Get to know Rob Sweeney of the famed wine name

Vine Cliff Winery, located on the Silverado Trail in Napa Valley, is a historic site. The original winery was built in 1871, with vineyards planted solely for Bordeaux varieties. A scourge of phylloxera wiped out the vineyard at the turn of the century; the last vintage at this site was produced in 1903. Its wooden structures were pulled asunder by a fire in 1906, and where once a proud winery stood with its first floor built of stone and upper levels made of wood remained only a pile of rocks. The property lay fallow until 1985, when Rob Sweeney and family purchased it and brought it back to life. And this is where the real story of quality begins.

Under Sweeney’s direction, the family planted vines at what they initially designed to be a summer home. In 1989, when the vines were of age, many of Napa Valley’s luminary wineries came calling to purchase the fruit from this ideally situated vineyard. Soon it was evident that, with the quality of grapes from this estate, the Sweeneys could make some stunningly good wine. And thus Sweeney’s first vintage of Vine Cliff came in 1990.

Sweeney calls the whole thing “accidental” but also professes that he “fell in love” with winemaking as soon as he took it up. While learning all the practical knowledge involved in winemaking by doing it himself at Vine Cliff as well as working at other wineries around the valley, he also earned a degree in grape-growing at Napa Valley College.

The evolution of Vine Cliff is a fascinating tale. Sweeney recalls that the vineyard’s early days were focused primarily on being “completely natural,” with different forms of pest management and organic techniques. It became more of a mantra than just a means to quality. It has evolved into a harmonious relationship involving the utmost care of the vineyard with a passionate and tireless pursuit of higher quality.

Sweeney makes no compromises in the vineyard or the winery (newly built in 1994). They have improved trellising techniques that allow for less sunburned grapes and better photo-synthesis, which he says have made a “big impact.” They are re-planting even healthy vineyards to better-suited clones for their site. In the winery, they double-sort all the grapes, not only de-stemming them, but also removing the jacks from the berries. This requires a huge investment of effort, with as many as 20 people present in the winery during harvest to process only one ton per hour. It is not unusual for even small wineries to process five tons per hour.

“Nothing is too crazy for us to get better quality,” Sweeney says.

I asked what is the craziest thing he’s done so far for quality. Sweeney explains that one year they had eight-man crews go out into the vineyard with forks to pick only the best berries. It took three weeks to do it, harvesting in small 20-pound boxes, but Sweeney says it was worth it. The quality was in the bottle. It became known as “the forking vintage.”

Quality is at an all-time high at Vine Cliff, with quantities of these illustrious wines becoming harder to find. The winery is already small, but production has gone from 20,000 cases to 7,500 in the past five years. But what you should truly know about Vine Cliff Winery is that with one taste, you can acknowledge quality and passion in an instant.

“Our message is that of tireless effort for quality in our vineyards and winemaking. My family is vested in it and passionate,” Sweeney says.

In the 2006 Vine Cliff Los Carneros Chardonnay, the nose has hedonistic levels of ripe tropical fruit, pineapple with a hint of mango, poached pear and spices, all laced with sweet vanilla cream and toast. The ample palate is round and filled with an assortment of apple pie flavors buffered by a nice balance of acidity. A very fresh and lingering aftertaste will leave your palate wanting another glass.

The 2005 Vine Cliff Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon offers nice ripe berries – both black and red greet your nose. A nice dollop of oak and vanillin add to the complexities of fruit. It is rich and satisfying on the palate with hints of mocha and cocoa on the finish. The structure is supple with a nice punch of fruit on the mid-palate that adds dimension.

The 2005 Vine Cliff Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon has more of the black-and-blue fruit tinge, with blackberries galore and blueberry to boot. It is a bit jammier, but far from being overdone. There is an earthy character here that I quite enjoy and is reminiscent of good Bordeaux. Again the structure is quite fine, with the tannin being supportive rather than overt. The sweet vanilla finish goes on and on.

The 2004 Vine Cliff Private Stock Cabernet Sauvignon has presence. The nose jumps from the glass with super-ripe currants, blackberries and the sweet scent of Spanish cedar humidor and a hint of mocha. It has more guts on the palate with the volume turned on high. This is not a wine for the timid, but for those looking for a fabulous Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. It will reward cellaring as well if you are lucky enough to obtain some.