Craig Camp has been a busy guy. As the GM of Cornerstone Cellars in Napa Valley he's been hard at work growing the Cornerstone brand in bredth and depth. A few years ago, if you wanted to drink a bottle of Cornerstone wine your choices were limited to a Napa Cabernet ($65) and a Howell Mountain Cabernet ($75).
"The most important thing to me in winemaking is that the last sip from the bottle is more compelling than the first. A wine should get more exciting as you drink it. A wine should always be judged on the second glass, not the first sip."
Since then Cornerstone has added more offerings at lower price points while upgrading quality across the board. New additions to the Cornerstone lineup include Oregon Pinot Noir's made by Tony Rynders (formerly of Domaine Serene fame) as well as aptly named Stepping Stone by Cornerstone wines that bring in interesting wines around $25-$30 a bottle.
I had a chance to visit Craig at the Cornerstone tasting room earlier this fall and tasted through the lineup. It was like an entirely new wine label than the one I saw in 2009 when I first moved to California. Craig outlined specific efforts he's made to improve the wine quality during production. Some key upgrades (that were music to my ears):
- Harvesting at much lower brix levels. The fruit they pick is fully ripe, but not raisined or desiccated.
- Being more concerned about the acidity than the sugar.
- Understanding that too much alcohol obliterates vineyard and varietal character.
- Searching out and selecting cooler sites with mature vines farmed organically or sustainably.
- Dramatically increasing the amount of cabernet franc and merlot blended into our cabernet to dramatically increase balance and complexity.
- Staying focused on vineyard, vintage and variety (Craig calls this the 3 V's)
When I asked Craig about the thinking behind Cornerstone's evolution, he had this to say: "I cannot think of wine in any other context than at the table. That we have to describe a wine as a "food wine" seems like an oxymoron to me. What else would it be for? Our goal is to make wines we love to drink. That means balance, elegance and complexity. Key aspects of that in the Napa Valley is avoiding picking overripe fruit and over-extraction in the cellar. To me the difficult vintages in Napa are not the cooler ones, but the hotter ones."
Putting on my sommelier hat, I can say this is exactly what I wish more wineries in California would do as well (or at least think about doing). Wine professionals are often beating the dead horse of "too much oak" and "too much alcohol, not enough balance!" Well, it's good to see Cornerstone leading by example. There's so much time and money that goes into finding the best vineyards sites to grow pristine fruit, it's always baffled me why you'd want to cover that fruit up with so much oak that it nullifies the unique personality of the terroir.
A few standouts from my tasting were:
2010 Stepping Stone Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley ($30) - Oregon's 2010 vintage may very well be the best vintage...ever, or at least until the 2011's hit the market. Both vintages are so similar, yet so different than any other vintage. They were both cold, which basically means there's an ideal balance of sugar and acid structure in 2010 and 2011. To get a beautiful, seamless, elegant Pinot Noir of this quality for only thirty bucks is a treat. Recommendation: Buy 3+ bottles to have on hand—it's a very good value
2010 Cornerstone Chardonnay, Willamette Valley ($30) - I like that Cornerstone is based in Napa, but their Chardonnay actually comes from Oregon. That says something. And for the same reasons listed above on the Pinot Noir, this too comes from the stellar 2010 vintage. White Burgundy lovers can rejoice—this baby has a solid acid backbone and is wrapped up with plenty of tree and tropical fruits with a modest kiss of oak. Recommendation: For the price it's worth having at least a bottle on hand for when your wine geek friends come over. Before they can start grumbling about oak-bomb Chardonnay's you can bust this out and shut them up.
2011 Stepping Stone Corallina Rosé of Syrah, Napa Valley ($20) - This could possibly be the best wine of the whole lineup, which is saying a lot! Craig and the winemaking team set out to specifically create this stunning bone-dry Syrah. The lower residual sugar might hide the fact there's alcohol in the wine, so be careful, you might forget and end up face down in the mashed potatoes. Recommendation: If you're a fan of rosé I can tell you this is one of the tastiest ones I've had in 2012.