Okapi Wine is owned by Dan and Kim Johnson. Dan first became acquainted with wine through a connection with his legal work. One day, in the early 1980s, he traveled from Oakland to Santa Rosa to work on a case relating to the early construction of St. John’s Castle in Kenwood (in nearby Sonoma County). When he was finished, he was asked to taste the wine and to try Château Saint-Jean. He knew little about wine at the time, but he accepted an invitation to his first wine tasting, a private tasting organised by the then winemaker Richard Arrowood.
He and Kim met at a party while they were both queuing up in San Francisco at one of the only restaurants open that day in the financial district. Kim had just returned from her first trip to Africa – she spent some time on safari in Botswana – and they had connected with stories about their journey. In 2006 they bought 3 hectares in the Oak Knoll area, an estate with an old walnut orchard, an old house and lots of jungle vegetation in the garden.
Then recognized the site’s potential for grapes. He and Kim met winegrower Mike Nunez through friends – Mike supervised the planting of the vines and continues to manage the vineyard. He recommended an unusual grid to maximize the number of vines on the site, a system that also maximizes sunlight. The vineyard covers 1.7 hectares and was planted in 2006 from about 2,000 vines of two Cabernet Sauvignon clones, clones 4 and 337. Despite the small size of the vineyard, the clones grow in two separate blocks next to each other.
The soils are deep, very fertile and alluvial. Because the water level in this part of the valley is quite high, a suitable rootstock (101-14) was chosen. The total quantity harvested each year is generally between 6 and 8 tonnes.
This is the heart of the Oak Knoll region, with the Materra, Lewis Cellars and Surkh Cellars vineyards next door. Both Dan and Kim appreciate their neighbours in the Oak Knoll District – some of whom were generous at first in supporting their efforts – and it’s a quality they both try to honour when they meet new producers in the Valley. Dan and Kim both went into the wine trade for different reasons – to enjoy wine, of course, but also to have fun and meet new people.
After spotting two life-size bronze statues in a gallery in San Diego, Dan sent them home and installed them in the garden. The appearance of the jungle statues corresponded to the feeling of the vegetation on the terrain before it was tamed, which is why they called their terrain Jungle Love Vineyard. Their first harvest took place in 2009; winemaker Gary Luctel (Fortunati Vineyards) helped them make a barrel of Cabernet Sauvignon that year.
Okapi uses not only grapes from its own vineyard for Cabernet Sauvignon and a small part of the vineyard for a special Cabernet Sauvignon Rose, but also exclusively grapes from the Oak Knoll area. As Kim says, we like to buy fruit within walking distance of our own vineyard.
Then describes very precisely the type of Sauvignon Blanc you like to drink. Of this grape variety, he prefers a wine based on fruit – not green, grassy or herbaceous, but of a more tropical nature. Then bought 10 different Sauvignon Blanc wines, tasted them all and described the characteristics he wanted from his winemaker, Ted Osborne. After all, his favorite wine was the wine from Kenzo’s mansion.
In 2015, Okapi produced its first Sauvignon Blanc, a very carefully and thoughtfully made wine that required the separate fermentation of four small batches of the grape variety – each sown with its own type of yeast. Isolation of one fermentation as larger base fermentation – the remaining batches were then mixed again. This wine is always 100% grape variety.
Okapi Vineyards 2019 Sauvignon Blanc has a pale straw color in the glass with a strong floral component that develops well when opened – including notes of jasmine and honeysuckle. The sweetness and ripeness of the fruit penetrates the palate with flavours of mango, papaya and peach. The texture is slightly rounded, but not creamy. The Sauvignon Blanc, sometimes more mature, is more frank – but not this one; its brilliance and strength of acidity complete the richness of the palate and linger on a pleasant finish. This wine doesn’t need food – it just tastes good.
The Cabernet Sauvignon Okapi 2014 is medium to dark ruby in color and offers a variety of aromas including black cherry, rhubarb, chocolate and notes of wet rock. Gives red cherry aromas and tea leaves tones in the mouth. Very balanced, but more sober than the 2015 and 2016 vintages, both in bouquet and taste. The mouth is more marked by black fruits than red ones. The tannins are calcareous, earthy and more durable with a long grip (but not heavy or balanced). It also lingers on the fine herbs of the desserts.
The Cabernet Sauvignon Okapi 2015 is a dark ruby red colour with a remarkably ripe nose that includes blackberry pie and ripe plum with hints of dust and brown chocolate. The aromas of cloves and cardamom are also restorative. The flavors are focused on fruit – ripe and sweet, but not candied. Slightly poisonous with notes of dry earth and tobacco herbs. It is a very attractive and hedonistic bouquet. The palate is lively with dark plum and cherry flavours – the intensity of the taste is palpable with mouth-filling acidity and young dark tannins. Slightly calcareous – well integrated, the finish is shiny and juicy. This wine also won the coveted double gold medal at the San Francisco Chronicle International Wine Tasting.
Okapi Cabernet Sauvignon 2016, although one year younger – less fruit than in 2015. The nose has cherry aromas and some spicy features, such as tobacco leaves, mocha and vanilla during unfolding. Offers red and black fruits in all their flavor. A very young and lively wine – its delicious acidity dances in the mouth and makes it interesting. The tannins are still very tight, but have no stiffness – they cling to the finish with notes of tobacco leaves and roasted cedar.
Both clones are harvested at the same time – with partial fermentation of the whole berry. Their Cabernet Sauvignon is usually offered for sale about 3.5 years after harvest.
The other two wines in Okapi’s portfolio are Cabernet Sauvignon Estate Rosé and Estate Red Blend, which one of Dan’s friends named Dan Rouge (after French grape blush – or red wine).
A question you can ask : What’s an okapi? It is an animal that resembles a cross between a giraffe, a deer and a zebra, but is in fact only related to the giraffe; the okapi lives in parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo in Central Africa. We have been to Africa a couple of times, but not yet to the Democratic Republic of Congo (although viewing wild gorillas is one of our priorities, while the chance of seeing wild okapis is small because of their good hearing).
Much closer to home the Sacramento Zoo has two okapis – during our visit we came the morning one of the animals turned 3 years old – the zoo keepers served him a vegetarian cake! It is one of only three zoos in California that host okapis: the San Diego Zoo (known for its animal research) and the Los Angeles Zoo.
When they determined the name of their wine label, they explored several possibilities. One of Kim’s friends sent them a drawing of an okapi. Kim grew up in Denver and was vaguely familiar with this rare animal, because the Denver Zoo had several specimens in captivity; despite its very limited habitat in the wild, this animal does well in captivity. After studying okapi and discovering its African origin and Latin name: Okapia Johnstoni. – Dan and Kim both understood that this name had to be.
They also support the Okapi Conservation Project, an organization dedicated not only to the protection of okapis, but also to the needs of agriculture and local communities in the Democratic Republic of Congo. And helps to promote the education and awareness of okapi. According to the organization, there are still between 10,000 and 15,000 okapis living in the wild – more than 50 zoos around the world are home to these animals.
During a fundraiser for the 2017 Okapi Conservation Project in San Francisco, the Johnsons met Jane Goodall. They also supported individual fundraising events for the okapis at the Sacramento Zoo.
Over the years they have produced wines in various wineries – today their wines are made in the cellars of Soda Canyon, which is both a world-class production company and a place of hospitality. Tastings take place in this cellar by appointment.
The total production varies from cup to cup, but often only amounts to an average of around 500 pieces per year. The wines are distributed very selectively – available locally at Cole’s Chophouse in Napa and in other parts of California, including some Total Wine & More stores. For more information, to plan a private tasting or to become a member of the wine club, go to www.okapiwines.com.
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