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Q&A: Cathy Corison
By Tina Caputo
May 10, 2011
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This month's column marks the beginning of an interview series that will spotlight interesting and inspiring people behind the wines we drink -- from high-profile vintners to under-the-radar winemakers and growers.

For my inaugural piece I'm featuring Cathy Corison, who for decades has been quietly making some of the best Cabernets in the Napa Valley under the Corison Winery label.  The star of her lineup, which consists only of two Napa Valley Cabernets and the occasional Gewürztraminer, is the Kronos Cabernet, made from her 40-year-old estate vineyard right off Highway 29, between Rutherford and St. Helena.

Kronos is one of the oldest Cab vineyards in Napa Valley, and its gnarly vines produce some really special wines. Kronos Cabs have that rare combination of power and elegance, with juicy, black fruit flavors and acidity in just the right balance. Cathy’s wines are never flashy or over the top – just delicious.

Before striking out on her own, Cathy honed her winemaking skills for 30 years at wineries including Chappellet Vineyard, Staglin Family Vineyard, York Creek Vineyards and Long Meadow Ranch. But after all that time, there was still one wine Cathy was longing to create: her own. In 1987 she made the first vintage of Corison Cabernet.  She broke ground on the Corison Winery in 1999.

A true artisan producer, Cathy makes just 1,500-2,500 cases of wine each year.

Wine Review Online (WRO): Did you grow up in a wine-drinking atmosphere?

Cathy Corison (CC): No, I grew up in Riverside, California, an orange-growing area in the desert way east of L.A. – a long way from the wine country.

WRO: How did you come to realize that you wanted to be a winemaker?

CC: I was minding my own business, studying biology as a sophomore at Pomona College in California almost 40 years ago, when I took a non-credit wine appreciation course. Wine grabbed me by the neck and ran with me, and I've never looked back.

WRO: How did that discovery change your academic path?

CC: I went on to earn a master's degree in enology from U.C. Davis in the mid-1970s. But I'm still studying biology because wine is alive on so many levels.

WRO: What is it about Cabernet Sauvignon in particular that inspires you?

CC: Cabernet is indisputably one of the world’s best wine varieties. It has a huge range of flavors available depending upon where and how it is grown, and a structure that lends itself to the table and a long, interesting life in the bottle. What else would I grow in the Napa Valley, a place that can grow Cabernet as well, or better, than anywhere else in the world?

WRO: I’ve heard some winemakers say that Napa Valley’s warm sunny climate naturally produces big, ripe wines, with fairly high sugar/alcohol levels – yet I haven’t found this to be the case with Corison wines. How do you achieve Corison’s more reserved, elegant style? Is it intentional?

CC: Yes, my style is entirely intentional. My goal is to make wines that are both powerful and elegant, that speak of place and enjoy a long, distinguished life. Cabernet grown and picked properly on the benchland between Rutherford and St. Helena ripens perfectly at least nine years out of 10 for this purpose.

I pick at much lower sugars than many. I believe the big, ripe Cabernets are more of a fashion than anything. One can make very big wines if that is what one wants to do. There is a place for both styles; we all have different moods and eat different foods and have different preferences.

WRO: Have your winemaking techniques changed at all over the years?

CC: No, my techniques are essentially the same. There is nothing remarkable about my winemaking; it is very simple and traditional, with no bells and whistles. Great grapes make great wine. The vineyards I source are remarkable; some of the best in the world. Gentleness at every stage is the key for me.

WRO: What makes the Kronos Vineyard so special?

CC: Bale gravelly loam – extremely well-drained soils with enough moisture-holding capacity for good growth in the spring and early summer, coupled with rainless summers that cause the vines to stop growing at veraison and get busy ripening.

Forty-year-old vines on St. George rootstock are very rare and make pitiful quantities of delicious wines. A touch of redleaf virus slows sugar accumulation, resulting in concentrated, packed wines that are very moderate in alcohol (in the 12.5 to 13.6% range). Organic farming for 15 years has promoted soils that are full of life and make the nutrition available to the vines without any synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.

WRO: What are some of your favorite food pairings for the Kronos Cabernet?

CC: I love lamb just about any way (except too spicy) with my younger Cabernets. As the wines age and become more aromatic, subtle and nuanced, simpler preparations of beef become more appropriate.

WRO: One last question before I let you get back to work: Why do you dabble in Gewürztraminer?

CC: I love traditional Alsatian wines for the wonderful combination of Germanic, fruity varieties and French winemaking sensibilities. I also love the way the Gewürztraminer makes the whole winery smell like roses for a couple days while it's fermenting. It's wonderful to have a reception wine and wine for first courses when I do wine dinners, and I also drink quite a bit of it myself.