as efficient as cork in aging the wines and, more important, not subject the wine to cork-taint or TCA. In typical Conover fashion, he charged an extra $10 per bottle for those with the Stelvins.

“What other industry would allow a significant percentage of their product to be unusable because of a tradition?” he asked then. Of course, the Stelvin bottles became collector items and today, when each is opened, they are examined and considered with a scrutiny that simply does not accrue to other wines of the same vintage. Genius. It was the major boost to the screwcap movement in America and simply a bold thing to do.

A few years later Conover again suggested we taste “something good.” This time the offer was proffered high on Howell Mountain on the site of Cade, PlumpJack’s ground-breaking LEED- certified, organically farmed, mountain winery. The wine this time was a crisp, clean, green, estate-grown Sauvignon Blanc that was as true to the varietal as the Cabernet that I had tasted years earlier.

In both cases, the experience demonstrated a commitment to not only produce great wines, but also a desire to push the boundaries of what is considered convention, to innovate and improve the product, the process and the experience.

And now, the third act: Odette Estate is the next jewel in the PlumpJack Group’s Napa portfolio. “We have a valley floor property at PlumpJack, our mountain property at Cade and now we are very pleased to be able to work with estate- grown fruit on a Stag’s Leap District property. We are very fortunate.” Again understatement.

The winery sits adjacent to the Silverado Trail in a pocket of vineyards that first received international recognition when Warren Winiarski’s Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon won the Paris Tasting in 1976. In fact, Odette sits in the virtual shadow of Winiarski’s mountaintop home.

“We view this as a more feminine undertaking,” says Conover, as he walked us around the property. “The wines here will be a little more elegant, a little more rounded and graceful.”

The name Odette is, in part, an ode to a woman, Odette Kahn, who was one of the judges at the 1976 Paris Tasting. She was so outraged that the California wines triumphed that she demanded her ballot be returned.

Thirty-six acres are planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, Tintoria and a touch of Pinotage. An old farm building has been repurposed, morphing into a “modern California” tasting room. Architect Juancarlos Fernandez, who designed the Cade winery, has designed another functional space for the winemaking operations that employs recycled materials — including old shipping containers — to create a contemporary winery set into the California hillside. The vibe is pure PlumpJack. Casual but serious, comfortable but efficient.

The PlumpJack Group started in 1992 with a single wine shop in San Francisco opened by Gavin Newsome (yes, the former mayor of San Fran) and his investor Gordon Getty (yes, of those Gettys). Over the last two decades it has grown to include a collection of more than a dozen of California’s most attractive hospitality properties including restaurants, hotels and, of course, wineries.

Now, with the team assembled by John Conover and led by Jeff Owens, Odette Estate is once again fulfilling the promise of providing a great customer experience.

“Want to try something good?”

Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and a black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at