Taplin vineyard is tucked away off the main road of St. Helena. Without a private invitation, the countless people who pass along the busy highway would never know it existed. And, yet, hidden in plain sight sits acres of some of the best grapes in the wine country—grapes that not only go into the bottles of Taplin Cellars’ cabernet sauvignon, but into bottles of other wineries throughout Napa Valley.
Though the vineyard may be obscure to those familiar with names such as Mondavi, Caymus, Krug and the like, the land that comprises it is the result of two of the oldest families in Napa Valley: the Taplins and the Lewellings. Taplin Road and Lewelling Lane are evidence of the families’ deep roots here, which began with a dairy off of Silverado Trail and, later, fruit farms across the valley, where the vineyard is now located.
For five generations, this land has remained within that same family. Currently, Bill Taplin has primary responsibility for vineyards, while his brother, Stephen, has primary responsibility for the cellar. Stephen’s wife, Sylvia, is the director of operations, and his son, Adam, serves on the board of directors, representing the next generation. And making it truly a family affair, the Taplins’ cousin, Doug Wight, oversees the vineyards, while his son-in-law, Erik Dodd, handles the day-to-day management of it.
Despite the Taplins’ deep valley roots, they are a small business. Prohibition and education led to gap years in winemaking for the family. “My great-great-grandfather was making wine, but, then, in between, they stopped,” says Stephen. “We were also making brandy, and we still own a building that my great-great-grandfather built with Charles Krug back in the 1860s. But, in between, after the Depression and Prohibition, none of my family were making wine anymore.”
After graduating from high school in 1969, Stephen left the valley for college and left California for residency in New York in 1978. He would not return again until 2016. To help subsidize Taplin Cellars, 80% of the grapes go to other wineries. The remaining 20% is used for their wine program. “We call that ‘bootstrapping,’” says Stephen. “We’re lifting ourselves up. Luckily, Stephen says the valley provides a nurturing atmosphere for new (or returning) vintners. “The area became more developed when I got back,” he says. “But there were a lot more resources, and it made it much easier to be a small winery and grow slowly.
In 2011, Stephen; Bill; and their sister, Melinda, whom they lost to cancer in 2015, founded Taplin Cellars, making them the first Taplins in four generations to make wine.
Today, Stephen is harvesting the fruits of his family’s ongoing legacy. This is the day he has been waiting for all year—and it’s a cold one: 42 degrees.
It’s still dark out as his truck ambles along the private dirt road leading to the vineyard. Even his dog, Roger, seems confused by the fact that he’s sitting in a cold car, rather than sleeping soundly at the family’s nearby home that Stephen built with his father when he was just a teenager. Stephen, however, is beaming. “There it is,” he says, spotting several trucks and bright lights ahead. “Hellooo!” bellows a voice from the dark as Stephen approaches the flurry of activity. It’s Sylvia, whose hands are wrapped around a hot tumbler filled with coffee. “They’re all here!”
“They” are the grape pickers. And this is harvest day.
6:08am: A crew of about a dozen men and women in orange reflector vests work with speed and precision, cutting clusters of grapes, filling their large white plastic bins, balancing them over their heads, then making their way to the nearby tractor with larger bins placed on a flatbed attached to it. Their day began at 4am, and there’s plenty more work to do in a short amount of time. On harvest day, time and temperature are key—both of which are fleeting. “We start in the deep of the cold at night,” says Julien Fayard, Taplin Cellars’ winemaker, scanning the fruit-filled bins. “It’s a three- to four-hour picking window. You’re in the coldest part of the night so that when the fruit arrives at the winery, it’s naturally cold. We’re saving energy by waking up early. It’s very important in the process because then we don’t have to cool or warm the winery. We use the natural temperature of the fruit. Everything clicks in place that way.”
6:30am: This won’t be the only harvest for the pickers, all of whom are contractors. Once their work at the Taplin vineyard is compete, they will move on to the next vineyard and start the process again, with an even greater time constraint. “These workers are getting paid by the barrel, by the box, by how fast they pick,” says Stephen. “There’s only so many places they can harvest because they want to pick the berries while they’re still cool. So there’s this scheduling challenge. They want to cover as much ground as possible.”
6:43am: Once the workers are done picking the grapes on one side of the vineyard, they jump into their trucks and head to the other side of the property. Here, Stephen says, the grapes have a totally different flavor. “We’re letting the grapes hang longer on the vine so it will gain a little more concentration and texture, and change the profile of the wine,” says Fayard. “It will be blended differently; it’s a tool we use. We don’t do everything the same. We have different profiles; then we blend those together.” Beyond the hang time, Stephen says, the different types of topography on the vineyard give them a diversity of flavors that make their grapes unique. “From the south side and the north side, there’s a different taste,” he says. “You put it all in the same barrel; you get the average of all of that taste, but if you keep it separate, then you can control how much of the different flavors you put in, and you can control how it’s going to taste.”
6:53am: The sunrise casts a golden hue across Taplin vineyard, as seen from the vantage point of the family’s barn. Stephen takes a quick break to soak in the view as the final crates from the morning’s harvest are en route to Fayard’s winery, about 20 minutes away. He speaks of his ancestral land with deep appreciation and pride. “Part of what makes this special is the location in the valley,” he says. “It’s a little bit of a slope. It’s also close to the hills. What really makes our grapes special is the ground is very rocky. My great- great-grandfather said the ground was nine-parts rocks and one-part dirt, so our label is “Terra 9.” The characteristic makes it great for cabernet. The fact that it’s really rocky forces the grapes to work harder, send the roots deeper, and they taste better when they’re struggling a little bit.”
Stephen Taplin, left, speaks with winemaker Julien Fayard, who joined Taplin Cellars in 2012.
7:40am: Festive music with Spanish lyrics plays loudly over the sound of machinery at Fayard’s winery. When Stephen arrives, he spots his winemaker and has a quick check-in. This is Stephen’s first harvest using this winery, and there’s a new machine involved in the process. Fayard gives him a quick update, regularly shifting his eyes to the conveyer belt to make sure everything runs smoothly. The technology may be new for Fayard, but wine is part of his DNA. He grew up in the vineyards of France, born to a family that grew and made wine. His training is in viticulture, as well as enology. He is as invested in today’s harvest as Stephen is, and, in fact, all his work has led to this day. “It’s a yearlong process,” he explains. “The way we grow the grapes is going to give certain character to them, and, depending on that character, we’re going to pick a certain way; we’re going to crush it a certain way; we’re going to ferment a certain way. If you just come late in the process, you’re going to have something to fix, or you’re going to be stuck in a certain way of work instead of really controlling what you’re doing from start to finish. This was planned two weeks ago. We knew we would pick a year ago, but when you’re growing and you’re pruning, you do that for this day, today.
7:57am: Freshly picked grape clusters from the Taplin vineyard begin their journey though the sorting process. The technology is literally laser-focused on separating the materials other than grape, referred to as “MOG,” such as gravel, leaves and debris, and eliminating the subpar fruit, those that may be too small or dry, leaving only the most optimal grapes. “The process is using light and air,” says Stephen. “When it sees something it doesn’t want, it blows it out. All the bad stuff comes off into that container,” he says, pointing to a large plastic bin. “It’s all being controlled by a laser that detects the berries and a computer that is interpreting information and blowing out the unwanted materials. So this is a big step in the process. And this is the first year we’ve had this.” Last year, this process was done by hand, along with older technology.
8:10am: Keeping the environment sanitary is a crucial part of the winemaking process and is a top priority for Fayard. This is one of the key reasons why Stephen chose him and his winery when shopping for winemakers. Workers regularly hose down the concrete as more debris from the sorting process hits the ground. Each bin is meticulously rinsed out after they are emptied of their contents. “They’re cleaning up the bins and going back to the fields,” says Stephen. “All these things change what the taste of the wine is. The bacteria that are in the ground, the bacteria that are in the winery, how you control them, when you keep them clean. There’s a huge amount of stuff we’re learning that give us the better ability to express what’s there. We’re still learning. It’s not a dead process at all.”
A cellar master distributes dry ice evenly above the grapes that have been transferred from the sorting machine.
8:30am: From the sorter, the grapes travel through a large tube into a steel fermenter, where they will sit for another two weeks. The cellar master places dry ice into the tank, triggering another step in the process. When it melts, the dry ice transforms into a gas that sits at the top of the tank, forcing oxygen out to reduce oxygenation during the fermentation process. “We want just the right amount of oxygen, so it’s controlling the exposure to it,” Stephen says.
9:11am: The process begins for a much smaller production of cabernet franc—“the father of the cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc,” as Stephen explains it. These are the grapes taken from the other side of the Taplin property during the second wave of the morning’s harvest. “It’s really a very new grape, only about 300 to 400 years old,” says Stephen. Workers make sure that all the grapes are pumped out of the tube from the earlier batch. They then proceed to move the equipment over to a much smaller fermentation tank for this separate variety. Once this is complete, today’s harvest is essentially over. In three days, winemakers will go into the Taplin barrels for the “pump over”—turning the mixture over and moving juice from the bottom of the fermentation to the top, enabling more exposure to the grape skins. “This is the same as a French press,” says Fayard, speaking of the ‘French press’ method of soaking coarse-ground coffee in boiling water, then pressing them with a fine filter in a timed manner to extract maximum flavor and caffeine from the pulverized beans. “This is the extraction process, where we’re getting taste and color out of skins and into the juice.” In two weeks, the crushing process begins. And, in three years, the Taplin 2019 vintage will be released.
10:08am: Sylvia is hosting a small group for lunch when Stephen returns to the Taplin property. Currently, you can have a tasting of the Taplin wines at Fayard Wines (fayardwinemaking.com) in Napa, but Stephen and Sylvia are working to change that. “We are the definition of a small winery,” he says. Taplin Cellars started distributing wine in places where the Taplins have lived, including Maryland; Virginia; Washington, D.C.; and New Jersey, but are now expanding their network as their wines become known.
There are several hundred people in their membership group, and they continue to work to grow that number. He picks up one of his bottles from a pine crate with the company’s logo on it, their family name in fragile cursive. “We found my great-grandfather’s notebook with the names of people he would deliver milk to as a dairyman,” says Stephen. “We took the letters from that book to create an alphabet of his handwriting, so that’s my great-grandfather’s handwriting on our label.” The Taplin legacy lives on.