Rounding Out the Portfolio

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round_pond.jpegRound Pond Presses More Than Olive Oil From Its Estate

By Robert P. Farmer

Years ago, when I first had the pleasure of visiting the Round Pond Estate, I was struck by its tucked-away beauty in the heart of Napa's cabernet country. What struck me next was the fact that cabernet was not coming out of this tucked away beauty. Instead, Round Pond was well known for olive oil.

Its neighbors are some of the world's best-known cab producers. Without listing them all here, suffice to say you know who they are. And it's not accidental that they are all mashed into this little patch of the greater Napa Valley. Rutherford affords idyllic conditions for growing cabernet sauvignon. Generations of winemakers have subsequently been crafting the benchmark for the varietal here.
round_pond_oliveoil.jpgAt Round Pond, though, the temptation had been admirably resisted. Instead the family-owned and operated estate was planted with gardens and orchards--notably olive trees--and Round Pond had become synonymous not for cab but for artisan olive oils. The extra virgin oils have been grown, harvested, and pressed entirely on premises for more than two decades. Meanwhile, Round Pond garnered a reputation for red wine vinegars and citrus syrups as well. Over the years, the estate grew from its original 20-acre size to encompass some 357 acres of orchards and vineyards.

Yes, vineyards. Because to completely evade the temptation to plant grapes in one of the world's best grape-planting regions would take either an act of extreme will or profound foolishness. The MacDonnell family instead have foresight. Indeed they'd been using their grapes as a commodity, selling them to some of the world's top wineries for years and in so doing helping further the reputation for Rutherford grapes. Finally, in 2005, Round Pond released a wine with their own name on it--the 2002 Round Pond Cabernet Sauvignon. In many respects, it was a symbol of destiny being fulfilled. More important, it was a symbol of ongoing evolution at Round Pond.

"When you look at the property overall, the wine venture for Round Pond is really still in its infancy," says Brian Brown, the estate's winemaker. He spoke modestly of the Estate's potential and of the stage of its evolution. But his modesty belies the impressive strides Round Pond has made with its wine portfolio. I had recently tasted the newest release--2006 MacDonnell Family Estate Cabernet Sauvignon--and was charmed by its structure and subtlety. I wasn't too surprised to discover that Brown possesses those same charming characteristics.

"I view my role is sort of taking the reins after the family had been taking fruit from a parcel that the they had used to make wines for themselves and their friends. We want to make wines for our customers that the family likes to drink." The defining characteristics of Round Pond wines to date have therefore been approachability and elegance. The '06 cab is remarkably drinkable, but also shows its capability to be laid down for 10 or 15 years.

round_pond_wines.jpegBut as good as they are, the wines are still admittedly a work in progress in terms of achieving a defining characteristic. The Round Pond winegrapes were originally harvested from the top five percent of the estate's fruit. As the property has grown, so too have the options. "As the size of the project grew," says Brown, "it has given us some flexibility to explore the land. We have been stretching it out and looking at soil maps so that I have an understanding of what sort of variation there is on the property."

Though the wine offerings are new to the portfolio, relatively speaking, it's plain to see that they are no passing fancy. In 2007, the estate unveiled a new state-of-the-art winemaking facility and tasting room, complete with outdoor terrace and sweeping views. It's part of an enhanced visitor experience that dovetails with the overall mission of raising the Round Pond profile along with its portfolio.

"We started out with baby steps with the wine program here," says Brown. "But I think we are making big strides now. Just by looking at the prominence of the new wine facility, you can get a sense of how big a part wine plays in the overall estate. Our strides are getting longer with each vintage, and I think we have good handle on our defining style with [the 2006 vintage]. Each year we're getting closer to it.

The defining style of Round Pond wines is not too dissimilar to the MacDonnell family aesthetic. They began by making wine that they liked to drink. What visitors can expect is something that fits with their appreciation for the Napa Valley lifestyle. "We're making wine that is enjoyable and contemporary. We think we understand who our customer is. People visit the Estate to enjoy the artisinal products. They're 'foodies,' for lack of a better term. I think we have a good sense of their palate."

Meanwhile, steering the ship of the Round Pond winemaking evolution, Brown is ever humble when considering the importance of his role. And like a true artist, he remains focused on the process. "I always remind myself that I am only a cog in the wheel," he says. "But I like the position wine has taken on at the Estate. We've doubled our tank capacity, which gives me more room to explore more parcels in the vineyard. We've started moving out of blocks that I thought weren't necessary the right direction and toward parts of the property that are."

round_pond_barn.jpegThe growing wine portfolio at Round Pond has helped attract attention to the Estate. The former "insider-secret" personality of the property has given way to a "must-visit" appeal. Round Pond is now rubbing shoulders with its high-caliber cab-producing neighbors in Rutherford. And as the wine offerings expand so too will the popularity. "If done correctly, I think we can become a very iconic part of the Valley," says Brown. "We've taken a very conservative approach, and focused on the whole range of visitor experiences. It all ties together to provide the Napa Valley lifestyle."

And as for his part of the process, Brown humbly offers, "If I can make the wine as popular as the olive oil, then I have done my job."

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