We had the opportunity last week to meet Sharon Kazan Harris, the owner and Director of Winemaking at Rarecat Wines in Napa Valley. There are a growing number of women vintners in Northern California wine country, but Sharon is one-of-a-kind. Not only does her Rarecat label produce wines from Napa, she is also producing, importing and selling wines from Champagne and Bordeaux. Of the many impressive people we have met living in wine country, no one else can lay claim to such a diverse international portfolio.
We met Sharon on an overcast day at the end of last week at her home on Highway 29, a gorgeous property nestled among vineyards in the Rutherford A.V.A. Our first impression was positive as she met us at the car with an enthusiastic welcome. We walked around to the back of the property and Sharon showed us into the stunning space that serves as her office.
This office space is a reflection of owner – stylish and bold, open and welcoming, innovative and creative, elegant and unique. We spent nearly three hours with Sharon and she shared the fascinating story of her life so far, a tale that begins in California, moves to France, and bounces back and forth between both places multiple times. Clearly, Sharon never had a “life plan,” instead letting life present her with adventures and moving from one great experience to another. Several times during our conversation Sharon referred to herself as a “California girl,” at one level an accurate description since she was born and raised in Northern California and attended college at UCLA. This California girl, though, made the fateful decision in her junior year to study abroad in France. She ended up in Bordeaux more by accident than design: the study abroad destination for her particular major was the University of Bordeaux.
Sharon arrived in France with no wine sophistication to speak of, having grown up in a household where premium wine was not the adult beverage of choice. She quickly caught on and acquired a taste for everything French: the wine, the cheeses, the food, the cities and towns, and, of course, the people. All good things must come to an end, though, and Sharon had to return to California to complete her senior year. After graduation, she returned to France and had a string of interesting and intriguing experiences. Her first wine job was working at Chateau Haut-Brion which is one of five wineries whose red wines are classified as Premier Grand Crus (First Growth). Her first culinary experience was working with a well-known chef with two Michelin stars. As you can see, Sharon does not do anything by half-measures.
If this were a novel, the story line might be that Sharon brought back her learnings from France and straightaway became a vintner and winemaker in Napa Valley. Like most real-life stories, though, things are never quite so linear or simple. For many years Sharon worked in more traditional fields – advertising and technology sales – and was fortunate enough to be a part of several success stories including an initial public offering. These business successes allowed Sharon to “trade computers for vineyards,” as she says.
As Sharon spoke about her wines and her various projects, we could see the influences of her whole life: the California girl; the expat in France; and even the marketer and saleswoman from her corporate career. She is passionate about wine but also a hands-on businesswoman, building and nurturing her winery’s brand and dealing with a myriad of operational details.
Over the course of our conversation, Sharon shared four of her wines with us, starting with a most unique sparkling wine: a non-vintage Cremant de Bordeaux made from 100% Semillon grapes.
Rarecat’s Cremant is produced according to the methode traditionelle with two fermentations, the second of which occurs in the bottle. Classified as Brut, this Cremant is crisp but balanced with plenty of fruit on the nose and the palate. This was our inaugural Cremant de Bordeaux and our takeaway is that it would be a perfect pairing with cheese or appetizers.
Our second wine was also a first for us – rosé produced from Grenache grapes. For us it was love at first sight: the 2016 Rarecat Rosé is a gorgeous pink-salmon color that shimmers with vibrancy. Both on the nose and on the palate, floral and citrus notes combine to create an aromatic and flavor powerhouse. This wine’s acidity delivers a refreshing and long finish.
Next we tasted two red wines, one the result of Sharon’s partnership in St. Emilion and the other a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Our first red pour was a Rarecat 2014 St. Emilion, 90% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Franc. This Bordeaux wine was elegant and sophisticated and we reflected after our first sniff and sip that we could detect the terroir of the region in the glass. It is part and parcel of Sharon’s approach – reflected in all of Rarecat’s wines – that they should respect their terroir and vintage.
Our final wine was Rarecat’s 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon produced from grapes grown in the Old Toll Vineyard in the Calistoga AVA. When we heard that this Cab was aged in 80% new French oak, we wondered whether it would be a “big Napa Cab.” It was not. This Cabernet Sauvignon’s fruit was not overpowering; there was plenty of earthiness and minerality in this wine tempering the aroma and flavor of dark fruits. We would drink this Rarecat Cab today without hesitation but also suspect that it can be cellared and enjoyed for many years to come.
Looking at the four wines together, they all exhibit a singular approach to winemaking: make the right wine for the right place. However, there is something else at play with the Rarecat wines that starts with the wine but goes much deeper. As Sharon describes it, her goal is to make “feminine” wines. In many of our industry’s notable reviews, it is not uncommon to see a bias towards so-called masculine wines. Common descriptors include “muscular, beefy, and powerful,” and we have even seen the indubitably masculine term “ballsy” used to describe wines (particularly “big Reds”).
Rarecat’s feminine bent manifests itself in the name of the winery itself. According to Sharon, she was searching for names that were (a) not taken, and (b) representative of the power of women. Her search ultimately took her to Urban Dictionary where she encountered the word Rarecat, defined as “a female so beautiful that she is deemed a rarity.” For each of Rarecat’s wines, this is what Sharon endeavors to produce: a feminine wine so beautiful that it will be deemed a rarity.
John & Irene Ingersoll
November 10, 2017