With Celia Welch of Corra Wines
“What do you think goes well with California Cabernets?” Across the table at noreetuh, an elevated Hawaiian restaurant in the East Village that is popular with the city’s wine crowd, Celia Welch looked up at me from her menu and said, without hesitation, “grilled vegetables.” What ensued, among a table of four T. Edward Sales Reps and Welch—winemaker to some of Napa Valley's finest Cabernet Sauvignon estates—was a dinner-long debate about the past, present, and future market for one of the world’s most widely recognized grapes. While it seemed a foregone conclusion that Cali Cabs had a place in the wine world, it was less certain where that place exists these days.
To understand why California Cabernet has fallen out of favor with today’s “cool crowd” and seen as little more than a steakhouse staple would take a full-length dissertation. Perhaps Welch may have been interested in such an endeavor while studying for her B.S. degree in Fermentation Science from the University of California, Davis in 1982… but for our purposes it will suffice to say that the style of wine simply is not as popular as it has been in the past. In the late 1980s and early 90s, critics pushed for styles that simply do not resonate with the tastes of a 2019 oenophile—big body, lots of alcohol, oak, and adulteration, and generally more power than is preferred in an era of biodynamics and borderline brettishness.
But those aren’t the wines that Welch is making, nor the wines that she was talking about as she swirled her glass of 1997 Merlot from Paradigm in the Napa Valley, a wine that she selected to accompany our kabocha squash tempura and pineapple braised pork belly—noreetuh specialties but not exactly the most obvious pairing for the wine. Celia Welch started making wine more than 30 years ago. Raised in Oregon, trained under the tutelage of winemakers at Silverado Vineyards and Robert Pepi, and has been working as an independent winemaking consultant since 1995. Her clients include the Staglin Family Vineyard, Scarecrow, Keever Vineyards, Barbour, and Lindstrom. Celia also produces wine under her own critically acclaimed label, Corra. Whether she is winemaking for Scarecrow, Lindstrom, or Corra, Welch is interested in celebrating the classical styles of Cabernet: “In the late 90s early 2000s, you wouldn’t pick the grapes until it was halfway to raisins. There’s a shift away from that intensity and I’m loving it.”
For those of us at the table who still questioned whether a bottle of Scarecrow had any business at a vegetarian restaurant, Welch entreated us to think again. “You see all kinds of crazy stuff out on the vineyards at Scarecrow. Earlier in the season we saw three-foot-long garter snake slither past. It was neat. We are coexisting with our natural surroundings. There seems to be a perception that if wine doesn’t say ‘organic’ on it that it must be full of pesticides. That’s just not the case!” While she is supportive of the creative effort from younger winemakers and is fascinated with the conversation around the natural wine movement, she expects there to be a swing back to the more classical styles that she makes and loves. “There have been so many developments in the technology and winemaking practices, that the quality of our fruit has just been going steadily up and up. The wines are getting better, and that sometimes means the prices rise, too, but we’re providing an outstanding value, especially when you compare us to Bordeaux or Burgundy… Don’t just ignore these wines just because they say ‘Napa’ on the label!”
Because, really, what’s not cool about Napa? Welch described her typical Monday evening: A bocce league that she and all her friends in the wine industry take very seriously, a surfeit of potluck dinners featuring grilled vegetables, grilled sausages, pork chops, and, of course, cases upon cases of California Cab. “Some people think of Napa as being elite or stuffy, but everyone is so low key and relaxed; there’s a big sharing community where people bring whatever they’ve been drinking and pass it around.” There’s nothing high-brow about that, and it’s a style of get-together everyone at the table agreed that we would love to see more of in New York.