Riverain was founded by several friends who were originally connected to the wine world in Orange County: Steve Nordhoff (founder of Nordhoff Bengforth, a law firm in Newport Beach) and Dean Gray (worked in consumer packaging, originally for Proctor and Gamble) and his wife Dean Lori (who took beautiful pictures for some of Riverain’s labels). Their first vintage was 2011 with only two wines, the Cabernet Sauvignon of Tench Vineyard in Oakville and the Syrah of Cardic Hill Vineyard in Bennett Valley (in nearby Sonoma County). Production has grown slowly over the years, but is still modest (a typical vintage is about 500-600 cases) and has been expanded with Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir next to their Cabernet Sauvignon.
Dean’s son, Scott, is the face of the brand in the Napa Valley – he lives and works in the Valley, after working with winemaker Thomas Brown at Outpost Winery for two years and most recently as a cellar master at Mending Wall Winery. He is also directly involved in the production of Riviera wines.
According to Scott, Steve is a wine nerd in the group and already knew Thomas Brown and some of the wines he produced for various customers. When the time was right to make their mark, Steve, Dean and Thomas met at the Press Restaurant on St. Steve and Dean decided to become business partners, and Thomas agreed to become a winemaker. He’s been making their wines since the first vintage.
Thomas is one of the most active winemakers in the Napa Valley. Several winemakers have shown us a list of all the Napa brands for which he seeks advice or provides direct winemaking services; this is an exhaustive list. Originally from Sumter, South Carolina, he developed his interest in wine during his studies at the University of Virginia, where his specialty was not wine (he studied English and Economics).
In 1996, he moved to the Napa Valley and took a job at the All Seasons Bistro in Calistoga (known for its Californian cuisine, wine selection and longevity – but unfortunately closed down definitively in 2020). There Thomas met winemaker Ehren Jordan, who worked for Larry Turley at the time of his Turley Wine Cellars. Thomas took a job with Ehren in the basement of Turley in 1997 – he spent a few years there before starting his own career and began consulting with several clients (some of whom Ehren had worked with before).
And in just 10 years of viticulture in the Napa Valley, Thomas received two 100 points from Robert Parker. No matter what you think of the scores, creating different wines in a short period of time that got 100 points from Parker was a turning point in Thomas’ consulting career.
Today, Thomas is highly sought after for his wine-growing services, expertise and access to world-class vineyards. And while he was once a student, over the years he became a teacher. We’ve met a number of winemakers who have worked under Thomas’ direction – and we consider him one of our mentors. These are winegrowers who have created their own brands or who have advised other brands in Napa.
Selection of 2018
Riverance Sauvignon Blanc by Gamble Vineyard in Yountville (they harvest the same three rows every year in the same block). This wine has a medium golden color with an abundance of floral aromas that show honeysuckle, litchi and hints of pear and pineapple. The wine continues to breathe and the lemon/lime peel is revealed. It’s a very attractive bouquet. A well-balanced taste with mineral tones in the aftertaste, complemented by a perceptible tingling and flavours of red apple and tangerine. Aged for 10 months in neutral French oak and stainless steel barrels.
Dean’s relationship with Tom Gamble (owner of the vineyards of the Gamble family in Yountville) is important for the early development of Riverine. Dean began visiting the Napa Valley in the late 1990s and met Tom through his work at Proctor and Gamble. Tom helped introduce it to a number of winemakers and others working in the wine industry. Dean eventually bought a house in Rutherford (Rivera House), near the Napa River.
Riverine in French means bankless or near a river and someone who lives in the area.
Revere Pinot Noir is a rare wine of this variety produced by Thomas Brown for a customer (as he became known for his Cabernet Sauvignon in the Napa Valley). However, Thomas also runs Rivers-Marie with his wife Geneviève, under whose brand name some Pinot Noir wines of superior quality are produced. Sonoma Coast Silver Eagle Vineyard Pinot Noir Riverine Generations 2018 is Riverine’s first crop of this breed. It is a mix of two Pinot Noir clones – weighing 828, but also a Pommard. It offers an elegant nose of fruit, but also a salty side – with aromas of dust, dried herbs and a hint of mushrooms. It is not only distinguished by its lightness, but also by the depth of its taste in the mouth – so balanced, so sweet – simply a flawless taste and texture profile. The aftertaste lingers on notes of raspberry and fruity sweetness. Only 85 cases of this beauty have been produced, with a very small increase in production in 2019. It’s worth a look.
The heart of their production, as Scott calls it, has been Tench Vineyard since day one, bordering the Silverado Trail east of Oakville. Every year Riveren Cabernet Sauvignon buys Cabernet Sauvignon from the same area, a fragment on the northeast side of the site with vines growing on red, rocky volcanic soil. For a few years, when new vines appeared, the grapes for this wine were harvested at two different times, but as the vines matured, a balance of phenological maturity was achieved between the young and old vines, and today the grapes are harvested in one go.
The 2017 Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard in Cabernet Tench was harvested in late September, a few weeks before this normal year – fortunately the terrible forest fires and the resulting smoke that somehow defined this vintage in the Napa Valley and parts of Sonoma County occurred about ten days later. This wine offers aromas of ripe, dusty fruit, including plum, and some tasty nuances. Fresh herbs, sage. Brownish, slightly spicy. At the end of the journey you can smell and taste the place and the earth – with dusty, earthy and granular tannins that linger for a while. But the most remarkable thing about this wine and this vintage is its clarity. Of all the wines in this vineyard, this is the one Scott found the most acidic.
The Cabernet Sauvignon 2018 with Vineyard has a deep ruby red color with purple accents around the edges. It offers captivating aromas that develop as the wine matures, including blackberry and chocolate flavors and sometimes vegetal notes, including a beautiful combination of sage and violet. The texture is attractive – with moderate tannins, but dense and slightly calcareous, it is round and well integrated. Hedonistic, rich, round and aromatic – everything that can be produced on this site is represented in this wine at this particular time of year. The main characteristic of this wine is the sum of its parts; it is remarkable in the way it is drunk and feels young – its simultaneous ripeness, freshness and overall balance are not characteristic of a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon so young. Nice collector for the public.
Their reserve of Cabernet Sauvignon is always a selection of what the team believes are the best barrels of Tench Vineyard. In 2017 they selected 4 barrels – two in Darnajou and two in Tarensawood. Riverine Reserve’s Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 vineyard has a dark ruby/purple colour with darker aromas of plums, blackberries and chocolate, as well as darker spices. The density of the fruit is clearly visible with larger tannins, but with a texture that is still integrated into the overall palate sensation. In the long run. On the palate we find aromatic prune notes with persistent dried tobacco leaves and a delightful acidity. Built to last. Built to be big, but balanced.
And the intriguing label for this wine is a photo of buffalo taken by Gary Crandall from Gray Crane Studios in Jackson, Wyoming (the work is called Ghost of the Plains).
Most wines are sold directly to consumers, with Scott’s private tastings at Mending Wall Winery. The tasting can be based on older vintages, as Riverain keeps a certain percentage of the wines for its library collection each year. Depending on where the owners spend most of their time, the wines are very selectively distributed in the Napa Valley and Orange County – mainly in restaurants, but also in some retail wine shops, including ACME Wines on St. Helena and Hi-Time Wine Shop in Costa Mesa. And very limited distribution in Florida and Texas.
For more information or to buy wine by subscribing to the mailing list, please visit: www.riverainwines.com.
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