The email invited me to preview yet another new Napa Valley winery. Oh, great, more Cabernet. Yawn.
But the sender of the invite is a trusted PR pro, so I kept reading her email until I fixed on the names of Ashes & Diamonds Winery’s co-winemakers: Steve Matthiasson and Diana Snowden Seysses, I immediately accepted the offer to visit the producer, located just east of Bistro Don Giovanni in north Napa.
I love the mannered, lower-alcohol, elegant wines Matthiasson makes for Matthiasson Wines and his consulting clients. Seysses, daughter of longtime Napa County judge Scott Snowden, is a winemaker for her family’s Snowden Vineyards label in Napa and for Domaine Dujac in Morey-Saint-Denis in Burgundy (where she works with her husband, Jeremy Seysses, and his father, Jacques). Diana, too, takes an everything-in-moderation approach to winemaking, making her a perfect partner to work with Matthiasson.
Ashes & Diamonds proprietor Kashy Khaledi was wise to recruit Seysses and Matthiasson as his winemakers. He initially brought in Daniel Petroski of Larkmead and Massican, but Petroski’s workload proved too much to consult for A&D. Seysses filled his spot.
When I met him, Khaledi expressed a love for the restrained, cellar-worthy wines made by Andre Tchelistcheff at Beaulieu Vineyard and John Daniel at Inglenook in the 1960s and 1970s. Those wines will never be replicated, Khaledi knows, though he is convinced that his wines can come close, in the right hands.
“A&D wines are unique and have a point of view,” he says. “Some people might not like them, and that’s the risk we take, but our wines will have a voice.”
That voice speaks softly yet also with authority: That flavor and complexity can come from grapes harvested at lower ripeness levels than is the current fashion in Napa Valley and throughout California. Soft, juicy, sumptuous wines with lavish oak are the antithesis of what Khaledi wants. Matthiasson and Seysses are wired to not produce such wines, instead seeking elegance, varietal character unobscured by ripeness and overt oak, and an acid snap that makes for refreshment and compatibility with meals.
It’s an old-school approach to New World wines, and a welcome one.
You might recognize the Khaledi name. Kashy’s father, Darioush Khaledi, owns Darioush Winery, and the wines from there are as opulent as the Persian-palace-themed facility Darioush built on the Silverado Trail in Napa. Kashy has taken a much different path from his engineer father. Kashy worked as a music editor for Larry Flynt’s Hustler magazine, has been vice president at Capitol Music Group and executive producer at MTV Networks, and other creative, entrepreneurial positions. He and Matthiasson found common ground over rock music – think Pink Floyd – and skateboarding.
Most of the grapes for the launch of Ashes & Diamonds wines come from purchased fruit, including Bart and Daphne Araujo’s Rancho Pequeño Vineyard in Oakville and the Red Hen Vineyard in the Oak Knoll District. The A&D estate vineyard also supplies Cabernet Franc and Merlot.
Count me fan of Khaledi’s early efforts.
Ashes & Diamonds 2015 No. 1 Blanc Napa Valley ($45)
Equal parts Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc, this white wine is remarkably vibrant and precise – even though it was 100% barrel fermented in 40% new French oak and aged sur lie (without stirring). It’s full-flavored and mouth-filling, at just 12.7% alcohol. 94.
Ashes & Diamonds 2015 No. 1 2015 Rosé Napa Valley ($35)
I’m not typically impressed by saignee-method rosé, made from the bleed-off wine/juice from a red-wine fermentation. Many are harsh and tannic, from the time the liquid spends in contact with the grape skins and seeds. Matthiasson employed saignee for this 100% Cabernet France rosé and with striking results. It’s delicate, crisp and seamless, with pretty red berry, cherry and mineral character. 13.2% alcohol. 91
Ashes & Diamonds 2014 No. 1 Cabernet Franc Napa Valley ($75)
A splash of Merlot adds complexity to this beautiful Cab Franc, which has the suppleness and refinement of a Pinot Noir, with the savory tobacco, leafy greens and bright dark cherry and plum fruit typical of Cabernet Franc. It’s at once powerful and finessed, with generosity and drink-now smoothness. 13.9% alcohol. 95
Ashes & Diamonds 2015 Rancho Pequeño Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville Napa Valley ($125)
Daniel Petroski made this wine and Seysses replaced him with the 2016 vintage. Despite being aged in 95% new French oak barrels, this Araujo-grown wine shows very little toastiness, with the fruit absorbing the oak and converting it to texture and mouthfeel. Notes of blackcurrant, dark cherry, forest floor and cedar are classic Cab. 13.5% alcohol. 94
Ashes & Diamonds 2014 Grand Vin A&D Vineyard Oak Knoll District Napa Valley ($95)
This “Right Bank” Merlot (75%) and Cabernet Franc blend comes from Kashy Khaledi’s own vineyard. This is what Merlot-based wines should be in my perfect world: smooth, juicy cherry and red plum fruit and supple tannins, slightly tart acid backbone, and oak framing for structure. 14.5% alcohol. 92