Dave Ficeli would constantly find himself on businesses flights while working in several marketing and strategy positions during his time with large wine and alcohol beverage companies E&J Gallo and later Beringer Blass Wine Estates/Fosters. He would pass the time on planes by getting to know his neighbor. “What do you do for a living?” was usually one of the first three questions asked and Dave would talk about being in the wine industry and inevitably the person sitting next to him would exclaim, “Oh wow, that sounds really incredible that you get to work in the wine industry” but it didn’t feel that incredible to Dave.
He was very grateful to be gainfully employed and part of something he loved, which was wine, but the reality was that as great as it sounded to others, it just felt like a job to him. At the time, Dave and his wife Christi were living in Napa Valley, both transplants from other parts of the country, but feeling that Napa was their true home – Christi initially met her future husband at Gallo and through time she would alternate working for her family’s brewing company to coming back and forth to wine. After that initial epiphany that Dave had in regards to his life not feeling as good as it sounded, he sat down with Christi, who was on the same page, to discuss their feelings of not being fulfilled in their lives. They both agreed that they weren’t truly focused on making the wines that they were most passionate about but instead selling wines for someone else that many times needed to be geared towards market demands. Their dream involved building a legacy for their family that would hopefully live beyond them but in the beginning it was hard to imagine what that dream would look like. And so for many years they traveled and tasted wines around the world to find inspiration of what characteristics they wanted to achieve in their future legacy wine.
The beginning of that dream started in 2012, when Christi created Goosecross Cellars, a boutique winery in Yountville, which makes wine from vineyard sites around Napa Valley and she brought on veteran winemaker Bill Nancarrow in 2014, who has worked 20 years in Napa as well as other fine wine regions around the world, to become winemaker and general manager. “When I joined Christi for her Goosecross project she told me about C. Elizabeth and that she and Dave have been talking about it for 15 years and meaning to get on with it and I was like ‘let’s just go’” explained Bill. Also, he was looking to get some fruit from a vineyard in Oakville that he had been eyeing for a long time called Game Farm and this could be his opportunity to work with this wildly unique site.
The name was one of the easiest decisions that they made and “C. Elizabeth” actually represents Christi herself as well as generations of the women in Christi’s family as her middle name is Elizabeth as well as her mother, grandmother and daughter sharing the name Elizabeth as either their first or middle name. “So C. Elizabeth is this big, bold, beautiful Cabernet for these big, bold, beautiful women in my life,” noted Christi and she continued “all the Elizabeths in my family have marched to the beat of their own drum as all of us are very different.” Humbly, Christi said that she couldn’t imagine picking that name for their dream wine herself and that it must have been her husband who chose it. And Dave did admit that it was probably him because he had felt that his wife was the “alpha” on their dream project and he had always been attracted to her being “really different” as she was always “open and honest about how she felt about things” and those were the qualities that they both wanted in their C. Elizabeth wine.
Although they didn’t want to emulate any one wine as they wanted a true expression of place, they were inspired by such Cabernet Sauvignon bottlings as Penfolds Bin 707 and Ridge Monte Bello and to their surprise American oak was a component of those wines as well as others they liked. But through their research they realized not all American oak was the same as it depends on which states it comes from and which techniques of barrel making are executed. And although Bill was a little thrown when Christi and Dave told him they wanted him to work with American oak, through time he started to get into the multitude of qualities of American oak from such states as Missouri, Minnesota, Virginia and Pennsylvania as well as the nuances of those qualities shifting according to whether a barrel, or head of a barrel, was toasted and to what degree.
For their first vintage, the 2014 C. Elizabeth, they were even able to purchase used American oak barrels from Silver Oak winery as they wanted used barrels as well as new to be part of their oak regimen. And when it comes to barrel selection they have no mercy as they typically make around 18 to 20 barrels total for C. Elizabeth and only eight to nine make the final cut for the wine and every vintage informs them more and more on what works for their 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from the Game Farm vineyard considering the vintage as well.
Game Farm Vineyard
Bill use to work for Paraduxx winery, created by Duckhorn Vineyards to focus on blends, and he got to know the Game Farm vineyard as Paraduxx was just across the Rector Creek from Game Farm. He marveled at the portion of the vineyard that was near him as it was one of the rockiest vineyards that he had seen and reminded him of the rocky vineyards in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. While he was trying to avoid the rattle snakes as well as breaking an ankle as he walked on the rocks, he would look at the gnarly Cabernet Sauvignon vines that were growing there and not only wonder how on earth did they grow in such soil but he really wondered what it would be like to work with the fruit from these vines. It was an extremely intriguing spot as no cover crop could grow there and it looked like nothing could grow in such infertile land.
Besides working with American oak, there was another unorthodox challenge for Bill as it had to be 100% Cabernet Sauvignon as well as be single vineyard without one drop from another variety. So the wine had to be 100% Cabernet Sauvignon and 100% American oak and that presented more challenges in certain vintages as the Cabernet coming from what they call the “Rock Pit” block of the vineyard can have that classic “donut” character that one finds in Bordeaux that lacks mid-palate weight, and hence why Bordeaux wines are blended with Merlot as it gives the wines more weight in the mid-palate or as Bill calls it “the jelly inside the donut”. In general, Napa doesn’t have the Cab donut issue as it is slightly warmer but the Rock Pit block, with its well-drained soil as well as afternoon breezes from the bay that many times seem to swirl around the hills close to Game Farm, has more red fruit character as it typically ripens quicker on the rocks, according to Bill, but the grapes will better retain acidity and freshness which are all desirable qualities yet the donut quality structurally in the mouth can be challenging for some vintages.
The challenge soon found an answer as Bill was able to buy Cabernet Sauvignon from the other section of the Game Farm vineyard called Trailside. Although the Rock Pit block of Game Farm is practically all rocks with Bill witnessing layers of rocks going down 25 feet in the soil pits they dug in Paraduxx (which has the same soil as the Rock Pit block) the Trailside block of Game Farm had rocks as well as volcanic, red ferrous soils. And so the Trailside block was an ideal partner with its fleshier and weightier wine that was blended with the more outwardly structured and aromatically lifted wines of the Rock Pit.
The Moment When One Knows It’s Worth the Sacrifice
No one path will fulfill everyone and so finding what will give one meaning and purpose as well as a sense of well-being can range from opposite sides of a spectrum. Sometimes working for a big company for the rest of one’s life makes sense if someone can find that fulfillment as many times that path also brings more security and opportunities to leave work at work. But for others the risk and heavy responsibility of owning their own business is worth it because they want to live their passion 24 hours/seven days a week and have no desire to have a sense of clocking in and clocking out.
Dave talked about having that moment while the massive fires of 2017 were going on during the growing season and although they were lucky enough to have their two different harvest dates of Game Farm before the fires broke out, there is a very vivid image from that time that he still grapples with today. It was a Tuesday in the midst of the fires and he and Bill were sitting on the crush pad at Goosecross surrounded by mountains that usually brought a sense of peace and beauty but showed the red hot blaze of the fires that day. “How could we be tasting such an out of this world wine watching this terrifying tragedy unfold before our eyes?” said Dave. In that moment, and still to this day, Dave couldn’t completely process such a painful juxtaposition and he says that they still struggle to make peace with what they witnessed that day and why they have gotten involved with the Napa Valley Community Foundation.
And one would think, such a traumatic memory that has been triggered by other fires since that time would make Dave and Christi think about the possibility of pulling the plug on such a labor intensive project such as working with the Game Farm vineyard – they got lucky in 2017 but they may not in a future vintage. But not only did going through that tragic event reaffirm their commitment to C. Elizabeth but it also strengthened their relationship with their community as they give 50 cents of every dollar spent on their 2017 vintage back to victims of the fires in Napa Valley. Dave noted that he and Christi are filled with gratitude more than anything else and explain that they were happy to give since they have been “given so much” by Napa Valley and the people living there.
And maybe that is how someone knows that she is on the path to being fulfilled as even through the worst of times, those that are unimaginable even, there is no doubt she is right where she needs to be, doing what she needs to do. And that is exactly where Dave and Christi Ficeli find themselves with C. Elizabeth.
2014 C. Elizabeth, Game Farm Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville AVA, Napa Valley: 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from Game Farm vineyard (100% from Rock Pit block) with 55% of new American oak and 45% neutral American oak for 21 months. The wine is still a little tight but Bill said that although they had no problems with getting good ripeness, it was their first time working with this vineyard so they were still getting to know it. But the wine did open up after two hours of decanting as initially it had notes of asphalt, black tea, pencil lead and brooding fruit and after a couple hours showed black cherry and hints of spice as well along the linear body with firm tannins. Only 215 cases made.
2015 C. Elizabeth, Game Farm Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville AVA, Napa Valley: 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from Game Farm vineyard (100% from Rock Pit block) with 57% of new American oak and 43% neutral American oak for 21 months. Bill decided to no longer work with the Minnesota oak they were using as it was “too hard” in what it added texture wise. Also he started to focus more on the water-bent style of barrels which gave him “a creamier texture” on the wine. The 2015 had “more lushness and approachable tannins” compared to the 2014 from the very beginning. Lots of pretty fruit with bright red cherries and mulberries with cinnamon spice and juicy fruit on the palate with chewy tannins. Only 185 cases made.
2016 C. Elizabeth, Game Farm Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville AVA, Napa Valley: 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from Game Farm vineyard (combination of Rock Pit and Trailside blocks) with 85% of new American oak and 15% neutral American oak for 21 months. Bill was able to narrow down the barrel program to two cooperages in Missouri and Pennsylvania with the Pennsylvania barrels being a mix of four-year, water-bent and thin-stave. This was hands down Bill’s favorite vintage as he thought it had a classic Cabernet Sauvignon profile that reminded him of the 2001, 2007, 2012 and 2013 vintages in Napa and it was also the first year they started using the Trailside block. Inviting floral aromas with a gravelly and minerally undertone with subtle hints of cigar box and blue fruit that had a mint-y finish along finely etched tannins. Only 212 cases made. Only 212 cases made.
2017 C. Elizabeth, Game Farm Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville AVA, Napa Valley: 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from Game Farm vineyard (combination of Rock Pit and Trailside blocks) with 30% of new American oak and 70% neutral American oak for 21 months. There are, of course, many things about this vintage that he didn’t want to revisit with lives lost but taking the fires out of it he did note something very unique that even the old-timers couldn’t recall seeing in the vineyards. Around Labor Day weekend they had a week of temperatures that exceeded 100 degrees Fahrenheit and commonly with heat spikes like that, the vines shutdown and go into self-preservation mode and as the temperatures go down the vines bounce back. But that did not happen in 2017 and the vines stayed shutdown and there was a “bit of dehydration” and when that happens sugar levels in the grapes usually go up yet this time they stayed the same in the Game Farm vineyard and in other vineyards they even dropped. And so yes they were lucky that they picked before the fires but Bill said that in some ways it was forced on them as he didn’t want too much of that raisin character. Interestingly, a lot of finesse to this wine with raspberry fruit and wet stones on the nose and a touch of cassis fruit and violets on the palate that had white pepper on the finish with well-knit tannins that fade into the background. Only 244 cases made.