‘Rock and Soil’ Star: Winemaker Cathy Corison Digs Deep

Vineyard framed against mountains
Corison Winery: Kronos Vineyard in St. Helena Napa Valley. Photo Credit: Corison Winery

I recently listened to down-to-earth rock star Alecia Moore – aka Pink – talk about how everything in her Santa Barbera vineyard made perfect sense after she dug her first soil pit. “I wanted to know why a vine here is vigorous, and next to it, not at all. Why some vines are healthy and others are struggling. I wanted to know what’s in my soil, what’s really going on.” That soil pit and the many more she’s dug since, provided a critical peek under the vineyard hood and according to Alecia, the wines are much better for it. “There’s something to digging deeper,” she advises.

Inspired by Alecia’s revelation, I decided to heed her advice…. dig deep, root down and try to understand the soils and geological “genetics” underpinning some of the most interesting wines of our time. 

So, to kick-off, this, my inaugural ‘soil pit’ series, I of course contacted Napa Valley’s Cathy Corison, a trailblazing, winemaking ‘rock & soil’ star (;-) if ever there was one (Q&A follows).

Cathy is a wonderfully opinionated pillar of the Napa Valley winemaking community and her wines are as complex as the rocks, soil and sediment that lie beneath her wildly alive St. Helena vineyards.

When I ask her how she quantifies the influence of the amazing biodiversity in her vineyard, she quickly sets me straight: “Both in the vineyard and the winery it’s very easy to get lost in the technical weeds, missing the forest for the trees. I can just see how lively our soils are by watching the cover crop and vines grow. The difference is obvious any day of the year looking at the conventionally farmed vineyards all around us. It’s got to be a balance.”

You don’t need technical data to appreciate the grit and determination of Cathy Corison.

Cathy Corison in wild mustard cover crop
Cathy Corison’s annual cover crop of wild mustard, vetch, peas and fava beans promote healthy soil structure, adding nutrients, organic matter and fixing nitrogen in the soil. “By creating this healthy soil ecosystem, our vines should thrive for many decades to come.” Photo Credit: Corison Winery

The Origin Story

“Just watch me” is a phrase made famous by the iconoclastic Canadian Prime Minister – Pierre Trudeau in the mid-seventies, which is around the same time Cathy Corison enrolled in the Enology program at U.C. Davis. Before she walked out the door with an undergraduate degree in Biology and a Masters in Winemaking, her professor sat her down for a wee chat. Tough break, he said, but as a woman he needed to warn her she’d never make it as a winemaker in Napa Valley. Rock star that she is, Cathy smiled graciously, thanked him for his advice and immediately kicked into “just watch me” mode.

Two days later she was working in Napa.  

“I prefer to focus on results and not on bumps” the magnanimous Corison told author Karen MacNeil last year, when asked about ‘glass ceiling’ wine industry challenges. I wanted to make wine, she said, and to make that vision happen she needed experience and laser focus.

Over the next decade, Cathy learned the nuts and bolts of viticulture and winemaking with stints at venerated estates like Freemark Abbey (home of Josephine Tychson – Napa Valley’s first female winemaker), Yverdon, Chappellet, Staglin, Long Meadow Ranch and more. At 24 she was hired as a winemaker, at 26 head winemaker, and by 33, she was buying Rutherford-area grapes from friends and colleagues and producing her first vintage of Cathy Corison Napa Valley Cabernet (1987).

As founding partner, winegrower and winemaker at Napa Valley’s Corison Winery, Cathy Corison is an unlikely renegade. She’s been making wine for four decades now, growing vines in her gravelly, cobbled Kronos and Sunbasket St. Helena vineyards for 25 years.

Cathy and her husband William Martin methodically and meticulously farm some of the most prized and distinct Cabernet vineyards in the valley, practicing the kind of viticulture and winemaking that aligns with their values and vision of Napa Cabernet wine. The renegade part? Cathy has always picked grapes earlier than most Napa wineries, released her wines later than many producers in the valley and brings a farming and sustainable sensibility to the land that she deems critical to the future of wine-making in Napa.

“As long as we remain farmers, I’m optimistic about Napa’s future,” insists Cathy in a recent interview with Vinous’s Antonio Galloni. “That’s what I think is important.”

Cathy and her husband framed against vineyard and mountains
Rock & Soil Stars. Photo Credit: Corison Winery
Three bottles of Corison Cabernet Sauvignon wine
Photo Credit: Corison Winery

Roots and Shoots

Cathy says in the years she was making wine for others and literally learning the lay of the land, there was a wine in her head she was desperate to make. A fan of European Cabernet – and in particular, left bank Bordeaux – her goal was to capture the energy, life force and “for lack of a better word, vibration” of these iconic wines.

She knew the well-drained, shattered sandstone and limestone alluvial fans (benchlands) at the base of the Mayacamas Range between Oakville and St. Helena produced beautiful, powerful Cabernet. The early wine pioneers in Napa – Beaulieu Vineyard, Inglenook, Niebaum-Coppola, among others  –  chose this “Rutherford stretch” to make these intense, concentrated Cabernets. In the early nineties, geologists Jonathan Swinchatt and David Howell were hired to better understand and map the soils, geology and terroir of Napa. In their book The Winemaker’s Dance they describe the “Rutherford Dust” – a mix of mineral deposits, gravel, sand and loam soils – as some of the most prized vineyard land anywhere in the world.

But the Cabernet style in Cathy’s head went beyond intense. Powerful was a given. Her vision was to make wines that were also aromatic, pretty and elegant, a style antithetical to the big Cabernets being produced in Napa at that time.

“Elegance and power can coexist in the glass as long as the wine has great natural acidity, and the wine is alive,” says Cathy. The diurnal shift – hot days/cool nights – that exists in Napa’s benchlands provides that vibrant, natural acidity. And the heat required to get Cabernet ripe, is pretty much guaranteed in the narrow, part of the western valley. “Here in the Rutherford Bench, the high temperatures are higher and the lows are lower – which is why this area is so perfect for growing Cabernet with great complexity.”

And the “lifeforce” part of the Corison equation? The energy has to come out of the vineyard,” she insists. “The site is the most important thing.”

Corison’s Napa Cabernets are clearly appreciated by wine enthusiasts everywhere.

Cathy’s been a Wine & Spirits Magazine “Top 100 wines of the World” finalist for the last five years. She’s been nominated for the James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Wine, Beer, or Spirits Professional (the food industry’s highest honor and the Oscars of Food) every year since 2017, high praise indeed for a winemaker who aspires to make “elegant, food-friendly wines that grace the table”.

Hugh Johnson calls her a national treasure. New York Times wine critic Eric Asminov heralds her as one of the greatest producers of Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa Valley today. Jancis says her wines contain none of the “bludgeoning force” or “bombast” (Asminov) so often seen in California cabs. (Sounds like elegance to me…..)

Cathy and many other women who have been nominated for the James Beard awards
Cathy Corison: Finalist for the James Beard Foundation Award for Outstanding Wine, Beer, or Spirits Professional.
Photo Credit: Corison Winery
Tasting barn with wine glasses and open door looking on vineyards and mountains
Photo Credit: Corison Winery
beautiful, stately 50 year old vine
The majestic Kronos Vineyard at 50. Photo Credit: Corison Winery

Uprising – Wines that are Alive

Of course, making great wine requires great vineyards and the well-drained cocktail of gravel and loam provides ideal growing conditions for textured, balanced wines.

“I’ve also learned it’s the life in the soil that’s so important,” says Cathy. “There’s no good reason not to grow grapes organically especially in the benign climate of Napa Valley.” For Cathy, that translates to a largely non-interventionist approach including no pesticides, no additives, no synthetic ingredients, and dry-farming.

At 50 years of age, the 8-acre Kronos Vineyard is one of the last great original vineyards in Napa. A hotbed of biodiversity, it’s been farmed organically “from the moment we owned it”, capturing the vineyard’s vibrant natural ecosystem in every bottle. Cathy describes Kronos Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon as complex and concentrated with “inky” purple and black fruit and a velvety mouthfeel.

Sunbasket is Cathy’s second vineyard. Originally planted by Napa’s winegrowing grand master, André Tchelistcheff, it’s a stone’s throw from the Corison Winery at Kronos. The vines are 25 years old and the site is now farmed organically. Although planted on the same alluvial benchlands, the micro-terroir here is very different from Kronos, producing bright floral wines with red and blue fruit flavours.

Cathy’s cornerstone Corison Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon has been made from grapes purchased from the same spectacular vineyards since 1987. The vineyards are located on benchland between Rutherford and St. Helena and check all the boxes for Cathy’s powerful and elegant Cabernet that speak of time and place.

Deep soil pit with man inside measuring content
“I always say I could mine Kronos for gravel.” Cathy Corison. Photo Credit: Corison Winery

Cathy Corison Digs Deep

Can soil pits help shed light on Cathy Corison’s spectacular wines?  Read on…..

Q&A

What’s the value of digging soil pits? What do they tell you and when do you decide to dig?

Pits are invaluable for revealing what is down there both structurally and biologically. Most people dig pits when they are going to replant.

Can you talk about your first soil pit experience?

I never actually dug my own soil pit until a few years ago when we were getting ready to replant the two acres of Kronos Vineyard in front of the winery. So that was the first vineyard I have ever planted. The vines were on AXR1 rootstock (susceptible to Phylloxera) and had been slowly dying for the last couple of decades.
The 50-year-old gnarly old Cabernet Sauvignon ladies behind the winery are planted on St. George rootstock, so they’re healthy and fine.

What did you learn?

Because world-class Cabernet-based wines have been produced in this little corner of the world – the “Rutherford Bench”, benchland (alluvial fans) between Oakville and St. Helena since the late 19th century – there is much collective wisdom.

These alluvial soils combine good water holding capacity because they are loam, but are extremely well drained because they are very gravelly/rocky/cobbly. These soils can be largely dry-farmed. The vines run out of water at veraison which is when we want them to stop growing and get busy ripening their fruit.

When I finally climbed into my very own pit, it confirmed what I already knew. Kronos Vineyard is so gravelly I could mine it for gravel. The deep (6-8 feet!) soils are gravelly with a layer of cobbles a few feet below.

Any AHA moments that have affected your viticulture practices?

We are also replanting a 4-acre piece contiguous to Sunbasket Vineyard. The soil pits there revealed sections of the block that are 70% gravel! 

Corison Cabernet reviews consistently lead with “complex”, “elegant”, “rich”. If I can riff off Tina Turner, what’s soil got to do with it?  

We have farmed Kronos Vineyard organically for over a quarter century….long before that was fashionable. As a result, our soils are wildly alive. It’s the life in the soils that makes the nutrition available to the vines. Careful tractor use and these lively soils enjoy great structure. You can see the difference between Kronos and the surrounding conventionally farmed vineyards every day of the year. For example – right now the mustard cover crop is going crazy. It only grows where there is good soil structure. And it, in turn, improves the soil structure with its long tap root.

Your Kronos and Sunbasket vineyards are Napa Green and Fish Friendly. What does that look like from a farming perspective and why should wine lovers care?

No synthetic chemicals applied that could wind up in the water. Cover cropping prevents soil erosion. Pure grapes make tasty wine for us to drink. We all want this magical land to be producing world-class wines for generations to come.

Is there a particular wine you produce where you can truly taste the soil/sub-soil/bedrock….that yummy soil microbiome?

All my Cabernets display what has long been called “Rutherford Dust” in the flavours and aromas.

Feature and Headline Photo Credit: Corison Winery

Corison Winery Address:

987 St. Helena Highway
Saint Helena, CA 94574

(707) 963-0826 phone

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