Lunch with Napa Valley Icon Cary Gott

Lunch with Napa Valley Icon Cary Gott

We have been to some pretty cool places and met some very compelling people through our blogging and wine importing activities.  Last week, we had an experience that shot to the top of our list of “wow” moments:  lunch with Cary Gott.  Those that work in the California wine industry or have any serious connection to Napa Valley will have no trouble recognizing Cary Gott as he is a true icon in wine country.

Cary always seems to be smiling

For those with a more casual connection to Napa Valley or the greater Bay Area, his name might not be top of mind but many have enjoyed the fruit of his labor.  Gott’s Roadside hamburger restaurants in Saint Helena, downtown Napa, the San Francisco Ferry building, and Palo Alto are owned by Cary and his family.  In addition to the restaurants, Cary is one of the primary forces behind a number of stunning winery properties in the Napa Valley and Sonoma County.

Some might refer to Cary as a winemaker, and he certainly is that, at the very least.  Cary currently serves or has served as winemaker at Davis Estates in Calistoga (see our review here:  See, Sniff, Swirl, Sip, Spit. Repeat), Lawer Estates and Round Pond in Rutherford, and D.R. Stephens on Howell Mountain, to name a few of the more than 20.  However, labeling Cary Gott simply as a winemaker diminishes the vast experience and talents that he brings to partners that have a dream to design and build super-premium winery properties and experiences.  For most of his clients, Cary’s involvement extends beyond wine making or even grape growing.  Think of him more as an uber-visionary that is often involved in just about every step in the process, from creating the initial dream, picking the right location, bringing in the right architects and builders, identifying the right portfolio of wines, creating a brand identity, and making sure the operation has the right team to succeed.  His work at Ram’s Gate in Sonoma is an example of what Cary brings to a project:  he assisted the owner on the design and start-up of that stunning winery property.

We were privileged to be invited by Cary to have lunch and taste wine with him and Kelly Deianni, his wine making partner in several ventures.

Kelly savoring a sip of Calla Lilly wine

For our lunch, Cary chose Brasswood Restaurant in Saint Helena on a day that turned out to be pouring rain.  As we pulled up to the restaurant and got out of the car, Cary graciously came out and met us outside and showed us to our table.  Any lunch with a living and working legend would be exciting, but Cary was introducing us to a new wine label that he is working with, Calla Lilly, and we would be tasting 5 wines with our lunch.  As soon as we got to our booth we realized we were in for quite a treat as the table was festooned with glasses and there were 5 wine bottles on the table.  This is our kind of lunch!

Cary introduced us to Kelly Deianni and told us a little bit about their work together and also gave us an overview of his illustrious career, starting with his formation of his very own wine label at the tender age of 23.  This label, Monteviña Wines in Amador County, produced some of the best-regarded Zinfandels in California and was one of the forces that helped revive interest in Amador as a grape-growing and wine-making region.  Cary’s early start in the wine business might seem pre-ordained as he is the fourth generation of Gotts in the vineyard and wine making business.  Like many stories, though, his was not exactly linear.  After high school, Cary thought he wanted to be an architect and made the decision to attend the University of Southern California.  After the Watts Riots in 1965, which occurred very close to the USC campus, Cary decided to relocate back to Northern California and attend U.C. Davis, where he studied Enology and Viticulture.

You might say the rest is history.  Certainly, he has had a number of important jobs in wine, including founding Corbett Canyon Vineyards in San Luis Obispo (at a time when it was not the no-brainer it might be today to open a winery in that area), along with senior management roles at Seagram’s, Sterling Vineyards and Mumm Napa.  However, we believe the initial passion for architecture stayed with Cary and defines much of the work that he does, even if the degree did not pan out.  As the founding Principal of Vineyard and Winery Estates, architecture is part and parcel of what Cary brings to the table, whether in the form of the physical winery building or the brand itself.

Which brings us back to Calla Lilly, the new project that Cary and Kelly are working on and whose wines we were set to taste at Brasswood.  To start us off, Cary ordered a few appetizers for the table.

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Carpaccio and fries

To pair with our starters, Cary poured the Calla Lilly 2014 Ultimate Red Pinot Noir.   This 2014 was produced from fruit sourced from Napa Valley’s Carneros region; the wine was aged in oak barrels for 10 months.  Like all of the wines Cary makes, the Calla Lilly Pinot Noir was elegant and balanced, a lovely example of Carneros Pinot Noir.  Visually, the wine was a lovely dark garnet, slightly darker than other Pinot Noir wines we had enjoyed recently; in fairness, though, we had just returned from Oregon’s Willamette Valley where the Pinot Noir is typically much lighter.  On the nose, the Calla Lilly Pinot Noir presented aromas of cranberry with strong herbal notes and some spice.  On the palate, the wine was medium-bodied and silky with plenty of red fruit flavors (cranberry and cherry) and the vaunted “cola” that we have come to expect from Pinot Noir.  This Calla Lilly Pinot Noir had nice acidity and minerality, though, to balance the fruit and create a nice long finish.

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A gorgeous bottle for a gorgeous wine

As more food arrived at the table, Cary poured two more wines, the 2013 and 2014 Calla Lilly Ultimate Red Cabernet Sauvignon.

Calla Lilla red
A very nice Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon

Side-by-side pours of the same wine from distinct vintages allow tasters to detect the impact not only of ageing but also harvest differences from one year to the next.  The 2013 Cab is a blend of 81.6% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10.8% Merlot, and 7.6% Cabernet Franc, while the 2014 had slightly more Cab Franc than Merlot, and about the same percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon.  Both wines were aged about the same length (over 20 months) in approximately 45% new French oak.  We tasted the 2013 Cab first and, despite the time spent in oak, found it to be somewhat muted aromatically, medium-bodied on the palate, with no overpowering tannins.  At $65, the 2013 is a value compared to competing Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon of similar quality, many of which are priced much higher.

For us, though, the 2014 Calla Lilly Cab was the stronger of the two wines both aromatically and on the palate.  Darker in color, the 2014 was denser, more full-bodied, higher in tannins and a more complex wine.  We are certain that as the years go by, the 2014 Calla Lilly will age beautifully and unravel new aroma and flavor combinations.

With our main courses, we turned to the final two wines Cary and Kelly brought to taste – the Calla Lilly 2013 Audax, a blend of 89.3% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6.5% Petit Verdot, 4.1% Merlot and 0.1% Malbec; and the 2014, a blend of 89.2% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5.2% Cabernet Franc, and 5.6 % Merlot.

An even bolder Napa Valley Cabernet

While the Calla Lilly Ultimate Red Cabs were strong wines, the Audax – which in Latin means “bold” – were powerhouse wines, definitely living up to their “bold” name.  Aged for 26-27 months in 50% French oak and with alcohol of 15.3%, we anticipated a fruit-forward “Big Napa Cab;” we were wrong.  While both the 2013 and 2014 Audax were bold wines, they had plenty of acidity and earth to balance the fruit.  Rather than the oak resulting in mega-alcohol and super-fruit, we saw the result in the wine’s texture and body:  full-bodied wines with a lovely mouth feel and layers of texture.  We were pleased to encounter a super-premium Cabernet with balance and elegance.

When all the eating and tasting (more swallowing than spitting, we must confess) was done, nearly 3 hours had passed and we felt honored to have been offered the chance to hear Cary’s story and the vision for the Calla Lilly brand.  This vision started in 2013 when two Hong Kong-based entrepreneurs, Anthony Fung and Andy Chui, asked Cary to help them find  a vineyard/winery to buy in the Napa Valley.  With Cary’s expert guidance, they found and acquired the former Budge Brown Winery in Pope Valley which today is the home for Calla Lily Estate & Winery.

On each of the bottles we enjoyed, we could not help but notice the beautiful artwork.  Founders Fung and Chui chose the calla lily as the symbol for their project as in China that flower is considered to be the quintessential flower of elegance, beauty and purity, and is the flower of choice to send when in love.  A scroll of a calla lily created by a calligrapher in China graces every bottle of Calla Lilly wine, an appropriate symbol for a wine that is elegant, beautiful and pure.

To buy Calla Lilly wines, go here:  Calla Lilly


John & Irene Ingersoll

November 30, 2017


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