As one drives up Howell Mountain from the foggy Napa Valley floor, one quickly appreciates the attributes of cultivating vines on the mountain – it’s sunny. And if you continue up – all the way up – you will reach an idyllic clearing with luminous sun, towering redwoods, and silence. This is Black Sears.
When owners Joyce Black and Jerre Sears acquired the property in 1979, it was planted with cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel vines. For years, they farmed the vineyards and sold the fruit to some of Napa Valley’s most famous zinfandel producers such as Turley Wine Cellars, Robert Craig and Howell Mountain Vineyards. In 1997, they began to produce small lots of estate wines under their own Black Sears label. Today, their daughter Ashley and her husband Chris help to run this small, family-owned winery.
Black Sears vineyards are planted on iron-rich volcanic soils at 2,400 feet above sea level, the highest elevation in Howell Mountain AVA and among the highest in the Napa Valley. The vines have a mostly eastern exposure providing gentle morning sun and avoiding the hot rays of the afternoon which can easily burn zinfandel’s thin skin. The zinfandel is dry-farmed except for a few rows at the top of the slopes, helping to tame zinfandel’s vigorous nature.
The zinfandel vines were propagated using budwood from the heritage Hayne Vineyard in Saint Helena, and have been farmed organically and biodynamically for eight years, under the initiation of former winemaker Ted Lemon. Ashley says that the vines no longer show symptoms of leaf roll virus (which delays maturity) since they have been farming organically. Black Sears has been fortunate in attracting the best winemaking talent, first with Ted Lemon who now makes some of the greatest Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in the US with Littorai, and then with Thomas Rivers Brown, Food and Wine magazine’s 2010 winemaker of the year. Brown is a zinfandel specialist of sorts, having started off his career at cult zinfandel producer Turley Wine Cellars, and is currently making zinfandel wines for Outpost, Chiarello Family Vineyards and Schrader.
Brown is known for minimal intervention winemaking, allowing the character of the fruit to show through. He describes the Howell Mountan zinfandel wines to have a savory quality with sage brush, pepper and high-toned briary fruit with structure to age. I found the 2009 Black Sears Estate Zinfandel wine from barrel to be among the most intringuingly spicy zinfandels I have tasted with white pepper, five-spice and sandalwood notes to it. How much of it come from oak? Brown said that when the grapes are crushed, the aromas are very close to the finished wine.
Black Sears will be pouring the 2008 Black Sears Estate Zinfandel from Howell Mountain at the ZAP Grand Zinfandel Tasting on January 29th at Fort Mason between 2:00 pm and 5:00 pm for the general public (ZAP members get in at 1:00 pm). The cost is $60/member, $70/non-member, plus nominal fee for handling and contribution to the American Heart Association. For details on the three-day long events, prices and membership information, check out the www.zinfandel.org website or purchase here.