Winemaker Pierre Seillan, who created Vérité for Jess Jackson and Barbara Banke in 1998, and his daughter Hélène who is now assistant winemaker
The text of this article first appeared in The World of Fine Wine, issue 68 (2020)
Barbara Banke tells this story, but even if it were apocryphal I would like it. She and her late husband, Jess Jackson (founder of Kendall Jackson Winery), met Pierre Seillan in Bordeaux in the 1990s, where he was working at several châteaux across different appellations and developing his "micro-cru philosophy" – small vineyards within vineyards. They flew him to Sonoma County and showed him a number of mountain vineyards. “He was excited,” says Banke. Jackson, who loved Petrus (don’t we all?), asked Seillan if he could make something as good as Pétrus. “Why not better?” Seillan replied. And so Vérité was born.
In the first vintage, 1998, there were two wines, the Merlot-based La Muse (90% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon in the inaugural year) and the Cabernet Sauvignon-dominated La Joie (70/30 Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot in the debut vintage). What has become the Cabernet Franc-based blend Le Désir followed two years later in 2000, although that first blend was only one third Cabernet Franc with 51% Merlot and 16% Cabernet Sauvignon. Cabernet Franc is Seillan’s passion, according to Christopher Jackson (Banke’s and Jackson’s son, who works across all aspects of Jackson Family Wines), but it wasn’t until the 2005 vintage that they had enough mature Cabernet Franc for it to take the lead in the blend.
"The grapes for Vérité come from 50 micro-crus across four appellations along the western slopes of the Mayacamas Mountains "
Seillan is not alone in his liking for Cabernet Franc. Le Désir is Banke’s favourite too, whereas Jess Jackson’s was the Cabernet Sauvignon-based La Joie, despite his wanting a Petrus type wine originally. Neatly, or conveniently, Christopher Jackson’s favourite is La Muse: “I like its purity and florality and the savoury secondary notes you get with age.” Over time, he says, “we’ve become a bit more focused on the core variety in each wine.” So much so that the yet to be released 2017 vintage of La Muse is 100% Merlot, the first of any vintage of the trio not to be a blend.
The grapes for all three Vérités, including small amounts of Malbec and Petit Verdot, come from 50 micro-crus that Seillan has identified in four appellations along the western slopes of the Mayacamas Mountain Range – Chalk Hill, Bennett Valley, Alexander Valley and Knights Valley – ranging from three to 25 miles from the Pacific. Everything is harvested (early by California standards) and fermented separately, then aged in French oak barrels of different grains and toast profiles, all minutely tailored by Seillan, giving him hundreds of blending components. As Vérité’s first and only winemaker, he continues to shape everything, but he does now have an assistant: his daughter Hélène. And as her husband is also a winemaker, Banke has high hopes that the succession is secure.
Cardinale, created in 1982, predates Vérité by some way and was driven from inception by a different philosophy and intention: the selection of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from top-quality North Coast vineyards to produce a wine that would express the individual vintage more than a location. In 2002, the year after Christopher Carpenter was appointed winemaker, it became a pure Napa Valley wine, but the objective remained and remains the same: a Cabernet Sauvignon that expresses its vintage rather than a vineyard or sub-appellation.
"Christopher Carpenter never knows what the final array of vineyards in the Cardinale blend will be"
Thus, it’s a blend of multiple sub-appellations. But they’re primarily mountain vineyards (and primarily Cardinale’s own), with Mount Veeder and Howell Mountain at their heart and, in the most recent vintages, Spring Mountain and Diamond Mountain coming more to the fore. Some benchland grapes and 10–15% Merlot also always make it into the blend.
Christopher Jackson describes Carpenter as “a texturalist” who wants a wine that’s enjoyable immediately but which is “seamless, holistic, hits every point of the palate” and which ages. He likes native fermentation, doesn’t like filtration and keeps the individual components separate for as long as possible. As a result, Carpenter never knows what the final array of vineyards in the blend will be “until it is all said and done”.
Cardinale 2016 – predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon from mountain vineyards in Napa Valley and from a fine-quality harvest
Vérité La Muse 2016
93% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc, 2% Malbec; 17 months in French oak, majority new.
Welcome spring rains replenished the soils after several years of drought and the growing season saw moderate summer temperatures (a few heat spikes in July, but nothing untoward) and modestly paced, even ripening that kept sugar levels in check and retained acidity. The temperate season is reflected in the ripe, but notably fresh nose of plum and briary black fruit piqued with spice together with touches of coffee cake and savoury soy sauce. The oak still shows as a slightly separate component (more so than in the 2016 La Joie and Le Désir), but on the palate it’s already more integrated, the oak giving a gentle chocolate-and-coffee roundness to the persuasive purity and freshness and graceful sweetness. With cashmere-fine texture and tannins and a bright, spicy, fresh bay-leaf note on the finish, this promises to age very well.
Vérité La Joie 2016
84% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Merlot, 5% Petit Verdot; 17 months in French oak, the majority new.
A vibrant, deep purple wine of driving intensity and precision. Crunchy blackcurrant, berries, spice and floral aromas with a fresh, leafy, sweet note, and a palate packed powerfully but tightly with dark cherry, sweet plum and blackberry fruit woven with deeper base-notes of black olive and bitter chocolate. Tannins of impeccable finesse sustain a long, silky finish.
Vérité Le Désir 2016
82% Cabernet Franc, 12% Merlot, 6% Malbec; 17 months in French oak, majority new.
This is so immediately pretty, fragrant and floral, it would be easy to underestimate it, but beyond the openness, easy harmony and plush texture there’s a will of iron and flavours that go on and on. Fine-grained tannins and acidity course through notes of sweet plum and plum clafoutis, black cherry, fresh bay, cedarwood, vanilla and toasted nuts. Intense but fine-boned, polished, long and exciting.
Vérité La Muse 2008
90% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc, 3% Malbec; 13 months in French oak, majority new.
Those who believe that great wines emerge from difficult growing seasons could cite 2008 in Sonoma Country. Starting with a low water table and late frosts, it was variously hot, cool and humid. A gloriously expressive nose of lush, briary black fruit, sweet oak spice and more brooding, smokier spices (black cardamom, clove, black pepper). The palate opens with a rush of compelling sweet dark fruit and delicate herb notes then moves into creamy cappuccino and milk chocolate, all underlaid by satin-smooth tannins. Beautifully balanced and harmonious.
Vérité La Joie 2008
71% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc, 4% Petit Verdot, 3% Malbec; 16 months in French oak, the majority new.
As with the 2016s, the Cabernet Sauvignon-based blend is the deepest, most electric colour. It’s immediately rich and savoury on the nose with dark chocolate and aromatic spices coming ahead of intense black fruit, then some sweeter red-berry notes and delicate grassiness. The palate is harmonious and texturally rich, with persistent fine acidity and tannins, but it seems to be holding something back, as if it’s turned in on itself slightly for the time being.
Vérité Le Désir 2008
61% Cabernet Franc, 31% Merlot, 4% Cabernet Sauvignon, 4% Malbe; 16 months in French oak, the majority new.
A beautiful wine. There’s a tightness and intensity to the nose and the palate in terms of both flavour and structure, but the richness and silkiness of the texture and the length of the palate are something to behold. Spices mingle with dark berries, raspberries, aromatic herbs and mineral freshness.
Vérité Le Désir 2005
50% Cabernet Franc, 39% Merlot, 9% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Malbec; 18 months in French oak, the majority new.
Spring and early summer rains gave a long flowering and good fruit-set. Summer was relatively cool, allowing for slow, even ripening and finally a late harvest (September 24 to October 6) of high-quality fruit.
Very aromatic and expressive. Sweet, ripe, opulent fruit – now past the primary phase but still vibrant – with more evolved notes of chocolate, coffee, balsamic, spice and dried herbs adding layers and complexity. The palate is succulent, powerful and polished, with a surprise note of wild strawberry. The 2016 will trump this ultimately with its precision, purity and finesse, but this is a notable wine, drinking perfectly now and with at least another 15 years ahead of it.
89% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Merlot. 20 months in French oak, 93% new.
As in Sonoma County, the soils were refreshed by generous spring rains, and the summer was free of heat spikes and other incidents which led to an abundant, fine-quality harvest.
An elegant nose with an alluring high-toned floral accent, sweet, fresh, black plum and dark-roast coffee notes. The palate is pure, incisive and bright with distinctive florality from the Spring Mountain fruit; plum is joined by red fruit, dark mocha and savoury graphite notes and tannins so silky the wine is effortlessly enjoyable already. But cellaring will be repaid with a softening of the mountain-vineyard acidity and with more nuance and complexity.
88% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Merlot; 19 months in French oak, 94% new.
A late summer with ideal conditions for ripening. Ripe cassis and briary fruit aromas, with savoury soy and dark-chocolate and just a suggestion of smoke, coffee bean and herbs. Smooth ripe tannins and rich fruit lead into a deep and resonant savoury note that is lifted and freshened by acidity. This is just starting to come into its own.
86% Cabernet Sauvignon, 14% Merlot; 19 months in French oak, 90% new.
A year of low rainfall, a warm spring, a moderate to cool summer and leisurely ripening.
Ripe cassis and black cherry aromas – the fruit a little riper and more baked in style than the 2014 but accompanied by more herb and leafiness and an extra dimension of mature, balsamic notes. Big-boned and concentrated but proportionate and velvet-textured – easily enough to give it another decade and more.
86% Cabernet Sauvignon, 14% Merlot; 19 months in French oak, 100% new.
From new-year floods onwards, this was a season of challenges in the vineyards, but ultimately the long harvest, stretching into early November, brought rewards. Ripe, but bright dark fruit with lifted floral, bay leaf, baking spice and mineral graphite aromas. A palate of dark fruit and savoury flavours with fresh, integrated acidity. No shortage of intensity and density, but slightly more restraint and elegance than the vintages on either side.
88% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Merlot; 20 months in French oak, 100% new.
Everything was early about 2005, from bud-break to veraison to ripening and the harvest itself. Fruit quality was good, but volumes were below average. Powerfully ripe, sweet black fruit – blackcurrant, black cherry and blueberry, but with definition and clarity and no suggestion of any baked edges or lack of freshness. Rewarding whiffs of sandalwood, spice, chocolate and mocha expanding an opulent and weighty palate. Velvety and drinking very nicely, but the tannins are slightly drier, more leathery and less refined than in the most recent vintages.