When you try to think of the perfect wine to present to your beloved on Valentine’s Day, it's likely that your first inclination will be rosé. Or Champagne. Or, perhaps, both. And, there’s nothing wrong with either – but, you’ll probably want to jazz it up a touch, to make things a little more interesting.
So, if you’re going for pink fizz, maybe plump for an English version rather than Champagne. And, add a personal touch, too – the admirable Hattingley Valley, in Hampshire, has put its racy, strawberry-toned 2020 under a special Valentine’s livery, and you can also go the whole hog and order it as part of a gift box complete with glasses, bottle stop, corkscrew and personalised love note for you to compose your very own amorous epistle.
For those who prefer a more understated rosé, sans bubbles, again, let’s try to avoid the obvious. In any case, given that it’s February, you might want to swerve the pale, light Provençal renderings that are great on a summer’s day in the Côte d’Azur and opt, instead, for something with enough fat and texture to withstand a winter’s night in the UK. Joseph Mellot’s 2022 Le Rabault Rosé, from Sancerre, is a sound example, the combination of a characterful grape – pinot noir – grown in a more interesting wine region – the Loire Valley – yielding a wine of complexity and substance.
In all honesty, though, a wine doesn’t become romantic just because of its colour or its sparkle – and, there’s no more surefire way to kill the moment than a cliché. No, the romance of wine is in the story behind the bottle. And, stories don’t come much more dramatic or heart-rending than that of Cain Vineyard and Winery, in the Napa Valley.
Cain is a long-time favourite of Napa purists – a wine of poise and charm that never succumbed to the prevailing fashion, a decade either side of the millennium, for blockbuster wines featuring big fruit, oak and plenty of alcohol. The vineyard and winery is based up on Spring Mountain, away from the glitzy tasting rooms and restaurants of the tourist-friendly Valley floor, and the higher elevation serves to transmit more elegance and nuance into the wine, too.
Though owned by software entrepreneur Jim Meadlock, it has been run since 1990 by husband-and-wife team Chris Howell and Katie Lazar, who seemed to like being hidden away from Napa’s bright wattage.
This seclusion, though, came at a terrible cost. In September, 2020, a destructive wildfire – the so-called Glass Fire – rampaged through Napa County. Howell and Lazar were warned there was a chance it could come their way, and, so, they cut back some scrubland surrounding the property, before soaking the walls of the buildings. When a change in the wind direction set the fire directly for them, fire services and police marshals ordered them to evacuate. They gathered what belongings they could, but then dithered, wondering if they could stay and fight it off.
By the time it became obvious that they had to flee, night had fallen and their escape route had become compromised to such a degree that they could barely see the road in front, due to the billowing smoke. They left in two cars, to maximise what they could take with them, and, said Lazar, “so at least one of us might survive”.
Howell’s 30-year knowledge of the road meant he was able to find his way down the mountain at a snail’s pace while the fire blazed on either side – Lazar could see nothing but tail lights.
They got out just in time. But, when they were allowed to return to the site two days later, past still-smouldering trees, they found their house, the winery (containing the entire stock of the last two vintages) and 90 per cent of the vineyard destroyed.
You'd be forgiven for thinking that's the end of the story. Both Howell and Lazar are still scarred by the events of that fateful September night, and admit their deep despair in the initial aftermath. “Without Katie, I would have withdrawn into myself,” said Howell. Yet, the couple’s commitment to the land, their staff and each other has seen them, over the past years, re-gather their team and undertake the painstaking process of replanting the vineyard.
In the meantime, what vines survived have been harnessed to make small amounts of wine, bolstered by the addition of purchased (and donated) grapes, space and equipment, courtesy of benevolent neighbouring wineries. And, more library stock of older vintages – thankfully stored off site – has been made available for purchase.
The 2016 vintage of its flagship Cain Five – a blend of the five classic Bordeaux varieties, led by cabernet sauvignon – is a classic example of the profound quality of which Napa Valley is capable in the hands of a diligent maker.
So, this Valentine’s Day, why not share a rich, complex red wine that is touched by a heart-warming story of survival – and raise a toast to the power of devotion.
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