Tue 18 Jun 2013

Frog’s Leap (members wiggle!)

John Williams Frog's Leap

‘it is clear that John is deeply in love with wine and with his patch of land in the Napa’

Tastings and events manager Simon Mason reports on a thoroughly good evening in the presence of owner-winemaker of Frog’s Leap, John Williams

It is fair to say that very few Wine Society tutored tastings begin with a room full of members, their arms outstretched and fingers wiggling, being encouraged to think like a grapevine. Such is the persuasive power of Frog’s Leap owner and winemaker John Williams that all joined in, although I suspect far fewer kicked off their shoes as suggested to ‘feel the dirt between their toes’.

Frog’s Leap makes the most elegant, harmonious and in our view, magnificently ageworthy style of Napa Valley wine so we were delighted to be joined by John and his wife, Tori for a masterclass in organic farming and a fascinating critique of the current state of winemaking in the Napa Valley, all illustrated by a selection of Frog’s Leap wines from The Society’s current range as well as John’s own cellar.

John is a passionate advocate of organic vineyard practices and talks enthusiastically and convincingly about his philosophy. Viewed by some as an eccentric, it is clear that behind the light-hearted approach is some very serious and thoughtful winemaking. Taking us from his early days as a cheesemaker through his awakening interest in the world of wine (more pretty women and fewer cows were a big part of the appeal, apparently), John went on to talk about his time as winemaker at Stag’s Leap. There, he worked alongside André Tchelistcheff to produce the legendary 1973 Stag’s Leap that memorably rated top wine at the 1976 Judgement of Paris. Talking of the people and places he has worked, it is clear that John is deeply in love with wine and with his patch of land in the Napa.

We begin the tasting with an aperitif of Frog’s Leap Napa Sauvignon Blanc 2012. Crisp and refreshing and with a low (for the region) 12.7% alcohol, this is a perfect introduction to John’s philosophy of growing as perfect a grape as possible and then interfering as little as possible in the cellars. This also allows us to pick up the first hints of slate and minerality that we learn anchor the wine in the Rutherford region of Napa.

Moving on to a flight of zinfandels from 2010, 2008 and 1993 the last of which which was served in magnum (a problem for John as they are just too much for one person and just too little for two), John passionately outlines his belief that many wineries in Napa and beyond are going down a very negative path to produce fruit filled and highly coloured wines that are approachable when young and in the barrel merely to satisfy the tastes of certain influential US critics. Beautifully illustrated with a comparison to petals falling all too quickly from shop-bought flowers, it was hard not to agree with John as we tasted the still fresh 1993. Taking a vote, the 2008 was the members’ favourite of the three although I thought the 2010 to be deliciously vibrant and hope to tuck a few bottles away for twenty or so years just to check John is still practising what he preached.

We progress to three vintages of merlot: 2009, 2008 and 2002, the latter two again served from magnum. Merlot is John’s favourite grape and in his inimitable style, he tells us of his belief that the film Sideways has saved the grape in the US – following the film, all the bad winemakers switched from making awful merlot to making awful pinot noir, leaving merlot to those who knew what they were doing. Among the members present, the complex and still well-structured 2002 was the most popular of the three, but for me the 2008 was the star, with just the right amount of development to bring harmony to the wine as well as a fairly light 12.9% alcohol, which left it refreshing to taste.

Onwards to a pair of Napa cabernets from 2009 and 1998. John explained how many of his wines come under the category of ‘barely legal’ due to his frequent use of the minimum possible amount of stated grape variety. The 1998 cabernet sauvignon containing 77% cabernet sauvignon against a legal minimum of 75% which for John, creates greater nuance and complexity.

Discussing the challenges presented by farming organically in poor years, we learn that there are no such things as bad vintages, instead, John draws the comparison with parenting a difficult child – one accepts that they will present a challenge and then one works hard to bring them up to be the best that they can be, all the while preserving their own individual character.

Finishing the tasting with two vintages of flagship Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon, John explains how André Tchelistcheff first identified that there was something special about the Rutherford soil and coined the phrase ‘Rutherford dust’ to describe the distinctive aromatic characteristics of the area. Tasting the 2009 and 2007 Rutherford Cabernet, we were told to look for a texture like ‘running your hand over a piece of velvet, against the nap’. Both exceedingly youthful but still immensely drinkable, John’s reply to a member’s question about age worthiness in wines without massive amounts of tannins was entirely in keeping with the character of the man – it is like people, he explained – ‘If you are ugly when you are young, you are going to be ugly when you are old’.

A final few questions from members allowed John a chance to explain the history of the winery name (a contraction of Frog Farm where the early wines were made and Stag’s Leap where the first grapes were ‘borrowed’ from) as well as to share a few more anecdotes from his years in Napa. Highly entertaining and refreshingly honest, John’s passion and enthusiasm for his land and his grapes was wonderful to hear. Behind the quirky name and lighthearted delivery, however, is some seriously good wine that places Frog’s Leap in the pantheon of true Californian greats.

View Frog’s Leap wines


Categories : Wine Tastings


  1. Alastair says:

    I was there, fighting my way through crowds of anti G8 protesters. Well worth the effort – memorable evening. Only problem is getting hold of the older vintages of his wines. Impossible. Can’t the Society do something about this?

    • Pierre Mansour says:

      Pleased that you enjoyed the tasting. Regarding older vintages, we are doing two things: firstly, we have asked Frog’s Leap if they can sell The Wine Society some of their “personal” museum stock. We expect quantities would be very, very limited; furthermore, our experience of producers selling older vintages is that pricing can often rule out the feasibility of us shipping. The second thing we are doing is that we are purposefully investing in keeping stock of Frog’s Leap wines which we will be holding in our cellars here to mature and which we will sell in the future.

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