The Best Napa Valley Cabernet You Haven't Tried

Amber Gibson

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Biodynamic practices, a strong sense of terroir and winemaking experience in Bordeaux have helped ADAMVS quietly become one of the best cabernet sauvignons in Napa Valley. You'll find their wines at The French Laundry but many of the country's top sommelier and wine connoisseurs are still unfamiliar with this hidden gem.

That's not surprising considering the winery has only been releasing wine since 2014 and the tasting room is an intimate appointment-only destination, located behind an unmarked gate in a residential neighborhood on Howell Mountain. ADAMVS only produces 2,000 cases of wine in a good year between their three cabernet sauvignons and a sauvignon blanc. Purchase is by allocation only for members, or directly from the tasting room, which feels like a soigné log cabin with coruscating dappled light. The walls of this glass home by architect Kurt Melander are surrounded by an organic sculptural wall of log cross-sections gathered from fallen cypress trees throughout the property. A tree ring represents a year's growth, or a vintage of wine, and the same concentric rings are depicted on the minimalist wine labels for ADAMVS.

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TÉRES is the largest production wine at ADAMVS, at about half of total production, and the best representation of the entire estate, which consists of five distinct soil types from clay loam to deep red iron-rich volcanic soil that inspired their Latin name, which translates to “born from our red earth.” QUINTVS features barrel selection from all five soil types as well, while flagship ADAMVS undergoes the most rigorous barrel selection, primarily from the oldest vines on the property, which are between 20 and 30 years old. The silky texture and elegant tannic structure of the current release 2015 vintage lay the foundation for a wine that balances cassis and black cherry notes with earthy undertones and a hint of violets.

Like several of Napa's other top wineries, ADAMVS ages their wines for two years in bottle prior to release, and ageability is of paramount importance. Even their sauvignon blanc is aged as such, a rarity in Napa Valley. There's more citrus, even stone fruit in some vintages, and racy minerality rather than the tropical bouquet that Napa Valley sauvignon blancs are known for. The only other California sauvignon blanc I've had that's this memorable is Lail Vineyards' Georgia, and it's no surprise that the two wineries share consulting winemaker Philippe Melka.

“Denise has a French approach, an appreciation of terroir, without being French,” Melka says. He works closely with ADAMVS winemaker Sarah Donley to craft each wine. The Adamses spare no expense with hiring only the best people for their team, including viticulturist Michael Wolf, best known for managing To Kalon.

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Five years before purchasing White Cottage Ranch Winery's vineyards in 2008, Denise and Stephen Adams entered the winemaking business with the purchase of Château Fonplégade in Saint-Emilon, followed by Château L’Enclos in Pomerol. It was a bold move for newcomer Americans, but Denise quickly won over her French neighbors with her brown butter pecan chocolate chip cookies and American bonhomie.

The Adamses are not formally trained in wine and Denise admits that they didn't know much about viticulture and winemaking at the beginning. “We were very insecure in Bordeaux for the first few years,” she says. “We went to school on the team we hired.” But several years of experience in Bordeaux helped guide their winemaking philosophy at ADAMVS, although the weather and terroir are certainly different. For example, they bridge and braid their vines instead of hedging. It's a more labor-intensive practice, but allows them to untie the braids and shade their vines if the weather becomes unbearably hot in the summer.

“At Château Fonplégade, we had the privilege of resurrecting a piece of history, but at ADAMVS we get to create it from scratch,” Adams says. 2010 was first vintage at ADAMVS and they were certified biodynamic in 2012. “We've always been biodynamic,” Adams says. “It's the only way I know how to farm.” Decades earlier, Adams was raising worms for her home garden and at ADAMVS every block is surrounded by forest and vegetation.

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“Sense of place is so important and we have the privilege and luxury of being able to express that here in so many ways,” Adams says. For example, they have three bee hives on property, under the care of Rob Keller from Napa Valley Bee Cowho also works with The French Laundry and Atelier Crenn. Bees bring biodiversity to the property, creating a healthier ecosystem for the grape vines.

Buttercup the donkey looks after a couple dozen chickens and four sheep graze at their leisure across the grounds. A biodynamic garden grows herbs like yarrow, chamomile and stinging nettle to make the biodynamic compost preparations used to nurture the soil and vines. There are olive and fig trees too, and their fruits are turned into delicious small-batch olive oil and fig jam.

Only 27 acres of the 80-acre property are planted with vines and Adams has no plans for expansion. They've already chosen the best parcels and quality over quantity is paramount. A third of the vineyard has been planted anew, but most of the vines are older, from the White Cottage days, up to 20 or 30 years old. The just-blended 2018 vintage marks the first year that their wines have been entirely estate grown.

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The ADAMVS vines are healthier than ever too, after working with Simonit & Sirch the past couple of years to refine their vine pruning technique. “Every cut cuts off sap flow and creates scar tissue,” explains general manager Kit Gilbert. “So we're taking cuts a little further from the main body of the vine to respect the vascular system of the vines. Sap flow is like the blood of the vines.” Vintners typically begin pruning in February or March, before budding.

“We always pruned vines for aesthetics before,” Melka says. “But in this case aesthetics don't align with the health of the vine.” See for yourself on a tour through the vineyards in one of two antique 1960s Land Rovers. Gilbert and her team love showing guests where their wine comes from and since they only see one party at a time, every visit is private and bespoke to each guest's interests. So whether you just want to sip cabernet under the retractable roof in the wine library or if you want to get your hands dirty and learn the intricacies of biodynamic winemaking, the ADAMVS team is happy to oblige.

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“A lot of people we work with identify as a vine,” Gilbert says. “They're like humans. The more we care for them individually, the healthier they will be and the better grapes they'll give us.”

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Amber Gibson specializes in luxury travel, food, wine and wellness. Her work has appeared in Travel + Leisure, Conde Nast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, Robb Report, Departures, Hemispheres, Saveur, Bon Appétit, Fodor's, NPR, NBC and more. Champagne, dark chocolate and gelato are her biggest weaknesses.

Los Angeles, CA
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