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If Kublai Khan had Been a Winemaker

(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, it’s 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 wine’s in the bottle and ready for shipment. They were full page ads with three columns (I think) of copy. Frankly they didn’t interest me much in the wine, but I surely wanted to see that amazing underground winery.

     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 you’re 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 and—nothing. 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 the Rings.

     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 I’m 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. It’s not only the same shape, but they’ve 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 that’s 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 awaiting release.

     The spokes allow you to shortcut the giant donut, and the highlight of the tour, for my money is right at the hub: It’s 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 don’t 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 I’ve ever seen fit to mention the johns at a winery, but these were magnificent, worthy of the Plaza.

     The lady’s, according to Phylis, had twice as many stalls as the gent’s — 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 phenomenon.

     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 won’t 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 don’t 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 Jarvis’s business. Our guide wasn’t specific about the nature of this business, but said it had to do with telecommunications. I’d 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 I’ve ever seen in my life — I didn’t 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 don’t 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 fruit.

     Is Jarvis wine going to be a Wizard or a Humbug? Putting the most positive spin on it, I’d call my own experience inconclusive.

     Bottom line: I’m not buying any Jarvis right now. But if you’re in Napa, don’t miss that cave!

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