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Cathy Corison: The Female Clark Kent of Napa Cabernet

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Napa Valley's Cathy Corison of Corison Winery. One of the great producers of classic California Cabernet and a constant reminder of the potential of the Valley. [Source: <a href="http://wannabewino.com/" rel="nofollow">Wannabe Wino</a>]
Napa Valley's Cathy Corison of Corison Winery. One of the great producers of classic California Cabernet and a constant reminder of the potential of the Valley. [Source: Wannabe Wino]

Welcome to Vintage America, our column on the history — and future — of American wine. Every week Talia Baiocchi, author of the Decanted column on Eater NY, will take a look at winemaking from Virginia to Texas to California, to uncover the people, events, and trends that have made America one of the most dynamic countries in the world of wine.

Over the next few weeks we'll take a look at classic Napa Valley Cabernet via the people who still make it, and the places where it grew up—from the valley floor to the mountain appellations. Today: Cathy Corison.

Cathy Corison wears a gray bob cut and barely tops five feet tall. She has a storyteller's tone and a quiet wisdom that makes you wish she were your mom—even if you already have a perfectly good one. But there's also a toughness about Corison, the kind that prompts one to wonder whether or not she's harboring the superhuman strength to break you in half—like a female Clark Kent of California Cabernet.

But she's not an extraterrestrial. Her strength is matter of confidence—the sort that comes with tireless conviction, or "stubbornness," as she'd call it. The result of decades of sticking to one's guns and creating wines of integrity, even if it meant lower critical scores. She picks her fruit early, keeps alcohol levels low, and embraces Cabernet's more feminine side. For this, in the eyes of modern Napa, she may be something of an antagonist, but for those who crave elegant, terroir-driven wines, she is one of The Valley's great heroines.

Cracking The Glass Ceiling

Cathy Corison first fell in love with the "living microbiology" of wine as an undergraduate at Pomona College. During her years there she was also a gymnast and earned a letter in men's diving because, at the time, women did not have a varsity team (a little foreshadowing of her future role as lone woman in the boys club that was the Napa Valley of the 1970s). She went on to pursue her Masters in Enology at the University of California, Davis.

While working on her thesis she landed a job as a harvest intern at Napa Valley's Freemark Abbey. When Corison arrived there, in 1978, only a few other women had made a name for themselves in the state's cellars—notably Merry Edwards who worked as winemaker at Mount Eden in the Santa Cruz Mountains in the early 70s, and Zelma Long who was Mondavi's chief oenologist at the time. Women were still an endangered species in American winemaking and the men who dominated the field weren't exactly keen on making their boys club unisex. But Corison gladly took her pick to the glass ceiling.

Napa Valley Fame

In 1980, she took a job as winemaker at Chappellet Vineyards. She would go on to hold this post for ten years, winning the winery recognition during a time when Valley Cabernet came stock with alcohol levels that rarely pierced 14%, and flavor profiles that embraced the more sensitive believed to side of the grape. She honed her skills here and would, over the years, act as a consulting winemaker at a number of other notable estates including York Creek, Long Meadow Ranch, and Staglin Family. But, as Corison will attest, by the mid 80s there was still a great wine inside of her that she had yet to make.

So, she set out to find fruit and launch her own eponymous label. In 1987 her first Corison Cabernet Sauvignon was released, made with grapes sourced from the western side of the Napa Valley. Eight years later, in 1995, after 8 very successful vintages of her namesake Cabernet, Corison purchased a piece of property on a not-so-modest block of Highway 29. Despite its fortunate location the property--complete with a condemned barn and an 8-acre Cabernet vineyard that was believed to be planted on bum rootstock--was a relative steal. Corison purchased the property with the belief that the Cabernet vineyard behind the condemned barn, would have to be torn up and replanted.

But in a twist of fate, shortly after Corison and her husband committed to the land, they found out the rootstock was St. George, a species that is actually immune to phylloxera.

Between Heaven and Earth

Corison named the vineyard Kronos—after the Greek god and son of heaven and earth—and now sources her top Cabernet, aptly named "Kronos," from this site. It's a remarkable wine that has the ability to balance power and structure with nuance; it has a marked violet and herbal aroma and a distinct mineral component not typically prominent in California Cabernet. It rides that elusive dotted line between power and elegance, the kind of wine that makes one daydream about the untapped potential of the Napa Valley.

Corison makes one other Cabernet in addition to Kronos, now sourced from vineyards near the border of Rutherford and St. Helena. Though these wines see the same winemaking regime their flavor profiles are quite dissimilar, a reflection of the striking differences in terroir that Corison has been able to coax out of her sites.

What the two wines share in common is their ability to maintain consistency while reflecting the particulars of a vintage. In an age of Napa winemaking where winemakers strive to make a product that drinks the same whether it rains or bakes, Corison finds a way to celebrate the humanity--heartbreak and all--in wine's capriciousness.

Disneyland For Adults

I've asked her what it's like to be in a place where the prevailing wine culture that's at odds with her own. She always says she came to the Napa Valley to make Cabernet, and now the only reason she stays in Napa Valley is to make Cabernet. A tactful hint at her dislike for the Napa of today—with its limousines filled with intoxicated middle-aged women in printed t-shirts that say things like "40 Isn't Usually This Sexy."

But thankfully, she's still there. At a time when things look like they could be turning around for Cabernet—with what seems like a new interest in restraint and terroir over ripeness and monotony—the Napa Valley's going to need its heroine.

Find Corison wines here and here.

-Talia Baiocchi

Talia Baiocchi is the former editor of WineChap in the U.S. and a contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle, among others. In her previous life she was a dressage trainer for unicorns and her mother still thinks she'd make a great lawyer. Find her on Twitter at @TaliaBaiocchi.

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