March 2012

The Sands of Time

by Meridith May / photos by John Curley

Man of the Hour. Hourglass proprietor Jeff Smith on his Blueline Ranch estate in Calistoga.


For those industry veterans out there, Jeff Smith’s name may seem familiar. He was on the original team that launched Skyy Vodka with Maurice Kanbar and built its national distribution team, before it was sold to Campari. That was about 20 years ago.

When he left that project, he returned to his “home” business. His parents owned a Napa Valley vineyard called Hourglass, and when his father passed away in 1991, Jeff took over.

The Blueline Vineyard, located in Calistoga, is home to the Hourglass winery at Blueline Ranch, completed in 2009. This incredible Hourglass 2009 Blueline Vineyard Merlot, Napa Valley is an example of the phenolic “magic” that occurs in this very special vineyard. Flavors are explosive; enhanced and stretched out along the palate, tannins are structured yet tame and balance is achieved.
“I had already noticed a paradigm shift occurring in Napa Valley,” he tells THE TASTING PANEL. “Phylloxera hit hard and my mom wanted to sell the property.” Smith is referring to the 1970s and 1980s, when people were “drifting into Napa and picking up the bones” of the diseased vineyards—but without any farming experience and without knowing the history of the area. He adds, “Of course, there were exceptions, such as André Tchelistcheff.”

For these new producers, experimenting in the absence of local knowledge later led to trying to think like the Bordelais, according to Smith, who belongs to the following generation of Napa winemakers. “Bordeaux and Napa have no relationship as far as terroir goes,” he says, “yet we were—we are—using their winemaking practices. As soon as we realized this, and became conscious of our climate differentials, we asked, ‘What is the experience here?’ rather than, ‘What would the Bordelais do?’ That gave rise to cult wines: Screaming Eagle, Colgin, Grace . . .”

Smith is not inferring that Hourglass is or has become a cult wine, however. “We are one of the tiny producers—we are fortunate to have more demand than supply—but the cult wines led the way for us.”

Two Vineyard Sites
Jeff Smith is already at the cutting edge of Napa Valley winemaking. He is also showcasing a new signature Napa Valley architecture with his stunning Olle Lundberg–designed caves.

Hourglass Winery draws from two estate vineyard sites. The Smith family has owned Hourglass Vineyard, just north of St. Helena, since 1976. The vineyard is named for the geographic shape created by two parallel mountain ranges—the Mayacamas to the west and the Vaca to the east—as they funnel together in dramatic fashion to form a narrow point. The Napa River flows just below the vines.

This “hourglass effect” would eventually play a significant role in defining the Cabernet vineyard, which was planted 20 years ago. The constricting mountains are the cause of a thermal dynamic that, at 4 p.m. every day, cools the narrow crossing where the vineyard is located.

The winery itself is located at the Blueline Vineyard in Calistoga, located in a warm pocket on the eastern border of Napa Valley, where a pair of ancient watersheds emerged from the canyon of the Vaca mountain range, creating two streams that would become the source for alluvial soil deposits. These “blue-line” streams formed gravel beds of mineral-rich, nutrient-poor soils—ideal conditions for growing world-class Bordeaux varieties. The vineyard is in proximity to the famous Three Palms Vineyard, notable for its magnificent Merlot. 

Tasting the Future

Hourglass winemaker Bob Foley knows the science behind the soil and is responsible for crafting wines from the estate’s two unique vineyards. Before we tasted anything in bottle, Jeff Smith first introduced us to the 2010 barrel samples of the Blueline Vineyard Malbec and Merlot. These impressive barrel samples show Foley’s skill
at extracting the essence of the site.

Hourglass 2010 Merlot, Blueline Vineyard, Napa Valley ($75)  to be released fall 2012  Saying that the 100% Merlot has a unique profile is an understatement. Armed with chalky tannic grip, it has a sensation of stretching across the palate, a tidal wave of coating tanginess and concentration. Strawberry to chocolate-cherry density.

Hourglass 2010 Malbec, Blueline Vineyard, Napa Valley ($75) to be released spring 2012 Fresh summer plums, violets and rosemary are just part of this high-toned, “sparky” Malbec from the Blueline Vineyard. The vibrancy of the minerality from the gravelly soils electrify the palate with a jalapeño jolt.

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