If you want to buy a scarce,
terrific, ageworthy Napa Valley Cab but don't want to
pay cult-wine prices let me suggest you trot out and
purchase a bottle of Forman Cabernet Sauvignon. Ric Forman is not a terrific
self-promoter, but he does happen to be one of the legends of Napa Valley wine. If you
don't know his story, you should:
Five Hundred Sticks of Dynamite. (September 7, 1995) If
youve ever tasted one of those great Sterling wines from the 70s and wondered
why they dont make them like that anymore the answer is over on Howell
Mountain, about 1400 feet up. His name is Ric Forman.
When we drove up to the winery last week, he was hosing down
an ancient flatbed truck. He had just finished hauling a load of barrels up the mountain
and now, having unloaded these heavy monsters into his cave, this is how he chose
For some reason, this detail of our visit stuck in my mind and
I couldnt figure out why until just now. Think about it. This is a busy man. The
truck has a hard bench seat and no air. And even though he looks in great shape, he must
be several years older than I am and I know what a tall guys back feels like
after doing what he just did. But instead of collapsing into a chair, he lovingly washes
the instrument of his torture. Why on earth?
Heres why. Ric Forman just likes to do everything right,
even if it means doing it all himself. I think this must have something to do with why
Forman wines are so consistently outstanding, every vintage.
Directly across the valley, at Newton, theyll tell you
how proud they are of their steeply terraced mountain vineyards, and how tough it was to
carve them out of the rock. What they dont tell you is who laid them out. (Ric
Forman didnt tell me either. I looked it up.) And at Sterling, they dont
mention the name of the founder who crafted their first, greatest Cabs, mostly all by
himself. Forman again. How can a guy who has done this much still be so full of beans?
The view from his deck is terrific. "What a great
house," said Phylis. "Who designed it?"
"Me," said Ric. "I built it too." And he
planted the mountainside vineyard. And he poured the swimming pool. And he dug underground
tunnels. And carved out subterranean cellars from solid rock. (Hey, wait now. How
did he do that?)
"Dynamite," he said. "I think it was 500 sticks
of dynamite. And 1200 pounds of blasting powder." That was just for the cellar below
the house. (The tunnels were gravel just like the vineyard, and therefore took no
The cellar and tunnels were the first things he built on the
mountain. For a while he lived there, a winemaking caveman. On a day like today, 100
degrees on the valley floor, it sounded to us like a fine idea.
We walked around his Howell Mountain vineyard and talked about
1995. Yields are down. Harvest up here wont start until well into October. The
grapes look very good. I asked if I could taste a berry.
"Help yourself," he said. "But dont take
a whole bunch. We dont have any to spare this year!" He was only half kidding,
I think. Every grape matters to this man.
The vineyard is planted in all the Bordeaux varieties that go
into his blend. And, not to worry, he grows many more grapes than he needs for his own
Forman bottlings. Thats another secret of why his 89 Cabernet Sauvignon, for
example, tastes so good today. Every Cab is, in effect, a reserve.
It seems no one ever talks about the Forman Chardonnay.
Lets remedy that now. He grows the grapes on his own land (of course) down on the
Rutherford Bench. And like everything else he does, this wine is excellent. No fancy
tricks. No wild yeast (he uses Montrachet). No malalactic fermentation. Its
structured to last with high natural acid. We brought home a bottle of his 1994, and I can
attest that its lovely right now. Acidity is high without the need for artifice;
its very crisp and citrussy now, but already exhibiting buttery flavors. (Ric
himself feels that his first one, the 1983, is just about fully mature.)
Ducking into the coolness of his cave, we talked Cabernet
again. The word "finesse" came up more than once. Forman Cabernet Sauvignon is
consistently a fruity, thick delicious wine, and youll never find yourself wondering
when it will come around. He values balance and elegance, and personally thinks the
not-yet-released 1993 will be "more in my style" than the potentially great (in
my own estimation) 1994.
I asked why it is that his wines are so much more approachable
early in their lives than those of his Howell Mountain neighbor, Randy Dunn. He said that
the soil further up the mountain was very different than his. Dunns vines grow in a
soft red dirt, while the Forman vineyard soil is composed largely of volcanic rock. Maybe
that has something to do with it, maybe not.
We talked about yields. Like Philip Togni, he figures the
optimum in this vineyard is about two tons an acre. Thats assuming even ripeness,
and that all the vines are healthy.
I mentioned growers in Burgundy who eke out tiny yields and he
observed that, until you see the vineyard, the figures dont mean that much. If your
vines are sick, or dying of old age, or half your berries are thrown out because of rot or
uneven ripeness, how significant is the yield?
The time had finally come to taste the 1994 Forman
Cabernet Sauvignon from the barrel. He described it as "big", but
remember whos talking here. At first, the tone in his voice seemed to say that he
wasnt sure whether "big" in itself was such a great thing.
This, however, was before we tasted the wine. I was served
first. He noted my expression, then sipped some himself. His eyebrows seemed to go up
involuntarily. "Ooh!" he said.
It was a nice moment. Sort of like when your wife somes
downstairs in a new outfit and you say "Gosh, you look great!" and she says,
"Hey! Is that such a big surprise?" I think Ric Forman had been taken by
surprise just a little by the beauty of his own wine.
My notes on the 1994 Forman Cabernet Sauvignon
say "huge inky dark purple black cherry chocolate berry bomb major tannins but
soft best one yet!" But let me suggest a shorter description:
Five hundred sticks of dynamite.
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