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Founding Owner of Napa's Oakville East Promotes a New Sub-Appellation
— An Interview with Proprietor Elliot Stern —
The American consumer is one who heavily identifies with brands. And while super-premium wine is an agricultural product whose quality is heavily predicated on the geographical origin of its grapes, branding is nevertheless front and center in the sales strategies of most produced in this country. Yet where does the concept of terroir, or place, fit into this? Very often, producers make this secondary to the marketing of their brands. The founder of one recent venture in California, however, has taken the step not only of articulating the identity inherent in the eastern hillside of Napa Valley's Oakville — essentially sub-appellating it — but, perhaps more significantly, choosing to use its micro-terroir as the very inspiration for a brand name. I spoke with Elliot Stern about what led to the inception of his Cabernet co-op, Oakville East, and what choices went into the production of its first wine, Exposure.
Oakville East is the culmination of a group of prominent hillside growers, facilitated by the talents of winemaker Sara Gott and biodynamic guidance of Philippe Armenier, and collectively galvanized by the leadership of Elliot himself. It's a bold enterprise fueled by the belief that there's a story locked deep within the bright orange rocks of Oakville's craggy hillside that bears telling. But it's not an easy one to relay. It's rather sinuous and elusive, and has demanded the care, attention, and focus of this dedicated band of visionaries to articulate its details in a way that only wine can achieve. But patience, resolve, and flexibility have all begun to pay off as Oakville East is now in its third released vintage (as of mid 2009) of Exposure, a Bordeaux blend of primarily Cabernet Sauvignon. With plans in the works for an second wine (Core Stone) that will showcase what's been called some of the world's finest Cabernet Franc, Stern's venture is showing promise as one of Napa Valley's first brands to assert and clearly market its micro-terroir.
Bud Break of an Idea
NM: Oakville East is not your typical wine venture; it has a very uncommon business model. Tell me about that.
ES: Oakville East basically started because one of my neighbors asked me to plant my access road, between his house and the other neighbor's house who lived below me. Seven years later, we had this nice fruit, in addition to another vineyard he already had that was sixteen years old. Then in 2003, the people who had been buying our fruit told us they couldn't afford it anymore because they hadn't sold their 1998 or 2000 vintages. So we took all of our fruit, crushed it ourselves, made garage wine, and thought it was really good! Then I figured it made more sense, being in eastern Oakville, to get my neighbors together and start a project to make wine — real wine that isn't garage-style. Everybody agreed. So, in 2004, there were three families and four vineyards. I called Sara Gott, the day she left Quintessa [Vineyards] and asked her, "Sara, you want to make a wine from Magic Mountain?" And she said, "I'm in!" So, there we had our winemaker along with some grapes, and then had to go through the whole process of figuring out a name, design, and all the other logistics. We put together about 450 cases of wine using five tons from Oakville East and five tons from a vineyard on the west side [of the same hill] near Far Niente — 2004 was not 100% east hillside fruit.