Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Hourglass: Napa Valley Cult Winery Gains a New Convert… Me

Jeff Smith is pure Napa Valley. He’s a husky, happy-sized guy with a big smile, wavy hair and a generously salted beard. He wears worn blue jeans and boots and slouches back on the couch cushions like a man whose been working outside all day.

Jeff is the owner of Hourglass, whose Napa Valley reds have a cult-like following and an impressive presence on high-end restaurant lists. In mid-January, Jeff, along with the new Hourglass winemaker Tony Biagi, took some time to sit down in front of a webcam and host a live on-line tasting of four Hourglass reds. 

They recorded the tasting in what looked like a hipster loft, complete with white paint peeling off the walls to expose the cement slabs underneath. Behind the couch hung a painting of a woman with a huge bee-hive hairdo, which another taster described as looking “like some sort of postmodern Marge Simpson.”

Before uncorking the first wine, Jeff gave a not-so-brief overview of how Hourglass came to be. The Hourglass Vineyard, which sits two miles north of the famous town St. Helena, was planted to four acres of Cabernet Sauvignon in 1992. Hourglass’ debut was a 1997 cabernet from this Estate Vineyard. The wine was included in a tasting around the time of the 2001 Napa Valley Wine Auction, where it fared well against cult Napa cabs like Screaming Eagle and Harlan Estate. A new star was born, literally overnight. (Click here for a detailed history of Hourglass.)

Hourglass acquired the Blueline Vineyard in 2006. The 22-acre vineyard is planted to the classic Bordeaux varieties of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, petite verdot and malbec. The vineyard is located in a warmer corner of Napa two miles south of the small town of Calistoga, and consists of alluvial gravel, sand and loam soils.

As Jeff tells the story of Hourglass, Tony stays quiet, that is, until the discussion turns to clonal selection. Tony’s eyes light up as he explains the intricacies and temperament of cabernet sauvignon clone 338, (and at least a few more clones whose numbers I didn’t catch). As they riff with each other, their chemistry and love for wine is obvious. While explaining Hourglass’ unique soils and climate, they use the words “fractured bedrock” and “thermal dynamic” at least two dozen times. Their excitement is understandable considering the uniqueness of their vineyards and the beautiful reds wine they produce.

Along with my friends from the wine blog Terroirist, I tasted the 2010 Hourglass line-up from half-bottles. All of the wines were made by renowned Napa winemaker Bob Foley, who’s been crafting quality Napa wine since 1977. (Foley has moved on to other projects while Tony Biagi has since picked up the winemaking reigns.)

Okay, I’ve introduced the wines enough. Here are my notes…

2010 Hourglass Merlot Blueline - California, Napa Valley
On the nose, this merlot shows seriously focused and deep aromas, waves of red berries and plums, dark roasted coffee along with some lavender. On the palate, this wine is incredibly silky and pure. Shows grippy tannic structure, but it’s balanced with rich cassis and blackberry fruit. Notes of vanilla bean and hazelnut add complexity. In spite of its boldness, this merlot maintains elegance and even some tanginess from the acid, which is quite a feat considering the massive 16.5% alcohol! The complexity and purity of this wine put it in an entirely different category. There are California merlots I’ve tasted, and there is this particular Napa merlot. It has to be one of the best New World merlots I’ve tasted in a very long time… at least two years… no joke. This merlot contains 17% cabernet sauvignon and the wine is aged 19 months in a blend of 40% new and seasoned French oak.
(92 points) $75  

“Merlots should have acid,” Biagi said as he took a sip of this wine. “They should have structure.” Well, the 2010 Blueline merlot is everything Biagi says it should be.

2010 Hourglass Cabernet Franc Blueline - California, Napa Valley
I’m always a bit skeptical of Napa Valley cabernet franc, but Hourglass has made a truly awesome one from their Blueline Vineyard. Aromas of graphite, dried hay and savory herbs accent the rich blackberry and black plum fruit. The first thing I notice on the palate is the tangy acid, which is backed up by silky tannins. Tobacco and tar mix with sage and black pepper. Blueberry fruit meets toasted oak. Very elegant for a Napa cabernet franc. Some mineral notes linger with the rich fruit and chocolate shavings on the finish. This wine (like all the other Hourglass wines I tasted) needs time in the decanter and/or five years of aging to show its full potential. A blend of 94% cabernet franc, with 3% cabernet sauvignon and 3% petit verdot, aged for 19 months in French oak, one-third new.
(91 points) $135

If Napa Valley is a boxing ring, cabernet franc is the journeyman fighter. Jeff and Tony acknowledge that it isn’t easy to make a great cabernet franc in Napa, and describe the process as a search for that “razor-thin edge of balance.” They nailed it.

2010 Hourglass Cabernet Sauvignon Blueline - California, Napa Valley
On the nose, this cab is pure darkness. Intense blackberry and cassis, with mocha, caramel and a hint of rose petal. Dense on the palate with focused cassis and plum fruit, highlighted by mocha, toast and chestnut. Much darker and deeper than the 2010 Blueline merlot and cabernet franc (obviously). Tinges of black cherry soda and loam carry the hedonistic finish. The 15.5% alcohol is integrated nicely. The depth of this wine is impressive. 100% cabernet sauvignon, aged 19 months in French oak, 45% new.
(90 points) $125   

2010 Hourglass Cabernet Sauvignon - California, Napa Valley
From the Estate Vineyard, this cabernet is dark and dense on the nose, full of all sorts of berries, dried flowers, caramel. Very complex and seductive, although a bit reticent at this young age. Creamy and rich on the palate with silky tannins and medium acid. Full of cassis, fig paste, mixed berries, root beer and caramel. Toasty, but not overwhelming. Very sexy and balanced despite the intensity and youthfulness of this wine.
(92 points) Price unavailable (but let’s assume it ain’t cheap).

I was lucky enough to taste these wines in the company of other winelovers and (via the internet) with the winemakers. Hourglass is expensive and it’s not easy to get your hands on some. You can sign up for their mailing list, or maybe you could find some on a restaurant list. But if you get a chance to try some, and you can afford it, Hourglass reds won’t disappoint.


  1. It is good to see that the 2010 showed well after the unusually average (by Hourglass standards) 2009 vintage.

  2. Put the pipe down buddy, the 2009s Hourglass wines are excellent.

  3. I guess I'm gonna have to try some 2009s.

  4. Anonymous, I cite Antonio Galloni's impressions of the 2009 Hourglass portfolio: (4 wines <88 points), as well as my own, that led me to conclude that overall they were below their typical excellence. I have followed the brand since inception and know what it is capable of.

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  6. Looks like the 2010 Blueline Merlot just made Wine Spectator's Top 100 list for 2013. Congrats!

  7. I just blind-tasted Hourglass' 2013 Sauvignon Blanc,and I have to say, I was seriously impressed. Post coming soon.