In the Napa Valley, sauvignon blanc gets no respect.
No, that’s not quite right. But it is true that some producers have treated the white wine as a profitable afterthought, preferring to concentrate on marquee red wines, especially cabernet sauvignon.
The Leonardini family, owner-operators of Whitehall Lane Winery & Vineyards, might easily have taken this path. After all, their holdings encompass several fat, juicy, center-cut portions of valley floor red vines, including a prime slice of the Rutherford appellation.
But that approach has not been the Leonardini way. Sauvignon blanc isn’t a stepchild.
In fact, since the family bought Whitehall Lane nearly 20 years ago, its racy expression of the varietal has helped the winery make its name. Today, wine professionals consistently rank Whitehall Lane sauvignon blanc among California’s best.
One recent Sunday afternoon at the Leonardini home in the Napa Valley, family and friends gathered to celebrate summer with the 2010 sauvignon blanc (the 2011 will begin coming to market in August and September).
Ice-filled tubs brimmed with wines, which the hosts paired with artisan cheese, pizzette, curried tamarind shrimp and flatbreads swiped with herby cream cheese and topped with lox and capers.
“If our sauvignon blanc hits the way we like,” said Thomas Leonardini Sr., “if it hits the way we like, you close your eyes and taste the lemons, limes and grapefruit.”
But that’s not all you taste.
Like other Whitehall Lane wines, the sauvignon blanc is balanced: neither too grassy (like the pugilistic pungency of New Zealand sauvies), nor too given over to citrus flavors.
There’s a rich, round lushness in the middle of the wine, too, that comes from brief barrel aging, semillion in the blend (10 percent for the 2010, 12 percent for the 2011), and variation from vineyard to vineyard.
“All our lots of sauvignon blanc bring a little bit of a different character,” said Doug FitzGibbon, Whitehall’s hospitality and retail manager. “The treeline here at the back of the estate — a lot of sauvignon blanc comes from there. The fruit here tends to be a little riper.”
A spirited game of bocce was beginning on the court nestled against vine rows that stretched between the Leonardini family home and Whitehall Lane just to the south. Mist squatted on the foothill of the Mayacamas Mountains, which the evening sun turned a dusky purple that matched exterior sections of the winery.
That building, an angular composition of stone and wood garnished with tufts of trailing vines, once featured fairly prominently on Whitehall Lane’s label. But in the past few years, it has mostly been replaced by a lion set within a red circle (Leonardini means “little lion” in Italian).
The change belongs to a larger effort, including first-ever social media outreach, to “incorporate the Leonardini name with Whitehall Lane,” said Katie Leonardini, the winery’s director of events, as she poured a few more splashes of sauvignon blanc into a Govino stemless, shatter-proof wine glass.
“We watched so many wineries be purchased by larger companies that we found it was becoming unusual for a winery to be run and owned by a family. We started to find out people were interested in our story.”
That story began in 1993 when Thomas Leonardini Sr. bought the 25-acre Whitehall Lane estate in Rutherford, a site where grape vines had been planted since the late 19th century.
Today, Whitehall Lane owns and farms six vineyards on the Napa Valley floor comprising about 110 acres. Three of these vineyards are partly planted to sauvignon blanc.
Annual winery production is about 50,000 cases, with 11,000 to 12,000 of that being sauvignon blanc. Those numbers don’t signify a cultish operation run by three hippies in a barn, but they don’t mean grocery store ubiquity, either.
“We’re not a new flash in the pan, but we’re not a household name in the wine business, either,” said Thomas Leonardini Sr., taking a moment away from the party and the bocce game, which his wife Karen and daughter Kristen were watching, a bottle of sauvignon blanc at their side.
“We’re a family winery.”
That fact inspires the new efforts to link the Leonardini name with Whitehall Lane wines, and reflects the clan’s longtime self-reliance. Whitehall Lane, for instance, has an expanded barrel room, a warehouse to store wine club shipments, and its own bottling line — all to increase flexibility and decrease the need to outsource.
“There’s a lot of corporate buying of wineries now,” Leonardini continued, sipping his sauvignon blanc. “But if I sold out, what am I gonna do with the money? I’d still sleep in the same bed, have the same dinner. I already have a nice car.”
And a winning sauvignon blanc.