Cuvaison A Napa Valley Icon Embraces its Next Fifty Years

YOENOPHILE | By Denman Moody –

In 2016, Robert Mondavi became the first post-Prohibition Napa Valley winery to celebrate its golden 50th anniversary. In the few years since, a handful of other famed wineries have joined the “golden” club, among them such icons as Trefethen, ZD Wines and Chappellet. This year, Napa Valley’s acclaimed Cuvaison became a member of this illustrious group.

With a half-century under its belt, Cuvaison has a rich and storied history. Founded in 1969, it was one of the pioneering wineries that shaped the modern era of California winemaking, helping to catapult Napa Valley onto the global stage as one of the world’s most revered wine regions. While other early Napa Valley wineries focused primarily on Bordeaux varieties, Cuvaison has long been dedicated to making Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs from its renowned 210-acre estate vineyard in the cool Los Carneros appellation. Offering impeccable balance, vibrant fruit and vineyard-inspired character, Cuvaison’s wines were early benchmarks for excellence in the region.

I have long had an appreciation and fondness for Cuvaison. They are an independent, family-owned winery, with a five-decade track record of crafting very good, and often exceptional, wines. But in recent years, under the guidance of President and CEO Dan Zepponi, there is a new dynamism at Cuvaison that has elevated the winery to consistent greatness. Over the past several vintages, the wines have been superb, as if a magnifying glass has been held over the terroir of the winery’s estate vineyard, revealing what Cuvaison’s talented team has learned over the decades. This success is a compelling reminder of the value of time and knowledge, and the way exceptional winegrowing sites evolve and mature when skillfully guided by the right stewards.

Zepponi and longtime Winemaker Steve Rogstad have been the driving force behind the renaissance at Cuvaison, as have the winery’s owners, the Schmidheiny family – fourth-generation vintners who have empowered their team to strive for greatness. Zepponi, who returned to his independent winery roots when he joined Cuvaison in 2016, is someone who understands what it means to build on the legacy of an iconic family-run winery. In 1969, the same year that Cuvaison was established, Dan’s father, Gino Zepponi, cofounded ZD Wines. A true family operation, Dan worked at the winery on weekends and during summers. “By the time I was a teenager, I’d learned to drive a tractor, prune, fill barrels, run the crusher, do lab analysis – you name it. I also learned from my dad that running a successful family business is about care and quality and that it requires hard work and integrity.”

In both the vineyard and the winery, this focus on care and quality is clearly evident at Cuvaison. This includes a constant cycle of replanting at Cuvaison’s estate vineyard and major investments in the winemaking and hospitality programs. To further increase quality, Zepponi brought on two exceptional new team members in 2018, with the addition of Consulting Winemaker Scott McLeod and Consulting Viticulturist Kelly Maher. McLeod was the director of winemaking at Rubicon Estate for 18 years, and in 2009, he was honored as “Winemaker of the Year” by Wine Enthusiast Magazine. Maher brings an equally illustrious background to his role having worked with noted wineries like Dunn Vineyards and Hourglass.

Most recently, Cuvaison named Rob Fischer to the newly created position of small lot and research winemaker. An expert at working with Los Carneros Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, Fischer began his career at Domaine Carneros. He also worked at Etude alongside winemaking luminaries Tony Soter and John Priest.  In collaboration with Rogstad, Fischer is focused on exploring the character and diversity of unique blocks within Cuvaison’s Los Carneros estate. The resulting Small Lot, Micro Lot and Legacy wines have been stellar and show that Cuvaison is thinking big by working small.