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Mayacamas: The Mountains and Their Namesake Winery

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Mayacamas vineyards. [source: Mayacamas]
Mayacamas vineyards. [source: Mayacamas]

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: Mayacamas.

The Mayacamas Mountain Range rises along the west side of the Napa Valley, acting as a badly drawn divider between the Sonoma and Napa Valleys. Spring Mountain Road—which winds through one of three AVAs (American Viticultural Area) that make up this range—is an ancient Wappo Indian route which was used as a pass between the two valleys centuries ago. Today these winding back roads—still littered with obsidian arrowheads and other native contraband—ensure that Hummer limos and weak stomachs do not reach the wineries that are tucked into its folds.

Despite the gauntlet one must pass in order to reach these vineyard sites—even today with paved roads and a guardrail or two—winemaking in the Mayacamas Mountains dates back to the 1860s.

Mount Veeder, the most southerly of 3 AVAs in the range (the Diamond Mountain AVA lies at far north and the Spring Mountain AVA is sandwiched in between) is also its dustiest. In 1864, Captain Stalham Wing entered the first documented Mount Veeder bottling into the Napa County Fair. Just 5 years later, in 1889, Mount Veeder's first commercial winery was established by John Henry Fisher, a San Francisco pickle merchant. It would go one to become one of Napa's most iconic.

Bootlegger's Paradise

Fisher would eventually declare bankruptcy around the turn of the century, and the winery fell into disrepair upon which, as rumor has it, the old stone cellar became a bootlegger's distillery during Prohibition.

In 1941 Jack and Mary Taylor bought the land, turned the old stone distillery into their home, and named the winery Mayacamas Vineyards. From the 1950s on through Napa's defining 1960s, Mayacamas would play host to a variety of influential winemakers—like Bob Sessions of Hanzell and Philip Togni of Philip Togni Vineyard—but none of them would stay long enough to create any cohesive style.

After years of inconsistency and financial troubles, the Taylors finally decided to sell the winery in 1968 to Robert and Elinor Travers. Bob Travers—a finance expat—had spent a year under Joseph Heitz, of the legendary Heitz Cellar, and had gathered a year-here-and-a-year-there's worth of enological and viticultural education from just about every university north of Santa Barbara.

At the time he took the estate over, Mayacamas was one of only 17 wineries in the Napa Valley. It was a small community of like-minded winemakers trying to re-establish the region together, and Travers's relative lack of experience was hardly a handicap. He cites not only Joe Heitz as inspiration but Robert Mondavi and Andre Tchelistcheff as his de-facto mentors.

"I could call Bob [Mondavi] up at 10 PM with a problem and say 'I don't know what the heck is going on here—help me,'" he says.

But Napa has come along way since those late-night house calls Travers made to Mondavi. With over 450 wineries throughout the valley vying for a piece of a multibillion-dollar industry and that 95+ score, the atmosphere has grown increasingly competitive. These days it's easy for winemakers to exist in isolation from each other.

High atop Mount Veeder on the edge of an old volcano crater, Travers and his sons are removed—now not just geographically but also ideologically—from the culture of Napa that buzzes below.

A Far Cry From Cocktail Cab

In the 43 years he's owned Mayacamas Travers has changed almost nothing about his winemaking process. His cellar is littered with mix-matched old barrels and mold, a scene at odds with the military precision of Napa's most lauded producers, whose barrels form frontlines of nearly untouched new oak.

His Cabernet Sauvignon ferments in cement and spends most of its élevage in large, old American oak casks, followed by smaller oak barrels (only 20% of which are new) for six to 12 months, finally finding its way to bottle where it rests for two years before release. This is about as traditional as it gets in Napa.

The wine reaches the market at five years old and at about 12.5% alcohol, but needs decades to show its bones; it's a far cry from the style of Napa cocktail Cab that often spins and filters the characteristically angular variety into a very slutty sort of submission.

The Mayacamas wines have stuck to the scenic route despite these fancy toll-road options. They typically began to shed their adolescent angst around ten years out and can remain fresh and lively well into their 40s. That age-old adage "patience is a virtue" is more relevant here than anywhere else in Napa.

But it isn't just the staunchly Old World winemaking techniques that give these wines longevity. Mount Veeder's unique microclimate and Mayacamas's vineyard locations—which are some of the highest in Napa at 1,800-2,400 above sea-level—play a pivotal role in achieving the sort of restraint and balance that is much more difficult to come by at lower elevations.

True Mountain Fruit

While the rest of the Napa Valley and its mountain appellations (of which there are five in all) enjoy varying degrees of protection from the winds off the San Pablo Bay, Mount Veeder is largely exposed. This makes for temperatures that are, on average, 10-12 degrees cooler making for the longest growing season in the valley with harvest often stretching into November. Elevations vary between 400-2,500 feet — making it Napa's highest AVA — and the terrain is rugged, rendering the use of machinery impossible.

The longer growing season makes for more even ripening and greater balance between acidity and fruit, a quality that lends itself to wines with greater potential to age.

There are 22 wineries that are now making wine on Mount Veeder, but none stands as more of an icon—not only to California Cabernet, but to the unique set of circumstances that make Mount Veeder one of the most interesting places to grow wine in the Napa Valley—than Mayacamas.

Bob Travers has proven — along with others like Cathy Corison and Bo Barrett — not only how variable the terroir of the Napa Valley is, but just how much virtue there can be in a little bit of patience and whole lot of conviction.

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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