The un-clonable Caldwell of Coombsville
Irreverent, irrepressible and incorrigable – that about sums up John Caldwell and Napa Valley wouldn’t be the same without him. No other person outside of Napa City founder and Coombsville namesake Nathan Coombs is more closely associated with the Coombsville wine region than Caldwell, and it started really as opportunism to develop land as tony real estate in the emergent Napa Valley tourism destination in the late 1970’s. He was flying high then with his successful shoe stores in the valley, he says, touring around in his Cadillac Seville ragtop with an $1,800 sound system that went “boom, boom, boom” while he flaunted gold chains through his open silk shirts.
His plans to develop property in the Coombsville area were quashed by the Napa Planning Commission’s anti-growth policies at the time but it turned out the decision was fortuitous for him and his 54 acres which he then began planting to vines. He clearly remembers the day in 1981 when he watched a workman ploughing up the rich, dark earth and “just fell in love with the place.” He ditched the fancy clothes, bought a pair of 501’s and became hands on ever since.
Caldwell did not have formal education in viticulture or oenology, which may explain why he became fascinated with clones – his legacy to the Napa Valley. As part of his immersion into winegrowing, Caldwell made his first trip to France in the fall of 1982 and visited Premier Grand Cru Classe Chateau Haut-Brion in Bordeaux where this leader in innovation was 2-3 years into a long-term clonal research program to select the finest clones to propagate. After that trip, Caldwell was fired up to experiment with clones that no one else in Napa Valley was using, such as French clones. At the time, growers were using UC Davis clones that were known more for vigor and pest-resistance, including the ill-fated AXR-1 which would eventually succumb to the root-damaging pest phylloxera.
In 1984, Caldwell decided to unofficially plant French clones from a foreign source but whose clonal vineyard origins were known by him first-hand. The illegality of such pursuit – in the eyes of Dept. of Ag officials – might have seemed more sinister if he’d had a formal plan in place, but his course of action resembled more of an ad hoc decision tree – with favorable outcomes. While phylloxera was spreading in Napa Valley vineyards planted to AXR-1, Caldwell’s cabernet sauvignon vines were thriving and producing excellent wines at Dunn Vineyards, Pahlmeyer and Schafer. Word spread and demand grew for cuttings from Caldwell’s vineyards. This led to the establishment of a certified nursery where he would then become the first commercial grower and importer of “official” French clones from UC Davis and its equivalent, ENTAV, in France.
His expertise with French clones is well-known. I first came across the name John Caldwell when I began studying clones in 2007 and colleagues recommended his publication “The Concise Guide to Wine Grape Clones” published in 1998. He hasn’t updated it since he retired from the nursery business in 2004 to focus on his own winemaking venture Caldwell Vineyard, but it’s clear he’s still fascinated with clones by the labelling of his varietal wines by clone number.
As you might expect, Caldwell’s vineyards are planted primarily to French clonal varieties: the Bordeaux red and whites, syrah, tannat and chardonnay. The cabernet sauvignon grows well here, in shallow soils at 500 foot elevations with a northwesterly exposition at the southern end of the Coombsville “bowl” which limits extreme heat and cold exposures. From the best lots are made the Gold Cabernet Sauvignon ($165) which is barrel-fermented with native yeasts in 100% new French oak producing deep, concentrated wines with great length.
In his opinion, syrah grows beautifully in the Coombsville region, not too jammy and not peppery like the Northern Rhone. It ripens consistently, which is why syrah features in his proprietary red blends Rocket Science ($48) and Silver ($120), both of which also includes cabernet sauvignon and merlot. The introduction of syrah began in 1998, a cool year for Napa Valley when merlot ripened but the cabernet sauvignon struggled. The result? Very unique Napa Valley proprietary reds that makes the best of what Coombsville has to offer in any given year.
For more information on Caldwell Vineyard, visit the website.