Flagship Cabernet Sauvignon From One of Napa’s Most Storied Producers

Today’s Story: Larkmead Vineyards

Larkmead Vineyards is a very historic Napa Valley winery, established in 1895 in Calistoga. It’s also one of the longest-standing family-owned wineries in the valley, though ownership has changed hands over the course of time. Though the Larkmead property had been home to cellars and a winery decades prior to 1895, it got its name thanks to Lillie Hitchcock Coit whose family owned the property at that time. Lillie, the daughter of Army surgeon Charles Hitchcock and his wife Martha, was a bit of a wild card for the times and took lovingly to the city of San Francisco. Known for drinking Bourbon, smoking cigars, and gambling, Lillie’s social prowess was of much chagrin to her parents so they sent her to live on their Napa Valley estate “to learn to quiet down.” Lillie named the property Larkmead and spent a great deal entertaining and gardening there, including the vineyards she cultivated to Zinfandel and Riesling which brought her into the wine community of early Napa Valley with the likes of Schram, Tubbs, Krug, and Beringer.

The next family of great importance to Larkmead’s history is the Salmina family who leased the winery in 1895 before purchasing it completely in 1903. Larkmead received its name from Lillie Hitchcock, while the Salmina family can be thanked for the “official” beginning of the estate’s winemaking. Though the Larkmead wines and grapes themselves sold quite successfully in those early years, like many of their neighbors they were not immune to the detriments of Prohibition. Similar to other benchmark producers in the region, however, Larkmead sold fruit and made sacramental wine to stay alive before releasing wine under their own label once again after the repeal of Prohibition. Shortly thereafter, Larkmead was considered one of the greatest wine producers in the Napa Valley alongside Inglenook, Beaulieu Vineyard, and Beringer.

Years later, the patriarch of the Salmina family, Felix, passed away in 1940 and set about a few years of “turmoil” for Larkmead. The family sold the estate to Bragno & Co, a Chicago-based bottling company, in 1943 however this ownership was relatively short-lived and they sold to National Distillers during the following years. In 1948, though, the Solari family purchased the Larkmead estate and they continue to own and operate it to this day.

It was Larry and Polly Solari who purchased the winery in 1948, with Larry a titan of the winemaking industry and Polly an incredibly adept manager of Larkmead while Larry commuted to San Francisco during the week. Larry was a sales manager for Italian Swiss Colony at this time, with his primary goal to make sure American family’s adopted the need for wine on the dinner table. Polly ran Larkmead when Larry was away, becoming one of the first and most important female leads in winemaking at a time when it was unheard of. Larry later became CEO of United Vintners which owned Italian Swiss Colony, Inglenook, and Beaulieu Vineyard, however the next roots of the Solari family were well planted when Larry and Polly’s daughter Kate took over Larkmead in 1992.

Kate Solari Baker and her husband Cam started running the winery in 1992 and maintain a steady hand to this day. During their first decade at the helm, Kate and Cam replanted the vineyards in an incredibly thoughtful manner such that varieties, clones, and rootstock were perfectly-matched to each block. They also constructed state of the art winemaking and tasting facilities designed by renowned architect Howard Backen, which helped bring the estate into the new millenium. While the quality of Larkmead’s wines continues to rise under the stewardship of Kate and Cam, their own children and grandchildren became involved in the estate and odds are looking quite good for this historic property to run through the third and fourth generations of the Solari family at the very least.

As an estate, Larkmead today consists of 110 acres of vineyards planted predominantly to Cabernet Sauvignon. While roughly 1/3 of this production is focused on the Larkmead wines themselves, the rest of the fruit sells to other highly-regarded producers in the Napa Valley. It’s no wonder why the fruit from Larkmead is in such high demand, though, as their sites are some of the rarest and most unique on the valley floor. Situated in one of the narrowest parts of Napa Valley, Larkmead has benefited over the centuries from a diversity of soils coalescing under their feet. From the surrounding mountains, years and years of erosion and change in the earth itself has brought soil characteristics of mountain vineyards to Larkmead on the valley floor. Here, this meeting of colluvial and alluvial fans creates an exceptionally broad range for the wines possible from Larkmead’s terroir.

From a winemaking perspective as it pertains to Larkmead itself, the portfolio is at minimum about 90% dedicated to red wines. The portfolio as a whole is split up into two groups, the Vineyard Wines and the Larkmead Wines. The Vineyard Wines consist primarily of blends and “entry-level” bottlings, including the Cabernet Sauvignon, Firebelle (Merlot heavy), LMV Salon (Cabernet Franc heavy), and Lillie (Sauvignon Blanc). The Larkmead Wines, meanwhile, consist of the single-variety bottlings of Dr. Olmo, Salari, and The Lark dedicated to Cabernet Sauvignon and denoted by their black labels. Larkmead also produces a highly limited Tocai Friulano (rare for the region) and a 125th Anniversary Cuvée red blend in the 2020 vintage alone.

Today’s Wine: 2012 The Lark

100% Cabernet Sauvignon; 14.9% ABV

The 2012 The Lark is deep ruby in color, though almost inky black at its core. I decanted this for two hours and drank it over the following two hours. The aromas are of pronounced intensity and incredibly concentrated, with the nose showcasing notes of blackberry compote, crème de cassis, muddled cherry, blueberry, licorice, lavender, cigar box, wet gravel, black olive, dried green cooking herbs, clove, and cedar. Meanwhile the flavors are also of pronounced intensity and the palate displays notes of redcurrant, black cherry, blackberry, muddled blueberry, graphite, tobacco, scorched earth, dark chocolate, coffee grounds, a hint of pyrazine, mild vanilla, and a touch of smoke. This dry red is full-bodied with medium (+) acidity, medium (+) but silky and refined tannin, high alcohol, and a long, long finish. The incredible intensity and concentration in this wine all while remaining very well-balanced is something to write home about. 290 cases produced.

Price: $350. While this may be a tough sell purely on its value perspective, there is no denying this is an outstanding wine. With its balance, intensity, complexity, and length of the finish all superb this is an incredibly concentrated wine and there’s no rush to drink these. Definitely very thankful to have been gifted this bottle by a friend.

If this wine seems like something you might enjoy, you may find this link helpful in locating it.