Carl Kanowsky: A fitting tribute to a wine icon

From left to right, Laurie Shelton, Founder of CAMi, and Laurie Backen, at Stars of Cabernet tasting. Courtesy photo

Tom Shelton was a pillar of the Napa wine scene and of the wine world in general. A legend, leader, and visionary for California’s most prestigious wine region, Tom passed away from brain cancer at the tender age of 55 in 2008.

He worked for two notable wineries, Franciscan and Guenoc, before being named President and CEO of Joseph Phelps, a name recognized by any serious wine connoisseur. According to James Laube, longtime wine columnist for Wine Spectator, Tom and Craig Williams, Phelps’ winemaker, were responsible for Phelps’ renown Cabernet-based Insignia being named Wine Spectator’s 2005 Wine of The Year. A significant accomplishment – with a retail price of $150/bottle, the 2002 Insignia cost degrees more than most WOTY winners.

While at Phelps, Tom served on the Board of Directors of the Napa Valley Vintners, leading important battles to assure Napa of its continued fame and allowing wineries to sell direct to consumers.

Unfortunately for Tom and Craig, their time at Phelps did not end amicably. Without getting deep into the story, suffice it to say that they sued Phelps after they were let go and received a reported arbitrator’s award of $24 million.

In the middle of this packed career, Tom and his wife, Laurie, bought a couple of acres on the Silverado Trail. Theirs was a blended family of five kids composed of his, hers, and their one combined child, Camille.

They decided to replant part of the vines with a 337 clone of Cabernet in 2004 or 2005. For a while, they sold the fruit to Beringer for its St. Clement wines.

After Tom died, Laurie didn’t feel up to dealing with having a vineyard and essentially allowed a farmer to tend the vines and sell the grapes.

In 2011, Laurie “woke up” she says, emerging from her grief to assess what gems Tom had left her. She decided then to cautiously enter of grape sales, joining with the farmer to market what the land she and Tom had cherished was producing.

Finally, in 2013, she dipped a toe into making and selling wine. That year, she retained half of the crop and bottled a whopping 85 cases (about 1,000 bottles). Pleased with the results of her efforts, she took the whole crop in 2014 and opened her own winery.

Laurie confesses to allowing serendipity to sometimes govern her life. In 2014, she called Outpost Wines (home to cult winemaker, Thomas Rivers Brown), seeking a donation for her daughter’s school wine auction. Serendipitously answering the phone was John Giannini, assistant winemaker.

Clutching fate by the throat, Laurie spontaneously asked John to be the winemaker for her new project. After taking time to confirm that Laurie’s fruit matched the high standards set by Outpost, he agreed.

Now having a winemaker, Laurie needed a name for her creation. Realizing that this was really a joint project with her deceased husband, she decided to name the winery after their joint child, Camille, shortening it to CAMi.

And CAMi has been a hit! Robert Parker gave the first two vintages of CAMi’s Merlot/Cabernet blend a 93+ and a 94+.

I had the pleasure of sampling the 2014 CAMi at the recent Stars of Cabernet. Even though a well-structured, elegant red, it drinks well now with sufficient decanting. Outstanding with soft tannins, it more than satisfies Laurie’s goal of having a wine that is both feminine with staying power.

But if you want to try it, you need to act quickly. With a miniscule production of only 200 cases and such strong Parker scores, it’s highly allocated.

I imagine Tom is proud to be associated with such fine wine.

© Carl J. Kanowsky

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