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With each large corporate entity buying a prominent Napa winery comes the grumbles and complaints of those who think the valley is losing its sense of soul and place. Yet at the same time, hundreds of small wineries continue to drive the valley’s quality and diversity.

It depends how you see the wineglass, as an optimist or a pessimist. The recent news that Andy Erickson and Annie Favia secured a new spot to build an estate for their Favia project is case in point. A first-generation, family-owned operation doubling down to help build its legacy, Favia offers a resounding “glass half full” view.

Following close behind is the news that Memento Mori’s founders, along with winemaker Sam Kaplan, have decided to create their own permanent home. With the purchase of the former Stonescape estate in Calistoga, this new star among boutique Cabernet producers is following a similar path in trying to set itself up for a generational run.

The 17-acre property on Azalea Springs Way, at the base of Diamond Mountain and a neighbor to Checkerboard Vineyards, was formerly owned by Norman and Norah Stone, a wealthy San Francisco–based couple with a prominent art collection. The property dates to the 1880s and had been purchased by the Stones in 1991. They renovated the two original houses on the site and put in vines by 2001. The 2020 wildfires took one of the houses, but the second still stands. Also on the property is a 5,750-square-foot hydro-heated cave built specifically to house fine art.

The purchase was completed at the end of 2022. Kaplan—along with owners Hayes Drumwright, Adam Craun and Adriel Lares—will add some new plantings to bring the vineyard up to nearly 5 acres. The team also plans to add a small winery and hospitality facility. (The wines are currently made at the Arkenstone facility on Howell Mountain).

Obtaining the estate in the currently overheated Napa Valley real estate market was a coup in and of itself: The property had only been listed for a day before the deal was struck.

“We have some upgrading to do, but it’s a great base to build on,” says Kaplan, 47, who has been with the project since it started in 2010. “When you’re buying grapes, you never know when and if you might lose your source for any number of reasons. So having our own estate for Memento Mori is so exciting for us. It’s a culmination of our journey since we started together.”

Memento Mori’s production currently stands at 2,000 cases, sourcing grapes from some of Napa’s highest-profile vineyards, such as Beckstoffer Dr. Crane and Beckstoffer Las Piedras, along with Oakville RanchVine Hill Ranch and Weitz. There is a flagship red made from a blend of the sites, along with small lots of individual vineyard bottlings.

The new estate’s vineyards include a block planted in 2001 to the Cabernet Sauvignon Clone 4, which is classically structured and has a prominent cassis profile. A second block, planted by Mike Wolf in 2014, employs the aromatic and expressive Clone 169. Kaplan is already working to convert the existing parcels to organic farming practices, working with vineyard manager Jim Barbour. The Stonescape fruit had gone to Harlan Estate, among others along the way, but starting with the 2023 vintage, it will be kept for its own dedicated bottling (likely around 500 cases).

Kaplan also plans to plant a third block on the site, which features volcanic soils marked with cobblestones and fine gravel. “The chance to work with a new vineyard is so exciting,” says Kaplan, who also makes the wines for ArkenstoneVida Valiente, Vangone and his own Maxem label. “I’m chomping at the bit to get going with it.”

Since its debut, Memento Mori (a reminder of one’s mortality, a Latin expression that the winery founders interpret as “remember to live”) has quietly set an impressive track record for its wines. Getting a true home base for the project shows that the owners are committed to developing it further. It’s the kind of small operation that is truly helping to fuel Napa Valley’s future, even as the large players—such as LVMH and Gaylon Lawrence, Jr.—gain the headlines when they make a purchase in the region.

“It’s exciting to think about the next 15 years,” says Craun, one of Memento Mori’s co-founders and owners, standing amid a grove of towering redwoods on the property. “We’re not Mondavis or Harlans. But now we can be a part of developing the legacy of Napa as well, in our own small way.”

– James Molesworth, February 2023

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