Alan Markoff, Camana Bay Times
Producing great wines requires two things in the opinion of John Conover, a partner and general manager of the PlumpJack, Cade and Odette wineries.
"People ask me, 'What's the secret to making great wines?' and I tell them the secret is great people and great grapes."
The great grapes part of the equation has a lot to do with where they are grown and PlumpJack, Cade and Odette all source their grapes from vineyards in some of the best locations in Napa Valley. For the people part, Conover looks for a particular trait: passion.
"Wine making is really a business of passion," he said, noting that although technical parts of the job can be taught, people either have the passion or they don't. When they do, they're much more likely to be happy on the job.
"Happy people make happy wines," he said. "I have never met a grump who makes happy wines."
Conover hosted a Somm Series event at West Indies Wine Company on 7 November. Because of the high quality of the wines being served, which included bottles from each of the three wineries Conover manages, the event sold out quickly.
The PlumpJack winery, which was named after Sir John “PlumpJack” Falstaff, a character in several of William Shakespeare’s plays, dates back to 1881 when it was known as Mount Eden Winery. The property, which is one of the oldest operating wineries in the Napa Valley, is located in the Oakville region that is home to some of the best-known wineries in the United States.
In 1995, it was purchased by Gavin Newsom — who is now the governor of California — and composer/philanthropist Gordon Getty. In 1999, Newsom and Getty brought in Conover, who had a long history working as a wine industry executive. After that, PlumpJack steadily increased production while developing a global reputation as an iconic Napa Valley producer.
One of the early decisions made after Conover joined the PlumpJack team was to use screwcap closures on the winery's best wine, its Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. This was done to reduce the number of bottles that were ruined by 2,4,6-trichloroanisole — commonly called TCA — a chemical compound found on some wine corks that imparts mouldy aromas and flavours in wine. Wines contaminated with TCA are said to be "corked." Conover decided to use Stevelin screwcaps to close half of PlumpJack's flagship wine, becoming the first Napa Valley winery to do so. It continues the practice until this day, using screwcap closures on other wines as well.
The Newsom, Getty and Conover partnership was so successful that it bought two more Napa wineries in the ensuing years — CADE at Howell Mountain in 2005 and Odette in the historic Stags Leap District in 2012.
Wines and food
Each of the six wines served at the Somm Series event were paired with a canapé prepared by private chef Dylan Benoit.
First tasted was the CADE Sauvignon Blanc, which uses oak barrel fermentation on some of the wine to add texture and complexity, differentiating it from many other New World Sauvignon Blancs.
PlumpJack's Chardonnay Reserve, which is made with grapes sourced from Los Carneros and Rutherford in Napa Valley, was tasted next, paired with a seared salmon canapé. Unlike most California Chardonnays, PlumpJack's doesn't undergo malolactic fermentation, a secondary process that reduces acidity and imparts a soft and buttery texture.
"We like brighter and more focused Chardonnay," Conover said.
The tasting then shifted to red wines, the first being Adaptation Cabernet Sauvignon, a wine produced by the Odette winemaker Jeff Owens. Made mostly with Cabernet Sauvignon but rounded off with Merlot and a bit of Malbec and Petite Sirah, the wine is soft and fruity with good balancing acidity.
The 2015 PlumpJack Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, a wine that Robert Parker scored at 96 points, was tasted next, paired with seared duck breast.
"It's a great wine every year," Conover said of the wine which exemplifies the virtues of a valley floor Napa Cabernet Sauvignon.
Moving up in elevation back to Howell Mountain, the 2016 CADE Cabernet Sauvignon was then sampled. This wine, which also received 96 points from Robert Parker, showed a little more tannic structure than the PlumpJack, but was nonetheless very drinkable, even at its youthful age.
Rounding out the tasting was PlumpJack Syrah, a rich and full-bodied wine with a velvety texture that was served last because it offered the best pairing with the bitter chocolate cherry cake dessert canapé.
Conover said the PlumpJack Syrah was his favourite weeknight wine.
"It's my barbecue wine," he said. "It's a wine that almost every year is rated in the top 100 wines in the world by Wine Spectator. It's a favourite of ours, although we don't make a lot of it."
This article appears in the December 2019 edition of Camana Bay Times.
John Conover, centre, of PlumpJack, CADE and Odette wineries, with private chef Dylan Benoit and West Indies Wine Company staff members, from left, Kathryn Turley, Matthew Evans and Marie Rossini Balignasay. Photo: Alan Markoff