Judging from its limited range along the California coast, you might conclude that Sequoia sempervirens is as finicky about terroir as Pinot Noir. But redwoods seem to grow well enough in the flat, warm middle of Napa Valley, where a healthy looking group of trees shades the very barn where Jim Allen started barreling down Cabernet wine in 1979.
In the 1980s, Sequoia Grove was the place to go for hot new Napa Cabs. It was a golden age. And then there was a fall. Well, not a fall, exactly—but, says Michael Trujillo, present and director of winemaking since 2001, "It's kind of been surpassed by the [air quote] 'hero brands.'" His challenge, to take Sequoia Grove into a new golden age, is one he clearly enjoys.
Trujillo took a semester off from college to work in Napa, and he's been here since. It was an amazing time, he says, to be taking classes at UC Davis and then coming back to do his homework with the help of André Tchelistcheff, who consulted at Sequoia Grove.
In 2001, the Kopf family (Kobrand) stepped in to play fairy godmother to the faltering brand. After "a candid conversation" about the brand's prospects, Trujillo says, he got the tools he needed to step up quality, and hired promising UC Davis grad Molly Hill as winemaker. "In other words, that diamond in the rough is polished and ready to kick some booty," says Trujillo. Not that they're competitive—Trujillo says they could make 300 cases of "point-chasing wine," just to get attention. But that isn't the point.
Except when it is: Trujillo introduces the 2008 Cambium ($140), a Bordeaux-styled blend, as their "throwing-it-into-the-ring wine" at a recent tasting. "Our running-with-the-big-dogs wine," affirms Hill. It has nice, toasted-Graham-cracker and allspice detail, with grilled blackberry savor, although the complex Cambium is less "dusty" in the Rutherford way than the 2010 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($38), a chimera with tarry, molasses aromatics, sticky, prune fruit and fine, lifted tannins, reminding me of the last BV Georges de Latour that I tasted—but wouldn't they like to hear that.
For his 2011 Napa Valley Chardonnay ($28), Trujillo convinced one of his growers to get over his embarrassment at growing ragged-looking clusters of Wente clone Chardonnay. But the reds are the strong suit in this tasting room, which is housed in the original, remodeled barn. Light-filled and rustic like a cabin in the woods, it's simply laid out and clutter-free. One of the few keepsakes for sale is a tiny peat-potted live sequoia seedling. Expect big things from it.
Sequoia Grove Winery, 8338 St. Helena Hwy., Napa. Daily, 10:30am–5pm. Tasting fee, $15–$30. 707.944.2945.