Written by Mike Stepanovich
In a wine world that’s gone big—ultra-ripe fruit, high alcohol, instant gratification—Corison is a throwback to another era. Back in the 1980s and early ‘90s, California wine was all about refinement. A wine’s power didn’t come from the alcohol level, but from its structure, its balance, and harmony. Vintages such as 1987, 1991, and 1994 showed just how extraordinary California wines could be.
But then some winemakers got the idea from some critics that bigger was better, so they started harvesting their grapes at 27, 28, 29 degrees Brix (the measure of the grapes’ sugar level), and producing wines that, in some cases, topped 16 percent alcohol.
The world embraced big, but not Cathy. She continued harvesting her grapes at 24 to 25 degrees Brix and produced harmonious wines between 13 and 14 percent alcohol. Her wines are a complex symphony of flavors: a soothing andante, an expressive allegro, a soaring finale—all in the same glass.
My bet is that the wine pendulum will eventually swing back toward Cathy because people will realize there’s more to wine than just alcohol. And they’ll look for the things that Cathy is doing, the things that attracted her to wine in the first place.
“I love wine,” she said at a recent session of the Yosemite Vintners’ Holidays in Yosemite National Park. “I fell in love with it as a sophomore in college when I took a wine appreciation course. It’s delicious; it makes food taste terrific, and it’s a delight to share with friends.”
That class at Pomona College in Claremont changed her life. After graduating with a degree in biology, she packed her bags and headed for the University of California, Davis where she earned a master’s degree in enology.
She began her career at Freemark Abbey Winery, just north of St. Helena, in 1978. From there she went to Chappellet Winery in Napa Valley for 10 vintages as winemaker, then made the first two vintages at Staglin Family Vineyards. She also did 10 vintages each at York Creek Vineyards and at Long Meadow Ranch.
Her more than 30 years making wine in the Napa Valley gave her a clear understanding of its vineyards and soils. She came to two realizations:
• “I wanted to make wine on a world stage, and Napa Valley was one of the great places in the world to make wine.”
• “There was a wine inside me I wanted to make. My heart was in wines made from the Rutherford Bench, so I went there to look for grapes for my own wine.”
In 1987 she founded Corison Winery, located just south of St. Helena on the west side of Highway 29. It’s a true family winery: Cathy’s husband, William Martin, designed the building, keeps all the equipment humming, does the books and accounting, and keeps the computers up and running.
After years of making wines for others, Cathy, a cabernet specialist, now makes the wines she always envisioned. “It’s a wonderful, creative outlet to be an artisan winemaker,” she said. “A good wine can be made by committee, but a great wine can’t. A wine has a personality, heart, and soul. I want my wines to have power on one hand and elegance on the other.”
Three vineyards on the Rutherford Bench, that gentle slope of the western Napa Valley between St. Helena and Rutherford, help her achieve that.
“All three vineyards are on alluvial, well-drained soils,” she said. “They’re very gravelly. You can almost mine for gravel there.” Which is great for grape growing, because the sparse soils force the vines to go deep for water and nutrients. “It’s the best soil in the world for cabernet sauvignon.” Because the vines put all their effort into producing great fruit.
“You can’t make the wine any better than what comes in the door [at harvest],” she said. “You can’t turn bad tannins into good tannins. The tannins protect the wine by keeping oxidation slow, and they’re important for the texture of the wine.
“Wine has a life, even after bottling. It’s an extremely complex soup. At one level it’s alchemy, magic. That’s what makes it so special. It’s alive at every level. And it’s my job to make the vineyard speak.”
The vineyards don’t speak—at least not as well—when fruit gets too ripe.
“Bigger wines don’t age better,” she said. “They need stuffing, something there to age. They need acid and tannins.”
The vineyards do speak in Corison’s cabernets. Taste them and you taste a little of that magic she talked about. Her wines are soft, yet with a focused intensity that comes from the splendid acid structure. And that goes back to the soil.
“I purchased a small piece of that soil,” she said, when in 1996 she purchased the eight-acre Kronos Vineyard. “It’s the last old cabernet sauvignon vineyard in the Napa Valley. It’s on St. George rootstock, so it didn’t need to be replanted” as a result of the phyloxera scourge that ravaged Napa Valley in the 1980s and ‘90s.
The Kronos Vineyard, nearing 40 years old, is Corison’s flagship vineyard, and Cathy makes a vineyard-designated wine from its sparse fruit. “The vines are old, and their roots are deep,” she said. As a result “they handle heat spells better.” The spacing is old, about 600 vines to the acre, and it only yields about a ton to the acre.
Cathy, who prefers being known as a winegrower, farms the vineyard organically. “I try to keep the soils alive. I don’t spray [insecticides], and I use cover crops,” she said. Cover crops are plants that host beneficial insects and that add organic matter to the soils. “When I first farmed it, the vineyard was low in nitrogen, so I added organic fertilizer. Now I don’t have to add fertilizer.”
Her wines are always a treat. A recent tasting of her various vintages showed Corison’s wines age gracefully with charm and appeal. Her first wine, the 1987 Napa, is still gorgeous. And the rest, as far as I can tell, are still ascending. Among them:
1996 Napa—a long, cool ripening season with perfect weather allowed the fruit to mature slowly and evenly. The result is a wine of harmony and character.
1998 Kronos—a challenging vintage that began a month late, was cool during the growing season, and was picked late, in October and November. I call this California’s Bordeaux vintage: the wines are tight, but with good flavors and will reward the patient collector.
2000 Napa and Kronos—another long season (“A perfect growing season,” Cathy says)—led to impeccable wines. These are soft, elegant, flavorful wines that will enhance any meal.
2002 Napa—Delicious, deep, with intense berry flavors that expand as the wine breathes.
“I’m on a mission to keep the ‘table’ in table wine,” she said. “It’s an important part of gracious living.”
You can visit the winery either on-line at www.corison.com, or call (707) 963-0826 to make an appointment. The winery is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, and visitors with an appointment are always welcome.
Article appeared in our 26-6 Issue - February 2010