When Napa was established as one of the original 27 counties of California in 1849, the first vineyards weren’t far behind. Samuel Brannan, the self-titled vineyard plot was planted by the founder of Calistoga in 1862. Old Federal Block was planted initially by To Kalon founder H.W. Crabb in 1881. These were among the first 60ha of planted wine grapes in the region — and still exist today, among the current 18,200ha planted.
Though the original vines have been replanted, the legacy of these plots prevails as the pinnacle for harvesting fruit for world-class wine. Considered heritage vineyards, they are the backbone of many of Napa Valley’s cult wines, yet are often overlooked for the more prominent name on the label – a modern name that consumers recognise. Gagnon-Kennedy, a relatively new brand in the Valley, is taking a different approach: working to honour the heritage of these 19th-century vineyards.
‘If great wine isn’t being made from vineyards, they get ripped up or sold,’ says Michael Kennedy, proprietor of Gagnon-Kennedy. This is when the land loses its heritage – which is why Kennedy and his partner, winemaker Marc Gagnon, established their label to recognise Napa’s nuanced history and preserve some of the oldest plots’ legacies for future generations.
The importance of preserving Napa Valley’s heritage
‘To us, it’s a way of honouring the first sites that stood out to the earliest planters of the valley. The vineyards that have stood the test of time,’ explains Kennedy. ‘Look at the Grand Cru vineyards of Burgundy; those sites have been selected over hundreds of years, and this is our relative version of that.’
Currently on its fifth release, Gagnon-Kennedy sources from four vineyards in Napa that date back to the 1800s. Samuel Brannan (1862), Old Federal (1881), Beckstoffer Missouri Hopper (1877), and Beckstoffer Georges III (1895) are the names that take front and centre on the labels, placing the Gagnon-Kennedy brand name at the bottom in minimal lettering.
The first historic property that Gagnon-Kennedy contracted was Samuel Brannan in Calistoga. The northeasterly site at the base of the Vaca Mountains is one of the oldest vineyards in all of Napa Valley. It produces a vibrant, bright Cabernet Sauvignon that is surprisingly light and elegant for Calistoga.
‘The diversity in the one piece of land makes it unique,’ says Gagnon, describing the four different soil profiles, 5% slope and 30-year-old vines from the 30 rows the brand harvests. Gagnon-Kennedy also sources Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc from Samuel Brannan which contribute to the cuvée.
The Old Federal Block is ‘one of the most significant vineyards in the state, if not the world’, according to UC Davis, dating the research done here back to the 1880s. Hamilton Crabb originally planted over 400 grape varieties here in 1881 to see what grew best – ultimately Cabernet Sauvignon prevailed. Today, Gagnon-Kennedy sources these grapes from 15 rows for a balanced, intensely aromatic, elegant wine.
‘Beckstoffer’s Heritage Vineyards have all been producing outstanding wines for more than 150 years,’ says Andy Beckstoffer. ‘Great vineyards make great wines. To determine if a vineyard is truly great, one must have many different winemakers making different wine styles for multiple wineries over a long time period with consistently exceptional results.’
In Oakville, Beckstoffer Missouri Hopper was initially part of a large piece of land owned by George C. Yount. It was purchased by Charles Hopper and gifted to his daughter, Missouri, in 1877. This was when the first wine grapes were planted. Andy Beckstoffer purchased the vineyard in 1996. He added his name and legacy to the property as he worked to place the land under a conservation easement to permanently prohibit any non-agricultural development (which was achieved in 2002). ‘[Andy Beckstoffer] is probably as closely aligned to us in his love for historic sites,’ says Kennedy, who sources from 10 rows here.
Gagnon-Kennedy also sources Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from 12 rows at Beckstoffer Georges III. This Rutherford lot dates back to 1895 plantings by Mrs Thomas Rutherford. Beaulieu founder Georges de Latour popularised it in 1928 with renowned wines produced by André Tchelistcheff throughout the 1960s and 70s.
‘Beckstoffer Missouri Hopper and Georges III are, as the crow flies, not even 3km apart. Yet those wines express themselves so differently,’ explains Kennedy. He says Georges III is all red fruit with rose and floral aromas, a silky texture that depicts a quintessentially soft Rutherford Cabernet. Missouri Hopper, he says, is ‘as classical Napa Valley Cabernet as you could possibly have’, referencing characteristics of olive tapenade and chocolate with a thick, velvet texture.
Going beyond Napa Valley
Beyond Napa, Gagnon-Kennedy works with Monte Rosso Vineyards in Sonoma, sourcing Zinfandel grapes from nine rows of original 1886 plantings. ‘When you talk about California wine history, Mission and Zinfandel are the two most important grapes,’ says Kennedy. ‘To have original vine Zinfandel from Monte Rosso is like the holy grail of Zinfandel,’ he adds.
Aside from its age, Gagnon says Monte Rosso is unique because of its deep, volcanic red loam soil, which is unusual for mountain locales unless you’re on the Vaca range. Its volcanic influences and the southern-facing slope at 396m elevation result in high-acid wines and a rich iron component.
The common thread of all the historical vineyards is their site-specificity. Kennedy says it’s consistently distinguishable, despite each wine’s unique expression of a vintage. He attributes this to Gagnon’s poised restraint in winemaking. ‘Sometimes the hardest part is not taking action and letting things be the way they are,’ says Gagnon.
Since finding success and reward in California, Gagnon-Kennedy has expanded its work with historic vineyards in Tuscany. La Caccia di San Giovanni is its SuperTuscan produced with grapes from Casole d’Elsa, near Siena. Here, the vineyard land dates back over a thousand years. Gagnon-Kennedy is in the midst of developing Borgo Bonelli, an estate from the 1700s. ‘We simply love the old sites and strive to produce wines from them that means something and respect our winemaking past,’ concludes Kennedy.