A look at California’s Taplin Cellars.
By Lou Marmon
Gazette Newspapers June 2014
Taplin Cellars is a Napa winery with bicoastal roots. A great-great grandfather of the present-day owners moved his dairy farming family from Vermont to San Francisco in the mid-1800s. They eventually found their way to the Napa Valley where they purchased land to grow fruit and walnuts. Farming was considerably challenging in the late 18 and early 1900s, especially in ground described as “9 parts rock and 1 part dirt.” Yet the family persevered and was able to keep ahold of the property through the Depression, Prohibition and two World Wars. In the mid-1970s they replanted to Cabernet, just in time to ride the growing interest in California wines.
Stephen Taplin, MD co-owns the property with his siblings Melinda and Bill. Steve is an internationally recognized researcher at Bethesda’s National Cancer Institute and resides in Maryland. He grew up at the family farm in St. Helena where his classmates were many of Napa’s wine notables including David Heitz, Tim Mondavi and Peter Martini. Steve recalls harvesting “in the hottest time of the year. There is nothing scarier than hearing that first walnut hit the bottom of the bucket. It meant that you were in for a long, hard day of work.”
His father was a civil engineer and while everyone worked at the farm, Steve was drawn to science, ultimately getting his medical degree at UC Davis followed by a Professorship at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle. He was recruited to the NCI a few years ago but he and his wife Sylvia travel to Napa frequently to stay involved in the winemaking operations.
Turns out the hard scrabble earth his ancestors had to coax to produce nuts and prunes is ideal for growing Cabernet. With the return of vine pest phylloxera to Napa in the 1990s, Taplin was compelled to replant so their vines are now 10 to 15 years old. They farm around 28 acres and produce up to 115 tons of grapes annually but use only 9 tons for their own wines. The rest are sold to other wineries including Bennett Lane, Caymus and Orin Swift who uses their grapes to create his well-regarded “Prisoner.”
For their own label, “Terra 9,” Stephen eschews the big, alcohol laden Cabernets often associated with Napa in favor of “more finesse” and “a terroir-based style closer to Bordeaux.” He is a fan of “new world wines, especially Montes Alpha, that are fruity, full-bodied and food-friendly.” Beginning with their first vintage in 2008 their winemaker was the well-regarded Bill Balentine. In 2012 they switched to French trained Julien Fayard to be able to exercise the “needed control to express the land they love in the wine they make.”
The property was given to Steve’s grandparents as a wedding present. Steve and his siblings believe that “we are responsible to hold onto the pioneer spirit” and keep the farm intact and viable to be able to “pass it along” to their descendants. Like Steve, his children each have other careers, but also are involved in the winemaking. “They get to choose whether they want to become winemakers,” Steve said, “They don’t have to join us although they all help.”
Steve and Sylvia recently shared a bottle of the 2009 Taplin Cellars Terra 9. It opens with beautiful blueberry, black fruit and cassis aromas and proceeds seamlessly into layers of rich, but not jammy, cranberry, black cherry and red-berry flavors in a mineral, savory and minty frame of medium tannins, well balanced acidity and a lengthy, pleasing finish. It is an impressive early effort that bodes well for subsequent vintages.