Bob and Kelly FoleyAmong Napa’s growing ranks of celebrated winemakers, Robert Foley's star shines as brightly as any. Beginning in the mid-90’s, few winemakers have his track record for consistently crafting highly regarded (and high scoring) cabernets and merlots in Napa. Among wine-lovers who follow such things, people talk of “Foley wines” as much as, if not more so, than they invoke the names of the estates for which Foley is the winemaker. Although I have only limited experience with his wines (primarily from Pride Mountain’s “regular” cabs and merlots), I recently had the opportunity to taste a wide range of “Foley wines” with the man himself. Joining Bob and his wife Kelly (left) was Kelly Peterson (below), owner of one of his most celebrated clients, Switchback Ridge Winery.

Kelly PetersonAlthough he seems to have burst onto the wine scene with Pride in the mid-90s, Foley’s career goes back a good ways. Foley is a UC Davis graduate (1977) with degrees in both enology and viticulture. His first job was at Heitz, but a year later he moved on as the founding winemaker at Markham Vineyards, a post he held for 15 years. He became the winemaker at Pride on Spring Mountain in 1993 (as of January, 2008, he is the consulting winemaker only), and since then he has also taken on winemaking duties at Hourglass and Switchback Ridge. Hourglass is located in the St. Helena AVA at the narrowest part of Napa Valley, where it forms an hourglass shape. Switchback Ridge’s fruit comes from the Peterson Family Vineyards, located across from the famous Three Palms Vineyard in northeastern Napa Valley. For a time Foley also made wines for Pride’s neighbor and former merlot supplier, Paloma Vineyards. With all this he also found the time to embark on his own wine estate, Robert Foley Vineyards (not to be confused with Foley Estate in Santa Barbara’s Sta. Rita Hills—that Foley is William Foley, no relation to Bob), beginning with the 1998 vintage.

My regular wine/dinner group, the X-pensive Winos, managed to collect 21 examples of Bob Foley’s craft, including all of the estates he has made wine for, more than enough to give a good comprehensive survey of the man’s talents. The wines were served with a seven course meal, but frankly with wines like these, the food, as good as it was, became secondary.

First Flight: The Lonely White Wine: While not at all known for making whites, Foley is releasing his first white under his own label, the 2007 Foley Estate Pinot Blanc. The wine is all crisp pippin apples and pit fruits. Crisp acids support the fruit, and some spiciness give the impression of a bit of Gewurztraminer in the mix (there is none). Fresh, taut and with good length that flattens out just a bit on the finish. Very nice, clean white with some complexity. Find this wine

Second Flight: The Merlot’s: Foley makes, big, rich, muscular Merlots that drink more like Cabernets to my taste. The 1996 Paloma Merlot Find Paloma Merlots had a rather shy but nice nose of ripe berry fruit and a touch of minerality, but the palate was a bit thin and the fruit had clearly faded to some extent, making the tannic structure of the wine too apparent. Since the loss of primary fruit intensity wasn’t accompanied by an increase in complexity, this wine seemed clearly past its best, but it was probably a very nice wine 2-3 years ago. Not at all close to fading is the 2001 Paloma Merlot, the wine that shot the Paloma name to fame when The Wine Spectator named it their “Wine of the Year” in 2003. Bigger and richer than the 1996, the wine is exceptionally rich for a Merlot with dense, ripe but not overripe fruit, plums and blackberries with a hint of chocolate, tremendous length and persistence on the palate. The structure is firm but unobtrusive, and promises a good evolution for at least a few more years. Even better to me was the 2001 Pride Mountaintop Merlot,  from a vineyard that is just on the Switchback Ridge Merlot 2001Sonoma side of the Napa/Sonoma County line up on Spring Mountain. Even richer than the Paloma, but with good structure and focus, and no hint of pruney or overripe flavors. Darker chocolate covered cherries and blackberries lead to a long, complex finish. A fabulous merlot in a ripe style. The 2001 Switchback Ridge Find this wine took ripeness even further, and perhaps a bit too far for my palate, although this appeared to be the group’s overall favorite of the flight. This wine had a very dense, liqueur-like texture and fruit flavors that were close to raisiny, showing a bit of heat and some bitter tannins on the finish. Most of the group, however, loved the richness and intensity of the wine, and although I found it a bit over-the-top, it was only just, and is still a very impressive wine. Finally, the 2005 Foley Merlot Find this wine is the first varietal Merlot under Bob Foley’s estate label. Whether the result of the vintage or the style Foley is going for in his estate wines, this wine seemed more elegant, and not as extracted as the preceding wines. Still plenty of fruit, with an interesting pit-fruit note that reminded me of a Cote Rôtie that has a little viognier in it. Well structured with plenty of tannins that give the finish a hint of bitterness, this is a wonderfully complex wine that seems to have the potential for development in bottle. WOTF: 2001 Pride Mountaintop Merlot. Find this wine

Third Flight: Making Pride’s Reputation: This short flight consisted of the two wines that really made Pride Mountain’s reputation as a top producer of rich, ripe-style cabernets. Interestingly, the two wines couldn’t have been more different, even though Foley stated that the wines were virtually identical in terms of the fruit, wine-making, etc. The 1995 Pride Reserve Cabernet was rich, very complex, with tremendous depth of perfectly ripe fruit. Well-integrated oak accents the deep berry/cherry and cassis fruit, leading to a long finish that is very slightly hot. This has the complexity of a more classically-styled cabernet, with the richness and intensity of a modern, ripe-fruit styled wine. The 1996 Pride Reserve Cabernet, on the other hand, was for me way too ripe and raisiny, with a hint of volatility poking out. More like a dry port, the fruit is very, very ripe and dense and there is noticeable heat in the wine and finish that is too intrusive to my palate. As I am perhaps more averse to raisiny flavors in cabernet than many others in our group, for me the clear WOTF was the 1995 Pride Reserve Cabernet. Overall, however, the group seemed about evenly divided between the two wines, with a slight majority of the attendees loving the richness and intensity of the 1996 over the more restrained, elegant style of the 1995. Find Pride Reserve Cabernets

Fourth Flight: The 2001 Cabernets: Without question this was the Flight of the Night, as all of these were tremendous wines that balanced depth, richness, and good structures in equal measure. Foley described the vintage as one of the most exceptional in his winemaking career. The 2001 Pride Reserve Claret Find this wine was perhaps the most elegant of the four wines, plenty ripe, rich and dense, but with very good balance, a hint of chocolate (a characteristic of many of the Foley wines, it seems), good length. Even better was the 2001 Pride Reserve Cabernet, which shared some elegance in its silky texture but with more richness and density, and with better acid to support the bigger fruit structure. The wine combines complexity, elegance, and power in equal measure, quite a feat. The 2001 Foley Claret Find this wine featured fruit that was amazingly sweet and pure (not residual sugar-sweet, but with an impression of sweetness from ripe fruit combined with good acidity). Very round and well-balanced, a classic ripe-style California cabernet, and very close to the Pride Reserve in style and quality. Finally the 2001 Switchback Ridge Cabernet Find this wine was probably the biggest and ripest of the group, a bit hot, but the good balancing acidity and tannin providing structure. Probably as ripe a wine without going over-the-top as I would want, and very impressive, but seemingly less complex than the Pride or Foley. WOTF: 2001 Pride Reserve Cabernet, Find this wine with the Foley Claret a very close second. But really all of these wines were at the same high level of quality for me.

Fifth Flight: Hourglass and More: Foley has made the wines at Hourglass since its inception. The 2002 Hourglass Cabernet Find Hourglass Cabernets was in a more classic style and not as ripe as many 2002 Napa cabernets. Well structure with cassis/berry fruit and a hint of mint (from eucalyptus trees adjacent to the vineyard), rich but a bit less ripe than many of the preceding wines, I really liked the style of this. At first the 2004 Hourglass Cabernet seemed much more ripe, but as it aired it began to display many of the more classic attributes of the 2001, including that hint of mint. Both chocolate and vanilla are present (although not any overt oakiness), as is plenty of sweet fruit and creamy richness. By comparison, the 2005 Foley Claret Find this wine seemed to have a bit less energy and precision. Quite ripe, softer and less structured, it has plenty of ripe cabernet character, but seems more subdued and less interesting than the others at this point in its evolution. The 2005 Switchback Ridge Cabernet, Find this wine on the other hand, is a true monster, very ripe, deep, and intense. This is the only wine in the tasting I had tasted before, and at that tasting (which was blind) both I and many others thought it was a syrah from Sine Qua Non. Massive fruit, blueberries and chocolate, incredibly rich, although not as much true cabernet character as the others. Still, it’s an impressive and amazingly delicious wine. WOTF: 2004 Hourglass Cabernet. Find this wine

Paloma Syrah 1997Sixth Flight: Syrah, Petite Sirah, and Charbono: Pride Mountain Petite Sirah 2001A mixed bag here. I was very unimpressed with the 1997 Paloma Syrah, Find this wine which seemed tired, oxidized, and devoid of syrah character. Maybe a poorly stored bottle or a bad cork? Even Bob Foley had nothing good to say about this bottle. I am not a big fan of petite sirah, so I wasn’t surprised when the first wine, the 2001 Pride Petite Sirah Find this wine seemed like no more than a tannic monster. Not really overripe, but very big, extracted and intense, but with insufficient acid or fruit to support the massive superstructure, and thus heavy and dull to my palate. Much, much better was the 2001 Switchback Ridge Petite Sirah, Find this wine which had all the bright acidity and sweet fruit that the Pride needed but lacked. Equally large-scaled if not more so, the Switchback nevertheless retained a semblance of balance to support the massive fruit blast, and the fruit itself was ripe and sweet without becoming raisiny or jammy. The 2004 Foley Petite Sirah Find this wine was almost as good, with decent balance but perhaps just a bit too endowed with tannins, which made themselves known mainly in the finish, giving a somewhat over-extracted impression. Still, the fruit was delicious and intense. Finally the 2006 Foley Charbono Find this wine was fascinating. From a little known grape originally from France (but no longer made there) and rarely made into a varietal here, the wine had good rich fruit, spicy, rather softly structured but still decently balanced, with smooth dusty tannins in a long finish. In comparison with more well-known varietals, its character is perhaps most like a Grenache, and for me it was a more interesting and enjoyable wine than most of the petites. WOTF, tie between the 2001 Switchback Ridge Petite Sirah, and the Foley Charbono.

Robert Foley Vineyards Petite SirahOverall, this was a most impressive (and exhausting!) tasting. Foley clearly has tremendous winemaking skills. What impressed me the most is that he can craft extremely ripe, fruit-forward-styled wines from what must be very ripe fruit, but without letting matters get out of hand by allowing raisiny, pruney/jammy, or volatile flavors to mar the purity of the fruit. Quite a few (not all) of the high-end “cult” cabernets I’ve tasted are flawed to my palate by such overripe characteristics, and it is a testament to Foley’s talents that he largely avoids these flaws (which I acknowledge not everyone considers to be flaws). On the other hand, there is a certain “sameness” to wines this ripe that pretty much dilutes or eliminates regional characteristics based on terroir. To my palate these are “Foley wines”, not “Spring Mountain” (for Pride) or “St. Helena” (for Hourglass) wines. Nothing wrong with that, as long as you’re not looking for a terroir-focused wine. If big, fruit-forward wines that are rich but balanced is what you’re looking for, these wines rank among the best of that style.

Bennett Traub
Reporting From The Left Coast
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© March 2008

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