Thursday, July 18, 2013

Quintessa – St. Helena, California

Along the Silverado Trail in the Napa Valley embedded into an east facing east hillside you’ll find the Quintessa winery. A vineyard extends out from the winery to the roadside and if you take a hike over the hill you see their other vineyards on rolling hills surrounding a lake in a secluded valley. It is truly one of the most spectacular views in the Napa Valley. But this winery is about more than beautiful scenery, it is Agustin Huneeus’ vision to produce a wine that rivals the finest of Bordeaux.

The Founder

Quintessa was founded by Agustin and Valeria HuneeusAgustin was born in Santiago, Chile, and he began his wine career over fifty years ago. In 1960, Agustin became chief executive officer of Concha y Toro and under his leadership it grew to become Chile’s largest winery.

Then the political climate of Chile changed when Marxist Salvador Allende became president in 1971 and subsequently Agustin left his homeland. Following his success at Conch y Toro, Agustin was chosen to lead Seagram’s worldwide operations, overseeing wineries in seven countries, including the United States.

Then in 1985 he became partner and acting President of Franciscan Estates in the Napa Valley which produces a Bordeaux blend called Magnificant. Under his leadership, Franciscan Estates became a successful producer of premium wine estates which then, along with Robert Mondavi Winery, became a division of Constellation Wines. During this time, Huneeus also developed two well-known Chilean brands, Caliterra and Viña Errázuriz. Caliterra is in The Colchagua Valley and was originally a joint venture with Robert Mondavi. Then in 2004 Viña Errázuriz acquired the Mondavi family’s 50% share in Caliterra.

In 1989, Agustin and his wife Valeria acquired the St. Helena property in the Rutherford AVA to build the Quintessa estate. It was originally part of the Caymus land grant which was purchased in the 1940s by George Mardikian (November 7, 1903 – October 23, 1977), a high profile restaurateur who founded the Omar Khayyam restaurant in San Francisco in 1938. Mardikian had intended to turn the land into a premium wine estate but then he died having never fulfilled his dream. 

In the early 1990s, Agustin expanded his enological pursuits in his homeland in the Casablanca Valley in Chile which has as an ideal climate, soil composition and topography for grape growing. Originally there were less than 100 acres were planted but soon Casablanca Valley became a major wine growing region.  He then established Veramonte estate, with a modern winemaking facility and Chile’s first Napa Valley-style visitor center and Neyen winery in Chile’s Apalta Valley.

In addition to the Quintessa estate, Agustin’s current vineyard and winery projects include Faust Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Illumination Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc, and a partnership with Washington’s Longshadows Vintners.  In 2009, the Huneeus family developed a partnership with Joan and Walt Flowers of Flowers Vineyards and Winery which is dedicated to producing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in the Sonoma Coast.  In 2010, the Huneeus family partnered with winemaker Dave Phinney and Orin Swift Cellars to take ownership and direct sales of two wines. The first was a Napa Valley red blend of Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Charbono and Grenache called The Prisoner. The second is Saldo, a Zinfandel from historic vineyards in Sonoma, Napa, Lake, Amador, Mendocino, and Contra Costa County.

Following in his father’s footsteps, Agustin and Valeria’s son Agustin F. Huneeus has worked in the family business for more than two decades. Although he was raised in the family wine business form birth his wine career formally began in 1989 at Franciscan Estates.  Then, in the early 1990’s he returned to Chile, he took a leadership role managing his father’s newest wine ventures, Caliterra and Viña Errázuriz.

After two years, he returned to the United States to attend Northwestern’s Kellogg Graduate School of Management where he earned an MBA.  Later in 1996, he returned to Franciscan Estates to lead sales and marketing, and plan the launch of Veramonte.  In 2004, following the sale of Franciscan Estates, he joined forces again with his father to run a family-owned and operated company wine brands including Quintessa, Veramonte and Faust.

The Vineyards

While there are other wineries that specialize in making a California version of an ultra-luxury Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petite Verdot, Quintessa uniquely incorporates the often forgotten Carménère. This grape was originally planted in the Médoc region of Bordeaux, France, where it was used to produce deep red wines and occasionally used for blending purposes in the same manner as Petit Verdot. But this red varietal practically disappeared from European vineyards in the mid-19th century when it was abandoned after the Phylloxera plague in France. It was most likely mixed with Merlot cuttings in Chile in the 19th century and not until 1994 was identified in vineyards that were thought to be Merlot. Today it is become Chile’s signature grape and it has been part of Quintessa’s profile for over five years although in 2010 it represented only 2% of the final blend while Cabernet Sauvignon made up 92% of the blend.

The Quintessa estate includes a valley, lake, river, five hills, four microclimates and many soil types. The 170 acres of vineyards include Cabernet Sauvignon (129 acres), Merlot (26 acres), Cabernet Franc (7 acres), Petit Verdot (4 acres), and Carménère (4 acres). The winery uses only the best grapes from these vineyards to create their one Bordeaux-style blended wine. 

The Wines

While visiting I sampled the following wines:

The 2011 Illumination Sauvignon Blanc, a blend of 80% Sauvignon Blanc and 20% Semillon. On the nose this wine exudes aromas of lemon-grass, grapefruit and a hint of chalk. On the palate it is medium bodied with crisp acidity with a prolonged finish with notes of lemon drop on the return. This wine sells for $40 per bottle.

I then did a vertical tasting of four vintages of Quintessa side by side. The wines are sold in 3 and 6 packs in wooden boxes, so the following prices reflect what the wine could cost if it were sold per bottle:

The first was the 2006 Quintessa - a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Carmenère. On the nose this wine has intense aromas of black fruits, plums, dark cherries, damp earth and Dutch licorice. On the palate is very silky on entry and yet the tannins have a firm grip. It is medium bodied with ample acidity and a medium+ length finish. This was my favorite in the line-up and it sells for $165 per bottle.

The second vintage was the 2008 Quintessa - a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Carmenère. This wine displays a bouquet of subtle notes of dark cherries, cassis, with a hint of milk chocolate, earth, forest floor and tar. On the palate it is silky on entry with velvety tannins that have a little grit to them. It is full-bodied, with has ample acidity and a distinct prolonged vanilla finish. This wine sells for $155 per bottle.

The third wine was the 2009 Quintessa - a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot. This wine was very tight on the nose and needed a lot of coaxing to get any aromas out of it. After several minutes of exuberant swirling I picked up subtle aromas of tart cherries, red currants, bell pepper and a hint of dried roses. After coming back to this wine after sampling the next, I picked up additional notes of dusty cherries and vanilla crème. This wine sells for $150 per bottle.

The final wine was the 2010 Quintessa - a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Carmenère. Surprisingly, although this wine was relatively youthful it was more pronounced on the nose and palate than the previous wines with intense aromas of damp earth, dark chocolate, dark cherries, cassis and vanilla. On the palate it has very soft and silky tannins, medium body and a medium length finish. This was my second favorite in the line-up, this wine sells for $145 per bottle.

To see more pictures, check out Erik Wait’s Wine Country Photography at:

To visit or for more information:


1601 Silverado Trail

St Helena, CA 94574

Phone: 1-707- 967-1601

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