Cult Napa winery Hundred Acre gives a whole new meaning to “precision winemaking”.
“This is the first media lunch I have ever done. I never meet with the media…my wife and sales director had to trick me into this at the least minute,” shares Jayson Woodbridge at a recent meeting with the media. The outspoken, contrarian and wildly successful owner and winemaker of Hundred Acre winery doesn’t need to do this either. With a five-year waiting list, the cult Napa cabernet sauvignons he makes under the Hundred Acre label command consistent four-digit values on the open market.
Printed on the label of every bottle of Hundred Acre wine is the opening paragraph of Homer’s Odyssey. It’s the story of a man’s “singular quest” – and Woodbridge can certainly relate.
In his search for perfection, the 55-year-old investment banker-turned-winemaker carved his path by essentially doing anything he pleased, sometimes against common wisdom or even fiscal sense.
Despite that, Woodbridge has gotten away with it for almost two decades because his process clearly works – Hundred Acre wines are regularly described with all manner of positive adjectives and hyperbole like “plush, opulent, and elegant” – and they deserve them. Since its first vintage in 2000, the winery has been awarded 19 100-pointers in Robert Parker Wine Advocate.
To get to that point in quality for his wines, Woodbridge also affords Hundred Acre wines every possible attention to detail, sparing no expense at every step of vinification – from caring for his vines to crafting each glass bottle.
In stark contrast to the current non-interventionist winemaking zeitgeist, Woodbridge’s philosophy boils down to doing whatever is necessary to make the best possible wine for each vintage. To that end, technology plays a big part. Hundred Acre’s vineyards are installed with micro-misters that create superfine droplets of water that instantly evaporate, effectively air conditioning the land without watering the grapes. There are also Nasa-grade air filters in the wineries to keep them sterile.
Clearly, the land the vineyards sit on has to be exceptional, too. “I’ve looked at thousands of vineyards, and have chosen only four in the whole world to make Hundred Acre,” shares Woodbridge.
Take his Hundred Acre Ark Vineyard, for example. The geological marvel lies at the foot of Howell Mountain in Napa Valley. Tectonic movements flipped the land on its side, exposing nine different soil types that have formed over millennia – like a layered cake (coincidentally or not, Woodbridge also makes a series of more accessible wines named Layer Cake). Here, two different rootstocks are grown on each stratum.
“PICKERS ARE PAID BY THE HOUR – INSTEAD OF BY THE WEIGHT – SO THAT THEY’RE INCENTIVISED TO PAY ATTENTION TO WHAT THEY PICK.”
Then there’s Woodbridge’s incredibly fastidious picking process. When it’s harvest time, workers pick only the berries that are suitably ripe – leaving the rest for future passes through the vineyard. Pickers are paid by the hour – instead of by the weight of their harvest, as is the norm in Napa – so that they’re incentivised to pay attention to what they pick. When the fruits go into the crusher, they “look like caviar”.
If that wasn’t enough, Woodbridge’s vinification process takes it a step further. If a particular harvest takes six rounds of picking, that’s – after multiplying it by the soil types and varieties of rootstock – 108 possible expressions of wine from a single vineyard.
One could just combine all of that into a single batch, but Woodbridge ferments each expression separately before doing the blending with what sounds like an almost supernatural precision. “I taste every single barrel and I combine them in my head. I don’t lay out a hundred glasses and move between them. There’s no trial and error.”
To protect the precious liquid in each bottle of Hundred Acre, unusually long and dense corks are used, in addition to a final sealing of beeswax that protects the wine and cork against microorganisms.
The cherry on top of it all is a band of 24-carat gold – since we’ve already come this far – that is fired directly into the glass bottle with a process that took Woodbridge’s glassmaker years to figure out how to do. Woodbridge declares the gold band his bond to his customers, explaining: “Hundred Acre isn’t cheap. If people are paying those prices, they need to be getting greatness in every bottle.”
With all that effort involved in making his single-varietal, single-vineyard cabernet, Woodbridge likens it to “climbing K2 without oxygen, in wintertime”; but he still does it. “Because [he] can”.
TEXT WEETS GOH