Chalk Hill Pinot Noir 2017 and Chardonnay 2018

I’m obviously a wine enthusiast, and with my wife will drink all or most of a full bottle of wine with dinner just about every night.  However, you may enjoy less wine with your meals.  If so, consider 375 mL half bottles.   They are also handy if you want a red and your companion wants a white, like the two shown here.  Half bottles are also convenient for picnic outings.  And, empty half bottles are great for storing leftover wine; just fill the half bottle as close to the top as you can, reseal it (easily done if the closure is a screw cap), and park it in the refrigerator.

The only real downside to half bottles is that they will cost somewhat more than half what the same wine in a full bottle will, since, other than the wine itself, the remaining expenses of filling, labeling, packing and shipping are more or less the same as for a full bottle.  For instance, the Chardonnay is $15 for a half bottle, and $26 for a full one.  Similarly, the Pinot Noir is $15 for a half bottle, and $29 for a full one (but really, not much of a penalty on this one).  Finding your favorite wines in half bottles can also sometimes be difficult, although like wine in cans they are becoming more common.  And now, on to the wines.

One fine spring day in 1972, attorney, private pilot, and wine aficionado Fred Fruth was piloting his plane over the Russian River Valley area.  Down below, he saw a natural amphitheater carved into the hills of eastern Sonoma. In addition to this other interests, he had been thinking of starting a winery, and it seemed as if this might just be the place to do it.

Fred Furth

Soon after, a tour of the extensive property confirmed that the site indeed had the climate and soils to grow first-class wine grapes.  Furth and his second wife Peggy purchased the land, named the estate Chalk Hill, and started producing wine about a decade later.  They gradually planted more than 270 acres of vines.  Years later, Furth said, “I have always been interested in wine because my grandfather had vineyards. I’m actually more interested in the working-the-soil aspect, but I have many very talented people in the winery who know how to produce a world-class wine. When I bought this property, I was told it was too hilly to be a vineyard, but I simply planted the grapes in rows going uphill. People said you can’t do that, but I’d seen it done in Germany so I knew it would work.”  After a rich and varied life, Furth died in 2018 at the age of 84.

Bill Foley

Lawyer Bill Foley acquired Chalk Hill in 2010.  Although Foley is titled as “vintner,” I doubt he sees the interior of the winery very often.  He is a vintner in the broader sense of “someone who sells wine.”  He also owns the National Hockey League’s Vegas Golden Knights,  is the Executive Chairman of the Board of Directors for Fidelity National Financial Inc., is Vice Chairman of the Board of Directors for Fidelity National Information Services, Inc., and owns fifteen other wineries.

The Estate

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The Chalk Hill AVA is one of 13 in Sonoma County and is distinguished from the neighboring appellations of the cooler Russian River Valley to the west and the warmer Alexander Valley to the northeast. Elevations are higher and soil fertility is lower. The soils include gravel, rock, and heavy clay. Under the topsoil is a distinctive layer of chalk-colored volcanic ash which inspired the name of Chalk Hill.

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Each vineyard block has been planted based on criteria that include: soil profile and chemistry, slope, orientation to the sun, and climate. Under Fred Furth’s direction, Chalk Hill was an early leader in planting its hillside vineyards “vertically,” following the rise of the terrain, rather than across it. Because of this, the topsoil must be protected with a diverse cover crop serving many purposes. It anchors and protects the soil, preventing erosion; captures and affixes nitrogen; and harbors a varied community of beneficial insects that aid in pest management. Water conservation is addressed through a precisely-controlled drip-irrigation system. Air movement through these vertical channels of the vineyard reduces mildew. All of the grapevines are a grafted combination of plants: a specific wine-grape variety above ground, and a complementary rootstock below.

Photo: devonwayne.com

More than two-thirds of Chalk Hill’s 1300 acres remain uncultivated.  In addition to the vineyards, the property features wilderness areas, the winery, a hospitality center, a culinary garden, a  residence, stables, and an equestrian pavilion.

The Winemakers
Michael Beaulac, Senior Winemaker
Michael Beaulac

Beaulac, a Vermont native, has as of this writing just become senior winemaker, bringing with him over thirty years of experience. He began his winemaking career when Tim Murphy of Murphy-Goode offered him a job as a harvest intern in 1989. Immediately after and through 1991 he worked as a cellar master with long-time Russian River winemaker Merry Edwards. Beginning in 1997, he spent four years as winemaker for Markham Vineyards in St. Helena. He became Vice President of St. Supéry Vineyards in Rutherford in 2001, working closely with Michel Roland and Denis Dubourdieu.  Beaulac was general manager and winemaker at Napa’s Pine Ridge Vineyards from 2009 until coming to Chalk Hill this year.

Michael shared, “Be proactive in the vineyards. Let the fruit find its balance. Do not force the wine to be anything it’s not. Let it express [itself]. Once in the winery, the wine should be touched as little as possible. In a perfect vintage, we really shouldn’t have to do anything.”

Darrell Holbrook, Winemaker
Darrell Holbrook

A Sonoma County native, Holbrook spent his childhood among the vineyards there. By age 12, he often accompanied his father to his job at Lytton Springs Winery, [now Ridge Vineyards] driving tractors and helping where he could. In 1994, after working at Lytton Springs in the vineyards, he began an apprenticeship under David Ramey, Chalk Hill’s winemaker at the time. He worked his way up from a cellar intern (aka cellar rat) to enologist and production manager, and then assistant winemaker in 2009. Ten years later he was promoted to winemaker.

Courtney Foley, Vintner
Courtney Foley

The youngest daughter of Chalk Hill Estate proprietors Bill and Carol Foley, she studied enology and viticulture at both Napa Valley College and Fresno State University. Her practical experience began under winemaker Leslie Renaud at Lincourt Vineyards and Foley Estates (surprise!) in Santa Barbara County.  Once back in Sonoma, she again found herself working with Renaud at Roth Estate Winery in Healdsburg. Just in case the wine thing doesn’t work out, she also has a J.D. degree with a focus on Environmental and Ocean Law from the University of Oregon School of Law.

Chalk Hill Chardonnay 2018

This offering underwent 100% malolactic fermentation, followed by 10 months of sur lie barrel aging in French, American, and Hungarian oak, of which 25% was new.  It is rather pale for a Chardonnay, but that doesn’t mean it’s insipid.  It features moderate aromas of citrus and melon, which continue on the palate, plus some vanilla custard.  It has a full, unctuous mouthfeel, and plenty of zippy acidity. ABV is 14%.

Chalk Hill Pinot Noir 2017

This wine also underwent 100% malolactic fermentation, followed by nine months of aging in French oak, of which 25% was new.  It presents with a transparent, light to medium purple in the glass.  It is mildly aromatic, with flavors of raspberry, tart cherry, and a bit of dust on the medium body.  Enjoy this easy-sipping Pinot now.  ABV is 13%.

https://www.chalkhill.com/

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Rütz Proprietor’s Reserve Chardonnay 2018

Keith Rütz’s first career track was  in the fashion industry.  He was the proprietor of two trendy clothing boutiques located near the UC Berkeley campus.  To search out the latest styles, he frequently travelled  to both London and Paris. It was in France where he began to develop his love of Burgundy and interest in wine generally.

This growing interest was also informed by Rütz’s ancestral roots, which go back six generations to his great great grandfather, Fernand Lebegue, who grew up in Aigne, in France’s Languedoc region.  There he worked as a cooper, fashioning barrels from the Vosges, Nevers, Allier, and Troncais forests, all famous sources for top-quality barrels used in wine production.

After graduating from UC Berkely, Rütz spent several years working in the fashion industry, eventually starting his own business in 1982 that produced belts for such icons as Kenneth Cole and Anne Klein.

Due to the demands of ever-changing fashion, Rütz traveled frequently, visiting Asia and South America five times each year, Europe (and France in particular) another three times a year, and an annual pilgrimage to New York for the beginning of the fashion season.

“It finally became very exhausting,” Rütz recalled. “I led what you would call a completely hectic existence. The fashion industry is one of getting to the top and staying there. There is little respite.”

Although during this period Rütz’s life was quite frantic, in 1992 he carved  out enough free time to start Rütz Cellars in the Russian River Valley, where, in addition to being the owner, he was also the winemaker, focusing on California Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the tradition of his favorite Burgundian wines. From the beginning, his stated goal was “to make the finest small-batch wines possible that would stand up to those made by the top French producers.”

“I had been able to combine the fashion and winery aspects of my businesses quite easily,” Rütz noted, “whenever I traveled to Europe for a fashion event I was able to tote some wines and get people interested in my products. They found my approach quite novel and that was all right by me. When I finally realized that we were represented in twelve countries and just about every major market in the United States, I knew I had to do something about it.”

That “something” was to leave the world of fashion behind and focus solely on Rütz Cellars.  “I have always believed that quality will dictate the size of any winery,” he shared. “What I want to do at this point is produce the very finest wine I am capable of producing. I am also a firm believer in not rushing the process, so I imagine what I envision could take quite some time.”

In 2020, Rütz Cellars expanded into the Chalk Hill appellation for Cabernet Sauvignon production, as well as Napa Valley in the Rutherford AVA working with the Morisoli Vineyard.  Rütz brought on winemaker Mike Trujillo to oversee the production of that varietal under the Domaine Rütz label.

The Russian River Valley AVA

The Russian River Valley got its name when Russian settlers arrived along the Sonoma Coast at historic Fort Ross. There, they found that the fertile soils of the area were excellent for farming in general and grape-growing in particular.

Fort Ross.  Photo: Harald Padeborn

This AVA is best-known for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, The region earned AVA status in 1983, and comprises 15,000 vineyard acres and 70 wineries.  Rütz Cellars sources fruit from such respected vineyards as Dutton Ranch, Martinelli , and Bacigalupi.

In the growing season, warm daytime temperatures plummet when fog regularly intrudes from the Petaluma Gap to the south, and the Russian River to the west.  In the late afternoon, a fog bank can often be seen hovering above the appellation’s border in the hills west of Sebastopol.

Rütz Proprietor’s Reserve Chardonnay 2018

This is 100% Chardonnay, all sourced from the Russian River Valley. While it was  aged in French Allier and Troncais oak, all of it must have been previously used, as the wood is barely noticeable.  It is the typical pale gold, with moderate aromatics of citrus and a hint of stone fruit like golden apple and pears.  Grapefruit and limestone dominate on the refreshing palate.  There is plenty of supporting acidity, and just a bit of bitterness at the end. 950 cases were produced, and the alcohol is 13.9%.

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Scheid Family Wines

Today is Earth Day, first held on April 22, 1970.  An ideal moment to examine Scheid Family Wines, a producer deeply committed to earth-friendly practices (an enthusiasm shared by more and more winemakers every year, fortunately).

Scheid Family Wines got their start in 1972 when Al Scheid first purchased property in Monterey County and wine grape growing there was in its infancy. Scheid was drawn to the region for what he considered its untapped potential, for making money as well as farming.  Scheid was running his own investment company at the time.  A graduate of Harvard Business School and an investment banker, he realized that vineyards could make an excellent tax shelter, with their usual heavy investment on the front end and no income until at least five years later.  Originally named Monterey Farming Corporation, the enterprise he founded was a limited partnership; the tax laws at that time allowed investors to offset losses in one business against regular income from another one elsewhere.  And even before one acre was planted, Scheid, shrewd operator that he was, had found a customer for 100% of the grape production he anticipated (although, I’m guessing, not allowing revenue to outpace expenses, for a few years at least).

A hard-nosed origin story, for sure.  But Scheid was a firm believer in Mark Twain’s quote: “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” So the truth is what it is.

Scheid brought his eldest son, Scott, who had been working on Wall Street as an options trader, into the expanding business in 1986.  (He is now CEO.)  In 1988, Kurt Gollnick, an admired viticulturist who had previously farmed for Bien Nacido Vineyards, was brought on as General Manager of Vineyard Operations.  A few years later, Scheid’s daughter Heidi, who had been working as a business valuation consultant after earning her MBA, also joined the operation.

Initial plantings were heavy on Colombard, Chenin Blanc, and Ruby Cabernet, but by the early ’90s the market was calling for Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and, due to the 60 Minutes broadcast of The French Paradox, Merlot.  In addition, during these first 20 years or so, quite a bit of knowledge about farming wine grapes in Monterey County had been accumulated. Countering these positive developments, the vineyard scourge called phylloxera was killing vines in a large portion of the Scheid vineyards.  Other challenges, such as improvements to the irrigation system, were also involved.

A businessman first and foremost, Scheid bought out all of the initial outside investors so that operations could be streamlined and decisions made more expeditiously.  In short order, almost every single vineyard acre was redeveloped;  a new vineyard was acquired and planted to Pinot Noir; the number of customers was expanded from two to 20; and the company was rechristened Scheid Family Wines.

The operation now includes eight brands: Scheid Vineyards, Sunny with a Chance of Flowers, Ryder Estate, District 7, Ranch 32, Metz Road, VDR, and Stokes’ Ghost. Scheid Family Wines also produces many regionally distributed brands for individual clients and distributors.

Sustainability

100% drip irrigation is used in the vineyards, with technology that senses soil moisture and monitors plant stress to minimize water usage. A variety of cover crops between vineyard rows improves soil health , prevents erosion, controls vine vigor, discourages weeds, and promotes the sustainable health of the vineyard.  Beneficial insects control pests whenever possible.   Herbal-based preparations are applied to the soil to promote soil vitality through increased microbiologic activity and diversity. Over 250 owl boxes among the vineyards host barn owls to control rodents that prey on grapevines, such as gophers and field mice.  1500 acres of the estate vineyards are currently being farmed organically, with a goal of 100% organic practices in all of the vineyards by 2025.

Certifications

Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing (CCSW) is a statewide certification program that provides third-party verification of a winery’s commitment to continuous improvement in the adoption and implementation of sustainable winegrowing practices. Scheid achieved certification of their estate vineyards in 2014.

Sustainability in Practice (SIP) Certified helps farmers and winemakers demonstrate their dedication to preserving and protecting natural and human resources.  Scheid Family Wines began working with SIP in 2017 and now has five certified vineyards.

Global Good Agricultural Practice (GAP) Certification is an internationally recognized system that sets standards to ensure safe and sustainable agriculture and ensure product safety, environmental responsibility and the health, safety, and welfare of workers. Scheid became the first Global G.A.P. certified vineyards in the USA in 2015.

The Vineyards

Nestled between the Gabilan mountain range to the east and the Santa Lucia Mountains to the west, the Salinas Valley enjoys a cool coastal climate due to the influence of Monterey Bay.  Here, grapes can ripen more slowly and evenly, resulting in a growing season which can be up to two months longer than other wine growing regions in California.  Scheid currently farms about 4,000 acres spread over 12 estate vineyards located along a 70-mile stretch of the Salinas Valley.

The first property Scheid acquired was a 10-acre parcel located on the edge of the town of Greenfield.  He was guided by Professor A.J. Winkler, a viticultural authority at the University of California at Davis, who had published a report in 1960 classifying grape growing regions by climate. He equated Monterey County to Napa, Sonoma, Burgundy, and Bordeaux, with the potential to be one of the most climatically suitable regions in the state for growing high-quality wine grapes.

He soon bought other unplanted parcels in the area – land that turned into the present-day Elm, Hacienda, Viento, and Baja Viento Vineyards.  These were followed by other estate properties, all in the Monterey AVA, culminating in the current 12.

The Winery

Looming over the Scheid estate vineyard is a wind turbine, installed in July 2017.  It generates 4.65 million kilowatt-hours of clean energy every year, enough to provide 100% of the power needed to run the winery and bottling operations, plus power for an additional 125 local homes.  Just this one turbine offsets over 3,600 metric tons of CO2 emissions annually.

The winery itself was designed to reduce energy usage and cut waste. for instance by the extensive use of skylights.  Artificial lighting is controlled by automatic sensors that turn on and off as needed.  Fermentation tanks feature insulating jackets that reduce heating and cooling energy needs.  100% of the grape pomace, stems, and seeds are composted and spread back into the vineyards.  100% of the wastewater the winery generates is cycled through irrigation ponds and eventually finds its way back to the vineyards.


The rather daunting winery in Greenfield.

The more welcoming tasting room in Carmel.

A Few of the Wines

District 7 Chardonnay 2017

The name refers to Scheid’s official regional designation within California.  The fruit was sourced from their cooler estate vineyards in Monterey.  The juice was fermented for 14 months in 75% stainless steel and 25% new French oak.

The wine is a medium-gold color.  There are moderate aromas of grapefruit, apple, and melon on the nose.  That grapefruit explodes on the palate, with plenty of bracing acidity and a medium body.   The vanilla and oak notes are subtle, at best, which is predictable with so much of the wine having been made in stainless steel.  ABV is 13.5%.

http://district7wines.com/

Scheid Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc 2020

 

 

 

 

 

 

After harvest, the juice was fermented in 100% stainless steel, followed by four more months in cold stainless for aging.  This wine is nearly colorless in the glass, a very pale yellow.  It is moderately aromatic, smelling of honeydew and a hint of grass, so typical of Sauvignon Blanc but nicely restrained here.  The honeydew continues on the palate, with cascading flavors of just a bit o’ honey sweetness, followed by zippy acidity, and it all wraps up with some pleasant lime bitterness.  ABV is 13.5%.

https://www.scheidfamilywines.com/

Ryder Estate Pinot Noir Rosé 2020

The fruit for this wine is grown in Scheid’s Ryder Estate vineyard in California’s Central Coast.  It saw eight hours of skin contact to extract the very pale salmon color, followed by cool fermentation in stainless steel.  This easy-drinking Rosé is quite aromatic, predominately of strawberries with a bit of melon.  That flavor continues on the palate, abetted by tart cherry and a hint of grapefruit.  The acidity is just right for a refreshing quaff.  ABV is 13%.

https://www.ryderestatewines.com/

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Lachini Vineyards

Proprietor Ron Lachini’s family hails from the Tuscan town of Lucca.  At some point, his grandfather immigrated to the United States, settling in the large Italian community of San Francisco’s North Beach.  He started making wine with his father and grandfather in their garages as a child.

He and his wife Marianne both attended U.C. Davis, where they were exposed to the world of viticulture and enology.  Travels to some of the world’s esteemed wine regions and wineries cemented their love and collection of fine wines.  After college, Ron began a career in the financial industry in 1997, which he pursued until 2008.  Nearly simultaneously, in 1998, he and Marianne purchased a 45-acre property in Newberg, Oregon, approximately 30 miles southwest of Portland, with the intention of eventually owning a winery.  After clearing and natural site preparation, in June of 1999 they planted their first five acres of Pinot Noir. In the following seven years, additional blocks were planted that now entail just over 30.5 acres of Pinot Noir plus an additional one and a half acres of Chardonnay.  This land is now the Lachini Estate Vineyard.

In 2001, the dream of a winery was finally realized when Lachini Vineyards began producing limited single-vineyard Pinot Noirs.  They do not believe in recipes, and believe that true artisanal winemaking is based on intuition, sensitivity, and passion. They use ‘old world’ methods in concert with small yields, gentle handling, attentive sorting, native yeasts, and fastidious blending.

Sustainability and Biodynamics

The Lachinis are committed to a caring stewardship of the land, believing that great wine is born in the vineyard.  Their philosophy is “Respect the land and treat it well for generations to come.” Farming is done by hand using sustainable agriculture and organic practices. Sustainable viticulture not only protects and renews soil fertility,  but also minimizes adverse impacts on natural biological cycles. Prior to transitioning to Biodynamic farming practices in 2008, the vineyard was L.I.V.E. certified annually.  Farming activities are aligned with the Stella Natura biodynamic planting calendar.  The grape vines are joined by lavender, olive trees, and native plants for diversity. A local beekeeper, Ryan Bringal, maintains up to ten hives on the property. Lachini shared, “Our emphasis is on the meticulous management of each vine through biodynamic farming, while combining state of the art winemaking and old world technique to handcraft wines of complexity, grace, and profoundness – each one, we believe, a reflection of its soul and unique place.”

The Vineyards

Lachini Estate Vineyard

The south-facing gently-sloped estate vineyard is located in the Chehalem Mountains AVA in Oregon’s northern Willamette Valley.   It is in a transition zone between the forests above to the ravines and open plains of the valley below.  On summer and fall evenings, the Coastal range funnels in its cool marine air, which settles along the valley floor as a dense fog.  The  vineyard is comprised of Willakenzie series soils-ranging from 18 to 48 inches in depth. Shallow, fine-silt loam sits over sedimentary rock. This soil’s lower water capacity forces each vine to compete and develop deep root systems.  The vineyard is treated as a unified entity, emphasizing the interrelationship of soils, plants, and animals as integrated self-nourishing systems.

La Cruz Vineyard

Keller Estates began planting the La Cruz (The Cross) Vineyard in 1989. Lachini began sourcing fruit from La Cruz in 2010 with the goal of  producing a Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir.  The vineyard is located  on a knoll overlooking the Petaluma Gap in northern California. It receives cool morning air from the nearby San Francisco Bay to the south, and from the coastal range bordering Bodega Bay directly to the West.  The soils are multi-layered, mineral-ladened clays with a volcanic subsoil that were once San Pablo Bay sea beds.

The Winemakers

Matthieu Gille: Consulting Winemaker

Gille was born in Burgundy’s Nuits St Georges, where his family has been making wine at their estate since the 16th century.  After completing his degree in Estate Management in Beaune, Gille’s love of Pinot Noir, biodynamic viticulture practices, and regional differences motivated him to explore other wine-making regions.  He arrived at  the International Pinot Noir Celebration in McMinnville, Oregon in 2013, where he fell in love with the area.  He began partnering with Lachini in 2014, and he still supervises the winemaking of his family’s estate as well.

Liz Kelly-Campanale: Winemaker

Santa Barbara native Liz Kelly-Campanale joined Lachini as winemaker in 2019.  She has a winemaking degree from the Northwest Wine Studies Center and a BA from Whitman College, followed by nearly a decade of winemaking experience in the Willamette Valley; her most recent previous position was  assistant winemaker for Edgefield Winery.

Ernesto Mendoza: Vineyard Manager

Mendoza came on board in 2018, and brings a wealth of experience spanning over 18 growing seasons in the Willamette Valley. Prior to Lachini, he was with Advanced Vineyard Systems vineyard management company.  He is committed to biodynamic farming practices, and continues to strive for a deeper understanding of long-term stewardship of farmlands and all facets of farm management.

The Wines

Lachini Family Estate Pinot Noir 2018

This wine was sourced from three blocs of the Lachini’s estate vineyard.  Fermentation  was primarily with native yeasts.  It saw 18 months in French oak, 25% new.   It is dark purple, transparent on the edges but nearly opaque in the center.  The nose offers up blackberry and cherry.  These continue as you taste, plus some racy acidity expressed as cranberry.  There are plenty of big, black-tea tannins, and the round, full mouthfeel lingers for quite a while.  1543 cases were made.  ABV is 14%.

Lachini Vineyards La Cruz Pinot Noir 2019

The fruit this wine traveled all the way from the La Cruz Vineyard in a refrigerated truck.  Lachini’s seventh vintage of this 100% Pinot, it saw 14 months in French oak, 50% of which was new.  It is a medium-transparent purple, with just a hint of cloudiness as it was neither fined nor filtered.  My bottle had a bit of sediment, so I recommend decanting.  There is a full aromatic nose, primarily dark cherries.  These continue on the finely textured palate, aided and abetted by raspberries and red currants.  The nice acidity and soft tannins are in excellent balance.   A mere 96 cases were made.  ABV is 14.2%.

Lachini Vineyards Cuvée Giselle 2018

The fruit for Giselle was drawn from three blocks in Lachini’s estate vineyard. It was aged for fourteen months in roughly 50% new French oak prior to bottling.  It is transparent dark purple in the glass.  This wine features a nose of cherry, raspberry, and vanilla.  It is brooding on the rich palate, with flavors of dark fruit, especially sour cherry and more raspberry. (I know. “Brooding” is the kind of adjective you might expect to see in a pretentious wine review, but it is truly an apt descriptor here.)  The energetic acidity and structured tannins are in very good balance.   Lachini made 147 cases.  ABV is 14.3%.

The Grape Republic Pinot Noir 2017

The Grape Republic is Lachini’s relatively new “value” label, with higher production quantities and lower per-bottle costs.  2017 is the fourth vintage of this wine.   The fruit is sourced from the estate vineyard and other selected vineyards within the Willamette Valley.

A worthy addition to the Lachini lineup, this 100% Pinot Noir is a transparent brick red.  It starts with full aromas of plum and cherry.  The bright palate is reminiscent of cherry cola, with hints of raspberry as well.  Although it is completely still, with no effervescence, it has a tingly acidity backed up by silky tannins.   1247 cases were made.  ABV is 13.9%.

Lachini Vineyards Al di La Chardonnay 2018

Al di La translates as “beyond the beyond.”  It was also sourced from Lachini’s estate vineyard.  It was fermented with natural yeast for 11 months in French oak puncheons, a concrete egg, and just a bit in stainless steel.  (A puncheon is equivalent to three regular barrels.  Egg-shaped fermenters, also known as kvevri” or “qvevri, have been around for thousands of years, but are enjoying a renewed popularity among winemakers.)  Bâtonnage and sur lie aging was employed.

This 100% Chardonnay pours a pale yellow with an hint of pink on the edges.  I have no idea where that would come from in a white grape.  The aroma on the delicate nose is predominantly peach with a bit of honey.  Peaches continue on the palate, backed up by pears, honeydew, and a sneaky grapefruit-like acidity.  136 6-bottle cases were produced.  ABV is 13.8%.

Lachini Vineyards La Bestia Cabernet Sauvignon 2017

La Bestia is Italian for “The Beast.”  A blend of 83% Cabernet Sauvignon and 17% Cabernet Franc, this wine saw 22 months in barrel, 75% new and 25% once-used French and American oak.  It is dark purple, and opens with subtle aromas of mint and cassis, plus plenty of jammy dark fruits.  These continue on the rich mouthfeel, especially figs, black plums, dates, and raspberries.  It is all supported by grippy tannins and good acidity.  296 cases were produced.  ABV is 14.9%

www.lachinivineyards.com/

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LaRue Wines

March is Women’s History Month, and an apt time to feature  winemaker Katy Wilson, one of the few but growing number of women in the wine industry.

Wilson founded  LaRue Wines in 2009 when she was just 26, but already had years of experience.

For Wilson, there was never a “Plan B” career path.  She grew up on a walnut orchard in California’s Central Valley and felt an affinity for the land from a young age.  True to the cliché, she learned to drive a tractor before she could drive a car.  Following high school, she pursued her higher education in the Agricultural Business program at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.  During her first semester there, she was exposed to the possibility of a life in wine, and the die was cast.  After graduating with degrees in Wine and Viticulture and Agricultural Business, her odyssey began.

The first stop was Testarossa Winery in Los Gatos, California, where she scrubbed the facility and discovered the possibilities of Pinot Noir.  Next, a big move to Torbreck Vintners in Australia’s Barossa Valley, where she was given the chance to work with some of the oldest vines in the world.  Then it was back to California, specifically Napa Valley, where she spent a year making Cabernet Sauvignon at the famous Joseph Phelps Vineyards.  The peripatetic Wilson then went half-way around the world once again, to work  at Craggy Range in Hawkes Bay, New  Zealand.

Finally, she landed on the Sonoma Coast at Flowers Vineyards & Winery, famous for their Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  While there, Wilson worked her way up from harvest enologist to assistant winemaker, and realized the Sonoma Coast would be where her wandering would end, but not before a stint at Kamen Estate Wines in 2009 as the associate winemaker, making big, bold Cabernet Sauvignons and Syrahs there for five years.

That same year, 2009, Wilson launched her own winery, LaRue Wines, as well.   It  is named in honor of her great-grandmother, Veona LaRue Newell, who Wilson has described as inspirational and unique; others have used the adjectives bold, independent, and feisty.  Regardless, there was a strong bond between the two.  The winery is very much a boutique operation, focusing on small lots of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, with total production limited to just 500 cases.   Drawing on the cool conditions and remote coastal vineyards of the Sonoma Coast, Wilson strives for wines that are complex and vibrant with elegant acidity, and that drink well when young but also age gracefully.  She is guided by a steadfast, non-interventionist winemaking philosophy that champions the land from which the grapes come.

Still young and with energy to spare, Wilson also works as a consulting winemaker, partnering with Banshee Wines from 2012 to 2018, Claypool Cellars from 2012 to 2020, Anaba Wines since 2014, Reeve Wines, and Smith Story Wine Cellars all, predictably, in the Sonoma region.  “There are so many different types of consultants and reasons why you would hire a consultant, from winemaking knowledge to vineyard connections to marketing,” says Wilson. “Some wineries already have a full-time winemaker but are in need of advice or guidance in a particular area or to address an issue. Others hire a consultant to work as the winery’s sole winemaker.”

Wilson operates in both capacities. “My path to where I am today has been almost like a ‘choose your own adventure book!’ ” exclaims Wilson.  “As I worked my way up in the winemaking world, I learned very quickly that in addition to maintaining a ‘never-stop-learning’ work ethic, relationships are everything in this surprisingly small industry.”

Wilson has her signature style for LaRue (which she calls “very hands-off”), but she tailors her approach to fit the  the vision of the other winery owners she works with through lots of conversation, side-by-side work, and tasting. “As a consultant, I look at what I do as a collaboration. The wines that I make for my own winery, LaRue, are different than any wines that I am making for my clients,” says Wilson.

She was touted as a “Winemaker to Watch” by the San Francisco Chronicle in 2013.

The Vineyards from which these wines were drawn

“For more than a decade, I have been devoted to showcasing small lot Pinot Noir and Chardonnay exclusively from a particular sliver of the Sonoma Coast that lies 7 to 10 miles from the Pacific Ocean and is heavily influenced by the coastal marine weather.  Each site has a special fingerprint that I try to capture and express,” shared Wilson.

Charles Heintz Vineyard


Since 1912, the Heintz family has owned and operated this site just east of the town of Occidental. It is a highly sought-after vineyard for premium wine producers for its quintessential expression of Sonoma Coast Chardonnay.  Wilson has been producing a Chardonnay from this property since 2014.  Her 2018 product is reviewed below.

Thorn Ridge Vineyard

Ted Klopp and his daughter, Lauren Klopp-Williams, farm Thorn Ridge Vineyard. Wilson started working with this vineyard in 2014.  The east-facing orientation of Thorn Ridge enjoys ample morning sun, resulting in fruit that is more rustic and has a darker character than that of the other Pinot Noir vineyards LaRue sources from.  It is planted on Goldridge sandy loam soils. Thorn Ridge is located just west of the town of Sebastopol, which features a heavy marine influence.

Rice-Spivak Vineyard

Planted in 1999 and owned by Russell Rice and Helene Spivak, Wilson has been working with this vineyard since LaRue was founded. Wilson first met Russell and Helene in 2007 during her time as the assistant winemaker at Flowers Winery.   This six-acre, cool, north-facing site lies south of the town of Sebastopol.  Its Goldridge sandy loam soils are, unusually for this area, mixed with volcanic ash.

Emmaline Ann Vineyard

Emmaline Ann is a three-acre vineyard planted in 2001 by owners Wayne and Nancy Hunnicutt, and is named after Nancy’s grandmother. Like the Spivaks, Wilson first met the Hunnicutts in 2007 during her time at Flowers Winery.  All of LaRue’s tastings are staged here, as well as the annual LaRue Wines Summer BBQ.  This small  vineyard faces southwest toward the Pacific Ocean and is frequently enveloped in fog.

LaRue Wines Charles Heintz Vineyard Chardonnay 2018

The fruit for this Chard was sourced entirely from the Charles Heintz Vineyard and then aged for 17 months in once-used French oak.  It pours a clear bright yellow, and the nose offers up aromas of mango and grapefruit,  with a touch of lemon meringue. The palate features a full, smooth mouthfeel and flavors of lemon and creme brûlée, all supported with mouthwatering acidity and a hint of vanilla. Production was 75 cases.  ABV is  13.1%.

LaRue Wines Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2018

Wilson drew on three vineyards for this selection:  46% from the Thorn Ridge Vineyard, 38% from the Rice-Spivak Vineyard, and 16% from the Emmaline Ann Vineyard.  The wine saw 20 months in French oak barrels, 20% of which were new.  It is a quite pale cherry red, but looks can be deceiving.  It starts with aromas of dark stone fruit, particularly plum, followed by predominantly strawberry on the palate, with some cranberry.  Hints of violets and vanilla lead to a medium finish. It all wraps up with zippy acidity and delicate tannins.  Wilson made 125 cases.  ABV is 13.3%.

www.laruewines.com

Photography by Courtney Dawn Photography

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Lobo Wines

Yet another white-collar professional turned winery owner, Randy Wulff was an attorney for 20 years. After graduating from the Honors College at the University of Oregon and Hastings College of the Law, he worked as a successful trial lawyer and mediator at a law firm in  San Francisco. “Even when I was one of the chief mediators during the World Trade Center property damage claims hearings arising from the tragedy of 9/11 that lasted for more than two and a half years, my wife Krys and I had always dreamed of being in the wine business,” Wulff reminisced.

Krys Wulff got her undergraduate degree at the University of San Francisco, and a Masters at Mills College in Oakland, California. She worked as an optical industry consultant for over 25 years while also raising two sons. She has devoted her energies to several philanthropic, educational, and advocacy organizations, including the Piedmont League of Women Voters, the East Bay Junior League, and EdSource, an independent, non-partisan organization that works to engage Californians on key education challenges with the goal of enhancing learning success.

Randy grew up with Krys in California’s Central Valley. “We were high school sweethearts and have been married for over 48 years,” shared Randy. “She is the heart and soul of Lobo Wines, and our success is directly related to her efforts. I can’t think of anything better than sharing our success with the person I love the most.”

As is not unusual for well-heeled San Francisco residents, the Wulffs eventually purchased a second home, in Napa Valley. “We were living in the East Bay and Napa Valley was only an hour’s drive away. Whenever we arrived there, it was like living in another world,” Randy recalled. They soon planted Chardonnay on the property, which is located in the Oak Knoll district. “When the first usable fruit came in, we sold the grapes to Randy Lewis, and he produced a wine that notched incredibly high scores. I thought to myself, this is easy, and we decided to really delve into the wine industry.”

Continuing to expand their efforts as grape growers, a few years later the Wulffs acquired a much larger vineyard about a mile from the first one, where they made substantial improvements to drainage and vine care. In 2007, they acquired a 42-acre property on Atlas Peak, on the eastern ridge of the Napa Valley. With that commitment, the couple established a winery of their own that same year, naming it Lobo Wines. Lobo is Spanish for ‘wolf,’ a play on their last name, of course. The first vintage yielded just 25 cases, but production has gradually increased to around 1,500 cases.

“We want to grow Lobo Wines carefully,” Randy explained. “Our goal is probably around 5,000 cases, and we want everything to be home grown. At this point, we crush some 100 tons of fruit, but we sell around 70 percent to other wineries. Over time, we will sell less and produce more.”

Sadly, the horrendous Atlas Peak fire of 2017 devastated the Lobo winery and the Wulffs’ home site. Undeterred, they immediately set about to rebuild the winery and residence, a project that is ongoing.

The Winemakers

Victoria Coleman
Coleman, a Seattle native, began her winemaking apprenticeship at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars as a production assistant in 1998. While there, she enrolled in a winemaking class at Napa Valley College. As part of that course, she crushed a small amount of Cabernet Sauvignon in a drum with her feet in the time-honored manner. The experience of hands-on winemaking fueled her desire to learn everything she could about it.

She began working with Mario Bazán at Bazán Cellars in 2004 as the winery’s founding winemaker. To further her formal education, she enrolled at the University of California, Davis, (incubator for thousands of winemakers) in the fall of 2006 and graduated in June 2008. She was exposed to classic, Old World winemaking immediately thereafter while working alongside Erick Tourbier at Chateau Mouton Rothschild in Bordeaux. Starting in January 2010, she gained further international experience as winemaker at Jade Valley Winery near Xian, China. She returned to Napa Valley in 2015 and began work at Lobo Wines, where her products include both the Napa Valley and Atlas Peak Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, and a proprietary blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah named “Howl.”

Randy Lewis
Lewis came to winemaking via a circuitous route. A native of Atlanta, Georgia, he was a race car driver for more than two decades, first as a Formula Three driver in Europe, where he discovered the wines there and what life as a winemaker could be like. He then raced in America in Formula 5000, Can Am, and finally Indy Cars from 1983 to 1991, competing in five Indy 500s. After retiring as a driver, he helped a friend set up a winery in Napa Valley, and then,
with his wife Debbie, he established his own winery in Napa in 1992.

Lobo Chardonnay 2017

Made by Randy Lewis at Lewis Cellars, this 100% Chardonnay is sourced from fruit grown at  the Lobo Wulff estate vineyard in Oak Knoll.   It is lemon yellow in the glass, and features aromas of lemon, honeysuckle, and melon. The mouthfeel is rich and smooth, and offers flavors of lemon, grapefruit, and more melon.  There is good acidity, restrained oak, and a bit of vanilla on the medium finish.  ABV is 14.7% and 150 cases were produced.

Lobo Atlas Peak Cabernet Sauvignon 2015

This wine, made by Victoria Coleman, was chosen by Great Britain’s Decanter magazine in 2019 as the Top Cabernet Sauvignon in California over 197 other competitors.  It was made from 100% estate grown fruit in the Atlas Peak appellation of Napa Valley, on a rocky, volcanic hillside at 1,350 feet elevation. This is a blend of 98% Cabernet Sauvignon, 1% Merlot,  and 1% Petit Verdot (allegedly for “balance and complexity,” although I can’t imagine how much of that such a small percentage could contribute.)  On the nose, this Cabernet Sauvignon offers aromas of dark fruit and hints of vanilla. There are ripe plum, black currant, and blackberry on the palate.  These harmonize with medium, satiny tannins, nicely integrated acidity, and hint of black tea at the end.  ABV is 14.4%.

lobowines.com

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Brutocao Cellars

Irv Bliss’ early years as a farmer were occupied with growing pears, prunes, walnuts, and a large family garden just outside of Healdsburg, in Sonoma County, California. Although successful, for years Bliss nursed the vision of planting a vineyard in Mendocino, which he believed to be one of the best places around to grow grapes. In 1943, he purchased a plot of land in southern Mendocino County, and immediately planted the vineyard of his dreams. In the early days, in addition to growing grapes on the property, Bliss farmed figs and raised sheep and cattle. At some point in the 1970s, all 100 acres of the land was converted to grape production, mostly Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel.

When Leonard met Martha

In 1910, the Brutocao (pronounced brew’ tuh coe) family emigrated from Treviso, Italy (a small town near Venice), at first settling in Canada. Son Leonard Brutocao was born in 1935 in Fort Erie, Canada and, after the family moved to the U.S., was raised in Covina, Calif.  He met Irv Bliss’ daughter Martha while attending the University of California, Berkeley. After Leonard and Martha married, the families joined forces, and continued to farm grapes which they sold to well-known Sonoma and Napa wineries. Irv and Leonard worked together for over 35 years until Irv’s retirement in 1969, at which point the new ownership was split between Lenonard and Lenonard’s brother Albert (who co-founded with Leonard the Brutoco Engineering and Construction company in southern California which  the Brutocao clan also owned and continued to operate, as well as a number of other entrepreneurial ventures).

For several years, most of the family’s grapes were sold to local area wineries, including Beringer and Mondavi.  Leonard and Albert were interested in more than just farming however, and saw the potential for producing a handcrafted Mendocino wine. Acting on this vision, the Brutocao family released their first wine with the 1980 vintage. Shortly thereafter, they chose as their symbol of family tradition and quality a version of the Lion of St. Mark, the lion on top of St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice, Italy,  (But they flipped the way it faces, for whatever reason.)
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In 1991, the original winery was built, and the first estate vintage was produced. Around the same time, Leonard’s three sons, David, Len Jr., and Steve, joined the family business. (Forth son Dan and daughter Renee Ortiz also share ownership of the winery, but have limited involvement.)  David is Director of Winemaking Operations, and works side by side with Brutocao winemaker Hoss Milone to produce their estate wines. Len Jr., as Director of Vineyard Operations, oversees the cultivation of the land from new plantings to grape harvest.  Following the death of his father in 2010, Steve assumed the role of CEO  after many years of experience in wine marketing and sales.

Brutocao outgrew the first winery by 2003, when a new facility was built, and it was expanded in 2009. The original building has now become an onsite wine storage warehouse.  The more visitor-friendly tasting room is about a mile and a half due west, in Hopland, California.
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The Legacy Continues

The Brutocao operation is now in its fourth generation. Ryan, Director of Custom Label Sales, is tasked with distribution as well as coordinating with Brutocao’s non-profit partner, Wine to Water.  Kevin, a jack of all trades, does a bit of everything, from pouring wines in the Hopland tasting room to managing the winery’s online presence. He also creates many of the designs for marketing materials.

The Winemaker

Hoss Milone became the winemaker for Brutocao in 2009 after spending 18 years toiling for Ferrari-Carano.  Hoss is a fourth-generation winemaker who grew up in his family’s vineyards, and watched his grandfather and father produce their own Mendocino wines. Milone is also a trained cooper, aka barrel maker.  At some point it was discovered that Milone’s grandfather tilled the land for Irv Bliss in the original vineyard. Quite a coincidence.

The Vineyards

The Bliss Vineyard, also known as the Home Ranch, is the original property purchased in 1943 by Irv Bliss. The vineyard is 400 acres, with 177 acres planted to Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel, Merlot, Sangiovese, Barbera, and Dolcetto.

The Feliz Vineyard was purchased in 1994. It is 583 acres in size, with 114 acres planted to Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese, Dolcetto, Barbera, Zinfandel, and Pinot Noir.

The 251-acre Contento Vineyard was purchased in 1997, but not planted until 1999. 90 acres are now under vine, growing Cabernet Sauvignon and Primitivo*. Contento is the site of an old cattle ranch, where purebred Brangus cattle were raised. Some of the ranch was used for research and development of new tractor equipment, resulting in very well-worked soils.  Contento is also the site of an abandoned gold mine.

Brutocao Chardonnay 2019

Made by Brutocao since the mid-1980s, this  pale-straw colored Chardonnay comes entirely from Bliss Vineyard, the original property purchased by Irv Bliss in 1943.  The wine was 100% barrel fermented and sur lies aged for nine months in French oak, 30% of which was new.   Some of the grapes were “whole cluster pressed” for maximum flavor extraction.  It underwent 100% malolactic fermentation, which in this case lead to citrus rather than the more typical buttery notes.

The wine opens with aromas of honeysuckle, pear, and mango.  These  evolve into a full-bodied palate of tropical fruit with just a hint of butterscotch on the finish.  Serve moderately chilled at about 60° F.  ABV is 13.5%, and  3000 cases were produced.

Brutocao Quadriga Red Blend 2017

A quadriga is a chariot pulled by four horses, harnessed side by side, and is an ancient Italian symbol of triumph. This selection, on offer since the early 2000s,  is a proprietary blend of 43% Primitivo*, 31% Sangiovese, 19% Barbera, 6% Dolcetto, and a 1% topping of Syrah, which is reminiscent of traditional Italian field blends.  “Field blending” is the custom of planting different grape varieties together in the same vineyard, harvesting them all together, co-fermenting, and making a wine from the mixture. However, Milone was careful to point out that Brutocao’s varietals are kept separate in their vineyards, and he makes individual wines from each of the grape types before he begins the blending process.  This offers him much greater control over the flavor profile of the wine than the traditional field blend approach would.  The fruit was sourced from the Bliss, Feliz, and Contento vineyards.  After fermentation, it was aged for 18 months in 90% French oak and 10% American oak, of which 25% was new.

This wine is a totally transparent medium purple, but is more boisterous than its color suggests.  The nose features aromas of red berries and cinnamon stick.  These continue on the palate, with additional flavors of blueberries and caramel, complemented by a rich, smooth mouthfeel.  Decant for an hour or two before serving.  The ABV is 14.5%, and 500 cases were made.

www.brutocaocellars.com/

www.goldmedalwineclub.com

*There is ongoing debate about whether or not Primitivo and Zinfandel are the same grape.   However, it is agreed that at the least they both share a Croatian forebear.  Primitivo is mostly planted in Italy, while Zinfandel is almost exclusively American.  Winemaker Hoss Milone insists that Brutocao’s Primitivo can be sourced back to mother vines in Italy.  He also believes Primitivo prefers French oak aging, while Zinfandel is more suited to American oak.

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Trefethen Family Vineyards

The pioneering Trefethen Family Vineyards is truly a rarity in the Napa Valley: a winery that grows, vinifies, and ages all of its wines entirely on the property, and has been helmed by a single family for three generations.

The area in which Trefethen is located is one of the oldest in Napa Valley’s wine history. Nearly 2,000 acres were originally purchased in 1851 by J.W. Osborne, who called it Oak Knoll. He planted grapes there the following year, and by 1860 had the largest vineyard in Napa, at 50 acres.

In 1886, banker brothers James and George Goodman founded the Eschol winery in Oak Knoll. The name was taken from the Old Testament,  Numbers 13:24, “The place was called the brook Eschol, because of the cluster of grapes which the children of Israel cut down from thence.” The original estate was 280 acres, with 40 acres planted in vineyards. The winery used a gravity-flow system: a horse-drawn winch brought grapes to the third floor of the three-story structure for crushing; gravity carried the juice to the second floor for fermenting; and, eventually, the wine descended to the first floor for aging. It is now the only surviving example in Napa Valley of a wooden gravity-flow winery from the 1800s. After struggling through Prohibition, by 1940 the winery building had fallen into disuse, although for a time in the ’40s Beringer Winery used the space as a storage facility and leased the surrounding vineyards.

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Following retirement from a successful career, including CEO, with Kaiser Industries, Eugene Trefethen along with his wife Catherine, better known as Katie, purchased Eshcol and six adjoining properties in 1968, with the goal of become genteel farmers.  They installed a robust water system that still serves the vineyard today, but neither of them ever wanted a winery.

The winery operation got going in 1973, the year the Trefethen’s son John and his wife Janet produced their first commercial vintage (2,000 cases of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir).  They also replanted the vineyards and restored the historic winery building.  Located at the end of what is possibly the longest winery driveway on the Napa Valley floor, it is the largest winery in the Oak Knoll district.

The trees were eventually planted to prevent John Trefethen from using the driveway to land his private plane. Photo: Carlin Arthurs

The Trefethens’ restoration efforts were recognized in 1988 by the Department of the Interior, which placed the winery on the National Register of Historic Places. The property is also known for an extensive garden established by Katie. It has been featured in many publications, and has been a destination for many gardening enthusiasts since it was created.

The flower logo shown here has been part of Trefethen’s branding since the beginning. Katie had originally used it on signage in her garden areas, and the winery put it on the bottle capsules from very early on. It was long referred to as the “Welsh Flower,” thinking that Katie had tapped into her Welsh heritage. But later research couldn’t find any Welsh history for the mark, so its origins remain a mystery, and it is now just called the “Trefethen Flower” instead.


Eugene and Katie Trefethen’s residence, The Villa, is now used for special events.

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John and Janet Trefethen have largely stepped back from day-to-day oversight, and the third generation of the family is now deeply involved in the operation. Son Lorenzo focuses on sales and marketing, and daughter Hailey on vineyards and employees.

In addition to the family, Jon Ruel has long been a part of the business.  He started as the viticulturist, but steadily increased his involvement over the years that have followed. He is now fully responsible for all aspects of the company’s operations and strategy, and was named named CEO in 2015. He had this to say about Trefethen, ““As a true estate winery, we have the unique opportunity to bring integrity to every step of the process, from the soil to the table. My entire focus these days is on cultivating this extended family – and when we succeed, you  can not only taste it in the wine, you can feel it.”

Winemaker Bryan Kays joined Trefethen in 2006 as a viticulture intern. Fascinated with estate-grown wines, he started in the cellar, and eventually worked up to the position of winemaker in 2015.


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In 1979, a “Wine Olympics” was organized by the French restaurant guide Gault Millau in Beaune, France. A total of 330 wines from 33 countries were evaluated by 62 experts from ten countries. The 1976 Trefethen Chardonnay won first place in the category that pitted California Chardonnays against those from Burgundy, and was judged best in the world. This came three years after the more-famous “Judgement of Paris,” further helping to establish the quality of American wine in the world market.

The spirit of support and cooperation in northern California’s wine country that has been so much in evidence during this year’s wildfires goes way back.  Two now-notable wineries got their start at Trefethen. Cakebread Cellars purchased some grapes for their first vintage from Trefethen, and made their initial wine there. Domain Chandon (the American operation of the French Champagne leviathan Moët et Chandon) began their winemaking efforts by taking over the second floor of the winery while their own facility was being constructed.

The Vineyards and Environmental Commitment

The Main Ranch Vineyard.   Photo: Arturo Pardavila

The Vineyards

The original 400 acres surrounding the winery are known as the Main Ranch.  It sits on the largest alluvial fan in Napa Valley, where Dry Creek spills onto the valley floor and spreads gravel eroded from the Mayacamas mountains over clay and loam left by an ancient ocean. Over twenty different soil types have been identified in the vineyard, allowing Trefethen to grow nine different varieties there, all planted in their preferred soil.

Trefethen now also owns another 150 mostly hillside acres surrounding a spring-fed creek, the Hill Spring Vineyard, of which 40 acres are planted to Bordeaux varieties. It is about three miles from the winery in the foothills of the Mayacamas.

Although a relatively large producer (about 75,000 cases annually, but it varies with each harvest). Trefethen has farmed their vineyards sustainably since the beginning. They are all managed by employees, without outsourcing the work to a vineyard management company. A true “estate” operation, they have never purchased grapes from anyone.

Biodiversity

Bluebirds, owls, and bats inhabit the vineyards. All of these species are native to the area and play important roles as natural predators. The property also attracts other birds of prey such as kestrels and red-tailed hawks. Cover crops provide habitat for beneficial insects, spiders, jackrabbits, and more, all of which play important roles in the ecosystem. Cover crop use also increases water infiltration as the roots create channels in the soil that can directly impact soil fertility via nitrogen fixation.

Soil Health

Every part of the grape cluster but the juice– the stem, skins, and seeds – is combined with clippings from the gardens and manure from the  stables to make a compost which is spread out into the vineyard each year.

Water Conservation

The property includes two reservoirs. After collection, the water is transferred to biological settlement ponds, where the organic compounds are digested by bacteria, rendering the water appropriate for re-use in vineyard irrigation.

Energy Usage

A number of solar arrays are on the property, providing power for the winery and production facilities. They were one of the first wineries to offset 100% of their electricity usage with on-site solar power.

Certifications

As a major part of their commitment to ecological responsibility, Trefethen participates in a number of certification programs.

The Napa Green organization supervises two programs.  Land is an umbrella program that recognizes growers with validated environmental compliance and verified farm plans as meeting standards for watershed stewardship. Winery is one of only four sustainable winegrowing programs nationwide, offering the opportunity for comprehensive soil-to-bottle certification in both the vineyard and winery.

The California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance is a certification program that provides verification that a winery or vineyard implements sustainable practices and continuous improvement

Trefethen Family Vineyards Oak Knoll District Estate Chardonnay 2018

Trefethen’s highest-volume wine, this Chardonnay was 100% sourced from the Main Ranch. After both barrel and malolactic fermentation, the wine was aged for nine months in 13% new oak.

It is a pale straw gold in the glass. The nose presents aromas of lemon, lime, and grapefruit, plus a hint of peach. The smooth palate features these same flavors, as well as some lemon curd and just a suggestion of oak. It’s all wrapped up in a refreshing zippy acidity. The ABV is 13.3%, and 28,800 cases were produced.

Trefethen Family Vineyards Oak Knoll District Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2018

This wine is a blend of 84% Cabernet Sauvignon (enough that it isn’t labeled a “red blend”), 10% Petit Verdot, 3% Merlot, 2% Malbec, and 1% Cabernet Franc, all sourced from the Main Ranch vineyard. It always amuses me when winemakers include 1 or 2% of something.  It’s hard to imagine how much difference that could make, but they certainly think it is worth the effort. After fermentation, it was aged for 18 months in 52% new oak.

This full-bodied wine is inky dark purple. The nose displays aromas of dark stone fruits, particularly plum, and earth.  These continue on the palate, with the addition of prunes and cocoa, plus a little vanilla.  There is well-balanced acidity, as well as plenty of grippy but nicely integrated tannins.  The ABV is 14.2%, and 23,880 cases were produced.

https://www.trefethen.com/

Note: Trefethen releases some of their red wines fairly young – if you have the patience, consider holding these for several years while they develop additional complexities and nuances.  But do as I say and not as I do; there was a time when I would have bottle aged a wine like this for 10 years or so, but I have largely abandoned holding bottles more than four or five years at the most, as I prefer the more up-front characteristics, especially tannins, of a young red.

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Adega Northwest Winery

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When most of us think of a winery, what usually comes to mind is the romantic stereotype of a rustic but exquisite barn situated halfway up a mountain in the western U. S. overlooking a bucolic valley below; a fabulous hundred-years old chateau surrounded by ancient vines somewhere in France; or perhaps even a charming azienda agricola in Italy with a view of Roman ruins. But that’s not the only way to do it.  Adega Northwest of Portland, Oregon, is very much an urban winery.  There are vineyards, of course, you just won’t see them if you pay the winery a visit (by appointment only).  And because they are not tied to an estate, Adega Northwest can and does draw on sources throughout the region.

It doesn’t get much more urban than this.

THE WINEMAKER

Bradford Cowin began by working in the restaurant industry. He pursued and completed a wine certification from the International Sommelier Guild, and has worked as a sommelier in New York City, Colorado, Washington D.C., Seattle, and now Portland, Oregon.

In 2007 he decided to focus on making wine instead of just serving it. He started as a cellar hand (aka a cellar rat) at R. Stuart & Co. in McMinnville Oregon, followed by working Malbec-focused vintages at Bodegas Renacer in Mendoza, Argentina, where he was also exposed to Italian Amarone-style winemaking techniques through work with renowned winemaker Alberto Antonini.

Once back in the U.S., he toiled at the famous Williams Selyem, Andrew Rich Vintner, and Long Shadows Winery. His time at Long Shadows proved to be an important turning point in his pursuit of full-time winemaking. In 2011, under the mentorship of Gilles Nicault, Long Shadow’s Director of Winemaking and Viticulture, Cowin purchased his first Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from the Weinbau Vineyard in the Wahluke Slope of Washington State (from which he continues to source fruit to this day) and was given space at Long Shadows to produce it. This was the beginning of his first winery, Script Cellars, formed with fellow sommelier Frederick Armstrong and wine enthusiasts Ken and Cheri Hick of Portland, Oregon.

Script Cellars’ Exordium 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon won the Platinum Medal and Best Red at the Northwest Food & Wine Festival, and received 91 points from Wine Enthusiast (for people that care about such things). Production increased from 100 cases to 500 cases within three years. Dramatic, but still quite modest.

Although he continues to make wine for the Script Cellars label (in Adega’s Portland facility), by 2014 Cowin was ready to try something new. Adega is Portugese for wine cellar, and  pays homage to his grandfather specifically, and the family’s Portuguese ancestry in general. Cowin teamed with his mother, Tana Mendes Bidwell, to establish the new operation. The aim was to  create hand-crafted wines in the Pacific Northwest influenced by the wines of Europe, especially Bordeaux and Rhone in France. They were later joined by investor and real estate mogul Darren Harris.  Cowin had this to say about opening an urban winery, “I’ve always been more of a city kid, having lived in large cities most of my life. For me it is more appealing to operate out of a facility where I prefer to live. We aren’t really much different than any other winery our size. I like being able to offer high quality wine to the general consumer without having them go out of their way for it.”

The winery currently produces Alvarinho (aka Albarino), Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, Syrah, Grenache, Mataro (aka Mourvedre), Tempranillo, Touriga Nacional, Souzao, and Graciano.

THE VINEYARDS

I mentioned that Adega, not being tied to an estate, can draw from many vineyards.  And do they ever.  These are their 12 current sources.

Destiny Ridge Vineyard Columbia Valley, Paterson, Washington

This 267-acre site, the only one actually owned by Adega, is located high on the bluffs overlooking the  Columbia River, in the Horse Heaven Hills AVA in southeastern Washington, and is part of the larger Columbia Valley AVA. Elevation in this area ranges from 200 feet above sea level in the south to 1,800 feet above sea level at the northern boundary. Destiny Ridge itself sits at 850 feet. Strong winds arrive from the west via the Columbia River Gorge, reducing the likelihood of rot and fungal diseases taking hold, and keeping frost at bay. The quick-draining soil includes clay, limestone, schist (medium sized mineral rocks), and gravel, along with sandy top soils.  It is exclusively planted to Cabernet Sauvignon.

Delfino Vineyard, Umpqua Valley, Roseburg. Oregon 

This 18-acre site is similar climatically to Spain’s Ribera del Duero, with a mix of rocky soil types. There are seven grape varieties under cultivation here: Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Syrah, Müller Thurgau, Merlot, Dolcetto, and Tempranillo (for which Umpqua is becoming increasingly well known).

Double Canyon Vineyard, Horse Heaven Hills, Prosser, Washington

Located between Yakima Valley and the Columbia River, the 90-acre Double Canyon Vineyard has a dry desert landscape. The weather is influenced by close proximity to the Columbia River, which creates sweeping winds and other distinctive weather patterns that protect the vines from extreme temperatures, fungal disease, and pests.  The soil is sandy, quick-draining loam. The vineyard is planted primarily to Bordeaux varietals and Syrah.

dutchman vineyard, yakima valley, Grandview, Washington

Dutchman Vineyard was planted in 1991. It is located in a very cool region in the Yakima Valley. Adega Northwest has been sourcing Alvarinho, Marsanne, Roussanne, and Riesling from here since 2017.

Firethorn Vineyard, Columbia Valley, Echo, Oregon

Firethorn was originally developed between 2006 and 2008 by famed NFL quarterback Drew Bledsoe under the name Flying B Vineyard. Jay and Kim Bales purchased the vineyard in 2010 and have done the farming ever since. The vineyard sits on basalt cliffs that support a layer of granite and basalt silt deposited as the Missoula floods receded at the end of the last ice age. The top layer of soil is wind-driven loess (a silt-sized sediment that is formed by the accumulation of wind-blown dust). It is planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Syrah, and Muscat.

french creek Vineyard, yakima valley, prosser, Washington

French Creek was established in 1981 with the planting of nine acres of Wente Clone Chardonnay. The vineyard is on a south-facing slope above the Yakima River, and lies at the edge of a canyon that allows for great air drainage, crucial for mitigating frost damage. The soils are mainly silt loam with weathered and unweathered basalt bedrock. Plantings are primarily Chardonnay, 28-year-old Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvedre.  Adega NW has been sourcing  Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon from here since 2018.

Gamache Vineyard, Columbia Valley, Basin City, Washington

Planted by brothers Bob and Roger Gamache in 1980, this 180-acre vineyard sits up on the white bluffs overlooking Basin City to the east in the Columbia Valley AVA. The soil is primarily Warden sandy loam, with a little Kennewick sandy loam, as well as, in the northern part of the site, caliche (a hardened natural cement of calcium carbonate) about 12 inches down. The property is planted to Riesling, Chardonnay, Roussanne, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, and Malbec.

Kamiak Vineyard, Columbia Valley, Pasco, Washington

Established in the mid-1980s by Jeff Gordon of Gordon Estate Winery, the 100-acre Kamiak Vineyard is south-facing, and is perched 620 feet above sea-level along the Snake River. The vineyard has excellent air drainage and benefits from the river’s moderating influence. It has a unique volcanic soil breakdown that includes basalt, sandy loam, clay loam. and gravelly loam. It is planted with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Gewürztraminer, with a few small lots set aside for Tempranillo and Malbec.

Red heaven Vineyard, red mountain, Benton city, Washington

The many varieties planted here include Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah (aka Durif), Tinta Cão, Souzão (aka Vinhão), Touriga Nacional, Tempranillo (aka Valdepeñas), Counoise, Grenache, Mourvèdre (aka Mataro), Syrah, Merlot, Zinfandel, and Barbera. Adega Northwest has been sourcing Rhone and Portuguese varieties from Red Heaven since 2017.

Two Blonds, Yakima Valley, Zillah, Washington

This is the estate vineyard of Andrew Will Winery. Two Blonds, named for proprietor Chris Camarda’s late wife, Annie, who was a 6’2” blond, and Melody, the also-blond wife of vineyard partner Bill Fleckenstein, it was planted in 2000 with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec. The soils of the 30 planted acres are silty loams.

Upland Vineyard, Snipes Mountain, Columbia Valley, sunnyside, Washington

Farming wine grapes since 1968, four generations of the Newhouse family have helped maintain the Upland legacy, which started over 100 years ago. Originally planted by William B. Bridgman in 1917, Snipes Mountain is widely considered the birth place of Washington wine. Today that original vineyard is still bearing fruit, and the vines’ longevity is a testament to the favorable weather conditions there. With an elevation that ranges from 750 to 1300 feet, the fecund Upland is able to grow over 35 varieties of wine grapes. (To be clear, Upland is in Washington, and on Snipes Mountain, but the snow-covered promontory in the background is Oregon’s Mt. Hood, seen looking to the southwest.)

Weinbau Vineyard, Wahluke Slope, Washington

With views of the Rattlesnake Mountains to the south and the Saddle Mountains to the north, Weinbau Vineyard slopes gently south, with elevations ranging from 710 to 950 feet. It is a relatively warm site, with excellent air drainage, and the soil is dominated by Kennewick silt loam. This 460-acre property was originally planted to Riesling, Chardonnay, and Gewurztraminer in 1981.  Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Malbec, Mourvedre, Merlot, Carmenere, Grenache, and Cabernet Franc were added in subsequent years.

[SOME OF] THE WINES

Adega Northwest normally produces between 2,000 and 2,500 cases annually. Unfortunately, this year COVID-19 has forced a retrenchment back to 1,500. Although Adega Northwest’s production of each selection is quite limited, and therefor harder to find, they are very reasonably priced and are worth seeking out.

Interestingly, Adega, as well as another producer I have recently encountered, doesn’t use a foil at the top of the bottle.  Cowin shared, “Foil doesn’t do much other than being for aesthetics. I prefer the natural look of the cork. It also makes it easier to tell if there is a cork malfunction or a storage issue. On my single vineyard wines I do wax just the very top of the cork. However, you can still see all the sides of the cork in bottle.”

The cellar image on the labels was inspired by a picture of a classic Portuguese Adega from an original design by Cowin.

Adega Northwest Double Canyon Vineyard Syrah 2016

This 100% Syrah was fermented in stainless steel, followed by 22 months of barrel aging in 500-liter puncheons made of 100% French oak, 30% of which were new. A semi-transparent dark purple, it opens with aromas of dark fruit, mostly wild blueberries and mountain blackberries, and a hint of camphor (which receeds after the bottle has been open an hour or so).  The lean palate follows with muted fruit, especially tart cherry, with some leather thrown in.  It all wraps up with a medium-length finish. ABV is 14.6%, and 135 cases were made.

Adega Northwest Tempranillo 2015

Sourced from the Delfino vineyard, this wine is 10% Syrah and  90% Tempranillo. The latter is an important red-wine grape in Spain, and two Spanish clones of Tempranillo were used: Tinto del Pais (Rioja Clone) and Tinto del Toro (Toro Clone). It was fermented in stainless steel, followed by 20 months of barrel aging in 100% French oak. It is dark purple, with a nose of dark fruits plus black olive and leather. The full-bodied palate features flavors of tart cherry, cocoa, tobacco, and earth. There is lively but unobtrusive acidity, and a relatively short but dry finish. ABV is 13.8%, and 100 cases were produced.

Adega Northwest Weinbau Vineyard | Block 10 Cabernet Sauvignon 2015

This wine is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. It was fermented in stainless steel and then saw 21 months in French oak barrels, 40% of which were new. It is dark purple, but a bit more transparent than is common for Cabernet Sauvignon.  The nose is classic Cabernet, with big aromas of blackberry, blueberry, and cassis. These continue on the palate, supported by cedar notes, bracing tannins, and good acidity.  It all wraps up in a nice long finish. The ABV comes in at 14.6%, and 125 cases were made.

Adega Northwest Eremita White Blend 2018

The fruit for this blend of 70% Marsanne and 30% Roussanne came from the Dutchman vineyard. After barrel fermentation, it underwent full malolactic fermentation and aging, all in neutral  French oak.  The wine pours a hazy medium yellow. The nose is predominantly grapefruit (with hints of orange marmalade and apricot), and this dominates on the round and creamy palate as well, supported by Seville orange.  There is plenty of zippy acidity.  The ABV is 13.3% and 150 cases were made.

Adega Northwest Alvarinho 2018

The type of low-yielding, thick-skinned grapes from which this wine was made originally hailed from Portugal’s Vinho Verde. It is also cultivated in Spain’s Galicia region, where it is known as Albarino.  Adega NW sourced the fruit from the Dutchman vineyard. The wine is all Alvarinho, which underwent a cool, extended fermentation in stainless steel. It spent further stabilization (but perhaps not enough; see note below) and aging in stainless steel as well.  It is a medium yellow in the glass, with a hint of pink.  The nose offers up honeydew, cantaloupe, and peach. The palate features a full, creamy mouthfeel, with flavors of those same melons, joined by Seville oranges.  It’s all backed up up by plenty of racy acidity.  The ABV is 13.5%, and 250 cases were produced, and although still quite modest, it’s a relatively high number for Adega NW.

Note: when I finished my sample bottle after 24 hours in the refrigerator, some tartrate sediment had precipitated out. While this doesn’t impact the quality of a wine, it is an inconvenience, and you should consider decanting through a filter before serving, just in case.

Adega Northwest Chardonnay 2018

This 100% Chardonnay was sourced from the French Creek vineyard. It underwent barrel fermentation, followed by partial malolactic fermentation and aging, all in in neutral French oak.  It is crystal-clear, medium-pale straw in color. It is mildly aromatic, with scents of honeysuckle and brioche. The creamy palate features Meyer lemon and grapefruit, balanced by harmonious acidity and hints of vanilla and oak.  It closes with a medium-length finish. The ABV is 14.5% and 100 cases were made.

https://www.adeganorthwest.com/

Maritana Vineyards

Patz & Hall was founded in 1988 when two Flora Springs Winery and Vineyards employees, assistant winemaker James Hall and national sales manager Donald Patz, decided to strike out on their own. Their ambition was to apply traditional (i.e. French) winemaking techniques to fruit from elite, small vineyards, specializing in Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.  The winery went on to great success.

Patz left Patz & Hall in 2017 to establish the Donald Patz Wine Group.  The project oversees three distinct labels:  Terminum produces Mendocino County Marsanne/Roussanne and Syrah, Secret Door Winery, exclusively makes Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley, and Maritana Vinyards focuses on Russian River Valley Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Patz shared, “Deep in my heart this is the best and most satisfying thing – making and sharing/selling wine. It’s been a centerpiece for my professional career for more than three decades and honestly, I could not imagine not being involved. I realized that working with the Patz & Hall model was not the end of all things for me. I wanted a chance to rethink, refocus, and renew my vision for wines under my control.

Since Maritana is a small, personal project, Patz needed to find a production partner.  A fortuitous lunch with Adam Lee of Siduri Winery, who specializes in Pinot Noir, led to Patz selecting Lee’s Sugarloaf Crush near Santa Rosa as the base for Maritana’s 2017 and 2018 selections.  A “crush” is minimally a mechanical device consisting of paddles and rollers that break grapes and extract the juice.   As a crush service provider, Sugarloaf goes beyond that to offer processing, fermentation, tank and barrel storage, bottling, and a tasting room.

Drawing on his long experience in the wine business, for his latest venture Patz was particularly attracted to the Russian River Valley, source of his favorite wines.  The Russian River Valley AVA accounts for about one-sixth of the total planted vineyard acreage in Sonoma County. The appellation was granted AVA status in 1983 and enlarged in 2005. The area lies between Sebastopol and Santa Rosa in the south, and Forestville and Healdsburg in the north. The valley has a characteristically cool climate, heavily affected by fog that drifts in through the Petaluma Gap from the Pacific Ocean.

The complex geography of the valley was shaped millions of years ago by collisions between the North American and Pacific tectonic plates and eruptions by volcanic vents that deposited volcanic ash over layers of eroded bedrock. This created a sandy loam known as “Goldridge soil.” Near Sebastopol, there is a different soil that is more clay based, known as “Sebastopol soil,” which retains less water than Goldridge soil does. Both types have been shown to work well with Pinot Noir plantings. A third soil type, found close to the river, is predominately alluvial sediment and makes up the benchland regions of the river.

Viticulture in the Russian River region dates back to the 19th century when immigrants from Mediterranean countries descended on the region and began planting vines. While most vineyards were “gardens” for personal family consumption, some commercial producers sprung up as well, and by the start of the 20th century there were nearly 200 wineries operating. Predictably, Prohibition induced a precipitous mid-century decline, but the region had largely rebounded by the time AVA status was conferred.

Patz created the name “Maritana” out of whole cloth;  since Sonoma is defined by an ocean on one side and mountains on the other, he came up with:
Ocean ~ MARItime
Mountains ~ MonTANA
MARI-TANA, ergo Maritana.
Easy, huh?

Maritana Chardonnay “La Rivière” 2018

Patz decided on a program of once-used barrels to make up the majority of the barrels used for all the Maritana Chardonnays.  Specifically for this La Rivière, the mix is 90% once-used barrels and 10% new barrels from Burgundy. According to Patz, “This blend of used [and] new barrels, retains the brighter, fresher notes of the Russian River Valley fruitiness and compliments the mineral, floral components of the grapes very precisely.”

The fruit came from three sources, with at least five clones of Chardonnay in the blend. The vineyards included Dutton Ranch, some fruit from Martinelli, and others from the Lynmar Estate.

La Rivière, aka “The River,” was entirely indigenous-yeast fermented in barrel, and aged on the primary fermentation lees throughout its time in barrel. It pours a pale yellow, with aromas of mango and honeysuckle.  The smooth, full palate features lemon, quince, lemon curd, and a touch of caramel. There is plenty of acidity, and those used barrels make for subtle tannins. The ABV is 14.5%, and 2000 cases were produced.

Maritana Pinot Noir “Le Russe” 2018

Le Russe, aka “The Russian,” is a blend of several sites and clones within the appellation, including Martaella Vineyard, one of the Martinelli sites called River Road Vineyard, Jenkins Ranch, Moonshine Ranch, and a little Pinot Noir from an old Russian Hill site. Fermentation was one-half whole cluster. Said Patz, “The purpose of using [some] whole cluster for the Pinot Noir wines was to bring out that beautiful aromatic side of Pinot Noir.” After primary fermentation, for aging the wine was placed into small French oak barrels, 50 to 80% new, depending on the vineyard source.

It has a transparent, medium-purple color. The nose offers juicy aromas of plums and strawberries. The full-bodied mouthfeel carries flavors of tart cherry, cola, and vanilla.  These are supported by forward tannins and very good acidity. The ABV is 14.5%, and 1400 cases were produced.

maritanavineyards.com

Top of page: https://winervana.com/blog/

Alquimista Cellars

La Follette Cellars

Some winemakers and winery proprietors are born into the business. Some buy into the business. And some evolve into it. Greg LaFollette of Alquimista evolved quite successfully. He has been called a “vine whisperer,” a “cellar magician,” and a “tireless coaxer and protector of handcrafted wines.” He is one of Sonoma’s most revered winemakers, and was honored as Winemaker of the Year in 2010. He has also been tagged “Prince of Pinot” by the website of the same name.

first, a career in science

La Follette’s early years were spent as a musician. At 17, he became the bagpiper for the Queen Mary berthed in Long Beach, California. (And he plays the bagpipes to this day.)  “I wanted to be a winemaker since my teens,” admitted La Follette. “But who in Los Angeles becomes a winemaker?” Eventually he decided that neither music nor wine offered a viable way forward, and after earning degrees in Plant Biology and Chemistry, La Follette started his professional career in 1984 at the University of California, San Francisco, as an Infectious Disease  researcher specializing in HIV suppression. While there, he co-authored over a dozen papers in the field. But, he was also still feeling the pull of his early interest in the wine industry.

While taking his masters degree in Food Science and Technology at U.C.Davis, he became fascinated with “mouth feel” and started dissecting wines to determine their components of taste and texture (especially of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay).  His particular interest in the Burgundian techniques of sur lie aging and bâtonnage coincided with an interest in new production techniques in California.

And then, a career in wine

Leaving academia behind, in 1991 he joined Treasury Wine Estates and held various positions at Beaulieu Vineyard, beginning with late-shift Harvest Winemaker and ending with Research Viticulturist/Enologist. He worked closely with winemaker Joel Aiken and the legendary wine master Andre Tchelistcheff, who exhorted La Follette to “live the wine,” which is to say to become totally immersed in both the science and art of winemaking.  He began to  increase his knowledge of Bordeaux varietals and production techniques. He also started traveling throughout the U.S. and Australia to further broaden his skill set.

In 1994 he began toiling for the Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates empire. Owner Jess Jackson enticed him to assist in lifting La Crema out of bankruptcy (that worked out well, for sure!) and starting the Hartford Court label. La Follette helped Hartford Court to win “Winery of the Year” and “Best Pinots of the Year” from Wine and Spirits magazine. His travels continued as he assisted in  establishing new wineries and vineyards in South America and the U.S. Drawing on his training as a researcher, he wrote numerous technical papers during this time, including “Designing Wineries for Maximum Quality Output with Minimum Cost Input,” which is still used by Napa Valley College in their winemaking syllabus.

In 1996, La Follette moved on to the Flowers Vineyard & Winery. His work there resulted in the establishment of a cult Pinot Noir (“massive” as he has characterized it; quite an unusual descriptor for Pinot Noir) and elevation of a previously little-known area that later became known as the Ft. Ross/Seaview AVA. The winery he built at Flowers during his tenure is still considered one of the best gravity-flow, gas-assist green wineries in the world. He reestablished 73 acres of Flowers’ vineyard using the best clones of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay he could find, while simultaneously reducing farming costs by over $4,000 per acre and increasing quality. He had just recently written an influential paper on that very subject, after all.

By 2001 he was partner and co-owner of Greg & Greg Inc., a custom crush facility which became an incubator for small, high-end brands such as McPhail, Londer, Holdredge, and Radio Coteau. That same year he launched the first winery of his own, Tandem Wine Co. These projects overlapped with his stint at Chile’s Viña Casa Marin as Consulting Winemaker, advising on viticulture, winemaking, and facility design. By 2004 he was also consulting with Boisset Collection, pulling yet another label, DeLoach, out of bankruptcy. And, he established La Follette Winegrowing Inc., his on-going wine consultancy that helps establish, resuscitate, or enhance new or struggling wineries.

Alquimista Cellars, perhaps the final stop on his wine journey

Today finds him as winemaker at Alquimista Cellars, in partnership with co-winemaker Patrick Dillon. Alquimista is Spanish for alchemist, a name selected for its history of fusing science, art, spirituality, mythology, the elements, and enlightenment. La Follette said, “Our passion in wine is to capture both magic and your imagination. Imagine winemaking built on science, spirituality, boundary-breaking artistry, and risk. Imagine experiencing wines that inform a new generation of discovery, while, at the same time, venerate old world tradition.”

Dillon also evolved into the world of wine, after wearing many hats: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, writer, author, editor [Forbes], web content director, strategic consultant, vice president of a software firm, executive producer at a web-based data visualization design firm, and co-author of the Open Range cookbook.

In 2000 Dillon and his wife Anne bought a small farm in Sonoma County, where they met Eric Sussman, who had just launched his Radio Coteau label. Leveraging Dillon’s growing interest in winemaking, Sussman recruited him for helping with a variety of chores in the cellar. “He kept telling me how romantic winemaking was,” Dillon recalls. “And I kept reminding him of what a great sense of humor he had.” But the hard work and mentoring paid off, leaving Dillon with an understanding of the need of maintaining great grower relations and enforcing unwavering fastidiousness in both the vineyard and winery. He gained further experience with Marimar Estate in Sonoma County, and later ADAMVS, the high-end Cabernet Sauvignon producer on Napa County’s Howell Mountain. “I saw in Patrick a world of experience that really rubbed off in working with growers even during the toughest harvests and in our winemaking,” reminisced La Follette.

Always the iconoclast, La Follette believes that “balance” is more important than low yields in producing  higher-quality wines. “A broad generalization” he said, referring to the low yield maxim. “It is more likely that high-end wines from vines that are cropped too low are actually worse than if the vine has a balanced crop. This leads to runaway alcohols. If the vine isn’t balanced, it will pay no attention to ripening its grape tannins. Then you must pick the grapes at higher sugar percentages to produce flavor-ripeness and that leads to higher alcohols, lower acidity, and jammy flavors. Balanced vines mean balanced wines, it’s as simple as all that.”

Alquimista’s focus is on vineyard-designated cool-climate Pinot Noir and Chardonnays. La Follette strives for minimal filtering and fining (so usually some cloudiness is to be expected), but all of the wines I was able to sample, at least, were crystal clear. To achieve that, the red wines are settled carefully and turbidity (cloudiness) is monitored before bottling. The white wines are cold-stabilized at 28° F for two weeks, and then racked cleanly off of the settling lees.

All of the wines are made from native yeasts carried from the vineyards on the grapes themselves. Sometimes this can lead to unpredictable results, but La Follette and Dillon fully embrace that possibility. The grapes are sourced from vineyards located in Lodi, the Russian River Valley, and Mendocino.

That little “4” or “A” like symbol on Alquimsta’s labels is the alchemy symbol for maceration, the time grape juice spends in contact with the skins and seeds.

The vineyards

Haiku VineyardThe 141-acre Haiku Vineyard lies at the foot of the Mayacamas Mountains in the Sanel Valley of Mendocino County.  Centuries of floods have left a cobbled and stony soil, in which every block has been organically farmed since  being  planted more than 25 years ago. The Fetzer family has worked it since 2005, using canopy and water management, organic compost, and natural habitats that encourage raptors for rodent control and songbirds for insect control. Cover crops that attract beneficial insects are utilized instead of pesticides, and to  prevent erosion, retain moisture, and add organic matter to the soil. Weeds are mowed rather than killed by herbicides.

Chuck and Gail Jones  purchased a half-acre adjacent to what would become their nearly eight-acre Hawk’s Roost Ranch in west Sonoma County in 1968. “The place had an absentee owner. There were some unkempt zinfandel vines on that land but it appeared to be propagating more weeds and poison oak than wine vines,” Chuck recalled. Eventually building and living on their half acre, Gail grew weary of the eyesore next door. “I’m tired of looking at weeds. Let’s buy the place,” she declared in 1992.

Hawks Roost Ranch

After stripping out the existing vegetation, the first plantings were pumpkins and cut flowers.. “Neither of us knew anything about farming grapes, much less what rootstock was and what it should be for our particular growing area,” Chuck said.  Jim Pratt, one of the area’s most respected vineyard managers, analyzed the soil, finding it consisted of alluvial clay-loam with hardpan about 18 inches beneath the surface. Pratt suggested a hearty rootstock and an equally virulent clone, known for its strength and boldness.  By 1998, more than 5,000 vines had been installed.

The five-acre Jessie’s Grove vineyard near Lodi has endured for 128 years. Originally planted by pioneer Joseph Spenke, and named for his daughter Jessie, the property is now farmed by Greg Burns, Spenker’s great great grandson. The gnarly vines are 86 percent head-trained Zinfandel, with the remainder a motley crew of Black Prince, Flame Tokay, Mission, and  Carignane vines. Says La Follette, “Each contributes a distinct element for the alchemy we strive for. This is our first project [in Lodi] and we are honored to work with arguably the most cherished vineyard of a region already renown for its ancient vines.”

Lorenzo VineyardOwned and farmed by John and Phyllis Bazzano and named for John’s Italian grandfather, the 10-acre Lorenzo Vineyard might have become a golf fairway instead. “My father and some of his friends got wind that the Santa Rosa Golf and Country Club was considering expanding. So, being pretty shrewd, they purchased land that would be in the way of the expansion, hoping for a nice sale,” recalls John. “Well, the expansion never came our way. We ended up with a bunch of oak trees and an old orchard.”

After some false starts in farming the property, the Bazzanos realized their ground possessed just the right amount of Russian River loamy clay to foster wine grapes.  They planted Chardonnay vines in 1974 and 1975; these are now some of the oldest in the appellation. La Follette has worked with the Bazzanos for more than 10 years.

Manchester RidgeManchester Ridge lies about one hour west of Boonville  on the Mendocino coast, 2000 feet above Point Arena and the Pacific.   The vineyard’s 30 acres of weathered soil are routinely subjected to wind, rain, and temperature swings. Since the late 1990s La Follette has partnered with vineyard manager Martin Mochizuki to coax the vines into producing the best grapes they can.

Mes FillesIn 1998, La Follette began working with the owners of the Mes Filles Vineyard  located in the Russian River Valley.  He supervises viticulture to his own specifications on the 10-acre site, which is perched above the fog line atop a hill southwest of Sebastopol. The area is made up of Goldridge soil, a fine sandy loam left from an inland sea that drained into the Pacific more than two million years ago. This soil is known for excellent drainage and good fertility. The sloping vineyard sees long hours of sunlight, and cool coastal evening temperatures are created by marine air moving through the Petaluma Gap.

The Oppenlander Vineyard occupies land cleared 160 years ago by Danish immigrant Charles Oppenlander near the hamlet of Comptche in northern Mendocino County. Bill and Norman Shandel, Oppenlander’s great grandsons, farm the land now along with their wives, Kitty and Wanda. The 20-acre vineyard, first planted more than 100 years ago, and replanted in 1998, is hosted in heavy, clay loam, surrounded by redwoods. Just eight miles from the coast, the property holds cool marine air that fosters long hang time and slow ripening.

a selection of the wines

Before I get to the wines, a note about the cork: for many of their wines, Alquimista is  using a new closure product. Called “UNiQ”, from Ganau,  It  is made from finely ground natural cork that has been put through a high-intensity steam-cleaning process at 180° C.  Although in my experience the overall risk is overstated, this eliminates any trace of TCA (the chemical compound that causes wine to be characterized as “corked”), and guards  against undesired aromas and flavors.  Because of the possibility of cork taint, as well as the increasing cost and scarcity of all-natural cork, we can expect to see more and more producers migrating to these types of products, as well as the useful screw-caps and far less desirable artificial plastic plugs.

Alquimista Chardonnay Manchester Ridge 2016

Because of the challenges Pinot Noir presents to even talented winemakers, La Follette likes to call his Chardonnays his “anti-crazy” wines.

This wine reflects Alquimista’s singleness of vision, and won’t be for everyone.  It is a bright, clear lemon yellow, with aromas of melon and honeysuckle. There is grapefruit and a distinct  grapefruit pith (albedo) bitterness on the tongue, underlain with lemon curd and a hint of white peaches, all supported by crisp acidity.  The ABV is 14.9%, and 100 cases were made.

The bottle art is by Sonoma artist Sandra Rubin.

Alquimista Confluence Pinot Noir 2016

This wine is sourced from three estates, Mes Filles Vineyard, Hawk’s Roost Ranch, and Lorenzo Vineyard, all in the Russian River Valley AVA. The juices from these vineyards were separately aged in French oak for 18 months before being blended.  This Pinot is a medium purple in the glass.  It has a big nose of ripe cherry and spices.  The palate features tart cherries and dark fruits, mainly blueberries.  There is a snappy acidity that may be too intense for younger or more sensitive drinkers.  It all wraps up with a long finish.  The ABV is 14.2%, and a mere 67cases were produced.

The bottle art is  by San Francisco Bay area artist Mandy Bankson.

Alquimista Convergence Pinot Noir 2016

The 2016 is the initial offering of “Convergence,” a blend of three different vineyards in Mendocino County: Manchester Ridge is the anchor, with support form the Oppenlander Vineyard and the Haiku Vineyard.  The Manchester Ridge juice fermented on Chardonnay lees in its two barrels of new oak. The 18 remaining vineyard-designate barrels were once- and twice-used French oak, and the juices were separately aged for 19 months before being converged.  Like the Confluence, this Pinot is a crystal-clear, medium purple in the glass, with a similar nose of ripe cherry and spices.  The soft palate features zippy tart cherries, cranberry, and cinnamon, with a hint of cocoa.  It too all wraps up with a long finish.  The ABV is 14.2%, and 168 cases were produced.

The bottle art is  by San Francisco Bay area artist Mandy Bankson.

Alquimista Hawk’s Roost Ranch Pinot Noir 2016

100% sourced from the Hawk’s Roost Ranch, this Pinot is a clear, red garnet.  You are greeted by aromas of sweet dark berries, plum, and strawberries.   Remarkably, there is also just the slightest hint of smokey bacon.  These are followed by flavors of sweet cherries, cranberry, and fruit compotes.  The mouthfeel is round and soft, and the pliable tannins and acid are in perfect balance.  Definitely not your average California Pinot Noir.  The ABV is 14.1%, and 125 cases were produced.

The bottle art is  by Santa Rosa artist Mary Blake.

Alquimista Manchester Ridge Pinot Noir 2016

This wine was barrel aged on the lees for 16 months in only 15% new oak plus 85% once-used wood.  It is is the palest of these four Pinot Noirs, but with no reduction in flavor.  It starts with aromas of violets and blueberries, which also flow onto the palate with additional flavors of dried fruit, bitter orange, and a bit of cocoa.  It ends with a medium-long finish.  The ABV is 14.6%, and 150 cases were produced.

The bottle art is  by Point Reyes Station artist Toni Littlejohn.

Alquimista Jessie’s Grove Ancient Vine Zinfandel 2016

This selection is primarily Zinfandel, but is blended with the Carignan, Flame Tokay, Black Prince, and Mission grapes that Jessie’s Grove offers.  The black cherry color continues on as aroma to the nose. Then comes the flavors of plum and tart cherry, with just a bit of Zinfandel’s characteristic black pepper spiciness.  It has a long finish.  The ABV is 15.1%, and 65 cases were produced.

The bottle art is  by Sebastopol artist Carol Rae Watanabe.

You can find these and other selections at Alquimista Cellars’ website: https://alquimistacellars.com.

Visitors are welcomed to Alquimista, but strictly by appointment only, Covid or not.  Contact Alquimista through the website for more information.

NOTE:  There is a La Follette Winery in Healdsburg, which grew out of Tandem Wine Co. (it’s complicated), and although Greg La Follette was a part of its establishment as the founding winemaker, he departed soon after over “creative differences,” and no longer has any involvement.

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Flanagan Wines

Flanagan Wines

 

Eric Flanagan did not come of age with a background in the wine business, or even farming. After graduating from college in 1985, he embarked on a banking career, which he pursued until 2013. His job during those years took him on journeys around the world. He had always had an interest in wine, and over the course of these trips Flanagan became fascinated by how grapes of the same variety expressed themselves in different places.

the siren call of wine

Seeing no need to wait for retirement to start a second career, at the age of 36 in 1999 he decided to act on his deep interest in the world of wine. He purchased 40 acres of open land on the side of Bennett Mountain in Sonoma, California, (in what would later become the Bennett Valley AVA). The site sits at 1200 feet on the south and southwest slopes of Bennett Ridge at the confluence of San Pablo Bay and Petaluma Gap. The soil is rocky, volcanic cobbles with excellent drainage. Having a warm micro-climate in a cool region means that bud break here is early, but harvest is late. The extra hang time for the grapes, along with the low yields and the hillside site, can deliver intense, complex fruit. Flanagan and his then very-young first daughter, Riley (who has gone on to become a vintner herself), planted his first vines there in 2001.

Flanagan

The original winery and Bennett vineyard.

Flanagan’s first wine was one barrel of Cabernet Sauvignon made in 2004 with winemaker Philippe Melka. In just the following year he grew production to 150 cases.

Cabell Coursey                                     Isabelle Mort

From 2014 to 2016,  Cabell Coursey was the winemaker at Flanagan. The energetic and peripatetic Coursey also makes the wine for Tony Lombardi, as well as his own label, Coursey Graves. Although he continues as consulting winemaker for Flanagan, the day-to-day winemaking operations are overseen by Isabelle Mort, who also makes the wines for Riley Flanagan’s label, Riley’s Rows.  (And while Eric Flanagan sources all of his grapes from Sonoma County, his daughter draws some of her fruit from ranches in Lake County and Mendocino.)

In 2015, Flanagan obtained a 27-acre Pinot Noir vineyard named Gap’s View in the Petaluma Gap area of the Sonoma Coast AVA. Cool afternoon winds from the Petaluma Gap keep the fruit “clean” and allow it to ripen slowly. The site is the source of some of Flanagan’s Pinot Noir grapes, a small amount of which are made into a vineyard-designated wine.

That same year, he purchased the iconic Sonoma Coast Platt Ranch. With over 300 acres of redwood and fir, it is home to one of the largest coastal redwood groves in the state. The vineyard itself is just 2.5 miles from the Pacific Ocean, and has 31 acres planted to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The soil is Goldridge fine sandy loam, and sits high above the regular morning fog. From the top of the property, you can see the tiny town of Bodega and the Pacific Ocean.

Platt Ranch

Platt Ranch vineyard, which Flanagan believes “may be the greatest Pinot Noir and Chardonnay site in California.”

Flanagan winery 2.0

With access to so much high-quality fruit, Flanagan quickly outgrew the original production facility. In 2016 he purchased a shuttered winery located just outside of Healdsburg. The operation is one of the oldest in Sonoma County, having been originally bonded in 1885. “We couldn’t be more thrilled to have found this special winery site and estate vineyards,” said Flanagan. “We realized [in 2014] that the winery I built in Bennett Valley wouldn’t meet our future needs. Acquiring an operating winery with a 25,000 case permit, ten acres of vineyard, and a public tasting room feels like a miracle.”

Flanagan

The current Flanagan winery.

FlanaganThe Flanagan production building. The three blue rivulets are the winery’s logo, symbolizing the Flanagans’ three children, all daughters.

The estate totals twenty acres, ten of which are planted to vines. Shortly after the purchase, Flanagan and then-winemaker Coursey replanted to Cabernet Sauvignon with modern spacing to make the most of the hillside site. Coursey said at the time, “I’m excited to replant the winery’s estate vineyards, and look forward to redesigning the winery and creating a world-class facility. The new winery will enhance our ability to craft wines with integrity from some of the most exceptional vineyard sites in Sonoma County.”

Flanagan

The view from the tasting room patio.  The rainbow does not appear every day.

In 2016, Flanagan bought the historic Brandt Ranch, which is located within the Kelsey Bench appellation in Lake County, north of Napa Valley. The 120-acre vineyard has 108 acres planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc.

“Having a top Kelsey Bench Cabernet source was a thoughtful addition to the highly-acclaimed Pinot Noir vineyards at Platt Ranch and Gap’s View,” reminisced Flanagan. “Brandt Ranch is a site with great soils, aspect, and climate … my commitment is to help every vineyard we own to realize its potential.”

Other vineyards

In addition to the Bennett Valley, Platt, and Brandt Ranch already mentioned, Flanagan also sources fruit from these two properties (and a few others I won’t get in to).

Bacigalupi Vineyard is a few miles south of the Flanagan winery. The Bacigalupi family owns about 120 acres of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir here. This vineyard was the source of the Chateau Montelena Chardonnay that beat the French competition at the famous “Judgement of Paris” tasting in 1976.

Ritchie Vineyard, a famous Chardonnay site in Sonoma County, was planted in the early ’70s with a Wente clone of Chardonnay. Owner Kent Ritchie was told shortly afterward he would have to eventually replant the vineyard because the vines were not phylloxera resistant, but some forty years later the Ritchie Vineyard is still producing world-class fruit.

Sustainability

Flanagan has an annual production of 4,300 cases, all made sustainably. As of this writing, they are in the process of having their vineyards certified sustainable by CSWA (California Sustainable Winegrowers Alliance).

Beyond the formal certification, sustainability for Flanagan means, “that we farm with a long-term mindset. We do everything we can to ensure that this land will be as healthy, or healthier than, it was when we found it. We are committed to balanced, healthy vineyards, and to producing wines that reflect the integrity and distinctiveness of their site. Our mission is to make great wines from the best vineyards in Sonoma County.”

Flanagan clan

The Flanagan clan.

Flanagan Chardonnay Russian River Valley 2017

The wine was 100% barrel fermented with a blend of fruit sourced primarily from the Bacigalupi and Ritchie vineyards, and then aged for 11 months in French oak barrels, of which 45% were new. A bright gold in the glass, it features a nose of citrus and papaya aromas, with a hint of butterscotch. The lush mouthfeel is accompanied by flavors of tart grapefruit, pineapple, pear, and a suggestion of minerality.  It has bright acidity to balance the richness, and a long finish. ABV is 14.5%.  359 cases produced.  This is one of Flanagan’s four Chardonnays.

Flanagan Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast 2016

This Pinot Noir saw 11 months of ageing in  French oak, 46% new. Fermentation was done in open top fermenters for 10 days.  It exhibits a brilliant clear dark red color, and a nose dominated by dark plum accompanied by red cherry, floral notes, and spice. There are flavors of tart cherry and mixed red fruits on the palate.  The tannins are nicely integrated.  It ends in a medium finish, with a lingering suggestion of black tea. This vintage was sourced from the  Gap’s View and Platt vineyards, as well as two others. ABV is 14.3%, and 700 cases were made.  This is one of the five Pinot Noir’s Flanagan produces.

Flanagan The Beauty of Three Proprietary Red 2015

This is a blend of 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Syrah, and 5% Merlot, drawn from the same barrels as their Flagship blend, but with a different composition.

It presents with a rich, dark purple color.  There are plenty of blackberry and dark stone fruit aromas, and these continue on as the primary flavors with the addition of some cassis.  It has an unctious mouthfeel, very smooth tannins, and a nice long finish. ABV is 14.8% and 640 cases were released.

www.flanaganwines.com

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Coursey Graves Winery

Coursey Graves

 

Cabell Coursey

Cabell Coursey is a busy guy these days. In addition to being the winemaker at Lombardi Winery, he is also winemaker and co-owner at Coursey Graves Winery in Santa Rosa, California. He began his career in wine in Burgundy, where he worked his first harvest during an undergraduate semester abroad. After graduation, he returned to the States and pursued the menial but necessary chores of picking grapes, scrubbing tanks and barrels, and learning traditional winegrowing methods. He went on to toil in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, and later traveled to Christchurch, New Zealand, where he earned graduate degrees in Enology and Viticulture from Lincoln University. It was there he developed the passion for cool climate wines that guides his style today. Before starting Coursey Graves in 2015 with partner John Graves, Coursey made wine for Alder Springs Vineyard, DuMol, Flanagan, and Kosta Browne.

He is committed to constantly improving the wines he makes from vintage to vintage by understanding his vineyards and maximizing their quality.  He also feels obligated to mentor young winegrowers by teaching parameters they can use to customize and improve grape farming for better produce.

Coursey stated,  “I am interested in making wines that show the place where they are grown, taste great young, but also age [well]. With most wines, aging means maintaining. I strive to make wines that evolve, not just maintain.
Except for a little bit of Chardonnay, I grow all the grapes I make to wine. It’s important, because my team learns about the vineyard and can change how we grow the grapes to make better wines.”

John GravesJohn Graves began his career in computer technology, and after a decade spent working for others, he left to strike out on his own. Thirty years later he sold a successful B-to-B software business. He and his wife Denise used a portion of the proceeds to establish the Graves Foundation, whose mission is to provide disadvantaged youth in greater Minneapolis with access to the resources, opportunities, and caring relationships that will propel them to a successful life. Specifically, the foundation focuses on K-12 education reform and providing foster kids with support during the transition to adulthood.

Grave’s interest in wine began as a hobby, influenced by a good friend and by Robert Parker’s reviews in the Wine Advocate. At length his interest expanded until the desire to learn became a desire to own a winery. Serendipitously, about the same time his winemaker friend Cabell Coursey began talking about starting a new venture of wines in a style they both loved to drink and share. Graves acquired the existing Bennett Valley Winery, and the first vintage of Coursey Graves was bottled in 2017.

Bennett Valley AVA

In 1862, Santa Rosa winemaker Isaac DeTurk planted a vineyard on land he purchased from valley namesake James Bennett. DeTurk called his winery, the valley’s first, Belle Mount. However, the combination of phylloxera and Prohibition cleared the valley of vineyards. It wasn’t until the late 1970s that vineyards returned to Bennett Valley in a meaningful way at the pioneering Matanzas Creek Winery.

The Bennett Valley AVA is located south of Santa Rosa, on high ground between the Sonoma Valley and Cotati Valley. The AVA begins where the city’s suburban neighborhood known as Bennett Valley abruptly gives way to rolling oak woodland and horse pastures bordered by ancient stone walls.

This tiny appellation is one of the coolest AVAs in Sonoma County. This is because of  the Petaluma Gap, where a break in the higher coastal hills lets in cool winds and fog from the Pacific Ocean. Bennett Valley sits directly in the path of the initial incursion.   The fact that there is fog in all of the photos in this post is testament to that!

Although there are plenty of renowned wineries and vineyards throughout Sonoma, of course, the lesser-known vineyards of Bennett Valley quietly yield some of the area’s most highly concentrated fruit. This is because the well-drained volcanic soils of the area ensure that the vines grow deep root systems in search of hydration. Ultimately this leads to concentrated, complex wines, as the water-stressed vines will focus their attention on grapes, rather than luxurious foliage. The rocky soils coupled with the cool weather mimic the austere conditions of Bordeaux.

There are now 650 vineyard acres and four wineries in Bennett Valley, which was awarded AVA status in 2003.

The Coursey Graves Vineyards

Coursey Graves is located on vineyard sites 800 to 1500 feet above sea level on Bennett Mountain overlooking Sonoma, on the western edge of the ancient, volcanic Mayacamas Range that separates Napa and Sonoma. The winery, estate vineyards, and caves are built into the slope overlooking the Bennett Valley below. Eighteen acres are planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Syrah.

 

In addition to the estate vineyard, Coursey Graves relies on two others as well. Nestled on the sloped edge of an ancient volcano, Coombsville Vineyard is home to sixteen acres of Bordeaux varieties growing between the red and black igneous basalt and the white, ashy volcanic tuff. At two thousand feet above sea level, Cabernet from Howell Mountain Vineyard benefits from much cooler daytime temperatures and slower ripening.

The wines

I have now had the opportunity to try eight of Cabell Coursey’s wines.  They all have a smooth and silky mouthfeel.  Thinking this had to reflect the intervention of the winemaker, I asked him about how he achieves that, and he had this to say,  “First is vineyard work.  I get up-front and mid-palate concentration through diligent effort in the vineyard, by managing fruit load to the amount of vine canopy, and careful applications of irrigation. I have some control over berry size, and therefore juice to skin ratio, by controlling how much water-stress the vines have at various times during the growing season. Extra stress at flowering and fruit set limits berry size, while more water increases berry size. I don’t have a standard plan each vintage, but rather change according to conditions.

“Second is tannin management during the winemaking process. Certain tannins (phenols) extract from grapes at different ranges in temperature. Also, they bind at different temperatures. I manage the temperatures during fermentation very closely and change to either extract, not extract, or bind, depending on taste and mouthfeel. I do use lab numbers to double check what I taste. However, it’s mostly by taste. After working with these vineyards and my cellar for a few years, I’ve started to learn where the wines’ tannins need to be at the end of fermentation to age properly upon the wines’ release and subsequent aging.”

Coursey Graves Chardonnay 2018

The fruit for this wine was sourced from the Durell and Heintz vineyards on the Sonoma coast. It was fermented in oak and stainless-steel barrels. It is light bright lemon yellow in the glass, which is appropriate as it opens with the smell of lemons, paired with a hint of melon and crushed stone. Those flavors continue on the palate, abetted by a zippy acidity and a suggestion of oak.  It wraps up in a brisk finish.  Only 91 cases were made.

Coursey Graves West Slope Syrah 2016

This 100% Syrah  hails from Coursey Graves’ estate vineyard in Bennett Valley. It is an opaque but brilliant purple color. It features aromas of dark red fruits. The rather lean palate offers flavors of blackberry and olive, with a bit of pepper at the end.  It’s all complemented by good  tannins and a moderately long finish. Production was limited to 268 cases.

Coursey Graves Cabernet Sauvignon 2016

This wine is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon (although in some years Coursey adds and just a bit of Merlot). The grapes were  mostly harvested from vineyards in Howell Mountain and Coombsville in Napa, as well as some from Bennett Valley in Sonoma.  The aromatics are of rich, complex dark fruit. On the palate the wine offers tart cherry, black cherry, red licorice, and cocoa. The  oak tannins are well-integrated and bracing.  According to the winery, it will be at its peak performance around 2023 to 2024, by which time those tannins will inevitably round out, if you prefer them softer. .192 cases were produced. 

Coursey Graves Bennett Mountain Estate Red Blend 2016

This elegant wine was my favorite of the quartet. The blend is 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Merlot, all from the estate vineyard in Bennett Valley.  This deep-red selection displays aromas of crushed rock and currant, with a hint of strawberry.  These are followed by flavors of dark plum, blueberries, crème de cassis, and a touch of vanilla, supported by fine tannins.  It offers an excellent example of Coursey’s super smooth, lush mouthfeel.  There is just a bit of dried herbs on the long finish.  234 cases were made.
Coursey Graves’ tasting room is located in downtown Healdsburg, just off the historic Healdsburg Plaza.

https://www.courseygraves.com/

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Lombardi Winery

Lombardi Wines

Tony Lombardi was born into a family of small business owners, and grew up in Sonoma County. He graduated from Saint Mary’s College with a degree in Business Management. His first job in the wine business came in 1998 when he joined the hospitality team at Clos Du Bois Winery, located in Geyserville, California.

From 2001 to 2013, Lombardi held senior leadership positions in marketing, public relations, and sales for such companies as Allied Domecq Wines, Beam Wine Estates, J Vineyards & Winery, Ascentia Wine Estates, and Kosta Browne Winery.

In partnership with his wife Christine, Lombardi founded Lombardi Wines in 2013 with a barrel of Chardonnay and a barrel of Pinot Noir.  He describes himself as a storyteller/connector at heart, and loves to tell the unique and interesting personal stories of Sonoma and Napa wineries and winemakers, and connect them and their wines to people across the country.  As part of that effort, he was encouraged to take the leap of faith in creating his own label from his former employers Dan Kosta and Michael Browne. They told him, “We did it, so should you!”

Lombardi hired Cabell Coursey in 2015 to be his winemaker and viticulturist/grower relations manager after he had held those jobs for three years at Kosta Browne.  Coursey also toils at his own winery, Coursey Graves. Prior to those efforts, he was the winemaker with Andy Smith at Dumol.  Well traveled, he has made wines all over the world, including Burgundy, New Zealand, Oregon, and California.

Coursey and Lombardi make small lots of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from vineyards in the Sonoma Coast AVA.  However, the winery owns no acreage or vineyards itself.  Rather, the Pinot Noir fruit is sourced from growers in the greater Petaluma area, where the Lombardi family has been since 1947, and Lombardi himself has cultivated many close relationships. He says, “I’m most proud of the interconnections I have with grower families that provide access to incredible fruit and that I can make a style of wine that I love to drink. The greatest satisfaction is seeing that enjoyment from people who try the wines I love to make. I founded my winery to honor my Italian roots and immigration story.  Wine has always been a part of my family’s history, starting from my great-grandfather Nazzareno Lombardi and his childhood friend Cesare Mondavi and their story of coming to America together in 1914. Sunday night dinners with extended family where the lively and spirited conversation around the dinner table was religion, politics, but always family first.”

The winery is not open to the public and does not have a tasting room. The wines are sold through an allocated mailing list.  This limited production is by design, as Lombardi wants the winery to grow “organically.”  Newly active members are first offered the Appellation Series and a small allocation of limited production single vineyard designates. Consistent ordering gains members access to a wider selection of wines.

In addition to being a wine entrepreneur, in 2015 Lombardi started Lombardi Marketing, a boutique consulting company offering marketing, public relations, and wholesale services for the benefit of small to mid-size wine companies in need of this expertise.

Lombardi also actively participates in charity wine auctions across the country. He believes that connecting through wine helps raise much-needed awareness and funds for worthwhile causes.

Tony Lombardi

Tony Lombardi

Lombardi Chardonnay Sonoma Coast 2018

The fruit was sourced from the Sangiacomo family of growers (and winemakers) in Petaluma.  Fermented in 100% French oak barrels, of which only 10% were new, this Chardonnay was aged for 14 months in custom barrels sourced from the Freres, Bousseau, Chassin, Mercurey, and Atelier cooperages of France.   It is a very pale yellow, with aromas of melon and honeysuckle, and just a hint of vanilla.   The dominant flavors are lemon and tangerine, backed up by peach.  Not surprisingly, with so little new oak during fermentation, there is just a whisper of wood.  The wine finishes with an ideal level of refreshing acidity.  The ABV is 13.5%.  Like all Lombardi selections, this is a limited-production wine, with 240 cases made.

Lombardi Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast 2018

This wine was fermented in 100% French oak barrels (25% new).  It then saw 14 months of aging in custom barrels sourced from the Boutes and Atelier cooperages of France.   It shows a very transparent ruby in the glass.  The nose features aromas of rich black cherry, currants, and a hint of marshmallow.  On the palate there is a silky mouthfeel, with flavors of tart cherry, blackberry, and a bit of cocoa.  The focused acidity is complemented by delicate tannins.  It all wraps up with a medium-long finish.  The ABV is 14.2%.   300 cases made.

Lombardi Pinot Noir Hill Justice Vineyard 2018

The Hill Justice vineyard is nearly 1,100 feet up the side of Sonoma Mountain, and was personally planted by winemaker Cabel Coursey and his team.  This wine was fermented in 100% French oak barrels (50% new).  It then saw 14 months of aging in barrels sourced from Boutes and Atelier.   It is a very crystal-clear deep purple.  The wine starts with aromas of dark stone fruit, blackberry, and chocolate.  In the mouth, it is super smooth, with flavors echoing the scents, plus some cola.  The delicate acidity is supported by fine tannins.  Things come to an end with a juicy finish.  The ABV is 14.%.   100 cases made.

Lombardi Pinot Noir Guisti Ranch 2018

The fruit for this wine was grown by the Giusti family, who came to Sonoma  from San Pelligrino, Italy in the 1870s.   They began by farming olives and grapes, then moved over the years to prunes, cherries, and apples, and have now returned to grapes and olives.  The first Pinot Noir planting was in 2000.

Giusti Ranch

Giusti Ranch and Vineyard  Photo: Kurt Giusti

Under the Giusti Ranch Vineyard designate, in addition to supplying Lombardi, the family also sells  grapes to Kosta Browne Winery, in another example of Tony Lombardi’s tightly-knit network.

This wine was fermented in 100% French oak barrels (50% new).  It then saw 14 months of aging in barrels sourced from Taransaud, Chassin, and Boutes.   Like the Hill Justice, it is a very crystal-clear deep purple.  It also has similar aromas of dark stone fruit, blackberry, and a bit of baked cherry pie.  It is super smooth as well, with flavors echoing the scents.  The acidity and tannins are well balanced, and the wine delivers a long finish.  The ABV is 14.8%.   100 cases made.

Although Oregon and Washington state are justifiably famous for their Pinot Noirs, Lombardi’s selections prove that with high-quality fruit and a skilled winemaker, Sonoma can do equally well.  Indeed, these are some of the best Pinot Noirs I’ve ever had.  Highly recommended.

https://www.lombardiwines.com/

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Sanford Winery

Sanford WinerySanford Winery, the first such operation in Santa Barbara wine country, was established when the Sanford & Benedict vineyard was planted in 1971. Botanist Michael Benedict and his friend Richard Sanford were committed to finding a cool-climate location with just enough heat accumulation to ripen, but not over ripen, wine grapes. A place where they could plant and grow grapes and craft wines, where they hoped the quality might equal the best of Europe.

Benedict began researching and touring the cool coastal regions of California in search of a site that would suit this mission. His pursuit took him to a unique part of the Santa Ynez Valley, to the property that would ultimately become the Sanford & Benedict vineyard. The area owes its magic to an unusual east-west mountain valley that runs from the vineyards to the Pacific Ocean. This passage allows a meteorological ebb-and-flow of air temperature between the mountains and the sea that is ideal for cool-climate varietals.( It was also this vineyard that supplied the cuttings for many of the surrounding vineyards that sprang up in the wake of its success.)

The Sanford & Benedict Vineyard was named one of the five most important and iconic vineyards in California by Wine Enthusiast. It is known for both its historical significance and the continued quality of the fruit it produces. Sanford farms 51 acres of vines from the original planting, the oldest in the region. These vines were planted on their own root stock (vitis vinifera), and these “own rooted” vines have flourished for more than 45 years. The vineyard features calcium-rich clay loam soils with fractured shale and chert (a hard, dark, opaque rock composed of silica (chalcedony) with an amorphous or microscopically fine-grained texture), a result of the sloughing off of the top half of this mountain over one million years ago. Primarily planted to Pinot Noir, the Sanford & Benedict vineyard features more than 20 individual blocks and 11 different clones.

Sanford & Benedict Vineyard

Sanford & Benedict Vineyard

The La Rinconada Vineyard was planted in 1997, and is adjacent to Sanford & Benedict. It is home to 20 vineyard blocks and 12 clones. The same soil and climate conditions make both areas ideal sources for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The individual blocks of these two estate vineyards are farmed and harvested to make the most of their subtle variations in soils and microclimates.

La Rinconada Vineyard

La Rinconada Vineyard

The property in total is comprised of nearly 1,200 acres, with approximately 262 acres planted to vine. Much of the property remains undeveloped natural land, including a 127-acre conservation easement pledged to the Santa Barbara Land Trust. It is this balance of farmed versus unfarmed land on the ranches which helps in creating and maintaining a balanced ecosystem and an ideal growing environment.

Irrigation systems are fully modernized and variable across the estate to dramatically decrease water usage and increase water conservation. Cover crops and composting are utilized to support and promote microbiotic soil health, which in turn promotes the sustainability of the vineyards and the overall health of the vines. Mechanical tilling and cutting of weeds dramatically reduces the use of herbicides in the vineyard. Owl and raptor boxes have been installed and maintained around the periphery of the vineyards to create nesting sanctuaries for indigenous predatory birds that control vineyard pests in a natural and eco-friendly way.

These two estate vineyards are now part of the Santa Rita Hills AVA, which was designated in 2001.

The winery itself is located at Rancho La Rinconada. It was completed in 2001 and was inspired by traditional California mission architecture. The walls are constructed of adobe blocks handmade on site. The insulating quality of this material makes it ideal for a winery. With adobe walls thirty inches thick, there is no need for either heating or air conditioning. The cellar interior is 55º to 65º year-round, with no energy use.

 

Sanford Winery

The Sanford Winery

Sanford Celler

The Sanford Cellar

The lumber for the winery was acquired by recycling timbers from a turn of the 19th century sawmill building originally located in Washington State. After this building was purchased and disassembled, its 500,000 board feet of first-growth Douglas Fir was transported to Sanford. Along with the wood came the sawmill itself, which was utilized on-site to re-mill the timbers to meet construction needs.

The winery uses a unique and gentle system to move wine through the facility: a gravity racking system. Four 3600-gallon wine tanks are positioned on hydraulic lifts. The winery crew can move a 14-ton tank of wine below ground or 20 feet in the air. The crew then uses gravity to move wine from tank to barrel (or bottling) without disruptive pumping and agitation of the wine.

 

Winemaker and General Manager Trey Fletcher leads a veteran winemaking team at Sanford. He spent eight years at Bien Nacido Vineyards in Santa Maria, as Winemaker and General Manager, and has also held winemaking roles with Littorai Wines in Sebastopol. Next is Laura Roach, Assistant Winemaker, who joined Sanford in 2012. Her career began at Schramsberg Vineyards in 2008 as a Laboratory Intern. Two years later, she gained her Bachelors of Science in Viticulture and Enology at UC Davis, and was awarded the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin Scholarship to work abroad in Burgundy, France, in 2010. Through this exposure, she gained an appreciation for terroir and honed her skills for producing quality Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Cellar Master Auggie Rodriguez has been a part of Sanford Winery from the very beginning. (Rodriguez’s father was one of Sanford Winery’s first employees hired to help plant the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard. He worked on the estate for the next 20 years, retiring in 1991.) Rodriguez started working for Sanford in 1986 at the age of 16. While still in high school, he worked summers and weekends at the winery. Auggie attended the Culinary & Hotel School at Santa Barbara City College while continuing to be part of the production team and managing the cellar for Sanford. Erik Mallea, Vineyard Manager, comes from a northwestern Minnesota farming family. He majored in Biology and Geology at Oberlin College before heading west to start working in vineyards and wineries. Mallea worked for producers in Oregon, New Zealand, and California’s Central Valley before coming to Santa Barbara County. He started working with the Sanford estate vineyards in 2009 while completing his M.S. in Viticulture and Enology.

Alex Rodriguez

Cellarmaster-to-be Auggie Rodriguez (right) and family at Sanford & Benedict Vineyard in 1972

Today, the estate is owned, farmed, and overseen by the Terlato family wine empire. The Terlato family has been involved in the US wine industry for over 70 years with, the motto “Quality Endures.”

Sanford Winery Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Nior 2017

The 2017 Sanford Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir is a blend of fruit from the two estate vineyards: Sanford and Benedict (88%) and La Rinconada (12%). The vines were stressed in the midst of the sixth year of a severe drought. Fruit was selected from eight blocks of different soil types. The wine was then fermented in French oak barrels (25% new) for 15 months.

The wine is a deep, but transparent, violet red in the glass, with a nose of black cherry and cola. The dominant tart cherry notes and dusty berry flavors continue on to the palate; they are complemented by plenty of acid and supple tannins. It wraps up with a medium-long finish.

Serve this wine with Sauteed Duck Breast with Pinot Noir Sauce (just don’t squander this Pinot Noir on the sauce), or Salmon en Papillote.

Sanford Winery Sta. Rita Hills Rosé of Pinot Nior 2018

This Rosé is a lovely pale salmon pink. Perhaps predictably, it is a more subtle version of the Pinot Noir above, plus aromas of cranberry and rose petal. The tart cherry flavor is backed up by strawberry. Shows very crisp acidity and good minerality. Fermented in stainless steel, followed by aging in a combination of neutral barrels and stainless steel tanks before bottling.

Drink this with Cider-Marinated Bluefish with Spicy Sliced Tomatoes, Grilled Tuna with Fresh Peach and Onion Relish, or Oak Planked Salmon Charmoula.

Sanford Winery Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay 2017

The color is pale gold, with a subtle nose of lemon and crème brûlée.

This makes the intensity of this racy wine on the palate all the more surprising; plenty of bright lemon and grapefruit notes supported by “just enough” oak, a bit of floral character, and that zippy acidity.

I suggest you pair this Chard with Chicken Breast with Artichokes and Mustard Sauce, Smoked Turkey and Roasted Red Pepper Sandwiches, or Seared Scallops with Fruit Salsa.

https://www.sanfordwinery.com/

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