A Glass of Our Own

By Walt Schlotfeldt

“We were looking to enjoy a glass of wine while watching the sunset…,” we told friends. With many seasons visiting Napa Valley under our belts, Katherine and I decided it was time to find a place of our own where we could enjoy the aforementioned glass of wine on our own porch. Thus, began our search for a nice westerly facing home with an acre or two of grapes……

We found something much bigger and more exciting, and exactly what we wanted in 2012, on a 42-acre hillside ranch planted with 11 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon vines. It’s situated above the Napa Valley floor and our adjoining property neighbor is the famed Joseph Phelps Winery in St. Helena. Not bad company!

From our deck, Katherine and I can sit and watch the big, beautiful, California wine country sunsets with a glass of our own cabernet in hand. Sound magical? It is! But it didn’t happen overnight…. Pull up a chair and we’ll tell you our journey in developing a world-class Napa Valley vineyard producing 97-point Cabernet Sauvignon wine.

Denali Estate

Denali Estate was originally planted in the 1990s by esteemed viticulturist Jim Barbour. The prior owner had used the name “Rockledge.” Katherine and I decided to change our ranch name to “Denali Estate” and also to develop a wine label in homage to our home state’s most famous mountain, Denali. It’s our way of bringing a little bit of our Alaska heritage to Napa Valley.

In fact, we put a profile of Denali, the highest mountain peak in North America, and the Big Dipper and the North Star formation, as they appear on the Alaska State Flag on our wine label and logo, as a further reminder of home.

All of these symbols represent our vision and values for crafting the most outstanding estate wine. We have so much gratitude that Jim Barbour returned after more than two decades to rejuvenate and care for our vines. Replanting older blocks and working to raise existing vines to their optimum health ensures the best expression of their balance in fruit production, flavor profile, and sustainability as part of the Napa Valley.

The Long Game

Nestled in the heart of Napa Valley’s St. Helena AVA (American Viticulture Area), the land that surrounds Denali Estate has long been cultivated for agricultural use. As early as the 1840s, the hills and valley floor surrounding St. Helena have been farmed for cattle, grape growing and orchard production.

Fast forward more than 150 years and our own ranch saw its first development to agricultural use. But only a third of our ranch has been cultivated for grape growing, with most of the remainder left undeveloped, providing habitat for extensive wildlife.

From our perch overlooking the Napa Valley, we see extensive mountain bench-lands, ancient alluvial fans, and the all-important Napa River, sweeping its way down valley towards San Pablo Bay and eventually the Pacific Ocean. The consistent sunshine and unique shape of the region make for a wide temperature fluctuation during the growing season.

The diurnal temperature range, with the heat locked in during the day (and amplification by the hillsides), coupled with the nighttime moderating breezes that dramatically cool the vines by 40 to 50 degrees, helps the fruit develop ideal balance and acidity – our appellation’s trademark.

Finally, take a step back in time with our geologic history of producing centuries of mountain runoff on both sides of the valley. This runoff has created numerous active and retired waterways that eventually contributed to the 21 different soil types that define the St. Helena AVA’s world-class vineyards. These are the ideal growing conditions for Cabernet Sauvignon.

Denali Estate Re-Birth

When Katherine and I purchased our piece of heaven, many dreams were fulfilled, including that deep-seated wish for enjoying great wine during our Napa Valley sunsets. But it wasn’t until 2015 that we began serious restoration of our vineyard blocks.

Some blocks required replanting. After many years of haphazard farming and the challenges of hillside growing, some of our oldest vines were, ahem! “showing their age.” Their (lack of) production and health indicated complete replanting was the best course of action. Other vineyard blocks responded well to TLC and began to thrive again. Each block of our vineyard shows a need for minute adjustments in micro-farming for best results.

Katherine and I have enjoyed watching the vines return to healthy vigor, producing the finest grapes in their history. And as an added bonus, we’ve been so grateful for the kind advice, patience and expertise of friends, neighbors and industry professionals who’ve contributed to the success of Denali Estate.