Earlier this summer Donna and I had the opportunity to spend a morning with winemaker Cathy Corison of Corison Winery. Cathy’s looks can be deceiving. She’s tiny, barley five feet tall, but exudes a modest confidence that raises her stature another foot.
We met Cathy a couple of months earlier at the CIA in St. Helena during her seminar for a bunch of wine writers on the attributes of great Cabernets. There is no question she knows her stuff in spades and is an excellent educator, in addition to being a superb winemaker.
Cathy Corison is a pioneer, entering the realm of winemaking at a time when few women were seen in the cellar. Obviously the 1970’s were a different time for women in male dominated workplaces but this petite powerhouse made it work. As you will see, even after a winemaker hired Cathy for her first crush/harvest she was fired by the winery owner before the job even started. She was too small and not tough enough for the physical rigors of the cellar, he believed. Persistent, that same winery hired Cathy back the next year.
Corison Winery is truly a family winery located on Hwy 29 near St. Helena. It is old Napa Valley, small and quaint. The tasting room, located in the winery’s barrel room, is open daily. Corison offers a personal experience that stands in striking contrast to the glitz and glamour, hustle and bustle of so many Napa wineries.
The Cabernet Sauvignon created by Corison Winery is aptly described as “power and elegance.” The same holds true for Cathy Corison herself. Please join us at our tasting in the top floor of the barn at Corison Winery overlooking the 40 year old Kronos cabernet vineyard.
B&B Wine Blog: What sparked your initial interest in wine / winemaking?
CC: I was a sophomore at Pomona College, minding my own business, studying Biology, when I took a wine appreciation course on a complete whim. Wine grabbed me by the neck and ran with me; I’ve never looked back.
B&B Wine Blog: Was wine a part of your family experience growing up?
CC: Wine, yes. Fine wine, no. I grew up in suburban southern California and my Dad was an attorney. He drank a lot of Gallo Hearty Burgundy.
B&B Wine Blog: Tell us a little about your first winemaking jobs.
CC: I interned at Freemark Abbey in St. Helena upon graduating from UC Davis in 1978 with a Master’s degree in Winemaking. There I was essentially a cellar rat. From there I went to Yverdon (now Terra Valentine), on Spring Mountain, as the Winemaker. After 2 years I went to Chappellet Vineyards where I was the Winemaker for all the 1980’s.
B&B Wine Blog: You began making wine in the 70’s when winemaking was even more male dominated than it is today. Did you face any instances of discrimination or doubt about your abilities simply because you were a young woman?
CC: It took me two years to get the internship at Freemark Abbey. The Winemaker hired me for the 1977 harvest but the owners vetoed his decision. There had never been a woman in a Napa Valley cellar before. The happy ending is that one of those owners got me my first winemaking job a year later.
B&B Wine Blog: What winemakers either influenced your style or mentored you in your early years?
CC: I think I’ve been more influenced by the wines of the world than by any California winemakers. I look to the wines of Bordeaux, especially St. Julien, and the wines of Tuscany for inspiration. I love the way many of the wines from those regions walk the fine line between power and elegance. Those wines can have such lovely aromatics as well.
B&B Wine Blog: You served as winemaker for some pretty impressive labels (Chappellet Vineyard, Staglin Family Vineyard, York Creek Vineyards and Long Meadow Ranch) before starting your own. Embarking on your own label was a risky proposition. Why did you feel the need to undertake it?
CC: Though I worked for many fine houses, there was a wine inside of me that needed to get out. Making wine for other people, I was always working with their vision.
B&B Wine Blog: While there is always work to be done around any winery, fall harvest and crush are known for their exceptionally long hard days. How have you been able to balance those long days of fall with the needs of your family?
CC: I’ve needed a lot of help; it takes a village. My kids have spent a lot of time around the winery.
B&B Wine Blog: How involved is your husband, William Martin, and your daughters with the winery operations?
CC: William designed the winery, does the books and accounting and keeps everything running including equipment and computers. My daughters help a lot during harvest. They serve as leaf-pickers when we harvest and help with crushing. They have become strapping young women (aged 14 and 17) and can do serious work these days. The rest of the year they are very busy with their studies and they are both very serious dancers.
CC: My goal is to make Cabernet that speaks of place, is both powerful and elegant, graces the table and enjoys a long, distinguished life.
B&B Wine Blog: Corison offers two Cabernets, Kronos single vineyard and Napa Valley. Stylistically, how do these two differ?
CC: Making a blended wine is conceptually very different than making a vineyard-designated wine. The estate wine speaks very specifically of place. It must make great, stand-alone wines year in and year out. Making a wine that is a blend of 3 vineyards allows me to select aggressively at blending time, which helps me to consistently make great wines in my style.
B&B Wine Blog: It is obvious you have a love and affinity for your estate Kronos Vineyard, what makes it so special?
CC: It is one of the last old Cabernet vineyards in the Napa Valley. Planted 40 years ago on St. George rootstock, it is very rare. It is a gift as a winemaker to have the chance to make wine from these old veterans. In Europe they know that old vineyards make better wine. Here in CA we have not had much of a chance to figure that out. St. George in notorious (infamous?) for yielding small, scraggly clusters of tiny berries. Crops are pitiful in volume but wonderfully concentrated and complex in character.
B&B Wine Blog: Do the grapes from you Napa Valley blend always come from the same vineyards?
CC: I have source the same 3 vineyards, all on bench land between Rutherford and St. Helena, for 25 years now. I’m involved in the farming but I don’t own the dirt.
B&B Wine Blog: When we had the pleasure of tasting with you overlooking the beautiful Kronos Vineyard, you offered a three year vertical tasting. Why did you feel it was important to taste your wines in this manner?
CC: Part of my stylistic goal is to make wines that age gracefully in the bottle and become more interesting over time. Verticals are a fun way to look at how the wines age. Verticals also illuminate the consistency of style that I have become known for. It’s also an opportunity to think about how the weather in each vintage informs the wine that year.
B&B Wine Blog: You have been a champion of moderate alcohol levels in face of high alcohol ripe fruit wines. That said, your wine have great depth, character and backbone. What’s your secret?
CC: Great grapes. For me that is Cabernet on Bale gravelly loam on the “bench” (alluvial fans) (“Rutherford dust”, Rutherford Bench) between Rutherford and St. Helena. We work very hard in the vineyards to balance the vigor of the green, growing part of the vine (canopy) with the fruit. We control the amount of light and air that get into the grapes. Everything we do during the growing and ripening season promotes even ripening of the grapes.
B&B Wine Blog: What role and influence does oak have in your Cabernet winemaking style?
CC: I couldn’t make my wines without the 50% infusion of new French oak each year. That said, I manage it in such a way that you can’t taste or smell oak. I want the round, spicy flavors of the oak to integrate into the flavors of the Cabernet grape in a seamless way.
B&B Wine Blog: How do you keep your winemaker’s palate sharp year after year?
CC: William pulls a different wine, blind, every night for dinner. My task is to guess the region of origin, variety and vintage, then give the wine a simple 4-star rating. Only then is its identity revealed. We’ve been doing that for nearly 20 years; it has made me a much better taster. Our palate is like an athletic ability, use it or lose it.
B&B Wine Blog: Lately you have started another labels Corazón and Helios. What can we expect to see from this label? Does it give you some freedom to experiment with other flavors and varietals?
CC: I use both the Corazón and Helios label for small lots of wines other than Cabernet Sauvignon.