Under the direction of new winery President, Cleo Pahlmeyer, daughter of founder Jayson Pahlmeyer, there is a slow, subtle tweak coming to one of Napa Valley’s premiere cult wines, Pahlmeyer.
Successfully tweaking the personality and profile of any successful brand, especially one which has won accolades for 30 years, is no small challenge.
Cleo’s task is a bit like that of the captain of a huge super-tanker, who decides half-way across the Pacific that the onboard compass needs to be reset for a different destination – so the captain aims to steer the ship to head for a different point on the horizon.
You ever try to turn a super-tanker around?
Excuse Napaman for mixing metaphors, but to my mind, this is a bit what Cleo’s self-imposed undertaking resembles.
She’s going to press success and make things - like the taste profile and actual bottle design of Pahlmeyer – better. In my mind, that’s like changing the direction of a super-tanker.
Cleo Pahlmeyer, President of the winery.
Cleo has taken the reins of Pahlmeyer from her dad, Jayson, who founded the winery, producing his first glorious vintage in 1986.
Jayson is in good spirits and fine health, but thought that it was time to turn over operational responsibilities to his family’s next-gen, next-gender. Hence, Cleo’s move from the dugout to the batter’s box.
I asked Cleo what she would like to achieve, now that she is running the show.
“We really want to create the gold standard of Napa Valley wine,” Cleo told me.
“We want to make a classic Napa Valley red wine showing richness, power, and volume, whose hallmarks are alluring aromatics and freshness. We think we can make even better wine than we do now by farming our vineyards with more precision. At harvest, we want to up our game and handle the fruit less. We want to be able to taste the vineyard site in our finished wine.”
Based on whom Cleo’s hired to execute her vision, I think she is likely to succeed.
You see, Cleo has just hired Jennifer Williams as Pahlmeyer’s new winemaker.
Remember, you read this here first.
Jennifer Williams, Pahlmeyer’s new winemaker.
Napaman is the only media outlet to get wind of this sea-change at Pahlmeyer.
As well, Napaman was also the ONLY journalist invited to an all-day retrospective tasting of all 30 vintages of Pahlmeyer.
(For clarity, perspective, and full disclosure, I am a long-time friend of Cleo and her husband, Jamie Watson, which is why I was asked to join the otherwise private, staff-only tasting.)
If the name Jennifer Williams rings a bell, it may be because you have enjoyed her delicious, beautifully crafted wines, which she has made at other Napa Valley wineries.
Perhaps you have been lucky enough to drink Spottswoode Cabernets from vintages 2006 through 2011 -- ALL the handiwork of Jennifer, now 42.
Jennifer had the good fortune to be mentored by some of the top wine people in the industry, including the Stephen Curry of vineyard managers, David Abreu, and winemaker Francoise Peschon at Araujo Estate.
(Today, Jennifer and her husband, Mark Porembski, work together to produce their own wine, Zeitgeist Cellars, for which they craft small batches of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.)
Helping Jennifer is Todd Kohn, associate winemaker at Pahlmeyer. As well, Todd is full-on winemaker at Pahlmeyer’s Sonoma Coast winery, Wayfarer, where he makes delicious, Burgundy-style, Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs.
To determine a new direction for Pahlmeyer wines, Cleo said that she had to first understand the evolution of the wine to date, so she arranged a tasting of all 30 vintages – everything ever produced – and assembled a small panel to taste the wines in Yountville last week. Napaman attended the tasting.
This is what a table looks like when you assemble your team… and 30 vintages of Pahlmeyer.
The wines were arranged in five flights, grouped by whomever was the winemaker at the time.
Over 30 years, Pahlmeyer has had a succession of winemakers, each lasting five, or six, years, including, in historical chronology, Randy Dunn, Helen Turley, Erin Green, Kale Anderson and Bibiana Gonzalez Rabe.
The Pahlmeyer team tasted 30 vintages of the winery’s proprietary red, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cab Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec.
Among my favorite wines of the 30 vintages were those made in the ‘80s by Randy Dunn and the ones in the 90s, made by Helen Turley.
The 1990 Pahlmeyer, even though 28 years old, tasted like a current-release wine, filled with contemporary freshness, bright acidity, good balance and ample vigor. Quite a delight. 94 points.
My favorite from the Turley era was her 1994 Pahlmeyer, which exhibited sweet, mature fruit, smart acidity, and tremendous balance. I noted that this wine tasted extremely refreshing, which is not a word I often use to describe 24-year-old Napa Valley Cabs. Great job! 96 points.
Jamie Watson, full-time lawyer in private practice and part-time consigliere to his wife, Cleo Pahlmeyer, and her family.
“In addition to improving our wine and strengthening our brand, our next strategic move will be to build our own winery and have our own hospitality center,” Jamie told me at the tasting.
Dave Wilson, Pahlmeyer director of vineyard operations
Like Jennifer Williams, Dave Wilson will bear a lot of the responsibility going forward to produce a “Gold Standard” proprietary red wine. Dave oversees 12 separate vineyards for the company, five of which are groomed specifically for Pahlmeyer’s proprietary red.
One of the essential properties supplying Cabernet for Pahlmeyer is Dave’s own family’s vineyard, Rancho Chimiles, east of Atlas Peak, on a swale about 600 feet in elevation.
Rancho Chimiles has been Pahlmeyer’s backbone source of Cabernet for 25 consecutive vintages. If I told you the coordinates of the vineyard, or shared a photo, the Pahlmeyer crew would kill me, so don’t ask. I need to be home for supper tonight.
If you are interested in getting on the mailing list, or joining any of several wine club programs, go to pahlmeyer.com.