Cathy Corison, Napa’s First Woman Winemaker – Interview
Cathy Corison is a pioneer and one of the first women to ever make wine in Napa Valley. When Cathy arrived in Napa 42 years ago, “it was just scratching its way out of prohibition”.
This was one year after the famous “Judgement of Paris” tasting, when Napa Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon from Montelena and Stags Leap, forever changed the perception of wine writers, by conquering the top first-growth Bordeaux and White Burgundy Marques in a blind-tasting.
My first visit to Corison was prompted by a suggestion from a friend as I wanted to visit Napa wineries where the wines were balanced and more food-friendly, the opposite of the typical 14.5%+ alcohol over the top style that is synonymous with the region. I tasted Cathy Corison’s wines in January 2016 and again on our second Visit to Corison early in 2017.
Corison, like many small Napa producer’s flies under the radar, but is known to serious wine lovers as a high-quality producer of beautifully balanced Napa Cabernet at a price that won’t break the bank.They are a small outfit by Napa standards, producing just 3,500 cases per year.
Kronos vineyard Cabernet from low-yield old vines also on the Rutherford bench land. The Rutherford Bench is a loamy alluvial fan, rich in minerals, but with perfectly drained gravel soil, deposited over millennia from the Mayacamas Range in the West.
Cathy Corison in the Kronos Vineyard.
Cathy Corison’s first vintage in Napa was at Freemark Abbey in 1978 as a cellar-hand hauling hoses and cleaning tanks in an internship created for UC Davis oenology students.
Two years later she completed her Masters in Oenology and has been making wine in Napa Valley for nearly 40 years. Cathy is a full control winemaker, managing all aspects of the growing, winemaking and marketing of Corison’s wines.
Her philosophy and life’s passion is to make powerful Cabernet Sauvignon wines that are elegant, balanced and that grace table with the potential for long term cellaring.
I asked her, what’s changed since those early days?
“Certainly, the technology has improved, with the goal to handle wine more gently. We’ve made major improvements in the vineyard and learned so much about canopy management. With canopy management, we can make wines in the right sites that have full ripeness and richness of flavor at lower alcohols, with better natural acidity and more energy than ever before. In the old days, Napa was a bit like Bordeaux; in a great vintage, we made fabulous wine, but with better viticulture and cellar practices, we can make great wine nearly every year.
We are blessed in Napa with a great climate, rainless summers where Cabernet fully ripens, even in cold years like 2011. Yield management was not an issue 40 years ago, but you cannot make great wines, with ripeness, color, complexity at 5 tons/acre”.
“UC Davis did a lot of technical work to reinvigorate wine industry technology here and globally and certainly made major contributions to the modern approach to wine making. Robert Mondavi was a real innovator as well and he set us all on a steep learning curve to make better and better wine and shared everything he learned, with anyone who listened”, she recalled. “The Paris tasting catapulted Napa onto World stage; the wine industry here exploded and I had a front row seat”.
“I discovered wine when I was 19 years old wine, studying biology in college. I enrolled in a wine appreciation class and before long, wine grabbed me by the neck and led me on this path. Wine is intriguing; a series of living systems that conspire in alchemy to produce the finished product”.
To me it’s infinitely interesting, in fact I’m still studying biology today. “I graduated from Pomona 2 years later and put everything I owned in a VW bug, with $200 my father stuffed in my pocket as I was leaving and drove to Napa and began working part time.”
Cathy is a true pioneer. “There were only 30 wineries in Napa when I arrived in 1975, now there are over 500. There were no women in winemaking anywhere, it’s been an amazing evolution. There were women in wine and they came through the lab, but I wanted to make wine at the outset.
I went to UC Davis to fill in the chemistry I avoided at college.” Cathy tried to get a job as a winemaker, but there had been no women in a cellar in Napa, ever. She was a college athlete and weighed about 90lbs at the time and struggled to convince people she could do the job. She started at Freemark Abbey as an intern in a job created for an oenology student, working part time as a cellar hand. Of course, she had no trouble at all doing the work.
Two years later, she graduated from UC Davis with a Masters in Oenology and began making wine.
The Early Years
“My first winemaking job after I got my masters, was at a now defunct winery in Spring Mountain. It was a steep learning curve. But after a couple of years I had a resume and went on to Chappelet and was their sole winemaker for the 1980’s.
Chappelet produced 30,000 cases a year and I had an assistant winemaker Titus, who is still their winemaker today. I had a much bigger crew and made 10 times as much wine as we do here, it was all estate fruit. I learned so much at Chappelet, mountain grapes, higher acidity, leaner tannins. I learned everything I know about tannin management there and I learned how to manage people.
Chappelet was wonderful as it had an established style, it’s instructive for a winemaker to make wine from same vineyard over a long period. I learned a lot about managing vineyards as well.
When I started at Chappelet, there were winemakers and vineyard managers and they worked in separate buildings. My intersection with the vineyard was when grapes came to me in baggies for analysis and a decision to pick; happily, that’s no longer true.
I knew what I wanted to do and couldn’t make the wine I wanted to in the Mountains, I had to come to the Rutherford bench.
The wines here have softer velvety tannins, are aromatic and have that red and blue end of the flavor spectrum. I started buying grapes and barrels and making wine under my own name at Chappelet in 1987, instead of buying cars and houses. I spent 13 years as a vagabond winemaker, producing Corison wines in other facilities, including: Robert Sinskey, Rombauer and Etude, before starting our own winery.”
A Huge Leap of Faith – Buying a Vineyard and Building the Corison Winery
We bought the 8 acre Kronos vineyard right behind the winery in 1995. Kronos is a low yielding vineyard producing Cabernet Sauvignon yields of 1.25-1.50 tons/acre. The vineyard is planted on Bale loam on Rutherford Bench-land between Hwy 29 and Mayacamas.
Kronos was planted in 1971 on St George rootstock, which is wonderful. At first, we thought it was XR, a non phylloxera resistant rootstock that we’d have to replant, but we researched and tested it and found it to be St. George, which is phylloxera resistant. The vineyard is dry-farmed organically and produces low yields of small clusters of berries with lovely acidity and great fruit flavors.
I knew I could make better wines in my own facility and we started building the winery in 99; my husband designed it and we built it together. As it happens, we’re very fortunate to be on Hwy 29; there have been some very difficult times in the wine business over the past 20 years and location matters.”
I asked Cathy about her thoughts on billionaire and millionaire 2nd-lifers coming to Napa to live their dream of owning a winery. She laughed and commented that she didn’t get the memo needing a large fortune to make a small one in the wine business.
“I’ve been on a very different trajectory; I had to put shoes on my kids and now I’ve got 2 kids at college” I asked why she hasn’t upped the volume to improve revenue as so many others have. “I couldn’t, I wear too many hats, I grow, make, market and sell the wine and am grateful for a small and loyal team of employees… and I’m hopefully a great mom to my two daughters. I prefer to treat this as a sustainable business, if I don’t sell what I have this year I can’t make it next year and I’m constantly putting everything back into the business. I put my 30th vintage in barrel last year, this is a labor of love and lifelong passion for me.”
Wines and Winemaking Philosophy
The Corison house style from day 1 is tightly clustered around 12.7 – 13.5%, wines are perfectly balanced with no obvious oak – although 50% new oak is used each year, but you cannot taste it.
I asked Cathy about her impression of the Parker big ripe high alcohol wine styles. “I’ve never liked big jammy wines, but fashion comes and goes, and I’m glad to see it’s coming back to wines of finesse and balance in California”.
“I drink the wines of World and enjoy wines that have life-force, energy and are great with food. It’s hard to define, but wines that grace the table have this quality. I discovered a parcel of old vine Gewürztraminer in Anderson Valley and I’m making 150 cases of it a year, it’s fun to make and fun to drink”.
“I’m a huge Riesling fan, there’s always a Moselle in my fridge and love Albarino, Gruner Veltliner and most Austrian wines have that verve. I’d love to make a Riesling, but there aren’t many places in California where it’s grown ideally”.
“My reds go through Malolactic fermentation in barrel, no SO2 up until this point, when it’s finished primary fermentation it goes right into barrel.“
I noted that there was no obvious oak on any of her wines. To which she replied that she consistently uses 100% French oak, with 50% new barrels. “Like Burgundian chardonnay, integrating wood and fruit, you don’t know where fruit ends and oak begins.”
I noted in my tasting and commented to Cathy that her wines at 13.5% do not lack ripeness and carry wonderful acidity and postulated it must be canopy management, to which she replied, “We can only make a wine as good as the vineyard can produce and canopy management is critical to getting the best from the vineyard.”
Corazon 2014 Gewurztraminer $35 13.2% alcohol. Pale straw, honeysuckle and white floral perfume on nose, clean, lovely acidity, floral perfume follows onto lingering unctuous palate, dry finish, perfect. Lovely acidity, Anderson Valley fruit.
Corison 99 Napa Cab N/A 13.6% alcohol. Medium brick red, lovely red berry nose, elegant, round, delicious now, plenty of fruit and acidity to continue to evolve. Soft tannins, very long finish, lovely and many years ahead.
2013 Napa Cab $90 13.5% Dark crimson, intense red and blue fruit nose, spearmint and spice. Palate has lovely acidity and punch, plenty ripe at 13.5%, but with lovely acidity, drinks beautifully now, long finish, gorgeous.
2012 Kronos Cab $165 13.7% Dark, deep color, old vine intensity on nose, spearmint spice and dark berry fruit, sweet, ripe, long. Gorgeous now, mouth filling long finish, perfect acid and tannin balance. Very big future ahead. The Kronos vineyard situated on gravel pits like top Bordeaux, perfectly drained, low yields at 1.25-1.5 tons/acre.