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Ric Forman

   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 you’ve ever tasted one of those great Sterling wines from the ‘70s and wondered why they don’t 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 to celebrate.

     For some reason, this detail of our visit stuck in my mind and I couldn’t 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 guy’s 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?

     Here’s 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, they’ll 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 don’t tell you is who laid them out. (Ric Forman didn’t tell me either. I looked it up.) And at Sterling, they don’t 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 dynamite.)

     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 won’t start until well into October. The grapes look very good. I asked if I could taste a berry.

     "Help yourself," he said. "But don’t take a whole bunch. We don’t 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. That’s 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. Let’s 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. It’s structured to last with high natural acid. We brought home a bottle of his 1994, and I can attest that it’s lovely right now. Acidity is high without the need for artifice; it’s 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 you’ll 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. Dunn’s 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. That’s 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 don’t 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 who’s talking here. At first, the tone in his voice seemed to say that he wasn’t 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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