Vertical Tasting of Hundred Acre Kayli Morgan Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon

Canadian ex-investment banker Jayson Woodbridge’s excellent California wine adventure began in 2000 with his purchase of a ten-acre clay dome along the Silverado Trail between St. Helena and Calistoga. From its first vintage that year, the Hundred Acre Kayli Morgan Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon has proved to be a remarkably plush, velvety elixir. I can’t think of many other Napa Valley red wines that have exceeded it in consistency since then. 

Woodbridge had been seeking a prime site in Napa Valley for several years when vineyard manager Jim Barbour recommended a parcel of land he thought was ideal for Cabernet Sauvignon. It had previously been planted to Sauvignon Blanc but Barbour had ripped out the vines, installed a new irrigation system and planted Cabernet at a dense meter by meter-and-a-half spacing in 1996 for the then-owner. Woodbridge brought in consulting winemaker Philippe Melka, who told him that the soil resembled that of Château Pétrus on the Pomerol plateau. The essentially flat site, which actually slopes down very gently from its center, is sheltered from the northwest to east by hills and thus spared the hot late-afternoon sun. Its ancient fractured clay soil is studded with volcanic glass and pebbles, so it absorbs water slowly and is able to keep the vines cool and resistant to heat spikes—“like natural A.C. for the vines,” says Woodbridge.

Kayli Morgan Vineyard

Woodbridge Is a Dynamo

By any standards of productivity, Woodbridge is a whirlwind. He also makes wines under other labels such as Cherry Pie (Pinot Noir from Napa and Sonoma) and Layer Cake (a series of consistently excellent everyday drinking wines from California, Spain, Italy, Australia and Argentina); and he now owns three prime Cabernet vineyards between St. Helena and Calistoga. He bought and planted the amphitheater Ark Vineyard, located about 500 feet off the valley floor on Glass Mountain above St. Helena on highly complex volcanic soils, producing his first vintage from this site in 2005. And his Few and Far Between vineyard, the first release from which was the 2008, is essentially the upslope of the Eisele vineyard, which now belongs to the owner of Château Latour. Just for good measure, he also makes a stunning (and extremely expensive) California port from Cabernet Sauvignon, and from time to time offers a Cabernet called Deep Time, from raw material allowed to spend three to five years in barrel.

But it was the Kayli Morgan Cabernet, which he named after his daughter Morgan and his earliest business partner’s daughter Kayli, that established Woodbridge’s reputation. He has become known for relentless attention to detail and a spare-no-expenses approach to growing and harvesting his Napa Valley Cabernet fruit, purchasing barrels and making and raising his wines—not to mention overseeing the design of labels and bottles and even the beeswax he uses to create what he calls “a bacteriological seal” for his very long, dense corks. The necks of the Hundred Acre bottles also feature a 24-carat gold band seal fired into the glass, which he says is the symbol of his bond with his clients.

Although I have regularly tasted new releases with Woodbridge from day one, I’ve never had the opportunity to see more than three vintages side by side. As you might imagine, I jumped at the opportunity to experience the full series of Kayli Morgan releases in March at Woodbridge’s office/man-cave in St. Helena.

A Very Ripe Pomerol Style of Cabernet

Woodbridge picks the Kayli Morgan fruit in a series of passes, typically beginning in late September. Yields range from 1.5 to 2.5 tons per acre, depending on the vintage. He is unapologetic about picking his grapes very ripe, by taste rather than by potential alcohol level, and clearly that decision is largely responsible for the uncommon opulence of the wines. “It’s not a Bordeaux; it’s the way I like my Cabernet,” he told me in March. In fact, virtually since day one, the Kayli Morgan bottling has struck me as downright Pomerol-like—and a very rich Pomerol at that—despite the fact that it’s 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. “Our fruit is fully mature when we harvest; the berries fall off in your hand,” noted Woodbridge, adding that “extraction is easy and there’s no need to do post-fermentation maceration.” Precision in harvesting, selection, winemaking and élevage are essential to the consistently high quality of the Kayli Morgan wine. “Making a single-vineyard 100%-Cabernet Sauvignon wine in Napa Valley is like climbing the north face of the Eiger,” says Woodbridge. “You can’t hide any flaws.”

His team sorts the clusters in the field and again on a sorting table. Then, after the destemming, he sorts again, berry by berry, on a vibrating table. Woodbridge made his Cabernets in a custom crush facility through 2004, then moved into a new winery and caves he dug under the Ark Vineyard in 2005. In his new facility, which Woodbridge describes as “like an operating theater: perfectly clean, with NASA air filters,” he ferments his wines in 100% new French oak, a combination of thicker-staved 500-liter puncheons and small oval wood tanks, and then ages them in puncheons and new barriques. In fact, Woodbridge mentioned to me that the only meaningful change he has made in his winemaking techniques since the outset was the introduction of the oval fermenters in 2005.

The wines age on their gross lees for as long as 30 months without being racked, as Woodbridge believes that racking would unnecessarily shock the wines. He is also convinced that long aging in oak brings polish to the wines, and that extended lees contact contributes creaminess. “Racking was for the French, who faced the challenge of keeping their wines clean,” he noted. In preparation for bottling, Woodbridge drains the wine from the barrels into stainless steel tanks, where it settles under a layer of argon gas before being bottled a week later with a coarse “bug filtration.”

The first two vintages of Kayli Morgan carried alcohol levels of 14.2% and 13.9%, respectively, but since then the octane levels in the finished wines have typically hovered between 15% and 15.9%, with pHs in the 3.8 to 3.9 range. Woodbridge has never acidified his Cabernets. The greatest surprise of my vertical tasting was how much energy these wines manage to retain as they age. A number of wines virtually stunned me with their liqueur-like opulence when popped and poured, then settled down to reveal more obvious underlying structure as they absorbed oxygen in the glass.

Philippe Melka made the 2000 and 2001 vintages. Woodbridge, a very fast learner, took over in 2002, with Melka staying on as a consultant for several years after that. The first vintage was priced at $150, which came as quite a shock to the locals at the time. But recent vintages have been $350 a bottle, and the wine is rarely sighted on retail shelves as most of it is snapped up by mailing list customers.

Coming Soon

Vinous Napa Valley Maps: Oakville (June 2016), Pritchard Hill (June 2016)

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 -- Stephen Tanzer