Cathy Corison Took the Other Path

Cathy Corison Took the Other Path

How one of Napa’s top winemakers let the world come to her.
By Virginie Boone
Photo: Courtesy Cathy Corison

June 8, 2023

In 1997, a year some experts hailed as the “vintage of the century” for Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Cathy Corison made what she believed to be a terrific wine. For her effort, one of the world’s leading wine publications awarded her Kronos Vineyard Napa Valley Cabernet 89 points, calling it “firmly tannic.” 

89 points is a fine score, a very decent effort for most winemakers and one many feel is praiseworthy enough to promote to customers in their own marketing materials. But for a winemaker sitting on a prime parcel of land in one of the world’s great winemaking regions during one of history’s greatest vintages—one with neighbors on all sides wearing their recent scores of 95 and 98 and 96 like shining badges—an 89 might well feel like the party happened elsewhere. 

But 1997 wasn’t an anomaly. Even lower scores for Corison’s wines were handed down frequently in the years leading up to 1997, and more low scores followed, reaching a nadir in one prominent commentator’s rating of 78 for her 2003 Kronos Napa Valley Cabernet, a number most critics reserve for fundamentally flawed wines.

In response, Corison changed her winemaking style in a way few Napa Valley winemakers have in the face of such dispiriting critical reception: not at all. 

This is not, in fact, a story about how Corison learned to make better wine through hard work and trial and error and taking her lumps. She did that, of course. But so do a lot of winemakers. 

This story is about how Corison knew precisely what she wanted to do, then did pretty much exactly that for her entire career as the world of fine wine changed dramatically around her.

So much so that just 12 years after her hard-earned 78, Eric Asimov of The New York Times declared Corison, very uncontroversially, to be “among the greatest producers of Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa Valley.” 

The Early Days

Corison grew up in Southern California. A biology student at Pomona College, she took a wine tasting class and knew instantly what she wanted to be when she grew up. She subsequently learned what she could about wine through the course of several Napa Valley wine shop jobs, internships and the UC Davis’s Masters of Enology program until, in 1978, she earned an internship at Freemark Abbey, one of Napa’s oldest, most respected wineries. 

Just two years after receiving her master’s degree, Corison was offered the chance to run Chappellet Winery, a 30,000 case winery founded by Donn Chappellet, who dreamed of making Cabernet to rival the First Growths of Bordeaux and went up into the mountains of Pritchard Hill to do it. That he picked Corison to fulfill that vision was remarkable. 

At the time, Napa had few female winemakers. Only two were running wineries when Corison moved to the valley (Zelma Long at Robert Mondavi and Dawnine Dyer at Inglenook). But she was a quick study and extremely determined, and helped Chappellet become a widely esteemed name in Napa Valley Cabernet in an unusually short period of time.

Corison recalls scraping by in those early years, but always saved enough to purchase her two-bottle allotment of Beaulieu’s Georges de Latour Private Reserve ($7 per bottle in 1980), then considered one of the great benchmark wines of the Napa Valley. “At the time, Private Reserve was a model for me—those were long-lived, beautiful wines.”

Cathy Corison on a 1979 cover of her university magazine
Cathy Corison on a 1979 cover of her university magazine | Image: Courtesy Cathy Corison

By 1987, Corison got her chance to make wine under her own name. She did so with grapes sourced from three benchland vineyard sites with a history of producing balanced, age-worthy wines going back to pre-Prohibition days. 

The vineyards were part of Napa pioneer George Yount’s original 1838 Caymus plantings that sat along the western hills between Rutherford and St. Helena, producing grapes for which Corison paid a then-hearty sum of $2,000 per ton (today, similarly situated Cabernet Sauvignon vines can easily cost $25,000 per ton). 

Corison liked that the plots, which stretch out from the Mayacamas Mountains, featured alluvial fans that are gravelly, well-draining, and not too rich—perfect for farming wine grapes. 

This region—the benchlands of the Mayacamas Mountain range on the Napa Valley’s western side—contains many of the world’s most famous vineyards: To Kalon, MacDonald, Detert, Martha’s, Staglin, Bella Oaks, Morisoli, Inglenook, J.J. Cohn. Legendary Beaulieu Vineyards winemaker André Tchelistcheff often roamed these hills in search of grapes for Beaulieu’s Georges de Latour Private Reserve.

Corison counts Tchelistcheff among her most important influences. Not only for his Beaulieu wines, but for his European-minded approach to winemaking, which inspired her to think less about the chemistry and technical methods she’d studied at UC Davis, and more about traditional winemaking and the importance of place. 

Corison set to work, aiming to make wines of balance and finesse that could age for decades, wines through which one could taste the soil and sun and weather of the particular patch of land where the grapes were grown. 

From the moment she started Corison Winery, “she just knew what she wanted to do, who she was, and what kind of wines she liked making,” said Annie Favia of Favia Erickson Winegrowers, who worked for Corison early in her own career. “She wasn’t in it for the fame or the money, to be a darling. She loved the work and the wine.”

The New York Crowd

In 1990s Napa Valley, the blueprint for winemaking success was well understood: retain highly sought-after consultants, plant vines close together and trellis them for maximum sun exposure, let the grapes hang late into the season for sugar concentration that begets ripeness and high alcohol, extract the juice to achieve deep color and soft tannins, age in liberal amounts of new oak, then enjoy the ensuing critical acclaim. 

Corison did almost none of this. She managed her vineyards so grapes accumulated sugar slowly and naturally, without much in the way of irrigation. She never acidulated her wines (a technique used when harvested grapes prove to be too ripe), but still kept them at modest levels of alcohol. Her use of new oak was highly restrained. 

Winemaking has plenty of eccentrics—people who make wine to their own unique palate, critics and customers be damned. But in one of the most expensive wine regions in the world, cleaving stubbornly to a widely unpopular approach to making wine is a precarious, and usually short-lived way to run a winery.

But Corison could afford to disregard the conventional wisdom about how Napa Cabernet should grow, mature and taste because she’d already come across something many winemakers struggle to find—loyal fans.

“Early adopters of my wines tended to be restaurant people,” she said, nodding to their understanding of her Cabernets as food-friendly. “My most important market from the very beginning [was] New York City.”

Her most influential New York devotée was importer and distributor Michael Skurnik, whose deep relationships with the city’s sommeliers helped get Corison’s wines onto some of Manhattan’s most interesting wine lists. “I had the good fortune to work with Michael, who was very well-connected in restaurants, especially in those days–1990–when I was selling my first vintage, the 1987.”

Encouraged by her early cohort of sommelier advocates, drinkers in New York (and to a lesser extent, California) who understood Corison’s European influences and style became her biggest early fans, evolving over time into a reliable market for her wines. 

In 1990, The New York Times Magazine picked up on the insider buzz around Corison’s wines, as well as her story as a “new kind of wine entrepreneur.” 

A year later, Corison told Frank Prial in the Times, “[w]orking for someone else means you have to give in on some things. I wanted to make wines without compromise.” 

Corison knew that to make wines truly without compromise, she needed control over how her grapes were farmed, which isn’t typically possible for wines made from grapes grown in other people’s vineyards. By 1995, her popularity and (relative) financial stability enabled her to purchase the Kronos Vineyard in St. Helena, a property that had been farmed organically for over a century and had enough space to build a winery. 

Over the next 10 years, she refined her approach to winemaking and cultivation, focusing intently on farming and better canopy management (a method of controlling how much sunshine hits the grapes) in the vineyard, all of which, Corison says, yielded “better grapes [that are] higher in quality and in better balance.” 

The Revaluation of Wine Values

As the years ticked by, a funny thing had started to change: America’s taste in wine.

By the mid-2000s, a new generation of wine drinkers had begun carving its own knowledge-hungry path through the world of food, wine and spirits. These drinkers weren’t interested in their parents’ favorite wines–they wanted to find wines they could claim as their own. 

An adventurous and far-flung search for less conventional wine styles ensued among younger American wine enthusiasts, along with a newfound interest in the “classics”: leaner, less alcoholic, less fruit-forward wines that tended to reflect a European-style of winemaking that favors terroir expression and conveying a unique sense of “place” over a specific end result. 

In other words, wines like Corison’s.

Wine maker Cathy Corison and her daughter harvesting grapes
Cathy Corison and her daughter sort grapes at harvest | Photo: Courtesy Cathy Corison

Near the front of this new pack was Jon Bonné, an outspoken blogger and wine writer who became the lead wine critic at The San Francisco Chronicle in 2006 and immediately set to work reordering the rules of wine connoisseurship. Out went the fruity, high-alcohol bottlings that famed critic Robert Parker and his many readers had favored; in came the terroir-driven, precise wines that exuded elegance.

Bonné’s contrarian yet increasingly influential opinions reached an early apotheosis with the publication of his book The New California Wine, a crusading guide to the region that declared “Napa had become a bombastic shell of its earlier, humbler self,” and bemoaned that “monotony had taken over,” with a predictable “ubiquity of oak” and misguided “presumption that bigger is better.” 

“Cabernet,” a particular focal point of Bonné’s criticism, “has the most distance to cover in returning from the brink of Big Flavor’s excesses,” he wrote. 

Bonné was not alone. “The internet made wine criticism more democratic,” says Corison. “There were so many more and varied voices.” 

New websites, blogs and commentators abounded, many advocating similar ideas to those of Bonné. Social media also provided a more amplified voice for Corison’s original cohort of fans—sommeliers—who Corison credits with playing “an important educational role” during this period. No longer quiet, highly localized wine experts—many of them sommeliers—quickly developed large online followings, whose own palates became aligned with those of the people they followed.

The notions of taste and style that began on the periphery of the wine world quickly moved to the center. In 2008 Eric Asimov of The New York Times wrote about returning from a visit to the Napa Valley excited about Napa Cabernet. “This is not my usual position,” he said then. “The prevailing style of plush, oak-laden overwhelmingly fruity and powerful Cabernets is simply not for me, no matter how high these wines are rated or how much acclaim they receive.” 

“It used to be that the majority of drinkers wanted their Napa Valley Cabs to be full, rich and opulent,” says Kerrin Laz of K. Laz Wine Collection in Yountville. “Now there are also drinkers that want their Napa Cabs to be balanced, age-worthy and nuanced.”

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

Corison, with her quiet integrity, oval spectacles and sensible bob haircut, became a favorite of this new California wine crowd. 

As author Kelli A. White wrote in her 2015 book, Napa Valley Then and Now, “[t]oday, Corison and her wines embody many of the philosophical priorities of an emerging generation of wine drinkers. Specifically these young consumers are drawn to the restraint and balance of her winemaking as well as her dedication to old vines.” 

At least part of Corison’s appeal to this new generation of winemakers and consumers was her principled—at times maybe stubborn—approach. “Cathy did not bend to the super-ripe style of the mid-1990s,” said Pam Starr, founding partner and winemaker at Crocker & Starr. “She [has] a specific style and philosophy towards grapegrowing and winemaking which has been very consistent.” 

Favia agrees. “Cathy really modeled how to find your path. She was so hands-on and fully involved in every part of making wine. She was in charge.” 

Of course, Corison was never a lone voice in the wilderness. Others took similar approaches to their craft, producing wines of balance that aim to draw out the particular nuances of each vintage and how their parcels of land respond in turn. 

Adherents of an elegant, age-worthy style—Ridge, Dominus, Spottswoode, Mayacamas, Dunn, Philip Togni, Larkmead and Inglenook—have been fellow travelers on Corison’s path for many years, while newer producers like Arnot-Roberts, Ashes & Diamonds, Favia and Matthiasson successfully internalized Corison’s ideas and established strong followings of their own.

By 2015, Corison’s success enabled her to buy her second estate vineyard, Sunbasket, a property from which she had sourced grapes for years—grapes that came from vines planted by André Tchelistcheff. 

Today, Corison’s wines are widely lauded by most critics. Violet, herb, flint, cedar and cigar box are oft-mentioned descriptors for her intriguing and complex wines that manage to achieve power and density without any semblance of heaviness.

Still, Corison hesitates to take up the banner of the wine crusade launched, at least partially, in her name. “I don’t want people who are good at making bigger styles of wine to stop,” she says, encouraged by the fact that “the style spectrum has broadened—there’s something for every palate.”

“There’s more diversity in the Napa Valley than ever–in generations, in styles, in varieties,” she notes. “It’s true of the whole world, this understanding that we have different moods, different foods. It’s not as monolithic. There’s a huge sea change going on.”

For all of the adulation and influence, Corison is quick to dismiss the notion that her particular style of winemaking has won the day. “It’s not about replacing a style, it’s about having choices. It’s a wonderful time to be a lover of wine.”