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What To Drink Now: Dana Estates

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Dana Estates in Rutherford AVA, Napa Valley

Inside the tent at the 33rd annual Auction Napa Valley the energy reaches peak level as one of 46 highly anticipated auction lots goes up for bid…this one happens to be from Dana Estates and includes three 3 liter bottles of their highly acclaimed wine and a trip for two couples first class to South Korea as guests of Dana Estates proprietors Hi Sang Lee and Jae Chun ….$100K, $200K, $300K, $500, $510K… Keen auctioneers Fritz Hatton, Humphrey Butler and Ursula Hermacinski stop bidding, saying once the bid got to this level Dana Estates owner Mr. Lee agreed to double the lot and give two complete packages away to the two highest bidders if they agreed? With a slap of a gavel the numerous children’s and healthcare charities that benefit from Auction Napa Valley just received over a million dollars, $1.2 to be exact, from one prestigious lot.

I was already intrigued and interested in the wine of Dana Estates, made by Philippe Melka and Cameron Vawter in the heart of Rutherford on an expansive organic certified estate. Seeing this outpouring of excitement about the consistently highly rated wine (Parker gave the 2007 Lotus Vineyard Cabernet 97/100 points) made me set an appointment to visit, taste and interview with Vawter immediately.

IMG_8460Dana Estates was started in 2005 by Proprietors Hi Sang Lee and Jae Chun. Lee, a long time lover and collector of Napa Valley wine had a business portfolio that included importing some of the finest wine in the valley into his native South Korea, including Colgin, Harlan and Scarecrow. After successfully building his international business portfolio he began to look at Napa Valley at first just for a stop over residence, halfway in between South Korea and Europe, where he was constantly traveling to. He wanted a place of serenity where he could enjoy many of the wines he loved and relax. When he found the property located in prime Cabernet country the decision to make wine came easy.

Dana, a Sanskrit meaning “Spirit of Generosity” paying respect to the vintners who have worked the land for generations and the kindness of Mother Nature, includes three very small production estate properties, one in Rutherford surrounding their winery estate, as well as two on the prestigious Howell Mountain vineyards near award winning neighbors like Cade, Lail and Ladera. Each vineyard is farmed organically with precise attention to detail given to each individual vine, and focused low production yields, as small yield equals highly concentrated, distinct wines with character and a true sense of place.

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Shortly after acquiring the property Mr. Lee hired esteemed architect Howard Backen, who also designed Poetry Inn and Harlan Estate in Napa and the Sundance Institute in Utah, to create his serene winery in the midst of the 30 acre piece of land on the site that a ghost winery had stood since 1883. Maintaining some of the relics from original building Bracken transformed the space into an elegant, sophisticated, state of the art facility with clean, modern lines and subtle Asian influences.

Dana Estates Winemaker Cameron Vawter
Dana Estates Winemaker Cameron Vawter

The first employee Mr. Lee hired was Vawter, winemaker in charge of the day to day winery operations  with winemaking rock star Philippe Melka, a 20 year veteran in both his native Bordeaux and in Napa Valley.  Pete Richmond, founder of Silverado Farming Company, assists with overall vineyard management. Working together, their goal is to make a wine unlike anything else in Napa Valley, with pure expression of the fruit and the land.

2010 Helms Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon is all Rutherford with the easily recognized, and loved, characteristics that make this area in Napa so special. Blackberry and black cherry fill the glass mingled with dried herbs and dusty, dusty earth, with just a hint of mocha on the soft, lingering finish.

2010 Lotus Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, sitting at 1200 feet above sea level, slightly lower than the Hershey vineyard, is all dark fruit, dark chocolate, licorice and earth. Lush, robust and intense yet incredibly balanced and gorgeous on the palate, especially for a wine that should be held a few more years before enjoying.

2010 Hershey Cabernet Sauvignon sits at the highest elevation of their vineyards on Howell Mountain with rocky soils giving distinct minerality to the wine. Blackberry and blueberry notes marry with ripe cherry, graphite and black licorice with aromas of toasted cedar and tobacco coming through. Another wine that will do well with a bit of aging, but opened nicely after a few hours of letting it breathe.

dana wineEach bottle of Dana Estates contains 12 lotus flowers, each representing the 12 months of the calendar year. The lotus flower is a sign of rebirth, here symbolizing the rebirth of the vineyards every year, carrying the Zen and one with nature, peaceful approach embraced at Dana from vine to wine.

Dana is a winery that is closed to the public, normally opening just for special events for Mr. Lee or to the customers who are on their wine allocation list. The allocation list is currently closed, but is open for those wishing to receive notices for future release information and allocation. Select bottles are also available on a handful of wine lists in Dallas including Del Frisco’s, Pappas Bros. Steakhouse and The Mansion on Turtle Creek. Select Sigel’s locations in Dallas also get a few bottles of Dana Estate wines a year for retail sales. I was able to taste and visit as a guest of the winery.