A Challenging Ascent
To call Lokoya a ‘Napa Valley’ producer is a misnomer. This boutique project (a scion of the Jackson Family) proudly hails from the mountain peaks. 2,000 vertical feet separate many of their vines from the valley floor below.
Like many American wine lovers, I had previously spent hours trolling up and down the Silverado trial visiting the giants of the lowlands (Dominus, Screaming Eagle, Opus One, Mondavi etc.). But far above, often shrouded in mist, lurks another world of Cabernet vines on steep, evergreen covered hilltops.
So this 4th of July (2022) weekend I find myself ascending the Spring Mountain Road, passing a Scooby Doo-like sign warning drivers with trailers to “turn back”, and wrestling my hire car around 180-degree switchbacks up to the entrance to Lokoya’s mountain home.
The reception and tasting facility at Lokoya – high on Spring Mountain – are in a beautifully renovated old concrete-shelled winery. The facility is at 1,750 feet, with the vines climbing another 200 feet or so above. Glass of La Jota Vineyard Howell Mountain Chardonnay 2019 (also a Chris Carpenter creation) in hand, my host Marcelo Freitas leads me out on the terrace to get orientated.
A Stunning Location with a Blazing Past
The view from the terrasse at Lokoya is a breath-taking panorama west across the valley, with Howell Mountain prominent on the other side. Without warning, I am plunged into a serious geology lesson. The terroir in Napa is notoriously complex, with both maritime and volcanic elements combining to form a bewildering topographical canvas. Marcelo knows every ridge and fold and I feel a renewed awe for those who decide where to plant, and what to harvest.
Fascinating though the geography lesson is, I shepherd the conversation back to wine. Surveying the steep terrain I ask about the small packets of vines nestling in clearings between the cedars and evergreen oaks. Marcelo explains that Lokoya continually experiments with new plantings, cleverly using surrounding forest as shields to ensure the Cabernet vines get the optimum amount of sunlight. From many of the vineyards only a selected row or two make it into Lokoya.
But Lokoya’s mountaintop locations also leaves it exposed to a new threat, and I shudder as Marcelo describes the day in August 2020 when flames moving at up to 80 miles an hour swept through the estate, dramatically captured on the building’s CCTV footage. No one was allowed up the mountain for several weeks. Charred trees all around the property testify to the heat of the blaze, and smoke taint meant that the whole of the 2020 harvest was unusable. Marcelo points to the brand-new lime green sprinkler system which now been installed all around the property.
We move back inside, and I marvel again at the cavernous tasting room. Being part of the Jackson Family Estate has benefits. An original Picasso greets visitors as they enter, and the bottle display area is elegantly styled; but more important is the financial backing given to the winemaking team here (led by Chris Carpenter). Since launching in 1995 no expense has been spared creating single varietal Cabernet wines to rival any on the planet. Since the inaugural vintage Lokoya’s Mount Veeder has received no less than seven 100-point scores from Wine Advocate (this ‘perfect wine’ tally equals that of Harlan Estate and Screaming Eagle over the same period, and betters Dominus).
The Main Event
Lokoya is a refreshingly simple concept: four 100% Cabernet Sauvignon wines made from the four major mountain terroirs of Napa: Howell Mountain (on the eastern side of the valley), and Diamond Mountain, Spring Mountain, and Mount Veeder on the western Mayacamas range. Production is ‘boutique’ - only around 1,000 cases are made of each wine (sometimes much less). All are aged in almost 100% new French oak.
Eyeing my flight of all four 2018s, I enquire about the challenge of making 100% single varietal Cabernet Sauvignon with no support from blending grapes. Marcelo points out that the climate is more reliable here than in Cabernet’s spiritual home of Bordeaux. More sunshine days mean more reliable ripening and less annual variability. The morning mists which shroud the peaks in the mornings also protect against over-ripeness.
The horizontal of 2018s showcases the subtle variation of terroirs beautifully. Diamond Mountain 2018 is the softest of the four, derived from “moon dust” volcanic soils. Spring Mountain 2018 is fresher and more floral. Howell Mountain 2018 has a more urgent, energetic profile, with a fine savory finish. Mount Veeder is the structured beast of the family; concentrated, earthy, with densely packed and layered black fruit.
Lokoya’s wines are avidly courted by Cru clients and tasting them in situ high up the Napa mountainside I am understanding why. Unlike some other Napa productions, Lokoya’s wines aren’t trying to be ‘like’ anything else. There is a purity of expression here – you can almost taste the clean mountain air and the breath of the trees in the exquisite Cabernet fruit.
I descend back down Spring Mountain feeling elated and inspired by what I have seen, smelled, and tasted. If the job of the (wine) grape is to convey a synthesis of time and place, then the high mountain Cabernet Sauvignons of Lokoya have few rivals anywhere on earth.