Restaurants

The Real Story of Priest Ranch, Somerston Estate and Two Bottles of Wine Worth Pursuing

What You Should be Drinking Right Now

BY // 10.09.20

James Joshua Priest was his name, and he was a gold prospector. In 1869, he established Priest Ranch, in Napa Valley, 660 acres in an area then known as Soda Valley. (Priest, who died in 1896, at 70 years of age, had nine sons, and for a while marketed a spring water that came from his land, located on the eastern side of the Vaca Mountain Range.)

In 2004, businessman Allan Chapman bought the Priest estate, and David Ramey and Biale were among the first purchasers of grapes under his ownership. In 2006, Chapman added to his holdings with the addition of Lynch Vineyard (also known as Elder Valley), and the combined Priest-Lynch properties — 1,682 acres — were rechristened Somerston Estate.

Add this venue to your 2021 tasting schedule. (Courtesy Somerston Estate)

Winemaker Craig Becker had entered the picture in 2005 by buying grapes from Chapman. Becker is now the general manager and director of winemaking at Somerston Estate, having co-founded the Somerston Wine Company with Chapman.

Craig Becker, head winemaker at Somerston Estate, has at his disposal “fruit so distinctive that it requires only minimal processing.” (Courtesy Somerston Estate)

Which brings me to the two bottles of the headline: Becker and Chapman honored the legacy of Mr. Priest by founding the Priest Ranch Winery in 2006, and the 2018 Priest Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon ($50) and Sauvignon Blanc ($22) are those two bottles. I tasted them recently, and have added Becker’s portfolio to my “buy” list.

The Sauvignon Blanc is a wine I could happily drink every day. Crisp is a word often overused to describe a wine, but here it is more than apt. I chilled the bottle for 25 minutes or so, then poured. My initial taste was lively, refreshening. Becker produced some great value here. Light, pale yellow in the glass, bracing acidity.

This is a wine that deserves more recognition.

Some details: Stainless steel fermentation (100 percent) with native yeast at 60 degrees Fahrenheit, 1,480 cases produced, harvested on August 30 and September 4 and 10, released in June of this year. Drink this now, with sautéed or poached shrimp (I paired it with the latter).

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The Priest Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon would be a fine choice to serve at a dinner featuring lamb as its main course (with a sparkling and the Sauvignon Blanc preceding it). I sampled this 2018 immediately following the Sauvignon Blanc, and the two provide an informative taste of Becker’s style: He respects each terroir at his disposal, and is unafraid to let them shine. He has confidence in his fruit, and in his ability as a winemaker.

The 2018 Priest Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon is priced well at $50.

This is a big wine, and while it is drinking well now, I look forward to revisiting it in a decade’s time. Deep, dark red in the glass, oak, licorice, and soil on the nose, cassis, evanescent lavender, mushroom and dark cherry in the mouth. It comes in at 14.9 percent alcohol, and 5,880 cases were produced. It is 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, and was released on May 1, 2020.

Note: On September 23, Becker issued the following statement concerning the 2020 vintage:

“Today we made the difficult decision to not harvest any fruit from our 1682-acre estate for the 2020 vintage. In mid-August, the Hennessy fire engulfed our property, burning nearly 1,400 acres of native grasslands and woods. We take pride in the grapes we grow, sell, and vinify and make no compromises. We stand unwavering in our long-term commitment to this property, our winery partners, customers, and distributors. Quality in our world of fine wine is paramount, and due to smoke damage caused by Northern California’s Hennessey Fire, we won’t be making any wine this year.

On a positive note, while the scrub pine, madrona, manzanita, bay trees, and other shrubs did burn, about 98 percent of the oak trees on our property did not. We expect that the estate will regain its beauty with thriving oak woodlands and grasslands in a few years. We look forward to the 2021 growing season next year, producing high-quality grapes for our wines and those of our partners.”)

For extra wine, travel and more from James Brock, check out his full site Mise en Place.

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