Those wine drinkers who have enjoyed a wide range of fine wines worldwide may have only used the word “ethereal” when it has come to some of the most outstanding red Grand Cru of Burgundy such as Bonnes Mares or the even more elusive Romanée-Conti. And yes, the word ethereal may be defined as describing something so “light in a way” that it seems “too perfect for this world,” but with regards to wine, it takes on an even more remarkable meaning. It is a wine that is undoubtedly concentrated, complex and multifaceted, yet there is an overall quality of a stunning delicacy that takes one’s breath away. The great vineyards of Burgundy have seemed to have the original, unofficial rights to such a descriptor although there is a new wine from a vineyard in the Rutherford Bench, in Napa Valley, that inspires such a word.
It is shocking that such a word as “ethereal” would describe a Bordeaux let alone a Napa wine, and a Napa wine made from 100% Cabernet Sauvignon nevertheless. But that is what the newly released 2018 Stalworth wine from the Rutherford Bench exquisitely displays when its acclaimed winemaker, Celia Welch, beams as she talks about the “weightlessness” of the wine that has a knockout combination of that celestial character balanced with a delicious juiciness on the finish.
From the first taste, it does give one the aromas and flavors that are known among Rutherford Bench wines such as ideally ripened fruit with a touch of spice notes such as anise or a floral characteristic, although it was the texture of this wine that took it to another level.
The name the “Rutherford Bench” is enthusiastically talked about among Napa wine lovers and in a direct scientific way, one can read about the process of benches forming in soils that are caused by geological occurrences that can cause a diverse mixture of soil types, such as the alluvial fan in the Rutherford Bench, to logically understand why it is special. However, most wine drinkers want to experience the most outstanding examples of what makes this revered area stand out beyond other neighboring areas in Rutherford and the rest of Napa Valley. The 2018 Stalworth is an opportunity to taste such an exemplary example.
The co-owner and the captain at the helm of the Stalworth project is Tim Persson who, with his wife, Sabrina, took over his father-in-law’s wine business, Hess Family Wine Estates, and today it is called Hess Persson Estates. Tim took over the running of their wine estates after spending a significant amount of time with his father-in-law, Donald Hess, as many challenges presented themselves during the post-financial crisis back in 2010 and 2011 that affected the wide-ranging Hess enterprises around the world, and so, in 2012 Tim and his wife moved to Napa Valley so they could directly oversee the estate and family wine business.
Even in the multi-cultural area of Napa Valley, Tim’s background stands out as he was raised in one of the smallest African countries, Eswatini – Africa’s last absolute monarchy, previously known as Swaziland. After attending university in Europe, he became a corporate lawyer who practiced in New York and London; then Tim met his wife Sabrina and his path took an adventurous turn.
Tim does most of the work overseeing and leading the wine business as Sabrina keeps her psychotherapy practice going. She is a licensed psychotherapist which has come in handy with their wine business having to “navigate the series of setbacks and natural disasters” prevalent since 2014. But she still finds time to help out at their winery “behind the scenes” while juggling her practice and being very “hands-on” with raising their two children.
Some of those setbacks and natural disasters include the 2014 earthquake that destroyed one of their main wine cellars, the landslides in 2016 that cut off power and access to the winery, in 2017 the winery only being able to make a small fraction of its high-end wines due to the wildfires and the smoke from the wildfires in 2020 forcing them to make no Napa wine at all.
Yet Tim’s initial mission to “reestablish” the credentials of Hess with regards to making high-end Cabernet Sauvignon wines was never deterred. As he thought about the 30th anniversary of Hess Family Wine Estates, celebrated in 2011, it was now his responsibility to make sure that the winery stayed relevant for the next 30 years and that is where Stalworth came into the picture.
Tim searched for a great Napa winemaker who would oversee the project of creating an iconic wine from the Rutherford Bench, raising the bar when it came to Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon wines. Despite there being a bunch of great winemakers in the area, he was determined to find someone who not only had a great understanding of what makes an outstanding vineyard in Napa but also had the lack of ego to allow that vineyard to speak for itself. And that is when Celia Welch’s name came up again and again as she was an expert when it came to making iconic Rutherford wines and so Tim and his wife sought out her various wines to taste, some easier to find than others, such as the hard to obtain Scarecrow. According to Tim, the lack of ego was evident in her wines, and he loved the “integrity, honesty and consistency of excellence” across all her different offerings. Tim and Sabrina’s connection to Celia was instant during their first meeting, and Tim noted that meeting Celia, unlike the rest of the Stalworth story, was smooth sailing from the first moment.
They found the ideal vineyard in the Rutherford Bench in 2015 but the back-to-back unfortunate events of extreme accumulation of drought from 2012 to 2015 as well as all the disasters suffered from 2014 to 2017, put off the first vintage of Stalworth until 2018 – considered a “spectacular year” that is “terroir-driven” according to Wine Spectator. Celia said that they had used that delayed time to truly understand that particular vineyard as well as have the time to experiment in the winery with the wines so they would be entirely prepared once they made the inaugural vintage. Also, the need to rebuild the winery, destroyed by an earthquake, helped to greenlight a tremendous amount of investment that would build a state-of-the-art winery giving them all the tools to reach greater heights.
Rebuilding the antique stone winery, originally built in 1903, took several years as there were many complications at every step of the process. When the new cellar opened with a celebratory dinner on August 14th, 2018, Tim googled the date right before he gave his opening speech at the dinner as he wanted to reference other historical events on that date, he realized that it happened to be the 4th anniversary to the date of when the winery was destroyed.
Never Losing Sight of Being Fortunate
When it came time to name the wine, considering the very bumpy journey, Stalworth was ideal as it is a word that has evolved to describe someone who shows “determination, bravery and courage,” and Tim and his wife have certainly have had their dream, of evolving Hess Persson Estates to a higher standard of excellence, challenged in a multitude of ways.
The label features contemporary art that reminds Tim and Sabrina of their favorite poem called “The Journey” written by David Whyte. A section reads, “someone has written something new in the ashes of your life,” representing their chance to write something new in the ashes of the Hess winery.
Tim laughed when he thought about how unlucky his family viewed him as a child as he had almost broken every bone in his body during childhood and it seems that the barrage of unfortunate events with regards to the Stalworth project is just a continuation of his luckless tendencies, yet he has a very different perspective. “I cannot help but look at my life and think that I have been incredibly lucky,” he says with a strong sense of gratitude.
And the 2018 Stalworth certainly proves that he is indeed a very lucky man.
***Link to original article in Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/cathrinetodd/2022/04/25/new-napa-valley-cabernet-sauvignon-could-be-the-next-iconic-wine-of-rutherford/
2018 Stalworth, Rutherford Bench, Napa Valley: 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. Celia modestly pointed out that this vineyard in 2018 produced a Cabernet Sauvignon that was balanced entirely on its own with an extraordinary texture that is at once concentrated as it is refined with an overall “weightlessness” that does give it that remarkable ethereal quality, yet it finishes just as incredible as it starts with a juiciness that begs for another sip. The purity of the red cherry and blackberry fruit is stunning with those characteristic notes of anise seed and floral notes with tannins that are so fine they are imperceptible, yet they are obviously there supporting the wine along the long, expressive finish. Only 167 cases were made and it retails for $250 a bottle.
2019 Stalworth, Rutherford Bench, NapaValley: Mostly Cabernet Sauvignon with a minuscule amount of Malbec and Petit Verdot. Delicious cassis flavor to this wine that has lots of juiciness with blackberry preserves and baking spice with sweet tobacco leaf and crushed rocks all wrapped up in lush tannins and a superb length of flavor.
The 2019 is still in the preview stage and will not be released until most probably next year. But since it was showing so well, they are allowing media to try it. With regards to adding a slight amount of Malbec and Petit Verdot, Celia noted that it was more about “balancing the texture” as there might be either a dip in the mid-palate that needs to be filled in or maybe some rounding out as she always wants the last sip to be tasty as she wants to avoid any astringency. But she added less than a percent of each as she wants the wine to be a full expression of Cabernet Sauvignon and so the other varieties are just there to assist in bringing out the more complimentary elements of the Cab.