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A Tale of Two Counties

For wine and food lovers, California's Napa Valley and Sonoma County offer distinctive experiences
Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
Sopranos, Mar/Apr 2007

(continued from page 9)

The family hated the idea. They hated Napa. "It was very, very rural and far less prosperous than today," says his daughter Beth Novak Milliken, now 46. "And he didn't have an appreciation for fine wine." Unlike many of his generation, Novak hadn't traveled in the Navy, hadn't spent time in Europe. He knew nothing about wine-drinking culture. He also didn't have enough money; the $270,000 he'd paid used up his savings. "It was utterly spontaneous, not well thought out," Novak Milliken says. Before long, he'd returned to doctoring.

In November 1977, Novak died of a heart attack at age 44. His wife, Mary, the heroine of this story, inherited the property. With five children between sixth grade and college, she could have cashed out, but chose instead to implement a vision that was never hers. In 1982, at the urging of local wine families such as the Duckhorns and the Shafers, she decided to release a Spottswoode Cabernet Sauvignon. She also hired Tony Soter as her winemaker. That started one of the more improbable runs of great wine California has seen.

Soter was one of Napa's first enologists to understand that if he wasn't intimately involved in the grapegrowing, he was losing his primary weapon for making the wine he wanted. He started employing organic practices in 1985, and added the brightness of Cabernet Franc to the mix. "Tony set the style," says Novak Milliken, "and we've stayed to it in the main. We've been true to our vineyard, and refined our focus on that piece of land." The philosophy, in simplistic terms, was to make a Napa Bordeaux. That's what Soter did through 1991, and what winemakers Pam Starr, Rosemary Cakebread and—beginning with the 2006 vintage—Jennifer Williams have continued.

"We're not about hit-you-over-the-head power," says Novak Milliken. "These are wines of elegance and, hopefully, of grace." Even wines such as their 1997 Cabernet show the raspberries and cherries, the milky Cabernet Sauvignon texture and the lack of evident alcohol that identify it as a different manifestation of Napa Valley. This is a wine with dignity, less a commercial product than a piece of craftsmanship that happens to have appeal in the marketplace.

Mary Novak still tends her own gardens. And she still presides over the rambling house of a winery down the street from the vineyard. Her bravery of more than three decades ago has become just another well-told story now that Spottswoode is a success, both critically and financially, but you still can spot it in the shine of her eyes. And taste it in the wine.

Bruce Schoenfeld is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.

Dining out—Napa and Sonoma style

Perhaps nowhere in North America is accomplished food served in such inviting settings as in Napa Valley. Consider Richard Reddington's year-old Redd in the heart of Yountville, where a spare space of hardwood floors and light colors is matched by clean, precise cooking—honed by Reddington at San Francisco's Rubicon, Paris's Arpege, New York's Daniel, Beverly Hills's Spago and beyond—to delightful effect.

Out on the patio, beneath a violet midsummer sky, a group that includes wine educator and author Karen MacNeil and her vintner husband, Dennis Fife, are eating grilled quail, scallops on caramelized cauliflower puree, and sauteed skatewing with warm potato salad. Inside, Christian Moueix of Château Pétrus and Dominus sits at one table, Napa luminary Janet Trefethen at another. For every local who has brought in his own wine, a wide-eyed visitor is choosing from the 15,000-bottle cellar.

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