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A Natural Approach to Wine

By Nora Heston Tarte

Wine and food and well-being, it all goes together for a life well lived. That’s the motto that vintner Gabrielle Leonhard O’Connell, winemaker and part owner of O’Connell Family Wines, lives her life by and influences her business. “Wine is a part of it, it’s a huge part of it,” she says.

Daughter of a German wine and food chemist and granddaughter of a European wine and food critic, O’Connell developed her palate at a young age, partly around the dinner table, as it’s custom for many Europeans to give their children small sips of wine on special occasions. She later honed her craft with selective horticulture classes at the University of California Davis Extension in Napa, adding to her formal education that includes two degrees. “I took many, many classes and seminars over the years to develop my tasting abilities,” she says. In 2000, O’Connell plunged into full-time wine making, producing her first vintage in 2003.

The O’Connell Family Estate vineyard property dates back to the 1850s and was designated as the best vineyard land in California by the California Agricultural Society (now the Department of Agriculture) in 1857. In the 1930s, the vineyard shuttered during Prohibition and remained inactive until O’Connell’s family moved in. In the interim, silent movie actress Lenora Stern built a house that still stands on the property and was inspired by her New York Hampton roots and houses of her Hollywood friends including Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire, and John Wayne.

O’Connell knew immediately what she would specialize in. “This is an extraordinary area specifically for cabernets,” she explains, referencing the cooler climate in the southern part of Napa Valley benefiting from the San Francisco fog that seeps in from the bay. The climate also lends itself to an old-world style of wine, which O’Connell knows well due in part to her European roots.

Her approach to wine making sets her label apart from other Napa Valley cabernets. Long-aged, beautiful, big cabernets that speak for themselves without a lot of post-production influence are her specialty.

Her goal is to allow the varietal to shine. “By being in a cooler climate, we can slowly ripen our grapes so our varietal is the dominant character of wine. Instead of oak, butter, or jamminess, it’s the elegance of the cabernet grape,” she says.

Producing pure, balanced wines this way requires attention to detail. O’Connell says that winemaking starts with the soil—the entire estate is certified organic and sustainable—and soil that isn’t well tended won’t produce the award-winning wines she turns out. “Our first vintage immediately won a double gold from the San Francisco International Wine Competition,” she says. That means the wine received a 100 percent gold score from the competition judges and another 100 percent gold from an elite panel of judges at the same event.

O’Connell is especially proud of her multi-vintage estate cabernet, OCFV INTE+GRA+TION 1, made using a challenging blending technique that not many winemakers tackle. “Maintaining a wine successfully in barrels for 11 years is a wine-making feat,” O’Connell explains. It’s an 82- case production featuring wines from 2005 to 2014. The finished product is divine—a tribute to the quality of the vineyard soil and the winemaking philosophy of minimalistic intervention. With 11 vintages in one bottle, O’Connell says the team successfully captured the essence of the historic estate vineyard. The multi-vintage approach was validated, as the wine received a 97 Robert Parker score. She will continue producing it every three years, with plans not to break 100 cases for each release.

The vineyard is also one of few area wineries that do extended barrel aging, allowing wines to decide when they are done, often after three to four years in barrel instead of the standard two years. The tactic requires double the space, labor, and barrels, so it’s quite a commitment to quality. This—along with O’Connell’s winemaking techniques, organic and sustainability practices, and attention to soil quality—contributes to the success of her wines.

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