VHR, Vine Hill Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon 2008-2019 


Over the last decade or so, the VHR, Vine Hill Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon has established itself as one of the elite wines of Napa Valley. This retrospective, back to the inaugural 2008, provided a fascinating opportunity to check in on the early vintages and revisit more recent releases that complete the arc of the last dozen years here. 

I still remember the first time I tasted the VHR Cabernet. It was at the end of a long day of tastings with broker Kimberly Jones. It was my first big trip to Napa Valley after Robert Parker had asked me to take over the coverage of these wines from him. I must have tasted 150 wines. The kitchen counter was literally covered with bottles. John Kongsgaard and Andy Erickson were among the winemakers who stopped by to present their latest releases. It was an incredible day. 

I find large tastings like this energizing because they really focus the palate. “I have something new to show you,” Jones said. I was floored. The wine was tremendous. Even after everything I had tasted, this wine, the wine in my glass, was so obviously special, so obviously unique. It was the 2008 VHR Cabernet Sauvignon.

Vine Hill Ranch is one of the most distinctive vineyards in all of Napa Valley. Bruce Phillips and his wife, Heather, are the stewards of land that has a rich heritage going back all the way to the 1880s, the very early days of viticulture in the Napa Valley. Historical records show that wine grapes from this site were sold to a number of buyers, including Hamilton Crabb’s To Kalon Wine Company. Vine Hill Ranch is also one of very few properties that sells fruit to other wineries and also produces an estate Cabernet Sauvignon under the same name. The history of the site and wine are inextricably linked. Here, we will explore both. 

A remarkable retrospective of the VHR Cabernet Sauvignon back to the inaugural 2008.

A Rich Family Heritage

Bruce Phillips’ great, great grandfather, Robert Muirhead Hamilton, a native of Scotland, travelled to California in the 1840s as part of the Gold Rush. Unfortunately, the promise of discovering significant wealth never materialized. But Hamilton did meet Livingston Low Baker. Together they formed Baker & Hamilton, and built a hugely successful catalog business that sold tools and other supplies to the emerging agriculture sector. As a brief aside, the Phillips family’s new Baker & Hamilton Cabernet Sauvignon pays homage to this early chapter of their history. Hamilton’s son, Alec, married Grace Spreckels. Their daughter, also Grace, married Bruce Kelham, and that is where the modern-day history of Vine Hill Ranch begins.

Bruce Kelham had a diary operation on Point Reyes. Kelham sold his Bear Valley Ranch to the US Government in 1956 as part of a program headed by Congressman Clem Miller that combined a number of properties to form what is now the Point Reyes National Seashore, a stretch of protected land along the coast in Marin County.

The Vinous Map of Vine Hill Ranch shows neighboring vineyards on the left and a block-by-block breakdown on the right. A number of nearby vineyards were once part of the original property Bruce Kelham purchased in 1956. © 2022 Vinous.

Later that year Kelham used his proceeds from the sale and acquired a large tract of land in Napa Valley that spanned approximately 2,500 acres. The property started at Dwyer Road in Oakville and ran south to Yountville. From a viticultural perspective, the estate included what are today Kelham, True Dog Knoll, Vine Hill Ranch, Beckstoffer-Missouri Hopper, Moffitt, MBar Ranch and Promontory. Kelham dreamt of building a home that would recreate the spirit of Bear Valley Ranch in the Napa Valley. He called his new estate Vine Hill Ranch. 

Architecture runs deep in the family. Bruce Kelham’s father, George, had been a prominent architect. He was the chief architect for the San Francisco Bay Exposition in 1935. Other major works include the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, the Shell Building in San Francisco and the San Francisco Public Library (today the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco). Construction started in 1959 and finished in 1964. It’s a gorgeous home, especially in the way indoor and outdoor spaces melt into each other seamlessly.

Napa Valley was still emerging from Prohibition. It was a diverse agricultural community in which grapes were cultivated alongside other crops. From 1957 to 1974, all of the grapes from the ranch were sold to Beaulieu Vineyard for their Georges de Latour Cabernet Sauvignon. (Upon learning this piece of trivia, I had to wonder if the concept of “Rutherford Dust” might need a re-visit.) In any event, the vineyards from the western part of Napa Valley, then referred to as the Oakville and Rutherford Benches, have long been highly regarded.

Over the years, the Phillips family sold a number of parcels. Dr. Herbert Moffitt acquired a significant portion of land at the southern end of the property in the late 1950s. Moffitt sold a large tract of totally undeveloped land in the hills behind Dominus to Girard, who then sold it to Pat Stotesbury at Ladera. Many years later Bill Harlan purchased that land over a series of transactions for what is now Promontory. The Moffitts retained a small, highly regarded vineyard on Oakville's southern border for many years before selling most of it in 2011 to the MacDonnell family at Round Pond, who rechristened their portion MBar Ranch. Other parcels from Bruce Kelham's original holdings were spun off to members of the extended family, including the present day Kelham vineyard, and, more recently, True Dog Knoll.

In 1974, Robert Mondavi entered into an agreement to buy fruit from Vine Hill Ranch. It was a time of change in Napa Valley. By the mid 1970s, Mondavi had made a name for himself as a charming and visionary owner. Beaulieu Vineyard was going through some ups and downs. Mondavi was able to scoop up a number of top sites for his Reserve program. These included Horton (MacDonald), Detert, Moffett and Vine Hill Ranch. The relationship with Mondavi lasted until 2009. At its peak, Mondavi purchased 40% of Vine Hill Ranch fruit. It was a very different time in Napa Valley. The Phillips property encompassed around 200 acres of vineyards, but things looked quite different than they do today. Chardonnay was highly sought after. Most of the present-day Kelham vineyard was Chardonnay. Vine Hill Ranch and Missouri Hopper were planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, but also Sauvignon Blanc, which is unthinkable now. 

The Vine Hill Ranch farmhouse is nestled within Block 7.

The Modern Era

A few years later, in 1978, Alex and Bob Phillips moved their young family from San Francisco to the Napa Valley, ushering in the modern era for Vine Hill Ranch. Duckhorn, Cakebread and Robert Pepi all released vineyard-designate wines with the 1981 vintage, the first single vineyard wines off the ranch. Although not a vineyard-designate bottling in name, the Etude Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon, then made by Tony Soter, was all Vine Hill Ranch fruit, as it remains to this day.

A significant turning point arrived in the mid-1980s. By then, 75% of Vine Hill Ranch was planted to AxR1 rootstock, which unexpectedly proved to be especially vulnerable to phylloxera and caused well more than half of Napa Valley vineyards to be replanted. Facing daunting costs to redevelop and ferociously wanting to avoid debt, the Phillips family sold 40 acres to Andy Beckstoffer for the site he renamed Missouri Hopper. The year was 1991. “We had intense discussions in the family at the time,” explained Bruce Phillips, who was involved for many years in the business before formally taking over from his parents in 2004. “In the end, my father wanted to avoid debt at all costs, so we sold the front 40 acres. I can’t say I blame him given the enormous expenses we incurred to redevelop the vineyard.”

The Phillips family embarked on an ambitious project to redevelop the vineyard. “I can’t underestimate the role Tony Soter [then at Etude] played in helping us understand the subtleties of this place,” Phillips continued. In 2004, Vine Hill Ranch was divided into 12 distinct sections. Today, that work has been taken further, leading to a total of 18 different blocks and parcels across 70 planted acres.

One of the discoveries of all that work is Block 1, which became the source of the Vecina Cabernet in Bill Harlan’s new BOND range of Cabernets. “When I was a kid, Block 1 was a shrub,” Phillips explained. “Later, we found a series of terraces extending into the hillsides that were once planted to grapes, which made us totally rethink what viticulture was like here in the past.  We planted Block 1 in 1991, but the terrace configuration was not optimal, as we could not manage sun exposure well. It was a time of significant redevelopment in Napa Valley, and my dad was limited in terms of what he could get for rootstocks. We ended up with mostly 03916 rootstock, which is both delicate and also needs a lot of water.” 

The last vintage for the old Block 1 was 2011. A subsequent development removed the terraces and transformed the land into a more conventional hillside site planted with nine combinations of clones and rootstocks. Vine Hill Ranch is one of only few places in Napa Valley planted with the Eisele clone of Cabernet Sauvignon. 

Tasting through the single blocks of the VHR Cabernet Sauvignon.

Napa Valley’s Paradigm Shift

At the same time, a fascinating shift was taking place in Napa Valley. The modern, Post-Prohibition era was dominated mostly by large estates that followed a Bordeaux-like estate model. Wineries like Inglenook, Beaulieu Vineyard, Charles Krug and Mayacamas promoted brand more than place. Even higher end wines like BV’s Georges de Latour or Mondavi’s Reserve were anchored to a brand rather than to a specific site. There were some single-vineyard Cabernets. Heitz’s Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet, Freemark Abbey's Bosché and the Diamond Creek wines come to mind as notable exceptions. 

The early and mid-1990s saw a significant shift towards single-vineyard Cabernets. David Abreu and Ann Colgin were among the new wave of producers who specifically focused on site. Bill Harlan created his BOND program with the explicit mission of highlighting hillside vineyards through small production wines inspired by the ethos of Burgundy. Andy Beckstoffer took that a step or two further by acquiring historically significant parcels, branding his vineyards and then charging a premium for his fruit. As all this happened, the first seeds were planted for what would become an estate wine at Vine Hill Ranch.

Fast forward to today. It is next to impossible to keep up with all the new wines that keep popping up in Napa Valley, almost all of them vineyard-designates from top sites made by ambitious winemakers who are intent on showcasing the essence of site.

Bruce Phillips, winemaker Françoise Peschon and vineyard manager Mike Wolf at harvest.

Building the Team

The Phillipses put together an all-star team to execute their vision. Veteran vineyard manager Mike Wolf farms the ranch like a garden. Wolf got his start working with Andy Beckstoffer and now owns a vineyard management company that farms more than 500 acres throughout Napa Valley, including a number of elite sites such as Scarecrow, Meteor and Detert. 

Françoise Peschon is a winemaker’s winemaker. Trained at UC Davis and the University of Bordeaux, Peschon first gained prominence at Araujo Estate, where she worked until 2013. Visit at harvest and you will meet someone whose purplish, stained hands are those of someone who is physically making wine and showing up for 4am picks rather than delegating to assistants. Her passion for this site and the wines she makes from this land are palpable.

Block 6 is one of the core components of the VHR blend.

The Art of the Blend

Most winemakers who source fruit at Vine Hill Ranch get 1 or, at most 2, blocks. The VHR Cabernet Sauvignon is the only wine that draws fruit from the entire ranch. “In 2008, we carved out one acre from each of the blocks to make our own wine. As time passed, we learned what works best for the wine we want to make.” Phillips explained. Today, the core blocks for the VHR Cabernet Sauvignon are Blocks 3, 4 and 6. Blocks 3 and 4 are towards the front of the property and are benchland blocks. Block 6 and its subdivisions lead into the hillsides.

Blocks are harvested, vinified and aged separately. One of the most fascinating tastings I do each year is tasting of the blocks prior to blending. Some of those blocks ultimately make it into the wine and some don’t. The wines see 28 to 35 days on the skins. Time in barrel is 20-21 months for the Cabernet Sauvignon and an extra 12 months for the Extended Barrel wine. New oak was 100% for the first three years but is now closer to 75%.

The Next Generation

The growing reputation of the vineyard, the success of the VHR Cabernet Sauvignon and a greater focus in special sites in general have all brought increased attention to the ranch. That has all happened very quickly. When I started covering Napa Valley wines a dozen or so years ago, Vine Hill Ranch (the vineyard) did not enjoy anywhere near the status it does now, rightly or wrongly. Today, things are quite different. Fruit prices have increased, leading to a pretty significant transition as some of the older, traditional players get priced out while young, ambitious winemakers take over blocks as they become available. One of these moments happened in 2016, when the vineyard started opening to new buyers, including TOR and Accendo. After 43 years, Cakebread stopped purchasing fruit in 2020, which created availability in a number of benchland blocks. Nigel Kinsman, Helen Keplinger, Sam Kaplan, Maayan Koschitzky and Maya Dalla Valle (for DVO) are among the young, artisan winemakers who are now sourcing Vine Hill Ranch fruit.

Vintages 2016, 2013 and 2010 were among the many highlights in this vertical.

The Tasting

This past October I sat down with Bruce Phillips, Françoise Peschon and Mike Wolf at the Phillips family home to taste through all the wines, starting with the 2008 and finishing with the latest addition to the range, the Extended Age VHR Cabernet. The 2008 and 2009 are perhaps a bit less impressive than they were at the outset, but that is not unusual for new projects. Starting with 2010, the VHR Cabernet Sauvignon has been exceptional to profound. My favorites remain 2016, 2013 and 2010, all of which are also among the best wines made in those vintages, three of the best in the last several decades. The VHR Cabernet Sauvignon is a special wine from a special place made by a family with a deep connection to the land, which is where it all starts. That’s exactly what the wines in this vertical tasting conveyed. 

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