Napa Valley AVA
California Grapevine, gives the Optima 1997 Cabernet Sauvignon its Highly Recommended seal of approval.
During the past decade an emerging group of talented, energetic, entrepreneurs have been quietly remolding the shape of the California wine industry. These savvy independents of the wine world have been creating their wines utilizing the facilities of existing wineries that custom-crush for winemakers who are not inclined to ante-up the huge investment. As a result, more and more winemakers are breaking away from established wineries, and creating their own labels of small production, ultra-premium wines.
Optima Winery is a classic example of this new breed of winery that is reshaping the dynamics of the industry. Owners Mike Duffy and Greg Smith shared the same dream when they met playing softball in the early 1980’s. At the time, both were winemakers for other wineries—Mike at Balverne Winery and Greg at Lytton Springs. Both had similar goals they wanted to achieve. The more they talked, the more they realized they each had areas of expertise that would allow them to make a reasonable go at creating their own label.
In 1983, Mike and Greg started Fitch Mountain Cellars. The name was derived from a mountain peak that looms over the eastern side of Healdsburg, close to both of their homes. While maintaining their current winemaker jobs, they moonlighted in the evenings and weekends to make small quantities of Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Chardonnay.
While exploring for grape sources to make their 1984 production of Fitch Mountain wines, they were fortunate to secure a small quantity of extremely high quality Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc grapes. The source vineyards all had well-established track records for growing grapes of exceptional quality. Mike and Greg knew they had something special. Knowing these grapes would produce a significantly higher quality wine than their Fitch Mountain grapes, they decided to bottle a new wine under a different label. The name they chose was “Optima,” which seemed to embody the feeling they wanted to portray——the best, the finest, the foremost.
Armed with these high quality grapes, Mike and Greg set out to make a wine worthy of its new name. They made just 400 cases of their first vintage in 1984, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petite Sirah and Zinfandel. The wine world took immediate notice. High praise by wine writers and consistent ratings in the ‘90’s’ reflected the highly successful debut of Optima wine. Amazingly, the ‘84 vintage was followed by even higher critical acclaim for the ‘85 vintage. These guys were on a roll!
Over the last ten years Mike and Greg have quietly (not much money available for marketing) carved out a mini-legacy for making some of the finest Cabernet Sauvignon in California. Virtually every Cabernet Sauvignon since their first vintage in 1984, has been scored consistently in the ‘90’s’ by the Wine Spectator and other industry reviewers.
In 1987, they introduced an ultra-premium Chardonnay to the Optima line. About 1,500 cases are made each year, all from fruit grown in the Carneros region. The Chardonnay is barrel fermented, then undergoes a secondary 100% malolactic fermentation. The wine is then sur-lies aged. The result is an exceptionally rich, toasty oak Chardonnay that rivals the best made in northern California.
Very limited quantities of three different Pinot Noirs are also crafted each year. Their Russian River Pinot and Carneros Pinot each reflect their own region’s unique characteristics. A third Pinot is made with grapes blended from both regions. All three wines are under the 500-case production level and will be sold primarily winery direct.
After fifteen years of following their dream, total production has climbed to 4,000 cases. Mike and Greg aren’t worried much about ever owning a huge winery with vineyards and crushing equipment. As long as they can continue to buy the best fruit available and use custom crushers, they’re content to let someone else worry about the huge overhead. They will concentrate on making wine, and enjoy the fact that the wine world thoroughly approves of their efforts.
Mike Duffy serves as the principle winemaker for Optima. He is also still the winemaker at Field Stone Winery. Born in Salem, Oregon and raised in Redding California, Mike seemed destined early on to pursue a career in the wine. As a youth his Dad was an avid home-winemaker. Mike was fascinated by the process and would often times help his Dad. ‘We made some strange concoctions over the years,” Mike recalls. ‘Aside from the usual varietals, we made fruit wine, berry wine and one time even made rose petal wine!”
When Mike was a sophomore in high school, he had already declared his intention to major in enology at nearby U.C. Davis. In 1980, during his last year at Davis, he landed an opportunity to intern at Trefethen Winery, where he had worked briefly during a crush one year. He was soon offered the job as Assistant Winemaker, so he decided to accelerate his schooling by jamming his entire last year at Davis into just 2 quarters.
Mike stayed at Trefethen for three years then moved on to Balverne Winery, where within six months he was elevated to their Winemaker position. He was there for four years until financial problems at Balverne forced another move—this time to Field Stone Winery. He had met owner, John Staten, years before and had always thought highly of his wine. His tenure there has worked well for both Mike and Field Stone. He has produced many award-winning wines there over the years, and has had the flexibility to develop his own Optima label.
Such is the case for Greg Smith too. While developing a name for himself over the last ten years as co-owner of Optima, he has pulled double duty as Sales Director for various northern California wineries. Logically, Greg handles the sales and marketing for Optima also.
Greg had lots of early influence in the wine business as he was growing up. His Dad and older brother were both in the wine & spirits business when Greg was in school in Thousand Oaks, a town just north of Los Angeles. After attending nearby Moorpark College, Greg went to work for Heublein, the huge wine and spirits house. For six years he was a salesman and sales manager for Heublein until he grew tired of the big-company mentality. To help re-focus his thoughts about his career, he traveled for a year after leaving Heublein. In 1979 he decided to direct his efforts to wine exclusively and moved to Healdsburg to get closer to the action. Greg’s brother introduced him to Dick Sherwin, owner of Lytton Springs Winery, who promptly put him to work. For three years Greg worked the crushes and helped make the wine. In 1981, he became Lytton Spring’s full-fledged winemaker.
In 1985, Greg was approached by Tom Mazzocco whose newly acquired winery was just down the road from Lytton Springs. Tom convinced Greg to come aboard to work with his winemaker as well as handle the sales and marketing. To Greg this meant an opportunity that was the best of both worlds. He could stay close to winemaking and cultivate his expertise in other areas of the wine industry. Their arrangement also provided that he would have time to devote attention to his Optima line.
Mike and Greg also keep the original Fitch Mountain label active, making up to several thousand cases a year of mostly Zinfandel and Chardonnay. This line keeps the cash flow going in years when there is smaller than usual production in the Optima line. If the grapes don’t measure up to Optima standards, they will either make fewer cases or not make an Optima wine at all that year. Such was the case in 1987, when only 1,200 cases were made, down from 2,000 cases made the previous year. And in 1988, when no Optima Cabernet was produced due to poor grape quality.
In 1987, they introduced an ultra-premium Chardonnay to the Optima line. Until recently, only 200-300 cases were made each year, all from fruit grown in the Carneros region. The Chardonnay is barrel fermented, then undergoes a secondary 100% malolactic fermentation. The wine is then sur-lies aged. The result is an exceptionally rich, toasty oak Chardonnay that rivals the best made in northern California.