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To Kalon Vineyard – Part 1

To Kalon Vineyard

Part 1

“The Past & Present”

A Visit to MacDonald & Detert Vineyards

‘To-Kalon’ Cabernet from Hamilton Walker Crabb’s To-Kalon Wine Company in the late 1800’s (photo taken with Alex MacDonald of materials he and his brother Graeme have gathered regarding the history of To Kalon)

For the longest time, I have wanted to see for myself the To Kalon vineyards, to be surrounded by its treasured vines and walk its hallowed soils.  I wanted to experience first hand what it is about this particular vineyard that makes the wine produced from it so famous.  Should it be the most famous vineyard in all of America, as many think it is?  Many of America’s most lauded wines from the past 50 years have come from this vineyard.  I finally had my opportunity to find out. 

The term To Kalon is Greek and the vineyard was given this name by its original owner, Hamilton Walker Crabb.  Mr.Crabb expressed the term To Kalon meant “the highest beauty or the highest good, but I try to make it mean the boss vineyard”.  Mr Crabb purchased three Oakville properties in 1868, 1881, and 1891 that would make up his vast viticultural and orchard empire, and which today is almost entirely legally included in the To Kalon Vineyard designation.  More on Mr Crab later, but his wines were renowned in his era as one of the best from America. 

I knew To Kalon was huge, but had no idea just how big it was.  Immediately, after reviewing some keen research for this visit, I found this would be impossible to do in its current form in one day, let alone in a month as the To Kalon Vineyard is enormous at a staggering 678 acres.

The MacDonald vineyard looking southwest from the northeast border of their property.  Detert’s East Block can be seen starting mid-way to the back of the photo where the green gets more prominent and bushier.

The 3 To Kalons

The current legal borders of the 678-acre To Kalon Vineyard encompass almost the entirety of the western side of the Oakville AVA west of highway 29, that runs north-south, to the foothills of the Mayacamas as its western edge.  The only significant and contiguous section not included in this western quadrant of Oakville runs from Dwyer Road south to the AVA border with the Yountville AVA.  The Robert Mondavi Winery is the northern border of both To Kalon and the Oakville AVA.  Visually from a map, it appears about 65% of Oakville west of highway 29 is part of To Kalon, but those figures are a rough visual estimate as I was unable to get a figure that speaks to this.

The famous grape grower Andy Beckstoffer believes To Kalon should be smaller.  Mr Beckstoffer believes that it should only be defined by the 359 acres of the first 2 Crabb purchases that contained the original vineyard planted portions of To Kalon.  This is of course where his vineyard lies at 89 contiguous acres.  These plots also did not extend fully to the western edge of the Oakville AVA.

The third and for me the most convincing version of the original To Kalon Vineyard are the three sections of contiguous property the original owner, Hamilton Walker Crabb, purchased in 1868, 1881, and 1891 (500+ land acres).  These 3 sections made up approximately 403 Oakville vineyard acres and encompass the western edge of the Crabb property purchased in 1891.  This version would include the section Mr. Beckstoffer left out of his definition of To Kalon’s borders (1891  Crabb purchase) and would also not include (like Mr. Beckstoffer) the large southern portion below the Oakville Grade Road that Martin Stelling added in the 1940s that is included in the current borders.

Hamilton Walker Crabb’s original To-Kalon vineyard parcels and the Martin Stelling “extension”. Map Credit: Matt Stamp, MS, GuildSomm.com “The True Story of To-Kalon Vineyard

The Producers

Over the years, what I have learned about To Kalon Vineyard, besides making up almost the entirety of the western section of the Oakville AVA, is that it is divided into many large and small sections, each farmed differently depending on who’s grapes are destined to make which wine. 

Each producer farms their sections of the To Kalon to their technical specifications to create their own American Grand Cru wine.  I think that when you speak of a To Kalon wine, after the producer the next question is always, what section of To Kalon is the wine from?

Of its 678 vineyard acres, only 6 entities own To Kalon vineyard land, while only about 30 or so wines are legally labelled with some form of the To Kalon name.  Many more wines are made with To Kalon fruit, but those facts are not disclosed for marketing, pricing or legal reasons.  I’d venture to guess that dozens of good quality generic “Napa” AVA wines have some To Kalon juice in them, especially those made by people that already have a connection to the vineyard like Constellation/Mondavi or many of the Beckstoffer clients.

It seems that there is enough size and diversity to give To Kalon its own AVA.  With its internal soil and site diversity, in my mind, it would make sense if thought out and executed correctly. Unfortunately, the only thing To Kalon legally means today from a codified point of view is a marketing trademark of a large corporation (Constellation).

What Makes up To Kalon Terroir?

To Kalon is huge, and in many respects, the variance in soils, grade, and other subterranean influences impact the kind of wine made from the vineyard as a whole.  The physical distinctions are subtle, and not readily seen with the naked eye as the grade can be slight, the soil differences are mostly due to gravel composition which does not sit at the surface, and the underground water sources.  They all share copious amounts of sunshine and Mediterranean temperatures.  Though, let’s also not forget the hand of man in the form of viticultural practices like vine age, spacing, and training, as well as the kinds of rootstocks and clones. 

Some parts of To Kalon have subterranean water sources in the form of ancient creeks that carry mountain runoff, some have creeks above ground.  In drought years both are important but eventually run dry in the growing season.  Other To Kalon sites are densely packed with gravel stones and loam, while others are mostly loam.  Some sites are trained densely and low to the ground, while others are planted further apart and are trained high off the ground.  Some growers use unhealthy products in their vineyards, while some (few) practice fully organic practices.  Some sites are on alluvial fans and are the best as they are densely studded with gravel as the major percentage of the soil composition, though most sites in To Kalon are not on these alluvial fans.  What most of the To Kalon sites do have in common is their vine youth.  There are no vieilles vignes (VV, or French for old vines), save for a few small acres, amounting to 3 tiny sites within To Kalon. 

To Kalon Creek runs through the MacDonald vineyard property, carrying with it stones and runoff from the Mayacamas mountains on the wester edge of the valley. The first 6-10 feet of MacDonald vineyard soils are densely packed with these small stones at up to an incredible 90 percent.

The oldest To Kalon vines are some of the oldest in the Napa Valley.  The oldest To Kalon vines are the Mondavi I-Block Sauvignon Blanc at 73 years old (planted in 1945).  The second oldest To Kalon vines are the senior patch Cabernet Sauvignon in the MacDonald vineyard at 64 years old (planted in 1954).  The second oldest MacDonald vines, Cabernet Sauvignon planted in 1973, make up a large proportion of their vineyard and at 45 years old they are older than most other vines in the Napa Valley.  The ‘East Block’ Cabernet Franc vines at Detert that were planted in 1949 were replanted in 1979, making them 39 years old this year.  In case you were wondering, the oldest vines in Napa Valley are the I-Block mentioned above and the tiny portion of Rutherford AVA old vine Cabernet Sauvignon vines left in the J.J. Cohn vineyard that go into the Scarecrow wine (also planted in 1945).

My Objective (The Point)

A few years ago, I had read the great GuildSomm article on To Kalon, “The True Story of To-Kalon Vineyard” and was blown away by the amount of history in this vineyard.  After reading it, I had to go and see Detert and MacDonald for myself.  I set my entire morning to meet at MacDonald and then neighboring Detert, two family operations that have been at it in Napa for four generations, harking back to the days when Napa was an extremely rural place for getting away from the big city.  I was after the two sites with the oldest To Kalon Cabernet vines, one portion a half acre of Cabernet Sauvignon, with the other section the oldest Cabernet Franc vines in Napa.  The Cabernet Sauvignon vines are some of the biggest, most contorted, and downright beautiful vines I have ever seen.  If you have ever seen the old vines at Vega Sicilia, these remind me very much of those gorgeous senior citizens.

MacDonald old vine Cabernet Sauvignon (top), Detert East Block Cabernet Franc vines (br), me and “Schwarzenegger” in the Old Vine patch at MacDonald (bl).

Among the many interesting facts I learned from the GuildSomm article I learned was that the Detert (Garret) and MacDonald families are related and originally were under one family with one vineyard of both varietals.  The patriarch, Hedwig Detert, led her family here for retirement but ended up in the grape growing business.  In 1954 Hedwig purchased 50 acres of To Kalon from the estate of the recently deceased owner Martin Stelling.  As the baton passed to the next generations, they eventually decided to split the property through in heritance as the families grew.  The section of vines having the old vine Cabernet Franc went to the Detert side of the family, while the MacDonald’s had the old vine Cabernet Sauvignon.  (Yes, the idea of a “super-cuvée” between the two was brought up by me at both visits.)  Throughout it all though, a good portion of the fruit is sold to Robert Mondavi.  So, while the fourth generation is keeping that connection to the past, they are simultaneously forging a new legacy for the family by making some of the best wines in the Napa Valley.  As time goes on hopefully they can get more of the fruit for themselves to increase their own production which is currently very small.

A Little More History…

Many people think Robert Mondavi made To Kalon famous, and to an extent that is true in the modern era.  But, as I indicated above, To Kalon was created by Hamilton Walker Crabb in 1861 and the ‘To-Kalon’ wines were very popular among the finest restaurants of that time in the big cities of America like New Orleans, San Francisco, Chicago and New York.  In 1899 Crab died and his descendants had to relinquish the entire property to public auction in order to pay off the massive debts incurred by Mr.Crabb’s viticultural empire.  The next 40 years saw the Churchill family take control, doing little but to try and continue the legacy of Mr Crabb.  However, without the galvanizing Crabb and the onslaught of Prohibition, the company and vineyard died from a slow bleed and a fire in 1939 wiped the land clean of Crabb’s winery.  The next prominent owner was Martin Stelling, who by 1950 was able to rejoin almost all of Crabb’s old parcels and extended its size by adding a large portion to the south, almost doubling its size.  In true Shakespearean fashion, tragedy again struck a To Kalon Vineyard owner with Stelling’s early death in an automobile accident in 1950.

The family patriarch, Hedwig Detert, that purchased the original 50 acres of To Kalon in 1954 (right), Crabb’s winery in the late 1800’s before burned to the ground in a fore in 1939 (tl), To Kalon Wine Depots were in all the major city’s as distribution points to consumer and restaurants like this one here in New Orleans (ll). (Photos taken with Alex MacDonald of materials he and his brother Graeme have gathered regarding the history of To Kalon; Hedwig Detert photo credit is from the Detert Family Vineyards website)

Over the next 2 decades, portions were carved up and transferred hands multiple times, setting the stage for the modern day owners.  The MacDonald and Detert vineyards were one site and purchased by their patriarch, Gunther Detert in 1954.  In 1968 Robert Mondavi acquired the 325 acres his family’s company Charles Krug acquired in 1958.  Beckstoffer Vineyards purchases it’s To Kalon Vineyard in 1993 from Beaulieu, who originally acquired it in 1943 from the remnants of the Churchill estate (89 acres).  Opus One purchased the southernmost portion of vineyards from Mondavi in 1981 (35 acres) and leases a large tract from Mondavi (now Constellation) adjacent to the Beckstoffer and Macdonald vineyards.

Initially, Mondavi believed using the name To Kalon on the wine labels would confuse the consumer.  Over time, however, Mondavi changed his tune and started to brand the wines with the To Kalon name with great success.  It was believed Mondavi was so enamored with the fruit from the MacDonald and Detert vineyards he used it in both the Reserve Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon bottling and in early vintages of Opus One.  To this day, it is believed that about half of the fruit from Macdonald and Detert make up the current vintages of Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (now called the To Kalon Reserve).  While the Mondavi winery still purchases fruit from MacDonald and Detert, each year more of the fruit is making its way into bottles bearing the labels of Detert and MacDonald. 

Robert Mondavi used to call this section his favorite part of To Kalon, even more than the To Kalon sites that he himself owned because the fruit was so consistently excellent in quality, vintage after vintage.  The unfortunate irony is that the vineyards of MacDonald and Detert are not allowed to be called To Kalon because of a trademark protection that Mondavi created.  Though a recent decision was granted that could open the door to MacDonald being able to use the term “To Kalon Creek” on its labels, which is the name of the creek that runs through their vineyard.  It only makes sense because if you look at a topographical map of the To Kalon vineyard and the MacDonald/Detert sites, they are a natural extension of the current To Kalon, continuous and congruent to the contours of the land and more importantly originally part of the property owned by Hamilton W. Crab.

In part 2 we will be taking a look at my visit to MacDonald Vineyards with an in-depth look at the vineyard and discussions with Alex MacDonald.  Part 3 will wrap things up with my visit to Detert Family Vineyards and the wonderful visit and tasting with Tom Garret.

Cheers!

-Tom

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