If Kublai Khan had Been a
(September 9, 1995). Can twenty million dollars make your fondest dreams
come true? Can it even make you a Cabernet that gets 97 Parker points?
If nothing else, its bought William Jarvis a heck of a
hole in the ground.
You may recall seeing the first ads for Jarvis in Wine
Spectator, in spring of 1994 announcing a new wine that is made entirely under the
surface of the earth, not leaving the cave until the wines in the bottle and ready
for shipment. They were full page ads with three columns (I think) of copy. Frankly they
didnt interest me much in the wine, but I surely wanted to see that amazing
Di and Gerry Lampkin were curious too, so Di made
reservations, and Phylis and I joined them for our first adventure in wine spelunking.
The Jarvis winery is on a pretty road that winds east of Napa
and would eventually take you up Atlas Peak if you kept on going. You know youre
getting close when you see a vineyard on your left, bordered by tall security fences. Then
you get to a Beverly Hills-style automatic gate with an intercom. The car ahead of us
stopped, hit the buzzer, said something into the speaker ("open sesame?") and
the gate swung open. We followed them in.
Up the long drive was a small parking lot andnothing.
Practically nothing, anyway, except a towering, arch-shaped bronze double door, set into
the hillside. It looked sort of like I had imagined the Gates of Moria in The Lord of
I pulled on the handle of one door and it swung open easily,
revealing a reception room no different from that of any other winery, except it was
underground. We checked off our names in their book, and paid the nice tour-guide our $10
per person fee. Eventually she opened up another double-door behind her, summoned us to
follow and from here on all resemblance to the surface-world ceased. (NOTE: it was
too dark to take any more notes, so please forgive any errors of memory.)
First we walked down this long, shadowy, arched corridor that
seemed strangely familiar to me. It hit me after a while that I had seen it in "The
Wizard of Oz" and Im sure you have too. Remember that echoing hall that
leads to the throne-room of Oz the Great and Terrible? This is a dead ringer. Its
not only the same shape, but theyve lit it with sconces to throw off shadows that
look like huge parabolic ribs. The perspective gets exaggerated quite dramatically, making
it look like the tunnel stretches on forever.
When thats over, you emerge into an enormous labyrinth
of criss-crossing tunnels. Our guide that the winery is laid out like a spoked wheel. The
perimeter of the wheel contains the fermentation tanks, the aging barrels and bottled wine
The spokes allow you to shortcut the giant donut, and the
highlight of the tour, for my money is right at the hub: Its a waterfall! Not just a
trickle, a grand roaring thing. It drops twenty feet into a creek, which we crossed by
means of stepping stones.
The guide explained that William Jarvis designed the whole
thing. It was tricky, because to accommodate the winery equipment, he needed corridors
that were something like twenty feet high, and standard cave designs dont exceed
twelve by twelve. She said he worked on it with some folks at Berkeley (or was it Cal
Tech?), using the computers there to arrive at a solution. He discovered that parabolic
designs would accommodate the stress most easily. (To me they sort of resembled the
pointed arches in Gothic cathedrals, which of course were designed without any computers.)
Like many winery owners, Mr. and Mrs Jarvis operate as a team,
and I would expect the women on the tour certainly appreciated her influence when it came
time to visit the rest rooms. I think this must be the first time that Ive ever seen
fit to mention the johns at a winery, but these were magnificent, worthy of the Plaza.
The ladys, according to Phylis, had twice as many stalls
as the gents something like ten or twenty! Our guide explained that Mrs.
Jarvis was sick and tired of watching women wait in line while men generally have no such
trouble. This increased my respect for the Jarvises, for I have often observed the same
It was now time for us to taste the first public release of
Jarvis wines, from the 1992 vintage. We tasted a Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.
I wont repeat all the wine-geek facts in the ads, but
will summarize that the Cabernet Sauvignon comes from vines that were planted in 1985, on
37 acres of the Jarvis estate, 1,000 feet off the valley floor, near two lakes that help
to moderate the extremes of the already cool daytime temperatures during growing season.
The vines are spaced 7' x 11', which the ad will tell you is a very good thing, although I
cannot tell you why. I dont remember where the Chardonnay comes from. The winemaker
for both is Dmitri Tchelistchef (son of the late, great Andre) and he also helped design
the winery, which is technically as well as aesthetically lovely, as far as I could tell.
One more digression. The money for all this came from William
Jarviss business. Our guide wasnt specific about the nature of this business,
but said it had to do with telecommunications. Id guess fiber optics have something
to do with it, because the caves were lit with fibre-optic chandeliers.
Oh, and one more fascinating sidelight: to prepare for this winery
venture, the Jarvises both took classes at Davis!
All right. To the wines. Our guide opened yet another door at
the far end of the cave, and ushered us into an enormous ballroom. It was two stories
high, and decorated with the biggest amethyst geodes Ive ever seen in my life
I didnt measure but would estimate from memory that some were over six feet tall.
Here two tables had been prepared with glasses for all of us.
She poured, we tasted.
I dont remember what the JARVIS 1992 CHARDONNAY
cost but would guess about $35. Aged nine months in new French oak, it was pale
green-yellow, with a nose of oak and tropicals. On the palate, it had a light texture with
more complex fruit and oak notes, and a satisfactory, creamy finish. I would guess it
could stand another six months in the bottle to fully integrate the oak, but everything
tasted well balanced. A very well-made wine from good fruit, but no better than many
California Chardonnays that cost much less.
The JARVIS 1992 CABERNET SAUVIGNON costs
about $50 per bottle. It was deep purple, with a nose of green pepper, herbs, oak and
acetone. On the palate it seemed a little tart, with weedy and molasses notes, medium body
and a moderate finish. I had heard better things about the Cabernet than this, and yes, I
was disappointed. Our companions had much the same comment.
At the time, I theorized that the serving temperature may have
been at fault. It may be a mistake to serve tastings in the cave, where temperatures are a
constant 58-60 degrees F. Quite a few Cabernets show much, much better at 68 degrees. This
theory may have been borne out that evening at dinner where we had the 92
Jarvis Cab from the half-bottle, at room temperature. Here it was showing much better,
more similar in profile to Caymus Special Selection, though still with less depth of
Is Jarvis wine going to be a Wizard or a Humbug? Putting the
most positive spin on it, Id call my own experience inconclusive.
Bottom line: Im not buying any Jarvis right now. But if
youre in Napa, dont miss that cave!
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