Jeff Smith, the owner of California wine producer Hourglass, knows how to play a room. He was in town to lead a tasting of his wines at Private Social in Uptown. The audience was, for the most part, wine customers on his list. His casual but expert public speaking manner comes from years of marketing in the liquor industry, much of it spent establishing the Skyy vodka brand. That is where he would have likely stayed had his mother not called him one day in the early 1990s to announce that she had decided to sell the family vineyard. The death of her husband had made the work necessary to replant it too strenuous.
His father had taken a seat-of-the-pants approach to the vineyard, starting right with his decision in the 1970s to grow Zinfandel grapes because he liked Zinfandel. Jeff decided he needed expert advice. He contacted his childhood friend, Kelly Maher, then a Masters student in the enology and viticulture program at the University of California at Davis who finagled the department chairman, Dr. Mark Kliewer, to do a site evaluation.
Smith could never have anticipated the conclusion of Kliewer’s study, nor its unambivalence: This modest six acres where fruit trees had gone to die and Zinfandel grew well enough to make just a modest wine had the potential to be one of the single best Cabernet Sauvignon sites in the state. The soil is Hambricht: A thick mixture of sand and clay formed from volcanic rocks. It exists in various parts of Napa and from above the shape of the soil formation forms an hourglass. Hence, the name of the vineyard and the type of grapes to plant was clear. Smith was going to become an active winery owner making Cabernet Sauvignon from Hourglass Vineyard grapes.
Now 20 years old, the Cabernet Sauvignon vines planted in Hourglass Vineyard are fully mature. The winery has also purchased the 50-acre (20 acres planted) Blueline Vineyard on the nearby Silverado Trail. That makes Hourglass a 3,200 case winery or, in more meaningful terms, a winemaking minnow. The focus is entirely on quality. The wine maker is California legend, Bob Foley. Viticulturalist Kelly Maher tends just the five grapes that classically compose Cabernet Sauvignon blends (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec). The winery could sell all of this from the cellar door (i.e. via the mailing list) but Smith chooses to also go through distribution channels to create presence in the market. The same desire keeps him on the road 40 weeks of the year and motivated his trip to Dallas this week.
We started with 2009 Hourglass Blueline Vineyard Merlot. Its youth is the dominant characteristic throughout this wine: From the purple in the color, through to the dominant tannins and anthocyanins in the mouth feel. The fruit is lean relative to that found many Napa Merlots and full of dark fruits such as blueberries. The accompanying wild mushroom soup with savory goat cheese custard paired well.
We moved on to two vintages of the Hourglass Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. First the youthful 2009, then the more mature 2007. The shared lineage of soil, microclimate, winemaker and viticulturalist is clear, with both being intensely colored. Likewise, the predominantly dark fruit in the nose and mouth and the tannic superstructure that was bulky enough to assure long aging. Both also did not betray any cedar or cigar box notes in the bouquet, and the new oak was subdued. There would be no way to confuse these wines with clarets from Bordeaux if we had tasted the two types of wine blind, despite the shared grape blend. They were unmistakably New World wines. The one gotcha’ in their sense of place was that the fruit had the tightness of mountain Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, even though the Hourglass Vineyard is, at best, on a valley floor bench. In terms of their differences: The 2007 was more mature. The tannins were softer but most noticeably the components were much more resolved. For drinking now, the 2007 was my favorite. However, it will easily last for a decade and likely improve.
The nice kitchen folks at Private Social (under the direction of its sous chef for the evening, due to a family emergency waylaying execuchef Tiffany Derry) served a roasted bone marrow with house pickles, marmalade and crostini with these wines. The cow shin marrow emulsified the tannins in the wine to produce a softer, as well as a more complex taste sensation. It was a dramatic moment near the end of the meal when the curtain covering the whole of the back wall was flung back to reveal – a giant window through to the gleaming stainless steel kitchen, replete with staff still working away feverishly. Service throughout the meal was efficient.
Hourglass wines are distributed to retail stores in the Dallas area as well via the customer list on the winery web site. If you just want to try a bottle, the Merlot is on the wine list at Private Social.