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"We like to call our wines California wines with European sensibility,"
By Simone Zarmati Diament
Winemaker Dennis Fife lives in Napa Valley on top of Spring Mountain, with his redhead wife, the acclaimed journalist, author of The Wine Bible, host of PBS TV Series Wine, Food & Friends, and co-owner of Fife, Karen McNeil, and their 2-year-old daughter. "It's the oldest mountain in Napa Valley, and it's really Cabernet country over there, But then we also own a small winery, the Redhead Vineyard and winery an hour and a half due north in the Redwood Valley of Mendocino County," specifies McNeil.
It's no wonder that the sense of "terroir" runs in Dennis Fife veins. An MBA from the Stanford Business School who became president of Inglenook Napa Valley, Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Beaulieu Vineyards, Consiglieri at Stags' Leap Winery, Fife was born and raised in a small agricultural community in central California where many family friends were in the vineyard and wine businesses.
So when he bought land in Napa Valley in 1988 and founded Fife Vineyards in 1991, and later, in 1996, he acquired a winery and vineyard in Mendocino, Fife, his wife Karen and the winemaking team headed by Phil Baxter as consultant, and his son Sam, the cellarmaster strived to create wines that expressed the personalities of the vineyards from which they come. "Wines with personality. We like to call our wines California wines with European sensibility," says McNeil.
Specializing in Reds
Fife Vineyards specializes in red wines based on the unique personalities of single vineyards with unique terroir. "We basically make three families of red wines," continues McNeil, all of which are distributed by Premier in Florida.
The Napa Valley Bordeaux Varieties with mostly Cabernet from the spring Mountain District in Napa Valley, and blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc. The Napa Valley is unquestionably the best vineyard site for these varieties with exceptionally well drained soils, long hours of daylight, and a climate generous enough to allow the development of formidable structure in wine, as well as multiple nuances of flavor. They produce fruit driven wines with perfect balance, elegance, personality, liveliness and great texture as well as complexity to evolve in the glass
1999 Spring Mountain Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon , Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley ($45)
2000 Scarlet, Napa Valley, a blend ($37.50)
2000 Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($32) 76% cabernet sauvignon, 24% cabernet franc Forward aromas of blackcurrant, cedar, and cocoa with refined intensity and silky tannins.
The Rhône varieties are blends mostly from old vines of Syrah, Petite Syrah, Carignane, Mourvedre and Grenache evoking the sun-drenched flavors of the Southern Rhône like the broad, juicy "L´Attitude 39"; a blend of carignane, syrah, grenache, mourvèdre and cinsault evocative of a top Côtes du Rhône or a Châteauneuf-du-Pape from the southern Rhône. A Southern Rhône variety with a New World attitude.
Max Cuvée, Napa Valley, was inspired by the wines of the Northern Rhône, explains McNeil. "Our Max Cuvée focuses on the dense, concentrated but complex and well structured flavors of the old vine petite syrah blended with the exuberant younger syrah. With Max, we hope to capture some of the greatness of the finest wines of the Côte-Rôtie of the Northern Rhône Valley."
And then we make a very dry rosé like they make in Provence. Then Redhead Rosé a dry rosé of carignane made in the style of those countless immensely popular rosés of the Southern Rhône. Redhead is a bistro wine that comes from a parcel with really red soil …" clarifies McNeil. There is a Redhead for whom this vineyard is named. But she's not the only reason. Acquired by Fife Vineyards in August 1996, this vineyard is on flaming-red soil on benchland known as the Ricetti Bench, an area known for over a century as one of the prime places in Mendocino County to grow Petite Syrah and Zinfandel. At 1200 feet elevation, the Redhead Vineyard overlooks Lake Mendocino to the south, and a gentle slope into the beautiful Redwood Valley to the north. A truly beautiful site.
1999 Max Cuvée, Napa Valley. ($35) a Rhône blend featuring Syrah and Petite Syrah from the vineyard near Larkmead Lane north of St. Helena.
L"Attidue 39, Mendocino. ($17 ). A blend of syrah and old vine Carignane with mourvèdre, Grenache and cinsault from vines planted in rocky soils in the foothills of the Ukiah Valley.
Treating Zinfandels as pinot noirs
Then there are five different types of Zinfandels, from hillside terroirs and treated as carefully as pinot noir should be: "We work with a lot of small little plots of land from Chiles Valley, Napa, Mendocino and Redwood Valley, each with its own characteristics. Traditionally zinfandel in California has most often been made much as one would make Cabernet Sauvignon, a big, highly extracted wine with an almost like port-like body. Fife is looking for the wonderfully elegant and complex flavors to create a wine with concentrated fruit while retaining liveliness, elegance, and complexity. Each of the five Zins has its own unique flavors and structure. Here are two:
2001 Dalraddy Vineyard Zinfandel,Chiles Valley District, Napa Valley ($28) a wine with strong and dense, black, concentrated fruit with dark chocolate, black licorice, and plum fruit flavors. It has liveliness, personality richness, power, and expresses a sense of place.
2001 Redhead Vineyard Zinfandel, Estate Grown, Redwood Valley, Mendocino($24) from a vineyard is on flaming-red soil on benchland known as the Ricetti Bench. An explosion of intense berry, black plum, spices and white pepper. The 2001 vintage provided just the right amount of tannin and acid to make a well-structured wine. This wine will develop over 8 to 10 years, that is, if you can resist this Redhead's sassy, upfront charm.