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Founded way back in 1889 by a pickle magnate called John Henry Fisher, the original property was planted to the vine and a winery was built so that barrels of the estate wine could be produced and sold in San Francisco. Thanks to the earthquake of 1906 Fisher went out of business and was forced to sell the estate, following which it fell into disrepair until the end of prohibition. By 1941 it had been purchased by an Englishman called Jack Taylor, who re-christened it Mayacamas (after the Native American word for the property) and embarked on a replanting program. When Bob Travers took over in 1968, Mayacamas was already well respected locally, but Bob – who had trained at Heitz Cellars and was a protégé of Andre Tchelistcheff – saw there was potential to make world-class wine there. From his very first vintage, Bob fulfilled this promise, and by the time of the 1976 tasting in Paris (which included the ’71 Cabernet), Mayacamas was regarded as one of California’s great wineries.
Located at the top of the awe-inspiring Mount Veeder (which has its own AVA), the quality and longevity of Mayacamas’ wines is a product of the terroir on which the grapes are grown. At 550-750m above sea level in the crater of a long extinct volcano, this combination of altitude, complex volcanic soils and dry farming yields concentrated berries that give wonderfully structured and complex wines. The oldest vineyards still in operation are the Chardonnay terraces (planted in 1950 and ’52), but there are also blocks of Cabernet from the ‘60s and Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc from the ‘80s.
In addition to the terroir, Mayacamas was also distinctive for the old school way in which Bob Travers made the wines. Over time, thanks to the rise of UC Davis and the critic-led environment of the 1990s and 2000s, the traditional approach at Mayacamas became deeply unfashionable. Travers conducted all of his fermentations in concrete tanks, with native yeasts and zero chemical ‘assistance’. The wines were then aged in very large, very old wooden casks (reminiscent of those used by old school Barolo producers) for 18 months, followed by 6-12 months in old barrels and finally two years in bottle. Extraction of tannins was gentle and the wines saw no new wood, with the results being light in alcohol and medium-weight in body, giving away very little in their early years but blossoming into ethereal wines with time. The famous critics were always unimpressed, leading to Mayacamas becoming increasingly marginalised and almost completely forgotten in the modern era of souped-up ‘icon’ wines from further up the valley. In 2013 Charles Banks purchased the property (becoming only its fourth owner since 1889) and installed Andy Erickson as head winemaker and Annie Favia to oversee the viticulture, with a pledge to stay true to the style of wine that has become synonymous with this incredible estate.
The wines themselves can be truly spectacular. While there is excellent Merlot, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc made at Mayacamas, it is Chardonnay and especially the Cabernet Sauvignon for which the property is best known. The Chardonnay combines richness and honeyed weight with vibrant citrus fruit and a vitality that only old vine mountain grown fruit can provide in California. The Cabernet has such precision on the nose and palate, with focused berry fruit, leafy and earthy notes, and a sense of varietal character that is as true as any example you will find. As the wine ages it picks up more leather, rose petals and forest floor, but always with a purity of delectable dark berry fruit. Old vintages seem to meet somewhere at the crossroads between old Claret, Burgundy and Barolo and give the taste an insight into why Mayacamas has always been considered such a magical wine estate.
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