Dana Estates, a Napa Valley Story

Aug 21, 2018

In the early 1970s a young man from South Korea named Hi Sang Lee was in the United States on an extended business trip when on his twenty-seventh birthday, a friend introduced him to wine. Their $20 splurge was for Lee’s very first taste of alcohol, a 1970 first-growth Bordeaux. 

From that sip, a passion was ignited in Lee which would later spur him to instigate a cultural shift in his home country, and ultimately put down roots in his most beloved wine region in the world, the Napa Valley.

Hi Sang Lee returned home to South Korea to find little wine culture to speak of, and no access to the wines for which he had developed a fierce fascination. While continuing to run the family businesses, Lee found time to establish Nara Cellars, a fine wine import company that would soon change the status quo. In a country with a robust drinking culture (Lee and his family describe the Korean people as most akin to the passionate and fiery, wine-loving Italians) but little exposure to fine wine, Mr. Lee innovated by importing not only the wines, but the crystal glassware needed for restauranteurs to serve fine wine properly. Today, wine culture is prevalent in South Korea, largely due to Mr. Lee’s pioneering spirit.

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The Napa Valley had always been of particular interest to Hi Sang Lee.

From visits spanning a decade, and the perspective of time spent also in Bordeaux and Burgundy, he had acquired a deep understanding of the Valley’s diversity and potential for expression of site. Unlike contemporaries who compared the Valley to the Bordeaux model, Lee saw Napa as more like two Côte d’Or facing one another; with a complexity of soil, aspect, elevation, and exposure unlike any region in the world. After years of working with the great vintners of the Napa Valley via Nara Cellars, and with their friendship and encouragement, in 2005 Lee fulfilled his dream of joining their ranks.

With the intention of touring several properties, Mr. and Mrs. Lee set out to the Livingston Vineyard in the northern tip of the Rutherford Bench.

Recognizing the potential of the vineyard, and with reverence for the 1883 ghost winery ruins at its center and sheer beauty of the site, the Lees cancelled any future appointments. A ten-year vertical tasting of John and Diane Livingston’s wines from the property sealed not only the sale of the site, but also a life-long friendship. The Lees recognized the responsibility given to them as they became the third stewards of this land (first planted by German viticulturist H.W. Helms in the 1880s) to protect its history, health, and prosperity for future generations.

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They began to assemble a distinguished team who shared their vision for world-class wines crafted through responsible farming, and minimal intervention in the winemaking process.

Philippe Melka was named winemaker, Pete Richmond would be at the helm of farming the now four vineyards (as of 2006), and renowned architect Howard Backen would design the Estate’s winery and caves while preserving the 1883 ghost winery and barn. (In 2015, the accomplished Chris Cooney would be named Dana Estates’ Winemaker.) In these early days, and just as construction was completed in December of 2009, Dana Estates received their first perfect score—100 points bestowed on the 2007 Lotus Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon by wine critic Robert Parker.

From Hi Sang Lee’s vision for single vineyard wines from the Napa Valley, Dana Estates offers the Helms Vineyard, Hershey Vineyard, and Lotus Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon.

Each vineyard was selected for its superior potential for quality; producing deeply nuanced wines with precision of fruit and pedigree which express the unique character of each site. To achieve this unparalleled level of quality, the vineyards are farmed on a vine-by-vine basis in which each vine is nurtured to its full potential; striving for balance, health, and longevity. While each vine is cultivated to bear outstanding fruit, only about 15% of the total harvest in any given vintage will embody the precision required to be bottled in a Dana Estates single vineyard wine.

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With Vaso’s release the Lee family hopes to share the vineyards’ stories more widely, continuing a legacy begun by the pioneers of Napa Valley viticulture in the 19th century, and kept strong by the caretakers of tradition, the innovators of quality, and the future generations of passionate farmers and vintners yet to come.

DANA ESTATES WINES

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Onda Cabernet Sauvignon (once ‘Onda d’Oro’ or ‘golden waves’ as Mr. Lee pictured the undulating vineyards of the Napa Valley from his perch at the Rutherford Estate) is a blend of the four Estate vineyards, with the backbone of the blend coming from the Crystal Springs Vineyard laying just below Lotus Vineyard on the slopes of Howell Mountain. This extreme site with 35-40° slopes and full western exposure, produces wines of power, richness, and depth; opulent, yet balanced and graceful, with the potential for 15-20 years of cellar ageing.

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The Vaso Cabernet Sauvignon is Dana Estates’ newest offering. Launching for the first time domestically in June of 2018, Vaso has until now been distributed exclusively in South Korea. Vaso means vessel, and in the Dana Estates’ ‘Spirit of Generosity’ it is meant to serve as a vessel to share Dana’s estate vineyards and exacting commitment to quality with a larger audience. Vaso is, like Onda, a blend of the four Estate vineyards, yet the backbone of this blend is coming from the Hershey Vineyard. Set atop Howell Mountain at 1,800 ft, Hershey boasts every possible aspect to the sun, a great diversity of soil/rootstock/clone and varietal combinations, and results in one of Dana’s most compelling wines due to sheer complexity.

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