It was a dreary Saturday morning in Northern California, with precipitation oscillating like the lights on the Bay Bridge between rain and a drizzle that makes your windshield wipers give off that annoying squeak. Fog had rolled in, covering the Golden Gate Bridge so all you could see was the top of the towers. But this did not deter three intrepid travelers from New York - - - we were going to MacDonald to meet the MacDonald brothers and take a look at their vineyard.
The directions to get to them were rather simple. Go to the Oakville Grocery and make a left. Not wanting to come empty handed to the guys with the reputation for some of the best customer service in California, we stopped at the grocery to pick up salami, cheese and some diet drinks. We left the grocery with only salami and cheese, because although high sugar soda is acceptable in the valley because it is gluten free, they had nothing for people who need to limit their sugar intake. There was plastic bottled water, but you know what they say, “Ten minutes in a meeting, ten thousand years in a landfill.”
We arrived at the small cottage that had been bought by Graeme and Alex’s grandparents in the early 1950s when they looked for a place in bucolic Napa Valley to retire. They found a nice cottage.
[The cottage with Alex on the right with Rebecca, me and Honey Bee. Graeme had already left for an appointment by the time I remembered t take family photos.]
Unfortunately for the grandparents but fortunately for decades of cabernet lovers, the owners insisted that they buy some of the massive surrounding acreage that they owned. They grumbled, but they really liked the cottage, so they relented, for a price per acre not known to our hosts, but quite a bit less than the current going price for valley floor acreage in and around ToKalon® (but more about the ® and the BS claim to it later).
In 1954, their great uncle first planted vines on the property, and sold grapes to Mondavi for inclusion in the Mondavi Estate Cabernet until the early 2000s, when the MacDonald brothers reclaimed the Grapes and Graeme started practicing the winemaking craft. Their first public release of their wine was the 2010 vintage, although I have had the excellent 2009 vintage once or twice. Just to prove that even good customer service can have its hiccups, they have repeatedly refused to sell me any of the 2009, although Alex offered me a bottle of the 2008 for $1,000,000 during our visit. I declined.
It was drizzling slightly when we arrived, so my wife Rebecca, my son Jacob, and Graeme decided to sit in the dry comfort of the cottage while I dragged Alex outside to show me the vineyard. They make their wine at Kongsgaard, so this was strictly a trip to the vineyard. The knowledge I got walking around the vineyard more than made up for the moisture. Their vineyard sits between Opus on the north:
[Remember this photo of the Opus vineyards so you can compare and contrast with the MacDonald vine training system shown below]
and Mondavi on the south (pictured below), just to the east of what I think are the westernmost hills forming Napa Valley.
There are two creeks coming down from the western hills from what Alex said was the deepest canyon through the hills, and most of their vineyard lies between the creeks. It is the creeks, and the tens of thousands or more years of gravel being dropped in the alluvial fan formed by those two creeks, that have given the vineyards, especially the MacDonald plot, the ability to produce the best world class grapes. Mondavi did soil tests and found that the MacDonald acreage between the creeks was 90% gravel, while other vineyards were in the 50% range, going down to 10%. The high gravel content creates the stress that allows the vines to produce smaller, intense grapes and forces the root systems to dig deeper and deeper in search of water, which provides protection during a drought.
[Mondavi on the left and MacDonald on the right. If you look closely, you can see a row of walnut trees along both sides of the road that were planted at the same time by their uncle. The walnut trees on the left, the Mondavi plot, are taller than those on the right, the MacDonald plot, because the high gravel content stresses the trees and stunts their growth. Bad for walnuts. Good for grape vines.]
The MacDonalds, who also manage their vineyard and make the crucial decisions, have decided to maintain head-trained vines spaced far apart for dry farming. Compare the cane training on the Opus vines pictured above with this beauty in the MacDonald plot.
Not only are the rows farther apart than the one meter Bordeaux spacing of the Opus vineyard that maximizes yield, but the vines are left to their own natural devices. The MacDonald vines are also older, with the oldest plot being 60 years old, with some 40 and 20 year old vines, and new plantings that they say are for Graeme’s new baby daughter, who was asleep in the car seat when his wife drove up. We did not want to disturb her to ask if she wanted to become a winemaker when she grew up.
After walking the vineyards, we sat down to trade our cheese and salami for the 2012 and 2014 editions of the MacDonald Cabernet. Outstanding. Balance, smoothness with power, red fruit, herbs, a bit of vanilla in the background from the oak, but not intrusive. Just a component of an overall beautiful flavor profile.
The MacDonalds can’t use the term To Kalon on their bottle because Mondavi – now Constellation Brands – has trademarked it. Did they have the right to trademark it? That’s debatable, but I vote no. It was being used as a place name well before Mondavi claimed it. How do we know? I will leave you with this old advertisement that is framed on the wall of the cottage.