A little more than three years ago, Dana Estates, then a Napa Valley new blood and a relative unknown, catapulted to fame when influential wine critic Robert Parker awarded its 2007 Lotus Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon the highest score of 100 points.
Owned by Lee Hi-sang, CEO of South Korean conglomerate DongA One Group, the fledgling winery made its first vintage in 2005, making the 2007 its third.
“We took a risk,” Lee, 67, recalled how the decision to produce posh, single-vineyard cult Cabernets was a bold move on his part.
A firm believer in making the best, Lee went for “quality over quantity” with high-priced Cabernet Sauvignon crafted from grapes from only one vineyard per batch. By doing so, the resulting wine would fully reflect each vineyard’s own unique terroir.
“Single-vineyard wines express the characteristics of that particular vineyard,” said Lee, explaining how it differs from a wine made with grapes from several vineyards.
By their third vintage, Lee and his team ― which include Dana Estates winemaker Cameron Vawter and prominent independent vintner and consultant Philippe Melka ― were beyond successful. They were famous.
Fame can be fleeting for some, but not for Dana Estates. The winery went on to repeat history when the 2010 Lotus Vineyard vintage nabbed another 100 points from Robert Parker’s high-profile publication, The Wine Advocate, in December.
While Dana Estates produces cult Cabernets from three vineyards ― Helms, Lotus and Hershey ― it was Lotus’ wines that nabbed top ratings from The Wine Advocate twice.
Lee purchased Lotus in 2006 after he first bought Helms in 2005. Originally called Crystal Vineyard, Lotus was divided into two after Lee acquired the land. The lower area remained Crystal, while Lee christened the higher area Lotus.
“Lotus receives a prolonged and strong exposure to the sun from the West and the earth is rocky and rough, resulting in a powerful wine that is rich in aroma,” said Lee.
The combination of higher altitude and rocky terrain apparently helps make for a great Cabernet Sauvignon, which means that Lee’s final addition to his winery, Hershey Vineyard, shows great promise.
Lee harbors high hopes for Hershey’s single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, especially since the fifth vintage, a 2010, nabbed a 99+ score from The Wine Advocate.
“Experts are very interested,” Lee said.
According to the official Dana Estates website, like Lotus, Hershey possesses rocky soil. Situated on Howell Mountain at 1,800 feet above sea level, Hershey is 600 feet higher up than Lotus and is located on a mountain that is known for resulting in wines that age well.
What is even more interesting is that Hershey recently started to also produce Cabernet Franc, as of 2012 to be exact. In other words, the vineyard now yields a grape variety that, in Bordeaux, is often blended with Cabernet Sauvignon.
“It was very good,” Lee said of the first crop that came out this year.
“We can only make a few bottles with it,” said Lee, who added that it is likely they will look into blending it. Should Hershey’s Franc be blended with its Sauvignon, it could possibly result in a Bordeaux-style wine.
Blending, though not new to Dana Estates, is new to its U.S. portfolio, and while it is too early to know whether or not Hershey’s Cabernet franc and Sauvignon will be married in one bottle, Lee confirmed that the winery’s blend of Cabernet Sauvignon from its vineyards, Onda d’Oro, will be available in the U.S. starting this year.
Up until very recently, Onda d’Oro ― a Cabernet Sauvignon created from grapes from the estate’s vineyards ― was only available in South Korea.
“We sent Onda d’Oro to our mailing list last year and starting this year we have begun rolling it out in shops and restaurants in the U.S.,” said Lee.
Dana also saw great success at the annual Premiere Napa Valley trade auction last February, where five cases of a limited-edition blend of Cabernet Sauvignon from the estate’s vineyards nabbed the highest bid at $70,000.
“The blend was specially created for the event,” said Lee.
This much good news could go to one’s head. But Lee ― who oversees a vast empire of businesses ranging from wine importation to flour production ― seems unfazed by all the attention, and instead appears calm, collected and serenely pleased with his current state of affairs.
Rather than consider expanding his winery, Lee expressed a desire to take a steady approach, to continue to work to produce the best.
By Jean Oh (email@example.com