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The Rising Phoenix: Mayacamas Winery

By Yossie Horwitz

An increasing interest in quality kosher wines has led to many positive developments in the kosher wine world, among them the growing number of well-known and high-end wineries creating kosher cuvees of their amazing wines. While France continues to represent the lion’s share of this phenomenon, one of the most significant examples is located a lot closer to home, in the heart of Napa Valley, where we find the iconic Mayacamas winery.

A Different Kind of Beauty

I was fortunate to have the opportunity recently to visit the winery, and as I found myself driving up the one-lane, twisting mountain road leading to its location on the top of Mount Veeder in Napa Valley, I was struck by the rugged surroundings which, while very different than the meticulously trimmed and beautifully appointed wineries in Napa Valley’s “floor,” was no less breathtakingly beautiful on its own right. This feeling was tremendously reinforced by the stunning vistas which came into view as I rounded the final bend.

A Bit of History

There are very few wineries with as long a history as Mayacamas, and even fewer that produce kosher wine. (Mayacamas is likely the second-oldest continuously producing vineyard in Napa.) Located on the edge of a crater from an extinct volcano, the first vines were planted in 1889 by pickle magnate John Fisher, creating a “field-blend” type of vineyard with a number of varieties including zinfandel. Fisher would transport the wine down the mountain via horse and wagon and then down the Napa River to San Francisco by boat where the barrels of wine were bottled and sold.

Unfortunately, the devastating San Francisco earthquake of 1906 destroyed the pickle business (along with many other local businesses) and drove Fisher into bankruptcy. As a result, the winery traded hands a number of times, first to a Chicago-based glass company and then to the Brandlin family, who owned the property throughout the Prohibition era. During this time the initial vineyard died out, becoming fallow, and the subsequent owners didn’t invest very much time or effort on maintaining or developing the property or any of the existing vines. Regardless, wine was continuously made in a somewhat haphazard fashion during these times. During Prohibition, the property’s vast and rugged acreage (over 450 acres) provided great cover for bootlegging operations. There are numerous tunnels dug into the hills throughout the property, that likely served to hide and transport wine (and other spirits) during those times, albeit most are covered up with vegetation and deemed unsafe for exploration.

The vineyards enjoy tremendous elevation ranging from 1,800 to 2,400 feet, which also provides incredible views. The carnage from the fires of 2017 is evident throughout the property in the form of burnt stumps which have new trees and shrubbery growing from within them like a fabled Phoenix, along the winery itself, whose glorious new buildings and wines have risen from the devastation around it. It is also readily apparent how diverse the vineyards all spread as they are across nearly 500 acres. Different elevation, wind and sun exposure, soil and rock types throughout the vineyards all contribute to a special, unique quality within nearly every block of vines, and often even within specific blocks. For anyone who has ever visited vineyards, it is truly a sight to behold.

New Beginnings

Despite its long history, the modern rebirth of the winery was in 1941 when the property was acquired by Jack and Mary Taylor, who had discovered the property when vacationing at nearby Lokoya Lodge. They named their newly acquired property Mayacamas (the name means “howl of mountain lion” in the indigenous Wappo language) and designed the logo with the two mountain lions encased within the “M,” with plans to build and launch winemaking operations right away. However, World War II slightly delayed their plans in getting the winery off the ground (including a lack of metal fencing material, resulting in deer eating through most of the 1944 crop of newly planted vines), but by 1945 they moved their family to the location and set about refurbishing the old stone winery and replanting the vineyards. It was at this time that the cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay the winery is now most known for were first planted on the site (prior plantings had included zinfandel, chenin blanc, semillon and others).

The Taylors farmed the vines organically and introduced the practice of listing their alcohol levels as fractions instead of percentages. During the first few years they purchased wine and bottled it under the Lokoya label, which they used as a “second label,” and the first vintage bottled under the Mayacamas label may have been in 1951 when a small amount of estate chardonnay was bottled and sold. (Napa records aren’t entirely consistent in this regard.)

Foundations Are Laid

While the Taylors are responsible for founding the winery and getting things off the ground, it wasn’t until 1968 when 30-year-old investment banker Bob Travers acquired the property and laid the foundation for Mayacamas’ iconic status. Travers is the one person who can take real credit for the winery’s current cult status and tremendous reputation. Coming from an agricultural family, Travers bounced between finance and agriculture for years until finding his way in wine. Boosted by a vintage spent under the tutelage of legendary vintner Joe Heitz, Travers acquired the winery and set out to utilize the property’s unique terroir to make world-class wines.

Travers’ tremendous success in this endeavor was clear shortly after, when he entered Mayacamas' 1971 cabernet sauvignon in Steven Spurrier’s famous 1976 Judgment of Paris, where it placed seventh overall. This was followed by a third-place showing in the second tasting in 1986 and a third-place in the anniversary tasting held in 2006.

Old-School Winemaking

In addition to its dramatically different location and scenery, Mayacamas stands out from many of the other well-regarded wineries in its winemaking style and techniques, resulting in very different styled wines as well. While this trend seems to be slightly declining, the rise of UC Davis-trained winemakers led to the creation of big, bold and ripe wines largely aged in new oak and embracing the technical advances that allowed for manipulation of the winemaking process to yield the desired result—bombastic wines that also garnered high scores and the resulting popularity. Mayacamas wines couldn’t be further from this style, with wines that are more subtle, often floral in nature and requiring many years before coming into their own and showcasing the elegance and quirky characteristics they have become known for.

The unique terroir combination of high elevation, loose and well-drained rocky volcanic soil, bay exposure and a vastly spread-out range of 55 acres of vineyards across over 450 acres of total property area of what could be considered micro-climates is a significant contributor to low yields and highly tannic fruit grown on the mountain, which helps to produce the old-school mountain style of wines produced by Mayacamas. However, and this is obvious to anyone who walks through the vineyards and the winery itself, the old-school winemaking techniques that are still being used today are also a huge factor in producing the special results that continue to make Mayacamas a top tier winery with a cult following. While things are slightly different with respect to the kosher production as described below, Mayacamas largely picks the grapes early to preserve acidity, utilizes open-top fermentation in old concrete tanks, limits pumping and eschews new oak in favor of very old and large oak barrels, known as foudres. While more and more wineries are utilizing these larger-sized oak containers to minimize overall oak impact, Mayacamas uses some of the oldest ones I have ever seen, with some of them dating back to the 1920s and ranging in size from 9,000 to 600 liters each.

Collectively the unique terroir and individualistic winemaking techniques provide consumers with a very different type of Napa Valley wine, showcasing lower alcohol levels, more restrained fruit and a requirement to age the wines for a few years before they showcase the beautiful wines they were made to be. (The aging requirement leads to the winery’s custom to release its wine very late, between two to six years post-harvest.) However, by the time he sold the winery in 2013, a lack of funds and other factors had contributed to the winery falling into disrepair with dilapidated buildings and vineyards in dire need of replanting.


After more than 40 years of running Mayacamas high up in the mountains, Travers finally sold the winery in 2013 to Charles Banks, who purchased it as a personal investment along with the well-known Jewish philanthropic Schottenstein family from Cleveland. This was the beginning of kosher production for this iconic winery.

When Banks and the Schottensteins purchased the winery there was a lot of angst among many of the Napa Valley cognoscenti that the winery’s uniqueness would be eliminated. This worry was primarily driven by Banks’ prior ownership of cult winery Screaming Eagle, and his hiring of acclaimed Napa winemaker consultant Andy Erikson to assist winemaker Braiden Albrecht with the winery’s reinvigoration. With prior gigs at well-known and more “modern-day” cult Napa wineries, Erikson could be considered by some as a poster boy for the big, oaked and high-alcohol wines for which Napa Valley became so well known—a far cry from the low-key winemaking style that has helped Mayacamas stand out for over a century. Albrecht is a local boy from Sonoma who studied at UC Berkeley and apprenticed in New Zealand and Australia where he got his professional training. However, Banks made it clear that this was a personal investment and, together with the Schottensteins, the intent was to maintain character and elevate quality while pouring immense capital resources into upgrading the facilities and, more importantly, the vineyards.

Renowned wine writer Alder Yarrow did his best to dispel these fears in a well-known (at least among us wine nerds) article titled “Mayacamas Is Going to Be Fine. Really.” And indeed it was. The new Mayacamas team including the owners, winemakers and consultants, were all united around maintaining the winery’s unique style while focusing on upgrading facilities and vineyards to make them better, which by all accounts they have. Before embarking on the purchase they spent a significant amount of time with Travers learning about the vineyards, harvests and winemaking techniques he had been using for decades. They also benefit from Travers’ meticulously kept vintage journals covering the 40 years he ran the winery, which provide incredible records and important information that helped create the program run by the winery to this very day.

Mayacamas Winery's winemaker Braiden Albrecht, left, with kosher négociant David Edelman.

With the stated intent to preserve the character of Mayacamas, the new team set off to implement changes—all geared to improving quality, control, precision winemaking and efficiency. These improvements include introducing cooling equipment to stabilize fermentations and lengthening the amount of time some wines spent macerating on their skins. Most of the efforts were in the vineyards where well-known viticulturist Phil Cotturi was added to the team to assist in replacing many of the ailing and phylloxera-impacted vines, to implement organic farming procedures and continue the estate’s focus on dry-farmed agriculture (aided by the fact that the vineyards often receive nearly double the annual rainfall as those located on the valley floor). The replanting process is a slow one that is almost complete, having been executed at a pace of around five acres per year. This replanting has also allowed the winery to rethink the best varieties for certain plots and to give certain blocks a few years for the soil to regenerate as it lay fallow, awaiting the new plantings. Despite the replanting, the winery still maintains a few blocks dating back to the early ’50s (terraced chardonnay) and ’60s (cabernet sauvignon).

Kosher Beginnings, Trial by Fire and Partnership Upheaval

In addition to the welcome infusion of capital brought in by the new, well-heeled owners, another welcome addition (at least from the kosher wine world’s perspective) was the beginning of kosher wine production at Mayacamas. Initially it was a tiny production intended only for friends and family. (My initial tastings of the 2013 cabernet sauvignon and 2014 chardonnay were from bottles acquired at a charity auction to which the Schottensteins donated the bottles.) Starting with the 2016 vintage, the winery started to produce the kosher runs commercially.

However, a storm was brewing and in 2016 Banks was indicted for defrauding professional athlete Tim Duncan, and the Schottensteins took over full ownership. To add to that year’s chaos, Napa Valley’s infamous fires in September (literally in the middle of harvest) nearly destroyed the winery and vineyards, stopping inches away from the vineyards with only two rows destroyed. Unfortunately, the historic building known as the residence and used as a tasting room and visitor center was devastated, along with a portion of the family’s private wine and cigar collection. Thankfully, the 1889 stone-built winery and cellar were largely spared, and the winery underwent a huge rebuilding and reopened in 2019. Also spared was much of the winery’s incredible archive of library wines, which are largely stored offsite.

Just the Facts

The winery is currently producing approximately 5,000 cases annually with 700 or so designated for kosher production, which includes cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, a rosé and a newly added, lovely sauvignon blanc. On the non-kosher side of things, they also produce a merlot-based wine that often includes a small amount of cabernet franc, while the rosé is only produced (so far) in a kosher version. (The sauvignon blanc and chardonnay are produced in both kosher and non-kosher versions.) Like other high-end wineries, Mayacamas recently added olive oil to its portfolio after the fires, as a lot of the underbrush and other trees were destroyed and the olive trees somehow survived and recovered more quickly.

The goal is to make the kosher wine be as close as possible to the non-kosher and, while the wine is very nice, there are differences in production that contribute to differences in the final products, including the winery’s inability to utilize the signature near-ancient foudres that significantly contribute to the its unique profile and often utilizing different plots for the kosher cuvees. While the regular wines utilize a wide range of plots and blocks across the winery’s 55 acres, the kosher wines are sourced from specific blocks targeted for these wines, yielding wines more akin to single-vineyards with a style all of their own (obviously still Mayacamas vineyards being made in the overall “Mayacamas style”). Winemaker Albrecht is a true gentleman and enthusiastic about the kosher wine production. He works seamlessly with the onsite kosher winemaker David Edelman to ensure the quality winemaking and necessary kosher supervision work hand-in-hand to provide us with kosher versions of some of Napa Valley’s most well-known, respected and, dare I say, cult wineries!

While tours to the winery are by reservation only, I highly recommend one as it is truly a unique and spectacular experience. The tasting room is simply gorgeous, with special artwork enhancing the experience, including a spectacular custom-made chandelier showcasing hundreds of LED bulbs, each encased in a dandelion “puff,” which must have been individually glued on by hand. The entire staff is warm, welcoming and eager to showcase how special the winery is.

I have included my personal notes from the winery’s recent releases, all of which are available directly from the winery and worth seeking out.


Mayacamas Vineyards, Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley, 2022:

This is the newest, and a very welcome, addition to Mayacamas’ portfolio. Crisp and refreshing, the wine has more heft than many sauvignon blanc wines, granting the citrus, white peach, tart green apple and guava notes a little more substance, along with flinty minerals and spices rounding out a very delicious wine. The wine was whole cluster pressed and barrel fermented and then aged for five months sur-lie in a mix of neutral oak and stainless steel. Sixty six percent of the grapes were harvested from the winery’s own vineyards with the rest purchased from nearby vineyards within the Mount Veeder appellation. 131/3% AbV.

Mayacamas Vineyards, Rosé, Grenache, Mt. Veeder-Napa Valley, 2022:

This wine is 100% grenache sourced from Rutherford vineyards (the first estate wine is expected to be from the 2024 vintage, when the newly planted grenache and mourvèdre vines come online). Very pale pink-colored, the nose on this wine is redolent of freshly picked sun-kissed strawberries and sweet summer watermelon— summer in a glass. Decent acidity on the medium-bodied palate carries the watermelon and citrus notes through the lovely finish, leaving you wanting more. 131/3% AbV.

Mayacamas Vineyards, Chardonnay, 2021:

This lovely expression of Napa Valley chardonnay is very well made, well balanced and delicious. Lovely notes of white flowers, green apple and pear and balanced by well-integrated oak, chalk minerals and lip-smacking lime and sweet Mayer lemon on the medium to full-bodied palate. A lingering finish showcasing more oak and flinty minerals balanced by white peach, tart green apple and some saline notes rounds out the wine. The grapes were hand harvested before being pressed whole cluster and fermented in a mix of the winery’s old concrete tanks and neutral oak barrels before being aged for 12 months in older French barrels (mostly 500 liter and barriques) along with approximately 10% new French oak barrels. 133/4% AbV.

Mayacamas Vineyards, Cabernet Sauvignon, Mount Veeder, 2019:

I tasted the wine along with the earlier 2018 vintage which showcased the wine’s requirement for bottle-aging and/or decanting before it really comes into its own (the 2016 vintage is drinking nicely while the original 2013 vintage is alive and delightful as well). The wine opens with a voluptuous nose of deep dark red and black fruits, black pepper, roasted herbs, subtle floral notes and an overlay of tight-grained oak. The full bodied palate needs time and air for the tight tannins to evolve and loosen its tight grip but give the wine time and you will be rewarded with layers of elegance and complexity, showcasing bright cherries, dark chocolate, fresh cured tobacco leaf, boysenberries, a whiff of mint and some bitter licorice root on the back end before the lingering finish of black fruit, more anise and a hint of black figs. The fruit spent 32 months in a mix of 500-liter barrels and traditional barriques. 14% AbV.


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