Kari Auringer, winemaker at Cornerstone Cellars, continued to regale us with her wonderful wines and tales in the second part of our conversation with her at their newly opened tasting room in Yountville, California. In the first show, Kari tasted us through Cornerstone’s sauvignon blanc, rosé and pinot noir, three wines from their Taste of Cornerstone experience. In this second half, she tasted us through their merlot, two cabernet sauvignons and a cabernet franc, all of which kept delivering the most delightful flavors and aromas.
It’s all “location, location, location” when it comes to sourcing grapes for great wines. In this episode, Kari started us off with the Merlot, Oakville Station. As she explained, Cornerstone has about an acre of Merlot that was once part of the famed To Kalon vineyard. Here, she is able to visit the vineyard throughout the growing season to check on progress of the three wines she makes from blocks all nestled together. Featuring melt-in-your-mouth flavor integration, this was yet another wine that could go with most dishes on any Thanksgiving table.
During the tasting, we once again experimented with Cornerstone’s current “nut and wine” pairing, noting a bit of cheddar flavor in the salted almonds went well with the Merlot. In fact, different nuts went well with the wines in the Cornerstone portfolio, as we began trying them during the first show. (Cornerstone is waiting upon final permit approval to add their menu of wine and food pairings to the tasting experiences offered to the public. Stay tuned!)
Next, Kari poured the Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville Station, a signature grape for Cornerstone and this plot of land on the Napa Valley floor. While the hosts savored the marriage of flavors in the wine, Kari explained her process for visiting vineyards multiple times throughout the growing season to gauge the progress of each location. With her extended visits, she is better able to make adjustments in vineyard management and determine optimal ripeness for harvest.
At this point in the proceedings, we jumped to their deluxe tasting experience, sampling Kari’s Cabernet Franc, also grown “across the aisle” from the Merlot at Oakville Station. Here was a cab franc grown and harvested in optimal conditions–no pyrazine aromas or flavors poking out like getting elbowed in the ribs–just pure fruit flavors! And while this wine would certainly be enjoyable at Thanksgiving, Marcia thought it might make a great pairing with Chicken Molé, with its layered chocolate notes.
While enjoying the array of Cornerstone’s reds, the hosts discussed the challenges Kari faces: One was the general desire of Napa Valley growers to replant to Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa’s most famous grape. It commands the highest dollar per acre. But Kari expressed hope for maintaining diversity in the Napa vineyards she sources from. We also hit upon the unique label design that makes Cornerstone Cellars’ bottles so easy to spot among hundreds of wines on a shelf. Listen in to hear the story of how it developed.
With Kari’s unique background in marketing before she went into the wine business, we thought she was uniquely qualified to tell us about the goals and challenges she faces not only as a winemaker but also for the Cornerstone brand. Few have this unique background to bring perspective to both halves of the equation. This discussion and Q&A section of the conversation led to some keen insights on her success:
Kari stressed the importance of building strong relationships, as well as trusting them enough to feel comfortable asking for what you need. In fact, she cited her continued outreach, asking for specific introductions and connections as the primary reason she was able to work with Celia Welch. When Celia’s name came through on Kari’s caller ID, she thought it was a mistake. But it wasn’t! And this led to more connections (not to mention a fabulous work opportunity).
When asked about advice to her younger self or to other young women coming up in the industry, Kari kept coming back to not taking a “no” reply personally. Her point: a “no” answer doesn’t leave you in any different position than you are in the present. There’s nothing to lose in asking.
Last poured in our glasses as we wound up the show was the Cabernet Sauvignon, Howell Mountain, Cornerstone’s flagship wine going back thirty years. Heaven in a bottle! If we could’ve just turned off the mics to savor the flavors, we would have! This was the wine that launched Cornerstone Cellars in 1991. It brought the experience full circle since we were tasting all the wines in such an historic location. (Yountville’s original, wooden train depot, now serving as their tasting room, was built by Southern Pacific in 1888, with the original ticket window overlooking Cornerstone’s outdoor seating area just behind our table.)
As we wrapped up the show, we learned Kari and her team will be hitting road again this winter to promote their wines, primarily in the Southern states, as the pandemic winds down. Staff at the Yountville tasting room follow all COVID-19 health safety protocols. While reservations are recommended, they will accommodate walk-ins as best as possible. And as these wines are sold almost exclusively direct-to-consumer, sampling in the tasting room is the best way to experience Cornerstone’s wines. Santé!