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  • andychalk

A Boutique Napa Cabernet Sauvignon Destined For The Front Row

by Andrew Chalk

Christi and Dave Ficeli
Christi and Dave Ficeli

It is virtually never that I attend a wine tasting where I not only have not had any wines by that producer but where I have not even heard of the producer. However, today I did, and I am glad I did because they were some of the best wines that I have had this year. The English language reserves the word ‘Revelation’ for these days. The ones you chase for a year without one coming up. But the enigmatically named C.Elizabeth wines meet the test, part of which is being unforgettable.


C. Elizabeth, styled as c. elizabɘth (presumably to prove that you are not a robot as you type it), is the brainchild of owners Christi and Dave Ficeli, and named as an homage to several Elizabeths in Christi’s family. The winery is a 250 (or so) case producer in the Oakville district of California’s Napa Valley. The sole wine is a 100% cabernet sauvignon made by New Zealander Bill Nancarrow who is far and away the best known person involved in the venture on account of his long tenure and back album of work at Duckhorn Wine Company and its Paraduxx brand. The hard points of the wine’s makeup are that it is

  • 100% cabernet sauvignon;

  • comes from the Game Farm Vineyard which has a forbidding rocky base redolent of the ‘galets’ in Châteauneuf-du-Pape;

  • is made from clone 7 of the cabernet sauvignon grape;

  • aged in 100% American oak (various percentages new);

Game Farm Vineyard
Game Farm Vineyard

The oak choice is unusual and taken at the time that Christi and Dave were constructing the hypothetical charter that would guide their winemaking. They had tasted American oak and were excited by the spice and flavor notes that it brought to cabernet. Examples like Ridge Monte Bello and the Silver Oak cabernets made the point. Dave concedes that he would have abandoned the American oak experiment if it had not worked but, as the tasting notes make clear, it did. Consequently, they invest a lot of time in selecting oak from Missouri and Pennsylvania coopers.


Bill Nancarrow
Bill Nancarrow

The first vintage was 2014 and, as of today, the latest is 2017. That gave us four years to trace the journey as Nancarrow, who admits that he was learning American oak too, and the Ficeli’s worked towards the wine they wanted to create. Their conclusion is that their 2017 is the best vintage yet, although making it took place against the terrifying backdrop of fires consuming Napa Valley on October 8th. It made the triumph in the bottle bittersweet and the human drama had a profound effect on the family. They donated 50% of sales of the 2017 wine for six weeks in 2020 to victims of the fires.


I was absorbed in the commentary from Christi, Dave, and Bill so the following notes are terse, to say the least. What they should convey is a finely made, individualistic, and frankly hedonistic wine. The progress being made is complemented by only 250 cases being made each year. Those are quantities so small that it takes time to spread the word about what is going on at C.Elizabeth. So if you are a collector who wishes you had got in on top-tier Napa cabernets before they started to cost the price of a vacation in Cancun, here is a label that is wide open to you right now.

Order from the winery directly and try to get the four-vintage ‘four pack’ before it sells out.

2014 Cabernet Sauvignon, Game Farm Vineyard, Oakville, Napa, CA ($125)

A: Totally opaque ruby;

N: Ripe blackberry, compote-like fruit; mint, molasses;

T: Ripe, intense fruit. Chewy tannins, m+ acid;

2015 Cabernet Sauvignon, Game Farm Vineyard, Oakville, Napa, CA ($125)

A: Totally opaque, ruby with purple tinge;

N: Wood more pronounced than 2014;

T: The intense berryness of 2014 has gone. Fruit very balanced with the oak. Chewy tannins;

2016 Cabernet Sauvignon, Game Farm Vineyard, Oakville, Napa, CA ($150)

A: Totally opaque, ruby with purple tinge;

N: Smoky, raspberry, black cherry;

T: More chewy tannins. M+ acid. Raspberries, English Breakfast tea;

2017 Cabernet Sauvignon, Game Farm Vineyard, Oakville, Napa, CA ($150)

A: Totally opaque, ruby with purple tinge;

N: Molasses, dark fruit, coconut;

T: Slight savory notes, black cherries

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