DAVID ABREU & THE CHEF
In Napa Valley, David Abreu is about as close to a living legend as one can be. A third-generation Napa native who graduated from the UC Davis Viticulture and Enology Program, Abreu has planted some of the very best vineyards in the valley. His own estate is equally spectacular, producing several highly sought-after (and hard to find) Cabernets.
David got his start at Caymus in the late ‘70s, where he worked with Ric Forman managing Inglenook’s farming. It was during this time that the two took several trips to Bordeaux, observing and absorbing everything they could, bringing back with them techniques and concepts for both the vineyards and the cellar. This expertise would help David launch David Abreu Vineyard Management in 1980, which lead him to become one of the most sought-after vineyard managers in the valley.
Today, his influence is immeasurable. His cast of clients reads like a Who’s Who of Napa, including names like Harlan, Blankiet, Staglin, Colgin, Bryant, Fisher, Araujo, Grace, Viader, and Screaming Eagle.
It only stands to reason that someone with such an incredible talent for growing grapes should take a stab making wine. In 1987, seven years after starting his vineyard management business, Abreu did just that, releasing his first commercial bottling using fruit from his Madrona Ranch Vineyard. Before long, the winery would gain the press’s attention, garnering well-deserved critical acclaim that has continued to this day.
A CHEF'S JOURNEY
Over the years Abreu added three more vineyards to his lineup: Thorevilos, Cappella, and Howell Mountain, all superb sites and unique in their locations, soils, and expressions. For a long time, the wines were made at Sloan. In 2006 the official Abreu winery opened just off Yountville Crossroad, dug into a hillside behind Cliff Lede.
In 2000, winemaker Brad Grimes made his debut, with a rather unorthodox entry into the wine business. While working as a chef in Seattle, he decided to make a change of careers and see what the wine industry could offer. His girlfriend (now wife) was working off and on as a private chef for Stuart Sloan in Napa, and Brad would come down to visit when he could. It was during those visits that he got to know Abreu, and when his girlfriend was asked to come for a six-month stint, Brad decided he would move to Napa and take the plunge. He called Abreu (“He was one of the only people I knew in Napa”), who took him on despite his lack of winemaking experience. Abreu must have seen something — perhaps it was Brad’s training as a chef, or that he seemed to have a more intuitive and observational method of working — that suited his hands-on approach to viticulture and winemaking. In any case, Brad and David hit it off, and over the next years Brad would immerse himself in the backbreaking, often tedious, work required to farm and make wine — training, trellising, harvesting — learning the ropes and putting in his time. Today, he runs the show at Abreu (and consults at Rudd, as well), and is one of the most respected winemakers in the Valley.
Soft spoken and reserved, Brad’s humility is striking, and refreshing. He speaks well of his experience working from the bottom up and has the utmost respect for the team of people he has worked with over the years and whose roles he emphatically acknowledges are every bit as important as his own in the success of the winery.
Brad’s winemaking philosophy is rooted in the vineyards, where the focus is on achieving balance. While the Abreu vineyards are not yet certified organic, Brad has always farmed as naturally as possible. He gardened with his grandmother when he was a kid, helping her with compost piles and planting by the phases of the moon. When he was older, he’d hassle farmers who were spraying chemicals on their vineyards without regard for the drift that was impacting the neighboring vineyards.
IN THE FIELD
The vineyard team has remained almost entirely the same since Brad arrived, with very little turnover. Each of the vineyards has its own crew, with intimate knowledge gained over years of working with the same vines. These crews manage the canopy, green harvest, position clusters, and prune during the growing season, and then harvest and head to the winery to sort the berries — a fully hands-on approach.
As harvest begins, selection — and, in a way, the first “assemblage” — is done in the vineyards. The key is to pick select blocks and sub-blocks — sometimes even individual vines — as the grapes reach desired maturity, for all varieties. They may pick half a row of Cabernet Sauvignon from one spot, a few vines of Cabernet Franc from another block, both carefully selected to complement each other and with a vision in mind of how the whole vineyard (and final wine) will be composed. The selections are severe in the vineyard, and each of these small picks are sent to the winery to be co-fermented in small custom fermenters (2- and 3.5-ton capacity) designed specifically for the task. Sometimes eight or nine blocks may yield only 2 tons in a specific pick. The tiny Capella Vineyard may see three or more picks, while Madrona may go through seven or more in a given year.
Perhaps Brad’s training as a chef allows him to keep all the sub-blocks and picks in his mind, “seeing” how these disparate parts will come together. It’s not unlike the chef’s job of sourcing the very best ingredients, all the while envisioning how they will all be processed, prepared, and presented as a dish. “It’s not formulaic at all,” Brad explains. “We don’t pick one year and then go back the next, look at the marks on the maps of what we picked when and repeat,” adding with a laugh, “As if we even had marks on a map!” Intuition certainly plays a role, but it has a basis in a sense of the vineyard developed during the growing season, combined with knowledge and experience gained over many years.
The result is the ability to balance the wines naturally — pH, Brix, and acidity, to name a few variables — alleviating the need to manipulate or make corrections or additions in the winery later. For example, brighter, fresher picks can be matched to complement a later, riper vintage. They can vary the percentage of grape varieties in each pick, which also changes the makeup of that specific co-fermented lot. All of these steps create layers, flavors, complexity, and balance to the building blocks that will make the final blend. Brad believes you can’t really achieve this by picking large blocks by varietal and fermenting them separately.
Once in the winery, things are pretty straightforward: cold soak for about five days, about 28 days from crush to dry, then 35-42 days on the skins. No formulas, everything is subject to change, all done by taste. Wines then go to barrel, all free-run, no press, usually two primary cooperages and several supporting, with oak pretty consistent across all four wines. Two years in barrel and two years in bottle makes them a late release, but the wait is well worth it.
The results are truly exceptional wines. They show a polish, depth, and sublime elegance that speaks volumes about the care with which they are made. Each wine captures and expresses its unique origin with depth, richness, and power to be sure, but also with a sense of proportion and harmony that to me is the winemaker’s ultimate goal — a balancing act only achieved by a few.