Learning project. The only thing that surprises you immediately upon arrival at the Armstrong Ranch (a property of the Lerner Project) is the deep silence. His aloofness is therefore his most sought-after asset. Yes, it’s in the Napa Valley, but it’s a part of the valley few visitors have ever seen. You can get there either from Sonoma County on a rare, still partly unpaved road, or from Napa County a few kilometres away on the very narrow Kortum Canyon Road, which rises quickly from the valley floor and takes you to the extraordinary and intimate views of the surrounding hills, the St. Nevada. Like the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada, the eastern slopes of the Mayakamas are rugged and steep.
The site consists of 91 hectares, of which 13 hectares are almost entirely planted with Cabernet Sauvignon (clone 6), as well as a small block of Malbec. There are very few vineyards in this part of the Napa Valley – the closest vineyard to produce the fruit that enters the Beringer’s private nature reserve. And there are no vineyards and few houses – rather a landscape consisting mainly of woods and shrubs in all directions.
The vines were planted in 1983 by the winemaker Dick Stelzner and grow locally on very steep slopes, up to 45 degrees. The upper parts of the building are at an altitude of about 1200 feet, but seem to be much higher. The vineyard plots are covered with terraces. The 13 hectares contain a variety of slopes, elevations and soil types, including volcanic ash, obsidian and diatomaceous earth. The property benefits from the elevated area and the slopes facing east for the early morning sun – fog in the valley below often burns in the summer morning. And very often, during the growing season, the daytime wind blows from Sonoma County to the west.
Previously it was owned by Jane (Janey) Armstrong (died in 2019) and her husband Tom Byrne. Jane was a food scientist who had a very successful career, thanks in part to her role in food labelling in grocery stores and her open and easy-to-understand approach to various dairy products. She was also an experienced cook. They bought the property in 1979 – it wasn’t planted under the grapes then – and planted a vineyard long before the decree of Napa County forbade planting on steep slopes. Over the years, the grapes from the estate have gone to Rombauer, Provenance and Saint-Clément and sometimes bottled, because the vineyards refer to the wines. And the wines have been produced for several years under the brand Rancho Armstrong.
Jane and Tom sold the property in 2017 to the owners of the Lerner project, Stu and Karen Lerner. Winemaker Russell Bevan is a partner in the Lerner project, but is not the owner, like Matt Simpson (former production manager of Chateau Boswell).
Stu has been active in the wine industry for over 30 years and supplies wooden shipping pallets for the wine industry in the districts of Napa and Sonoma. Over the years he founded several pallet and related companies, including L&M Pallet in 1987 (with which he worked with his father Karen Donald Menegetti – simply by choosing a name that reflected the first initials of each name) and later Blue Chip Manufacturing. Stu left the pallet company in 2014. Thanks to his work in the sector and his knowledge of many wineries and brands through pallet sales, he has become a collector of fine wines. He’s also met a lot of winemakers, including Russell Bevan.
When the Armstrong ranch came on the market, Chris Walden, owner of Vineyard Management, told Russell about this place. Then Russell mentioned Stu and Karen’s property. Three of them went for a walk together for the first time, Russell said during his visit: If you don’t buy it, I will!
Russell leads a varied life: he has a Master’s degree in Philosophy from Gonzaga University, worked in Minneapolis as a dental equipment salesman, wrote a column in the Wine Spectator, and then became a winemaker in 2005 with his first glass of vintage as an autodidact. Throughout his career, Russell has worked with a number of iconic Napa Valley wineries, starting with Kal Showket (who previously owned vineyards in Oakville and then sold them to Peter Michael). Russell has identified a small group of winemakers he has been influenced by, including old Napa Valley winemaker Philip Togni.
The selected wines
Project Lerner 2018, Project 18 Valley Napa Cabernet Sauvignon is a blend of 92% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Cabernet Franck and 3% Merlot. It is the most productive wine in their portfolio, a barrel of fruit from two of Russell’s favorite vineyards, including the Tench Vineyards in Oakville and Sugarloaf. Offers dark, slightly provocative scents with notes of clove, mocha, cedar and chocolate. It gets a little spicier as the wine breathes. Also fragrances of dry rose petals and violets. Light-coloured fruit can be seen everywhere. It has been slowed down by the red and black cherry taste, but also by the business card of this wine, its calcareous and dusty tannins. Very popular wine.
In 2017, the Lerner RMS project (the name is derived from the initials of the founders Russell, Matt and Stu) will consist of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Cabernet Franc and 10% Merlot. The glass is dark purple; the sweetness of berries, including hawthorn and blackberry, is immediately visible, complemented by dessert herbs and subtle notes of dried tobacco leaf. Well stacked for the taste – will appeal to even the most demanding Napa Valley wine lover and is the style of wine where Bevan fans will be drawn. The tannins are ripe for such a young wine, they are gently and delicately rolled to taste with a light but firm grip. Dust and a touch of mocha complete the finish.
Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard, Diamond Mountain, 2017. Lerner Armstrong Cabernet Sauvignon Project, Diamantberg – 100% owned. Although this wine shows the ripeness typical of the Napa Valley (compared to cooler climates, for example), one can still feel the elements of Cabernet Sauvignon that are representative of this grape variety. It offers aromas of dust, a slight herbaceous note, nuances of dry tobacco leaves and many unshakeable black fruit aromas. In the mouth it is rich, but the acidity is still fresh. The surface handle is a classic Bevan style – soft, integrated texture, but with a tactile feel comparable to a strong but non-aggressive handshake from a friend. Very long finish. The balance of youth deserves attention – it will not pass without leaving traces. Lots of age for this beautiful exhibition.
Although only a few vintages have so far been produced as part of the Lerner project, the wine-growing part of this estate has already established itself. The director of the manor, Brigid Bubb, tasted the Armstrong Ranch vineyard from 2003, which was given the name Cabernet Sauvignon some 17 years after the date of harvest, recalling the brilliant fruit, still alive, whose freshness is preserved thanks to the acidity of the wine.
In 2020, a purpose-built wine press and winery will be built south of the city of Napa, where Lerner wines will be produced over time.
Their white-label wines are vineyard and varietal blends – these wines have a certain spread. The black label refers to wines which identify the vineyards and which are generally sold directly to the consumer. Elena and K. Luz in Yantville. Their first year took place in 2016 – since then it has reached about 1,000 cases per year and is about 3,000 cases per year. For more information or to subscribe to a mailing list, please visit: www.lernerproject.com.
And the quote from the interview below makes this clear: I want to create something better and better and that’s why it’s a project. ~ Stu Lerner. ~
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