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Napa’s Sequoia Grove Cabernet Makes a Comeback: Review

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Michael Trujillo
Michael Trujillo, winemaker and president of Sequoia Grove, has brought the estate's reputation and quality back from the doldrums of the 1990s. Source: Sequoia Grove via Bloomberg

May 7 (Bloomberg) -- Michael Trujillo, director of wine making and president of Napa Valley’s Sequoia Grove winery shrugs when I tell him his wines have been omitted by recent influential tomes on California wines.

“I’m not surprised,” he says upon hearing there’s no mention of Sequoia in either Stephen Brook’s “The Finest Wines of California” or “The New Connoisseurs’ Guidebook to California Wine & Wineries” by Charles E. Olken and Joseph Furstenthal.

“In the 1990s there was a falling off of the brand. Oddly enough, in the eighties, Sequoia was a cult wine in the media, but economic pressures and phylloxera took their toll and our competitors shot right past us,” he explains. “Our wines were okay but we just weren’t running with the pack.”

After tasting Sequoia Grove’s Napa Valley, its workhorse label that sells for about $38, I am convinced that Sequoia’s exclusion from these works is unjustified.

Indeed, the winery has come a long way from those days of variable quality when its reputation foundered.

Trujillo, 50, has been Sequoia Grove’s winemaker since 1998. He grew up on a family ranch in La Jara, Colorado, and studied engineering before a chance meeting at the winery with owner Jim Allen led to a job offer.

Cellaring School

Trujillo accepted and went on to study wine making at the University of California Davis and the Napa Valley School of Cellaring.

After Kobrand Corporation bought the vineyard in 2001, Trujillo took over all wine making and became president. His first vintage was in 2002. Since then he has been buying up small estate holdings to help improve the label’s quality and image.

The winery currently sits on 22 acres in the Napa Valley region called the Rutherford Bench, known for its excellent California cabernet sauvignons. Trujillo also buys grapes from other Napa vineyards to make cabernets in the blended, Bordeaux style.

Sequoia Grove might not produce the greatest California cab I’ve ever tasted, but it has all those qualities that show how the blending of other grapes with cabernet adds complexity and levels of flavors. And it proves that a California cab need not be a blockbuster wine weighing in above 15 percent alcohol.

Robust Cabernet

The 2007 Sequoia Grove I drank was a robust but reasonable 14.2 percent; its single estate bottlings, like Cambium and Stagecoach, top out about 14.5 percent.

“A lot of Napa Valley wineries are still trying to capture a few palates accustomed to that massive, in-your-face style of cab,” Trujillo said.

“But I look for balance and structure, seamless wines with great length of finish. I’m after the guy who wants flavor, not over ripeness in a wine. Those who make those huge cabs hang on one man’s word,” he said, referring to wine critic Robert Parker who has awarded many high alcohol wines very high scores.

“High alcohol is not a vehicle for making a wine that’s going to last a long while. Such wines taste pleasantly sweet at first, and people like that in the first glass. But the wines don’t age well. I have no problem adding water during fermentation if the alcohol is too high. Or I cut those big boys out of the herd,” he said.

Sugar Accumulation

The California problem is that while grapes achieve what’s called “phenolic maturity” through gradual sugar accumulation in cooler climates like Bordeaux (where wines typically have 12 to 14 percent alcohol), in hot climates like Napa Valley, grapes only reach maturity at higher sugar levels later in the fall, and those sugars ferment into high alcohol. Picking so late in the harvest can also decrease desirable acids, which give wines their fresh, bright flavors.

“I have no problem picking early,” says Trujillo, “but 2007 was such a perfect gift of weather, Mother Nature just handed it to us on a silver platter. In 2007 anyone could make good wine. It was a steady growing season, no big heat waves, no spikes in the sugars, and we picked early.”

I asked Trujillo why, given his antagonism toward overripe red wines, he continues making a chardonnay that tilts above 14 percent alcohol. “In one sense that was the style I was handed,” he said, “but I’ve been aiming to get the big flavors of a great white Burgundy that isn’t spoiled by too much oakiness.”

‘Fuzzy Wine’

He also does not allow the wine to go through malolactic conversion, whereby acids are reduced. “I want it to be a warm and fuzzy wine.”

Sequoia Grove’s popularity and reputation have improved to the point where 80 percent of its bottlings are sold direct at the winery or through a wine club offering members first dibs on new releases. Trujillo is especially excited about Cambium, a blended red of which he made only 350 cases last year, which sells for a whopping $140 a bottle.

“I figure I’ll have to row pretty hard against the stream with Cambium,” he said. “Funny thing is, when I raised the price at the winery, I sold even more.”

Sympatico Sommeliers

He’s also hoping to find receptive sommeliers at restaurants who will buy the wine. “I’m looking for those who want something different on their list because they know who put it together.”

Given the improvements at Sequoia Grove, I asked those authors who excluded Trujillo’s winery if they’d had a change of heart. “Since 2007 my experience with the wines has been good,” said Charles Olken, “they seem to have hit their stride and their pricing is very reasonable.”

In an e-mail response Stephen Brook said it had been years since he’d tasted Sequoia’s wines. “But I used to stop by regularly when in Napa 10-15 years ago and always enjoyed the wines - well, the reds are what I remember. There’s no plan for a new edition of the book, so I have no idea whether SG would make the cut. But I’ll be in Napa in May and if I have time, will stop by at the tasting room.”

I suspect Michael Trujillo will be rubbing his hands in anticipation when he reads that.

(John Mariani writes on wine for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Today’s Muse highlights include theater and book reviews.

To contact the writer of this column: John Mariani at john@johnmariani.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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