Robert Parker has said, “When the history of Napa’s great vineyards is written, the 40-acre Spottswoode grand cru vineyards will be counted among the finest grand vineyards in the region.”
For those too young to remember or even care about today’s wine ratings, Robert Parker is considered the world’s foremost wine critic. He is credited with introducing grading wines on a numeric 100 point scale, and he has been generous in awarding high scores to Spottswoode’s estate cabernets.
Parker’s reference to Spottswoode’s vineyards being grand cru is a high compliment. This terminology usually refers to top prestigious vineyards of Bordeaux and Burgundy.
Spottswoode is not a brand likely found on the shelves of your local Sam’s Club. Spottswoode is a family-owned, small-production operation. Their highly rated wines often sell out to those on their allocation list. What remains goes to top-notch restaurants and high-end wine stores.
Though Spottswoode is a family-owned winery, Spottswoode is not the family name. The original parcel on which the winery is situated was acquired in 1882 by a German immigrant, George Schonewald, who planted vines and erected a Victorian Queen Anne-style mansion, which remains on the property today.
The property went through several subsequent owners and name changes. In 1910, a widow, Mrs. Albert Spotts, bought the property and renamed it Spottswoode.
The Spotts family managed to hold onto the property during Prohibition by supplying grapes to those allegedly making wines for church sacrament and also by farming frogs for frog legs, considered a delicacy in San Francisco’s top restaurants.
After the end of Prohibition and the death of Mrs. Spotts, the estate was left to her niece but fell into disrepair. In 1972, it was rescued by Jack Novak and his wife, Mary. The Novaks were looking for a place to escape Los Angeles to raise their five children.
The Novaks tore out old disease-prone vineyards and replanted vines on disease-resistant rootstock. Tragically, in 1977, Jack Novak died unexpectedly at age 44. Mary stayed the course, first selling her fruit to some of California’s top producers.
In 1982, Mary officially founded Spottswoode Winery. Two of her daughters would later join her in the family business.
Mary hired Tony Soter as her first winemaker, and he served in that capacity from 1982-97. Mary and Tony collaborated to adapt organic farming practices, putting into place these practices in 1985 and receiving the official California Certified Organic Farmer certification in 1992.
Mary died in 2016, knowing her children would continue her legacy. She left a prosperous winery known for its critically acclaimed, much-in-demand wines.
A couple of weeks back, I had the privilege of tasting three vintages, 1997-99, of Spottswoode estate cabernet, all ranked in the 90s by Parker. The tasting was thanks to the largesse of a dear friend who is a Spotti, one who holds a hallowed spot on Spottswoode’s allocation list, along with membership in the Spott On Club and the designation of Top Spott. That’s a lot of spotts, but it is worth the spotts to have the enviable pleasure of enjoying these wines.
I am always dubious about tasting older California cabernets, often finding they do not hold up well over the long haul. It should be noted that all these wines were in magnum bottles, the equivalent of two standard bottles.
They had aged exceptionally well. There is a school of thought in the wine world that magnums age more gracefully than standard-size wine bottles. That was certainly the case with these wines.
They were vibrant with no hint of mustiness or discoloration to rustiness, traits sometimes found in older wines. The nose was vibrant with an explosion of dark fruit aromas. The color was dark ruby.
On the palate, rich dark berry fruits blended perfectly with tannins into a well balanced wine. There was remarkable consistency across three vintages.
Cult wines like Spottswoode are not inexpensive. The most current release in a standard 750 ml bottle will set you back about $225. Magnums would be at least double that amount.
My advice for those interested in trying Spottswoode is to befriend a Spotti. Should that fail, complete an application to become a Spotti.
Pat Kettles writes about food, wine and spirits every other Wednesday. Contact her at email@example.com.