Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk
December 10, 2009
Despite F. Scott Fitzgerald’s oft quoted pronouncement that there are no second acts in American life, I was struck, while tasting a superb 2005 Harris Estate Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon with Mike and Treva Harris, how their wine may well be a living tribute to second acts.
First, about the wines.
Harris Family Estates produces three single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon wines from three tiny parcels in different parts of their 48-acre property in the Franz Valley not far from Calistoga, Calif. Only seven acres of the property are planted to grapes, originally selected for the terroir by renowned winemaker Paul Hobbs just a decade ago.
But the vineyards, Jakes Creek, Treva’s and Lakeside, all host unique soils, weather and solar declination so that each produces fruit that is distinct from the others.
Since their first release in 2002 the Harrises have received rave reviews and their wines have sold out, mostly to those on their private allocation list (see harrisestatevineyards.com). I tasted a number of wines at the Estate with Mike and Treva and was impressed with the common richness, concentration and structure of the wines. But beyond that I was also taken by the contrasts in the wines, considering the close proximity of the vineyards.
The Jakes Creek wines tasted of earth and had a touch of pepper. There was a spiciness that made me want to pair it with a hot, sweet, chili-infused chocolate. Treva’s wines were elegant, and fruity with a good pucker on the finish, thanks to the tannins. And Lakeview featured the flavors of dark fruit, blackberries, plums and still had a touch of wet dirt, a good thing for my palate.
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One property, three vineyards and three very different wines. Had I been at a blind tasting the surprise at the end would have been that that they all shared a common heritage. All of these wines are tasty today, but given time, a decade or even more, they should mature into wines that will provide the patient consumer with prodigious rewards.
Now about that second-act thing. As good as the Harris Estate Vineyards wines were, I was perhaps more intrigued by the tale of how they came to be.
Begin with the property. Set in a rugged and hilly valley, the Estate is one half of a 100-acre parcel that served as home to a boys school for close to 50 years. In the mid-1990s, Mike Grgich of Grgich Hills opened the door for the property’s second act when he bought 52 acres and planted Merlot.
In 1997 Mike Harris, then a pediatric dentist in suburban San Francisco, and his wife Treva began looking on the Internet for property to purchase in the Napa Valley. They enjoyed wine and Mike had collected some Napa Cabs in the past, but growing grapes, much less opening a wine estate, was the farthest thing from their minds.
But the bug bit both of them after they bought the remaining portion of the old boarding school. They hired iconic wine country architect Howard Bracken to build them a home, contracted with Paul Hobbs to plant their grapes and voila, good-bye dentistry. In 2005 Mike quit and they went full-bore into the wine business.
But it doesn’t end there. Their winemaker, Thomas Brown, left a position as assistant to Syrah and Pinot Noir specialist Ehren Jordan to get into the world of Cabernet and today massages the Harris fruit into wine. General Manager Kathy Simpson left the first chapter of her professional life in Silicon Valley to move to Napa and take pastry classes at the Culinary Institute of America. The result? A position in the kitchen at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry. Now she runs the day-to-day operations of what has become a “cult” winery.
The point is that the Harrises, and those they make magic with today, subscribe to the idea that there is a life to live after you’ve stopped living the life you had. A second act, if you will.
When I arrived at Harris Estate for my tasting I was greeted by Mike, who was flanked by a beautiful and bold black lab. The dog’s name was Jake, Mike told me. “After the vineyard?” I asked later, as I high-fived Jake’s outstretched paw following the tasting. “No,” Mike explained, “we named the original vineyard after our first Jake. This is the second Jake. It’s his now.”
At Harris Estates even dogs get second acts.