“What are the great Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards in the Napa Valley, and can I get my hands on the grapes?” That hopeful question was rattling around in Amy Aiken’s brain in 2000 when she decided that it was time “to fashion my own wine from vineyards that I believed offered superior aromatics, flavors, textures and character.”
Aiken, the proprietor-winemaker for Meander and Conspire wines, cut her teeth on the likes of Joseph Phelps red wines including Backus and Eisele Cabernet Sauvignons and Insignia, in the late 1980s when she started her winemaking career with Phelps in the Napa Valley. “I always loved the rich aromatics and the lushness and intensity of Insignia,” she says.
By 2000 Aiken was ready to do her own thing, but she needed grapes that met her standards. Backus and Eisele fruit weren’t available, so Aiken began a prolonged search. “I started in 2000 putting my name on a lot of waiting lists and it took me three years before I got a call from a grower,” recalls Aiken. “Gary Morisoli called me in 2003 to say that he could let me have some grapes.” Aiken says the price then for Morisoli Cabernet was $8,200 a ton, but the grapes were what she was looking for. “Rutherford is a special place, cooler, and soils are different. And Gary is a non-interventionist, a practice that I believe in,” Aiken explains.
There were many noteworthy Cabernet Sauvignons in the Napa Valley then, so why did the Morisoli grapes resonate with Aiken? “I really like the cherry-berry and yummy mint notes from the Morisoli Vineyard in Rutherford,” she says. Those characteristics also appeal to Aiken’s skill at blending. “With Insignia it was the joy of creating the blend every year. The flavors I get from Morisoli grapes blend nicely with the blackberry and pepper from the Lewelling Vineyard in St. Helena.” To retain those unique characteristics, Aiken says she ferments the lots separately and then prepares the blend. The result is “Meander,” a limited production Cabernet Sauvignon that takes its name from a combination of Aiken’s and winemaker husband Joel Aiken’s two sons Mitchell and Andrew.
Aiken made her first Meander Cabernet Sauvignon at Ballantine in 2003. Subsequent vintages including the currently available 2006 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon are made at Arkenstone on Howell Mountain. She prefers only 100% Cabernet Sauvignon for the simply stated reason that, “Cabernet Sauvignon grows best in the Napa Valley and I think for now I have two very good vineyards for my blend. Besides, I don’t like Merlot and it’s not easy to get good Cabernet Franc.”
Honest, down-to-earth (she drives a 1958 Morris Minor truck) and not shy about voicing her opinion, Aiken knows what she wants from her wines and what she is not willing to accept, like the high alcohols that are all to common today in many Napa Valley red wines. “I never jumped on that bandwagon…are you blonde enough…are your boobs big enough,” says Aiken with a straight face. Still her wines are not exactly moderate in alcohol; the Meander 2006 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon clocks in at 14.6% alcohol. But she’s also a realist when it comes to what the consumer wants. “People age their wines in the back seat of the car coming home from the wine shop.” Not so with Meander. Aiken ages her Cabernet Sauvignon in 100% French oak, 65% new, from three coopers for 18 months.
Before cultivating her love affair with Cabernet Sauvignon, Aiken made sparkling wines at Domaine Chandon, where she had a passing dalliance with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. That part of her winemaking experience has materialized in “Conspire,” a second wine that Aiken describes as “tasty new wines made by conspirators, my anything but Cabernet label.” Conspire may strike some as an odd choice for a wine brand, but Aiken explains that she has a “conspiratorial” arrangement with her co-winemakers, and “boutique growers” to procure terroir-driven wines from a range of varieties.
Current Conspire releases include a 2009 Rutherford Sauvignon Blanc, a bright wine with mineral accents, made partly from the Musque clone of Sauvignon Blanc, sourced from a vineyard along the western hills of Rutherford and blended with Sauvignon Blanc from the Whitehall Lane area of Rutherford. Aiken reckons that Sauvignon Musque brings floral aromas, a minerality and viscous mouth-feel to the blend, while Sauvignon Blanc contributes citrus fruit and refreshing acidity.
Aiken likes her Sauvignon Blanc without oak, so the only aging it gets is in a tank for five months on the original fermentation lees, then in early February she racks the wine off the lees, then after cold stabilizing the wine, it goes straight to bottling. Aging for a short period on the lees gives the wine a creamy texture while retaining the fresh vibrant Sauvignon Blanc fruitiness.
For the Conspire 2008 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, Aiken sourced grapes from the cool-climate Du-Nah Vineyards near Sebastopol. “The ridgeline vineyard benefits from cool air coming through the Petaluma Wine Gap,” explains Aiken. She ferments the Pinot using wild yeasts, then ages it for 16 months in French oak barrels, 33% of which are new. This measured approach retains high profile cherry-raspberry fruit, combined with traces of licorice and supple texture.
“I take different approaches to making Pinot Noir than Cabernet Sauvignon,” explains Aiken. “I gently rack and top off all my red wines but Cabernet responds positively to air so rackings are a bit more frequent.” She says that Cabernet stands up to as high as 65% new oak, while the more sensitive Pinot Noir can only tolerate about 35% new oak. “And fewer rackings for Pinot,” add Aiken. “It’s funny, but the Cabernet ‘recovers’ from wine movements quickly while the Pinot takes more time.”
Striking out on your own in an unpredictable business can be scary, even in the best of times. But Amy Aiken had a plan and despite a long wait to get the grapes she wanted, Aiken didn’t stray too far from fulfilling what she says is “my personal pleasure with Cabernet Sauvignon.” Meander and Conspire are limited production wines, but a vigorous search will allow you to share that pleasure.