Make sure you bring a glass to this class. This is a story about a winery whose products I have witnessed develop, change and even relocate over the past thirty years. In the beginning, Chuck Wagner of Caymus Vineyards conceptualized Liberty School as a second label to the eponymous label he had developed in Napa Valley to use up surplus Cabernet fruit in 1975. By the early 1980’s the labels popularity had outgrown the amount of surplus fruit that was available to Caymus for their Liberty School label. In search of quality Cabernet fruit for his second label, Chuck was a visionary looking to the central coast of California particularly Paso Robles as a desirable location to source good fruit at a reasonable price. In 1978 the Hope family had planted Cabernet Sauvignon in Paso Robles and their success had caught the attention of Wagner by the early 1980’s and Chuck approached Hope Farms as a fruit source for the Liberty School label. Caymus Vineyards history goes back a lot further than that so this next paragraph is just a quick synopsis of early Rancho Caymus history.
Here is how Caymus began. First most people do not know the word Caymus was a subgroup of the Mishewal-Wappo Indians tribe. During the era between 1836 and 1846, when California was a province of independent Mexico there were 13 original ranchos granted in Napa County. Rancho Caymus was one of the 13 original ranchos, which make the name of this winery even older than the name of Napa’s first winery that Charles Krug started around 1860. George C. Yount was the first permanent Euro-immigrant in the valley. The city which is now Yountville, California was named after him and he was the first settler to own Rancho Caymus. But let’s tell the Liberty School story now.
I bought my first bottle of Liberty School around 1985 and for the money, it was OK, but here is how little I knew back then. I may have thought I knew a lot about wine back then, but not enough to know that young Cabernet vines do not produce the kind of fruit I was used to tasting in well matured Bordeaux wines. Especially when we were drinking the wine only two or three years after it was released. I believe it was this trend (drinking Cabernet Sauvignon prior to proper cellaring) that led Louis M. Martini to start selling Merlot as a predominate varietal when everyone else was still using this variety as a blending grape in the Napa area. It was Louis M. Martini Winery in Napa, they bottled the first varietal Merlot, blending 1968 and 1970 wines from their Edgehill property and released in 1971.
Peter Newton who was with Sterling also released a 1969 in the fall of 1971. Clos Du Val and then Duckhorn came next, which started the national distribution and subsequent explosion of Merlot as a varietal in the United States. Soon everyone was on the Merlot bandwagon most notably Robert Mondavi’s winery whose wine made it to a lot of tables back east early on in the Merlot expansion. As I recall on my second or third purchase of Liberty School Cabernet Sauvignon in 1986, I got a flawed bottle and fell out of favor with label. It was not until almost ten years later I had moved to the Bay Area and saw Liberty School on a shelf but it was much more expensive than it used to be and for good reason. The vines had another ten years of maturity and the Hope Family now owned the label and it was not a second label just a different winery from their first winery in Paso Robles, Treana. We happened to go into Treana in 1997 on my first wine trip to Paso Robles.
Liberty School has grown and matured not only the viticulture but the concept as a whole. They make high quality wines that are affordable enough to drink every day. These two current releases solidify that reputation.
For a Cabernet Sauvignon from Paso Robles this one was not the tannic monsters I am used to seeing from that region. It is a very well balanced wine that does a great job in every aspect. Fruit forward in the aromas with red berries, vanilla bean and a hint of allspice in the background, the flavors carry most of the same profile with some structured tannins that are still a little tight but that should hold the wine so it will be drinkable for several years to come. The acidity is in balance but aggressive enough to make this a workhorse wine at the dinner table. The full flavored finish makes it a complete package. This wine has the range to pair well with hearty summertime grilled meats and long slow cooked braised comfort food.
Rating: Very Good | $14 | 13.5% ABV
The fruit for this wine comes from up in Monterey County specifically from two growers in the Santa Lucia Highlands. Some of the grapes are hand-harvested in the early morning, some by machine at night (which keeps them cooler) I find this approach to picking a very good idea especially in the quantities we are talking about here. Some of the best chardonnays in the country are grown in this cool climate region and Liberty School starts out with first class fruit and then gives it first class treatment at the winery. This wine does not go through malolactic fermentation but does see a barrel regimen. Resulting in a crisp clean fruit- driven style of chardonnay that expresses up-front aromas of crisp green apple and lemon zest as the wine cascades across the tongue you taste an apple and pear concoction that is pleasant refreshing and enjoyable. This youthful style does not bring the butter or the weight that chardonnay that undergoes the second malolactic fermentation will have in its flavor profile. All that considered this wine will be perfect wine for cocktailing without food or serving with delicate seafood, citrus sauces, or pesto and black olive pizza.
Rating: Very Good | $12 | 13.3% ABV
It’s now been over three decades and Liberty School still produces honest wines that continue to be some of the best values in California wine. Their mission has always been the same; make simple, delicious, fruit-driven, varietally correct wines at reasonable prices. From what I have tasted it’s pretty easy to see they are achieving that goal one bottle at a time. None of this has kept them from producing good quality wines within every ones reach–no wonder the family who owns Liberty School now is the Hope family because I have a lot of hope they keep doing what they’re doing, just the way they are doing it.