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 hoped he saw what he had been searching for: a property that 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Michael Beaulac, Senior Winemaker
Beaulac, a Vermont native, is 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.
Darrell Holbrook, Winemaker
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, 2nd Generation Vintner
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 Sauvignon Blanc Chalk Hill Appellation 2021
The grapes for this wine arrived at the winery in small (½ macro) individual picking bins to protect the bunches from damage. After inspection and sorting, the whole bunches were taken directly to the press and extracted using direct to press, low pressure pressing with minimal rotations for a gentle juice extraction. A protective blanket of carbon dioxide was added, since Sauvignon Blanc can be damaged by contact with oxygen.
The juice was 100% estate grown, a mix of 95% Sauvignon Blanc and 5% Sauvignon Gris. It was 100% barrel fermented for seven months using cultured yeasts in a combination of 9% new French oak, 27% stainless steel, and 64% neutral oak, There was no malolactic fermentation. Bâtonnage, the periodic stirring of the lees in the barrel, occurred bi-weekly for 10 weeks and then monthly after that. This serves to add texture, mouthfeel, and barrel integration.
This is nearly colorless in the glass, with just the palest yellow hue. The nose is fairly delicate, dominated by grapefruit and a suggestion of roses. Then, it bursts on the palate, with plenty of lemon and grapefruit, aided and abetted by just a hint of grassiness, flinty minerality, and some hay. It is all wrapped up in a rich, full mouthfeel. ABV is 14.5%.
For another interesting Chalk Hill Sauvignon Blanc, click here.
Chef Alec Graham’s Grilled Nectarines with Chive Oil, Thyme, and Chèvre
Celebrate spring with this recipe from Chalk Hill Estate Vineyards’ onsite chef who oversees the culinary program there.
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