A Search for Radiance

Bob Varner

It’s evening in March. We’ve just finished barrel-tasting 2011 Chardonnay and Pinot Noir with Jim Varner. The conversation has focused on a calm but passionate exploration of the principles expressed behind the wine. Listening to Jim’s account, what becomes clear is that the focus is one of supreme gentleness. The subtle power of such an approach echoes through the wines as we taste them. Twins Jim and Bob Varner have now celebrated 18 vintages making wine from their Spring Ridge site, though they began planting it 34 years ago. From it they produce wines under the Varner and Neely labels, Bob managing the vineyard and winemaking, and Jim running the office and business. Spring Ridge rides the rim of Portola Valley, on undulating slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains. The Valley had not been cultivated to vines when the brothers began their project.

Through much of the Santa Cruz Mountains, vineyards grow out of sight from each other, giving winemakers a sense of isolation from outside influence that is rare to most wine country. The region still echoes today with solitude, though it also carries in it some of the deepest, most respected heritage of California wine.

In the 1870s, Paul Masson, a Burgundian winemaker, found his way on to the elevated slopes of the Santa Cruz Mountains and established vineyards for sparkling wine. The fog and cooling influence of two bodies of water-the San Francisco Bay to the east, and Pacific Ocean to the west -combined to offer the structural assets of a cooler climate needed for sparkling wine. In the 1940s, Masson’s enterprise led local entrepreneur Martin Ray to establish even higher vineyards and to begin making varietally specific wines from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and later Cabernet Sauvignon, an enterprise essentially untried in the state before. The site would come to be known as the historic Mount Eden.

To continue reading this article continue over to the World of Fine Wine website where the article appears in full for free online. Here’s the link:


California Wild Fires

As some of you know, California has been hit again and again this year with wild fires. Lake County alone is currently suffering its fifth this summer.

The current Valley Fire, as its come to be known, has been particularly devastating. It started midday Saturday (this weekend) and escalated to 40,000 acres in only 24 hrs, and has continued to spread to 61,000 acres with only 5% containment.

Even harder, the fire has forced substantial evacuations as it has moved through towns and residential communities in Southern Lake County, North Napa Valley, and Eastern Sonoma County. Thousands of people and their pets are displaced, many having lost everything to the fire.

How to Help

Evacuation centers have been established in both Lake County and Napa Valley.

There are also numerous sites accepting donations of goods, toiletries, clothing and shoes (of all sizes and ages), and personal items. Please call ahead if you want to make a drop off.

There are several animal care facilities accepting donations of pet food, bedding, collars and leashes, etc for everything from dogs and cats, to chickens or rabbits, and horses and livestock.

Following is the information I have been able to gather.

As always, monetary donations are most helpful.


Provident Credit Union’s Fire Relief Fund UPDATED
100% of the proceeds will be distributed to nonprofit agencies in the Lake County community to assist in the recovery effort. Additionally, Provident will match proceeds up to $5,000.
Donate in branch.
Donate by Phone: 
Phone: (800) 632-4600, opt. 0
Donate by mail: mail a check payable to Lake County Fire Victims Fund c/o Provident Credit Union to this address:
ATTN: Lake County Fire Victim’s Fund
Provident Credit Union
303 Twin Dolphin Drive
Redwood Shores, CA 94065

Redwood Credit Union
has started a fund in partnership with The Press Democrat and Senator Mike McGuire to assist those affected by the Lake County fires.

Mendo Lake County Credit Union

they have set up a fund specifically for fire relief and guaranteed all funds will be used for those impacted by the fires.

Wine Country Animal Lovers
are doing tons of work to help pet evacuees and coordinating efforts through shelters and pet hospitals throughout the region. They are also accepting monetary donations, which are being dedicated to those affected by the fire.

Red Cross donation site. Indicate disaster relief.
If you donate via Paypal you can add a note designating #ValleyFire

To register for Red Cross Assistance American Red Cross “Safe and Well” website
call 1-800-RED-CROSS (1-800-733-2767) to let families know you are safe.

Middletown Mustangs High School Football Team UPDATED
The Valley Fire started the weekend prior to Middletown High School’s Homecoming week. At least 1/3 of the football team lost everything, including their gear. Emergency funds don’t typically cover the cost of replacing athletic equipment. The team from El Molino High School, which the Mustangs were scheduled to play this week for homecoming, have started a fund to replace athletic gear for the Middletown team. Sports are a great way for young people to move forward productively. The Mustang’s team have expressed their desire to get back to practice.


Two primary evacuation centers both being led by the Red Cross:

Kelseyville High School
5480 Main Street, Kelseyville, CA

Napa County Fairgrounds
1435 N Oak St, Calistoga, CA.
Petaluma Animal Services and Wine Country Animal Lovers are available for evacuated pets and animals.


Big Valley Rancheria Gymnasium
1002 Osprey Court (off Soda Bay Road), Lakeport, CA.
There is space for parking of self-contained RV’s outside the shelter.

Clearlake Senior Center
3245 Bowers Avenue, Clearlake, CA

Cole Creek Equestrian Center
4965 Steelhead Drive, Kelseyville, CA
With or without livestock.
Space for self-contained RV’s, trailers and tents.

Kelseyville Presbyterian Church
5340 Church Street, Kelseyville, CA

Redwood Empire Fairgrounds, Fine Arts Building
1055 North State Street, Ukiah, CA
They have facilities for shelter of small animals and can also house some large animals.
Directions: Coming from Lake County, take N State St exit and head south. Go through two stop lights and take a left past KFC.

Seventh Day Adventist Church of Lakeport
1111 Park Way, Lakeport, CA
Space for self-contained RV’s.

Lakeport Auto Movies
52 Soda Bay Rd, Lakeport, CA 95453
Space for self-contained RVs, trailers, and campers only.
Please check in at movie theater office.
Dump station available in Library Park near launch at 5th St in Lakeport, No potable water to fill tanks.


Moose Lodge in Clear Lake
15900 E Highway 20, Clearlake Oaks, CA 95423
(707) 998-3740

Methodist Church in Clear Lake
call Cindy at 1 (408) 821-2443

List of donation centers. You can add to the list as well.

Napa County Fairgrounds
1435 N Oak St, Calistoga, CA.


Lake County Horse Rescue is taking large animal evacuees.
4949 Hellbush Drive in Lakeport. 707-263-0278

Lake County Horse Council has additional equestrian rescue information:

People wanting to offer help housing / transporting horses should follow and post the following pages:
Sunrise Horse Rescue
Cole Creek Equestrian Center
Sonoma County CHANGE Program

Petaluma Animal Shelter is helping to coordinate pet care at the Napa Fair Grounds

Wine Country Animal Lovers is helping to coordinate pet care at the Napa Fair Grounds
and with shelters throughout the North Coast

Emergency Boarding Assistance is available at animal hospitals throughout the North Coast. Animals must be up with current vaccinations but at hospitals where there is still room doctors are offering free shots to get animals current. Here is a list of hospitals. Please call ahead.

If you want to foster dogs/cats, please complete an application with our rescue partners at Sonoma Humane Society ~ they are also accepting donations!

Pet Food, supplies and donations can be accepted by our rescue partners who are also working with us at the Napa County Fairgrounds in Calistoga:
Jameson Animal Rescue Ranch
Petaluma Animal Services

How to volunteer: You are welcome to visit the Napa County Fairgrounds in Calistoga and check in with a coordinator to see what you can do to help. It might be cooking in the kitchens, refilling water bowls for pets, organizing piles of incoming donations, etc. and these needs will be ongoing as long as the evacuation center is up and running.

Pet Lost and Found Pages:
Valley Fire – Lake County Lost or Found Pets
PET Lost and Found for Lake County Fires
Napa Valley Equine
Lake County Animal Care & Control


If you or someone you know needs help handling distress from the wildfire please call the following Distress Hotline for assistance. They have access to a range of resources that can help.
Call: 1-800-985-5990 (they have Spanish language speakers available as well)



Mail for the evacuated areas has been re-routed and is available for pick up at the following locations:

For Cobb and Clearlake Riviera:
Kelseyville Post Office
5500 Gaddy Lane
Kelseyville, CA 95451

For Middletown and Hidden Valley Lake:
Clearlake Post Office
14500 Olympic Drive
Clearlake, CA 95422


Lake County Tribal Health and St. Helena Clearlake Clinic have same day appointments available to evacuees: Call 263-8382 or 995-4500


Sonoma’s Far Coast: A haven for pinot noir

Wine & Spirits pinot noir

We step out of the forest into a glade where light pours through. Ted Lemon has guided me to the top of a hill at 1,200 feet of elevation in The Haven. He has been farming half of this tenacre property since 2001, using biodynamic methods, and he left half of the land wild.

“This is why it’s called The Haven,” he says of Littorai’s estate vineyard. The surrounding forest and coastal scrub provides animal habitat to foster biodiversity. Behind us, pinot noir, chardonnay and chenin blanc grow from a mix of shale, iron sands, compressed clay and serpentine.

These hills are part of Sonoma’s coastal mountains, most of which remain covered in conifers, too steep for cultivation. Vineyards have only arrived in the last 30 years, almost all planted in the 1990s or later on the gentler slopes and hilltops. (Until 1994, when Williams Selyem, Kistler and Littorai came knocking, even David Hirsch’s now sought-after fruit was going to Kendall-Jackson for blending.)

To read the rest of this article click on over to the Wine & Spirits Magazine website. It’s currently free-for-all there. Here’s the link:

In Praise of Discomfort

I’m at my best uncomfortable. I blame my parents though it isn’t really their fault. They raised me commercial fishing for salmon from the age of 9, till I retired in my early 20s, and it’s shaped my life ever since. I’ve spent my adulthood retraining simple habits I picked up fishing like going without food, water, or the bathroom as some faulty testament of fortitude and strength. Even so, summers still I schedule myself for work past the point of fatigue and revel along the way in pulling it off semi-gracefully. Part of me still admires the capacity to work beyond apparent human limits, as if it isn’t really me that pulls it off. I just get to be part of it. This July, for example, I completed the first half day of a visit with a migraine and the producers never found out. The man that drove me that day graciously helped track questions during the interview, for which I am endlessly grateful. I could keep up with the conversation. I just needed help connecting a few of the dots. My notebook is still full with notes of their wines, the vineyard, and their story. It’s good fortune that gives me the opportunity to meet with so many producers and I want to give them that time when I travel. Had I cancelled  to recover I would have missed the chance for that meeting. It’s hard to explain how much joy I find in simply listening to other’s stories (though I don’t always just listen).

This summer I’ve posted little here because I’ve been so busy elsewhere. For those of you that don’t know, when I’m traveling I’ve taken to telling the story of the people and regions I visit via Instagram, where it also routes to Facebook. There you will find photos of some of the people I meet along the way along with insightful quotations from our visit, or a factual dig into their story. For example, Phillip Hart walked me through his Ambythe Vineyard in Paso Robles where we discussed his work as well as the effects of the drought. Ambythe began harvesting this week.

Phillip Hart in his Ambythe Vineyard, Paso Robles

from Instagram: Phillip Hart walking his Ambythe Vineyard, Paso Robles

Paso Robles is just one of the regions I was lucky enough to visit. May began in Long Island, and then Chicago; June took me to Walla Walla as well as the West Sonoma Coast (again); July dug into Paso and Ballard Canyon in Santa Barbara County as well as parts of Napa. This month I’m catching up on articles and illustrations.

I’ll be writing more from these travels here through the rest of the year, as well as at, and elsewhere. I’m excited about work I’m doing for World of Fine Wine especially, as there I get to bring together my training in philosophy with my work in wine. It’s nice to recombine my professional worlds. In the meantime, here are a couple favorite photos from my travels looking at subjects I’ll be writing about more here.

Long Island

Christopher Tracy of Channing Daughter in The Hamptons, Long Island

Christopher Tracy, winemaker of Channing Daughters on the South Fork of Long Island, has some of the greatest creative latitude of any winemaker I’ve met. The winery sells the range of wines to prove it. He works too with soil scientist and viticulturist, Larry Perrine. Larry now directs Channing Daughters, but he arrived in Long Island at the start of the 1980s as a viticultural and winemaking consultant helping to solve nutritional problems suffered by the region’s vineyards. Together they offer a range of wines from classic chardonnays to Friuli-inspired white blends, to field blends made from the vines of Cornell’s Extension and Research Vineyard on Long Island’s North Fork.

Walla Walla

Norm McKibbenNorm McKibben led vineyard plantings in Walla Walla (W2) helping to expand quality vineyards through the region as well as inspire and support the work of others. His dedication to the W2 industry has been pivotal in so quickly establishing it as a celebrated region in the world. He is the founder of Pepperbridge and Amavi Cellars in W2 and helped maintain and expand the Seven Hills Vineyard – Sevein planting into one of the most sought after in the state.

Paso Robles

Mark Adams, Ledge Vineyard

Ledge Vineyards founder Mark Adams returned to Paso Robles and wine growing after a life in music and sound effects editing for major producers in Los Angeles. Today he makes some of the most delicious and drinkable Rhone wines of Paso Robles while farming his home vineyard in one of the few sandy soil sites of the county. In the last few weeks he expanded his family’s Ledge Vineyard planting to grow more Rhone whites and reds. Mark also makes wine just across the street with one of his long time friends, Justin Smith at Saxum.

Ballard Canyon in Santa Barbara County

At the top of Tierra Alta with Sonja Magdevski, John Belfy and Greg BrewerJohn Belfy (shown here center) has helped lead vineyard development and farming in Santa Barbara County‘s distinctive Ballard Canyon from its inception. His work established Jonata Vineyard and he planted and continues to farm Tierra Alta Vineyards as well, among others. Winemaker Sonja Magdevski of Casa Dumetz (shown here left) is just one of the winemakers that sources fruit from his Ballard Canyon site and counts him as an inspiration. Greg Brewer of Brewer Clifton and Melville (shown here right) makes wine from Sta Rita Hills but credits John for support and encouragement received earlier in Greg’s career.

Copyright 2015 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to

The Return of Cal-Ital


By the early 2000s, Cal-Ital was dead. It was almost impossible to sell California wine made from Italian cultivars. During the following decade consumer interest in the phenomenon remained minimal and few sommeliers would consider such wines. Recently, however, there has been a renaissance of the category. But the return of Cal-Ital hasn’t been easy. It’s proven a study in resilience. It’s also meant a shift in philosophy. While much of the original Cal-Ital movement arose from producers making wines such as Sangiovese as a side project to their more central Cabernet focus, today’s Cal-Ital has meant a more complete shift in thinking. In the last several years, a handful of newer Italian-focused California labels have been launched, bringing breadth to a conversation that for a decade was maintained by only two or three producers.

Digging out of the Cal-Ital problem

California’s wine industry was historically rooted in Italian immigrants bringing cuttings from their home country but after phylloxera and Prohibition, plantings shifted predominantly to French cultivars. Before 1980 varieties such as Sangiovese existed only in the historic Italian-Swiss Colony of the North Coast. Barbera had a presence throughout the state but did not enjoy the prestige of other Italian varieties. It was seen as an able blender rather than as a varietal wine in its own right.

In the 1980s and 1990s, however, a rush of interest brought Sangiovese to Northern California, made most famously by producers such as Robert Pepi; Atlas Peak in Napa Valley, co-owned by Tuscan winemaker Piero Antinori; and Ferrari-Carano in Sonoma. By 1997, 2,500 acres (1,012 ha) of the grape were spread across the state but the variety was primarily being made by vintners treating it as a side project while they focused on French varieties. Quality suffered. The unique needs of Italian wines were inimical to the techniques familiar to most California producers of Bordeaux varieties. By the start of this century, the almost two decades given to North Coast Sangiovese seemed inadequate to stabilise quality and critics were severe. Although producers in Southern California, such as Santa Barbara County’s Palmina, were also making Italian-inspired wines, critics looked to North Coast examples and declared Cal-Ital an experiment that had failed. Led by negative reviews, consumer interest all but disappeared.

To keep reading, head on over to You will need to have a subscription.

Here’s the link to the article:

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The Queen of the Bench

Congratulations on 25 beautiful years, Cathy!

“I feel like I’ve had a front row seat from the 1970s to now,” Cathy Corison tells me. Corison specializes in single-varietal Cabernet from Napa Valley’s Rutherford bench, and the recent release of her 2011 vintage marks the 25-year anniversary of her eponymous label.

In June 1975, when Corison arrived with all she owned – just the goods that fit inside her white Volkswagen bug – Napa Valley was an economically depressed, rural, and largely unknown farming community. Driving the length of the valley included swaths of unplanted land; today it is covered in vines. “There were about 30 wineries in Napa Valley in 1975,” Corison says. “I arrived in June. The Paris tasting was the next spring in 1976. It was a really exciting time.” The success of California in Steven Spurrier’s famous Judgment of Paris’ tasting would instigate a rush of interest in wine from the region after decades of struggle. Corison would be among the sprint pack bringing Napa into a whole new course of winemaking. …

To keep reading this article, you’ll have to check out the current issue of Noble Rot MagazineIf you haven’t read Noble Rot Magazine before, it’s likely right up your alley. That is, if you are into the kind of work I do here, you’ll find writing there you’re likely compatible with. Each issue of Noble Rot digs into the world of wine with a combined sense of playfulness and geeky fervor. 

You can order single issues or subscribe to the magazine, depending on which suits your interests. That means you can order just Issue 8, The California Special, that includes my Corison article, if you wish. But I recommend considering a full subscription. It’s worth the price.

Here’s the link to Noble Rot Magazine‘s Tumblr.

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Following the Growth of the Vine

Looking into Barlow Homestead Pinot

The early stages of shoot positioning – Barlow Homestead Pinot, May 2015

Earlier this year, Jr and I visited with Paul and Kathryn Sloan of Small Vines to track green pruning and bud break at their Barlow Homestead Vineyard in the heart of Green Valley. Jr created a video interview of Paul on the two viticultural events, which you can view here:

In May, and earlier this month I returned to track two different phases of shoot positioning with Paul. In a cane pruned vineyard relying on vertical shoot positioning, repeated passes for shoot positioning serve as an essential step to the health and balance of the vines offering ample air flow and canopy management for the developing clusters.

The following shares an overview of the process and a look at the importance of shoot positioning in the midst of a year’s vineyard management.

Shoot Positioning

Getting ready to shoot position with Bryce Potter + Paul Sloangetting ready to shoot position: (from left) Bryce Potter, me, Paul Sloan, May 2015

In a cane pruned, VSP trained site, shoot positioning serves as the next step after green pruning. While green pruning forms the basic architecture of the vine, shoot positioning manicures and directs the growth of the vine. Shoot positioning, then, occurs in multiple steps through vine growth.

The timing of shoot positioning depends on the growth of the vineyard in the particular vintage. 2015 brought a challenging spring for vineyards in Sonoma. With warm January and February weather, growth came early to the vines bringing early bud break and shoot growth. April and May then cooled off significantly, generating what is known as Spring Fever in many Pinot vineyards through the region.

Spring Fever + Frost Damage

Spring Fever is caused by the vine starting to grow from warm weather conditions, and then shutting down again when temperatures drop. Nitrogen gets locked into place in the vine, which in severe cases can lead to nitrogen necrosis in the leaves. In milder cases, as new leaves develop the vine recovers photosynthesizing through the upper leaves. Even so, with Spring Fever, vine growth is slowed – colder temperatures slow vine development, and in the case of nitrogen necrosis the vines ability to photosynthesize is impacted through leaf loss.

Frost damage can also show in damage to vine tips. When temperatures are cold enough, frost effectively singes vine tips, turning them brown and stopping shoot growth. In such cases, secondary shoots will sometimes push from the trunk of the vine becoming the focus for vine development that year.

Shoot Positioning 

Paul Sloan shoot positioning Barlow Homestead Pinot

Paul Sloan shoot positioning Barlow Homestead Pinot, May 2015

In vertical shoot positioning, shoot growth is managed through a series of steps moving wires into ever higher positions as the shoots get taller, or through tucking shoots between wires. Wires are placed on the trellis system in pairs that effectively create a sandwich around shoots as they grow, with one wire at the front and one at the back of the training system and shoots growing between.

Generally, moving wires is more desirable than tucking shoots as it is faster. In moving wires, however, it is important to be careful to avoid pulling leaves or breaking shoots. As vines grow, their tips and leaves will sometimes wrap wires, or other shoots. This must be managed when moving wires to avoid damaging vines. Tucking vines, on the other hand, is generally done for specific vines rather than entire rows and includes the risk of damaging shoots through breakage.

Wires are placed at the right height to support shoots maintaining a vertical position. Then shoots are spaced at approximately a hand’s width apart with clips used to hold the shoots in the best position between wires. The clips can be moved as needed to adjust to vine growth.

Clips for shoot positioning

clips used for shoot positioning. The C-shaped clips are biodegradable natural fiber and are used for when wires need to be held close together to maintain the shoot to secure the its position. 

Shoot positioning clip

The reusable black clips offer more flexibility and can be used to loop a shoot exactly in place, to offer wider spacing between wires, or to wrap a wire for even closer spacing. 

As vine growth continues, shoot positioning is revisited again and again to keep shoots about a hand’s width apart (in order to keep clusters about a hand’s width apart), and to manage any secondary shoot growth. Rows are approached individually. Wires can be positioned as is appropriate to vine growth in that particular row, or even partial row. Then, vines are clipped individually.

Ideal shoot position depends on the architecture of the particular vine, however goals remain consistent in each case. The goals of shoot positioning include a balance of air flow and leaf shade for clusters. The balance of cluster count per vine is generally established in the earlier step of green pruning as the number of buds allowed to grow determines cluster potential. How that balance is achieved depends upon goals of the farmer such as overall yield, and goals of the winemaker such as wine style.

When it comes to recognizing ideal shoot positioning in the vineyard, Sloan emphasizes the importance of knowing your vineyard. “There is no one right formula, one right thing to do. You have to read your vines, your vineyard. The more you pay attention, the better decisions you can make.” Sloan explains.

The frequency with which Sloan revisits shoot positioning in his Small Vines-managed sites allows him to rely on organic viticulture as well. The attention given to architectural points such as ample airflow and canopy management also serves his ability to keep track of overall vine health, and issues such as disease or insect pressure.

Vine Health and Flavor Development

Organic cover crop

Paul Sloan discussing cover crop choices in Barlow Homestead, May 2015.
Cover crop through Spring is valuable in organic viticulture as it supports soil health and also offers a habitat for beneficial insects. Vines are most susceptible to harmful insects in Spring, so planting cover crops between rows plays an important role in vineyard health through the balancing of insect populations.

Effective canopy management supports the overall health of the vine reducing disease pressure while also encouraging flavor development.

“What is important about shoot positioning for the organic farmer,” Sloan explains, “is to have air flow through the leaves and clusters.” How such air flow is achieved depends on the overall architecture of the vine.

In vines that include higher cluster count, air flow must be encouraged through leaf removal — too much of both fruit and vegetation doesn’t allow enough air flow — which also has the effect of increasing sun exposure to clusters. On the other hand, to preserve canopy for shade while maintaining air flow, the vine must be shaped in such a way as to reduce cluster count and manage leaf position.

In the case of Small Vines, Sloan chooses to reduce cluster count per vine and focus on high density planting. High density planting reduces the soil nutrients and water supply available to any particular vine, slowing growth, reducing cluster count and leading to a sense of density in the fruit profile.

The Role of Sunlight on Fruit Development

Barlow Homestead Pinot clusters

Pinot in Barlow Homestead, early June 2015 (getting ready to do another pass of shoot positioning but note the architecture of the vine places shoots and clusters about a hands width apart)

Sloan clarifies that air flow is not the only factor relevant to shoot positioning. “Even more important than air flow is sunlight. You want sunlight on every leaf, on every shoot” but not on every cluster. Sunlight on the leaves encourages photosynthesis, and therefore also vine growth and fruit development. Direct sunlight to clusters, however, changes the flavor profile of the fruit as well as the fruit structure. To put that another way, directing sunlight to leaves and away from clusters tends to keep flavors in the fruit fresher and brighter. (To read more on the role of sunlight in flavor development, see the following profile on Andy Smith of DuMOL:

Early sunlight on clusters often encourages thicker skin development (and therefore also more tannin profile), later sunlight on clusters changes the flavor profile of the fruit. Generally you can think of this sort of sun exposure as making flavors darker, moving flavors from fresh fruits to cooked fruit and kitchen flavors (such as caramel in the case of Chardonnay, for example). With reduced sunlight exposure on clusters, canopy management to promote air flow and reduce disease pressure becomes even more important. In this way, shoot positioning plays a role in both farming methods and wine style.

Vine Health and Wine Quality

Vine health also ultimately impacts wine quality. As Sloan explains, “The reason I am so emphatic about making wine from the vines I grow is because if I can keep walking vineyards, and I can move my crew where they’re needed, then I can affect wine quality directly.”

Sourcing fruit from multiple vineyards can be an excellent way for winemakers to get to know and express the signature of a region. Once a region is known, understanding the attention of a particular farmer is the next step to managing wine quality by finding an alignment between farming style and winemaking goals. In the case of Small Vines, Sloan develops and manages vineyard sites for others and makes his Small Vines wines from his own sites.

Copyright 2015 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to

West Sonoma Coast: A Guide

Near Sebastopol

If you were following along on Instagram, you already know I spent a ton of time visiting vineyards and winemakers throughout the mountains of the West Sonoma Coast. I’ve turned that several months I spent studying and tasting the region into a six-article series over on

Here’s the link to a guide for all six articles. 

The articles are pay-to-read but subscriptions at are pretty straightforward and affordable. The site offers excellent articles every day about wine all over the world, as well as news events as they happen.

Subscription is £6.99 a month or £69 per year ($11/mo or $109 a year for you Americans) and includes searchable access to the Oxford Companion to Wine ($65) and the World Atlas of Wine ($50) as part of the subscription costs, as well as interactive discussions on the Purple Pages. Click here to sign up.


Talking with Michael McNeill

On Tuesday, I shared the first half of a conversation with Michael McNeill, Winemaker of Hanzell, one of California’s heritage houses.

Though we had tasted together before, we agreed to meet in order to dig more deeply into McNeill‘s views on winemaking, and how he understands his role at Hanzell.

McNeill’s position is unique in California. Hanzell makes wine from their own vineyards, which include the oldest continuously producing chardonnay and pinot noir sites in North America, each planted at a time when the grapes were rare on the continent. Add to that the fact that McNeill describes his job as a “guardian of the Hanzell style,” and you can see he carries a unique position.

The transcript of our conversation is presented here, edited for length, and in a few places for clarity. In the first half of the conversation (readable here), McNeill and I spoke on what he values about working for a heritage house, his previous winemaking experience, and how he came to work at Hanzell.

The following portion of the conversation picks up immediately following his story about interviewing with Jean Arnold, President Emeritus of Hanzell, for the job as winemaker. In this half of the conversation, we discuss McNeill’s views of whole cluster fermentation, how land ownership changes your winemaking choices, and whether he’s ever wanted to start his own label.

The following photos are each courtesy of Hanzell.

A Conversation with Michael McNeill, Hanzell Vineyards

Michael McNeill, 2013

Michael McNeill, Winemaker Hanzell

Elaine: With the change you were facing, some winemakers would have thought, “Well okay, it’s time for me to start my own label.”

Michael: Yeah. I have kicked that around from time to time. But I have a son, and felt it really important to be part of his life. I didn’t want to have two jobs, which is what it really requires to have your own label. And my deal at Keller would not have allowed me to start my own label, so that would have been messy.

It could have turned out where I started consulting with multiple labels, and maybe at that point, I would have said, “Well I might as well start my own as well,” but I don’t know. I have enough friends that have started their own wineries and labels, and it’s challenging. It’s really challenging. Most of them still work two jobs and don’t have kids. I’m sure that there are examples of people that have done it, but I don’t want it. I’ve seen how hard people work and how challenging it is.

Elaine: Did you ever feel compelled to?

Michael: Sure. I think every winemaker worth his salt, at some point, wants to do their own thing because we all think we know all the answers, and would do it the right way. Of course, you find out how challenging it is and how many compromises you wind up having to make that you don’t think of prior. It’s kind of like when you’re the assistant winemaker, you always question the winemaker: why are we doing it that way? I would have done it a different way…

And then the first time you’re making the decisions, you’re making the picking calls, how incredibly nerve-wracking it is, how you wring your hands over the decisions you make. Am I making the right decision? I always look back at what Michael Michaud did at Chalone, and have so much added respect for what he did.

Elaine: The analogy that comes to mind is raising my daughter. It completely changed my perspective on my parents, and in ways I couldn’t have predicted. Just like silly things, like when Rachel was two or three, I suddenly recognized all these things my mom did when I was growing up were actually because she was tired all the time. I just thought of them as parts of her personality and maybe they frustrated me, but actually I suddenly recognized them as fatigue. It brought more compassion, more understanding.

Michael: Right. They were just tired.

I tell people that parenting changes your life in ways that you would have never expected. And you can’t explain that to someone — I always say, “Welcome to the club.” You’re here now.

Elaine: And you never leave the club. No matter what else happens.

So, anyway, you started at Hanzell that July, what are some of the things you focused on to start? I’m sure you tasted a lot of Hanzell wine initially. You mentioned you had tasting panels with multiple Hanzell winemakers, and you’d gathered a lot of information. So you started in July, and with harvest only a few months later, you had to pretty quickly get ready.

Michael: Yeah. Michael Terrien stayed on in a consulting role. He was available to me to talk to and figure things out. I could bounce things off of him.

Elaine: How long did he stay on?

Michael: Six months.

Elaine: Okay. So, through that harvest.

Michael: And that was very helpful. I appreciated having that, for sure. But all the picking and such was my call, but it was great to have him there to bounce it off of, and ask, “What do you think?” That, and looking at the old records.

Michael McNeill Hanzell Harvest 2014

Michael McNeill bringing in Hanzell chardonnay, harvest 2014

Elaine: When you look back through your vintages to 2008 in relation to the Hanzell library, how do you see your progression?

Michael: It’s still early, I guess, in the grand scheme of things here. I would say that for the chardonnay, I think we’re keeping it very consistent. We made some adjustments, but I think by and large, they’re pretty subtle. They’re the small corrections or adjustments down the road, looking down the road.

The pinot noir, I think things have changed fairly – not dramatically, but definitely in 2008, I was making the wine kind of the way Michael Terrien was making it. Once fermentation ended, we were doing an extended maceration. We were warming it up to 30 C, which was pretty warm.

Elaine: After or during, you were warming it up?

Michael: After fermentation, during the extended portion. Or, allowing it to peak at 30 C, and then we put the lids on holding it there. And also everything was completely destemmed. I thought at the time it was a pretty extreme thing to do, and so we started backing off in terms of temperature that we were holding the wines at and then the temperature we were allowing the fermentation peak to get to do.

Elaine: You mean in subsequent vintages?

Michael: Yeah.

Elaine: So that initial vintage was consistent with Michael?

Michael: Yes, it was. Just because, you walk in, and you’re at “Well, I have to have a starting point.”

The other thing, too, was that everything was destemmed. And again, a lot of the wines that Bob was making in the 90s – what he had started doing in the 90s is including some whole cluster. It was getting to a point where, it was like 30% whole cluster. But he was doing it, and it is fairly counterintuitive – he was adding whole clusters to soften the wines, which is not what most people think of with whole cluster. But the reason is that the old de-stemmer that he was using was extremely aggressive. I refer to it as a grape grinder. And so they were getting all the extraction up front, so they didn’t have to do these extended macerations. They were very short, quick fermentations.

So he was doing whole cluster to soften the wine by not putting it through the grape grinder. And I love the aromatics and the qualities of those wines. So we have been looking at how to reintegrate some of the whole cluster with the equipment that we have and using the extended maceration.

Elaine: Right. Because you can’t just do it the way he did it since you have different equipment.

Michael: No we can’t. And we don’t really want to. So we’re really making adjustments on the pinot noir. We’re bringing in whole cluster now. And the other thing too is we have the Sessions Vineyard, the site planted in 1999, that Bob was not working with then, and that’s now a fairly large portion of our pinot noir.

So there’s a lot of change that has come into the pinot noir program without deciding to change it. We have new vineyards, we have new equipment; now what do we do? And how do we work these elements in while maintaining our style, and how to best showcase this ground and the style? It’s a lot more difficult, or I guess a lot more, in a way, intellectual, than just simply saying, “We have a house style we follow each year.” It’s not that way at all.

Elaine: There are some winemakers that say in order to show the terroir of a place they use exactly the same techniques every year, and across every vineyard, with the view that that means the only difference you see is the vineyard, or the vintage. But then there are other winemakers that say that kind of approach is a way of not listening to the specific needs of a particular vineyard and its tendencies; that some winemaking techniques work against the conditions of a site, or make a disjointed wine in a way that covers up some of the site character. So, what works for one site might actually obscure another site.

Michael: Absolutely. I feel that way. I think that your role as a winemaker is to listen to the vineyard. That’s a cliché. But really, paying attention to the vineyard and getting it to express itself in its fullest form – that’s our role. Maybe it’s a bit, in a way, egotistical to think that the one way that you’re making pinot noir is the only way to make pinot noir.

Elaine: Right, but if you’re trying to give them the benefit of the doubt, you could say that they’d respond, “Oh no, I don’t mean this is the only best way to make pinot noir; I mean I’m just trying to remove all the variables to show the various sites, and I picked this way because I like it but, I’m not saying it’s the only way.”

Michael: I think that is, in a way, more of a marketing decision. Right or wrong. I don’t think that doing it that way is necessarily the wrong thing to do, but I don’t think that you’re getting the most out of each site. But, I think it certainly makes real good sense in terms of marketing and business, because you have delineated all of these different vineyards. And if you have a clientele that’s interested in what you’re doing, and they want to try all these different …

Elaine: They have to buy a six-pack.

Michael: Yeah, exactly. I think that’s brilliant from a marketing perspective, but I don’t think it necessarily is the best for each site. But then again, most winemakers are doing things like that in a sense. They aren’t invested in the site. They just buy the fruit.

Michael McNeil Pruning Ambassadors Vineyard


Michael McNeill pruning Ambassador Vineyard, Hanzell 2013

Elaine: That’s the thing. Having a wine industry that is so focused on sourcing fruit – like much of California, or much of the United States, just because of how hard it is to own and farm your own land now – rather than owning the land, or even a negociant approach where you buy wine and make blends, like in France – making wine primarily through sourcing the fruit significantly changes the values you can bring to the winemaking, but then also some of the techniques, and the marketing.

Michael: Right. If you own the piece of ground, would you use those same techniques then? If you own each of those vineyards, would you make them the exact same way?

Elaine: And also, like some of the things you’ve said indicate, how might your approach change over time as you get to know your site better?

Michael: Right. When I first got here, there were a couple of people who had been long time collectors here. I had only been here for like two weeks. I was introduced. They were in a beat up pickup truck. They looked like farmers. And they said, “Yeah, we’ll know if you’re any good in about ten years or so.” I love that.

Elaine: That’s great.

Michael: Right. That’s fair. Bob thought in terms of decades.

I look back at the wines from the 90s just in terms of the overall style and transparency. There’s a real lithe quality about them. Not that they aren’t powerful, because they are. But they just seem to be — transparent is the best way to put it. You can see all of the elements within it that make up the total, and yet are still very harmonious. I think that I look to that as more of an inspiration, if you will.

Elaine: That transparency with harmony.

Michael: Yeah. You want to have some power and intensity, but you want all of the elements to be in balance, which every winemaker is going to say the same thing, that they want that. So, it’s a matter of what — how they view balance; what parts of the elements they find as important.

I think that’s ultimately the role of the winemaker on a property like this, while trying to make wine. You’re translating. You’re translating from the vineyard, and what that property, what that terroir is offering. And our job as winemakers is to translate that into wine. It is to deliver that. How do you deliver it?

And I think that that’s the difference in terms of being a winemaker and having one set of winemaking protocol, and one size fits all. You’re not doing the translating. You might have one program that that fruit is going through. You’re not allowing that specific place to be fully translated in what it can express.

Elaine: You mentioned doing small-scale experiments to investigate whether you want to incorporate them into the overall winemaking. What are you seeing with your whole cluster experiments?

Michael: Liking it. We like the element that it brings to the overall quality, especially in terms of mouth feel and aromatics. One of the other things we’re looking at is with the whole cluster, do we want to start pressing that off early instead of giving the extended maceration? So that’s another variable that we’re looking at as well.

And this place, Hanzell, is a pretty unique spot. There’s a particular energy that this property has.

Elaine: It doesn’t feel like anywhere else.

Michael: I saw Jacques Lardiere, he used to be the winemaker at Jadot speak at IPNC [The International Pinot Noir Celebration in Willamette Valley, Oregon] in 2012, and we were all laughing because he was so over everyone’s heads in the way he spoke about biodynamics. But when he was talking about a specific Premiere Cru vineyard, he said, “There is something about this place that is special. It has a special energy.” And I immediately got it. I understood that. I think this place, Hanzell, has a very special energy that, I don’t know, I honestly think I could grow damn near anything on this piece of property and it would be great.


In another portion of our conversation I asked Michael McNeill what he thought had allowed Hanzell to persist so well, and maintain its quality as a heritage house of California. He credited the history of excellent ownership from now all the way back to its beginning.

For the first half of our conversation:

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The History of Hanzell

When it comes to heritage, Hanzell Vineyards and Winery carries some of the deepest in California. It’s chardonnay and pinot noir serve as a hallmark of excellence in the United States,  its vineyards among the finest.

The winery proves historically important too for its history of innovation.

Ambassador James Zellerbach worked with viticulturist, Ivan Schoch, to establish Hanzell, purchasing the property in 1948 with the goal of planting vineyards that could grow wine among the best in the world. At the time, pinot noir and chardonnay were rarely planted in California.

Today, vineyards at Hanzell include blocks established in 1953, home to the oldest continuously producing Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay vineyard in North America. The Hanzell clone of each are considered among the important heritage clones of California.

Hiring winemaker-scientist Brad Webb in 1956, Zellerbach’s vision evolved in the winery as well. At Hanzell, Webb would become one of the first in California to use French barrels to age Chardonnay. More remarkably, he also established controlled malolactic fermentation by identifying the bacteria involved, and then went on to invent temperature controlled stainless steel fermentation tanks. Both inventions would change winemaking worldwide.

In 1973, Bob Sessions succeeded Brad Webb in winemaking. Having worked previously with Webb, Sessions work at Hanzell would begin congruent with the style established by the original winemaker. Through his tenure, however, Sessions slowly evolved the iconic Hanzell style.

Today, Michael McNeill serves as winemaker, having taken the helm after a brief tenure by winemaker Michael Terrain. McNeill regards himself as a guardian of the Hanzell style, wishing to maintain its unique signature while continuing to grow its quality.

Earlier this month I met with Michael McNeill curious to better understand how he sees his role as winemaker in a heritage house. We have tasted together previously but this meeting was an opportunity to converse in depth about McNeill’s work as winemaker.

Following is a transcript of our conversation split into two installments — the second will be shared here Thursday. As the original conversation lasted almost three hours, the transcript has been edited for length, and in a few places for clarity.

A Conversation with Michael McNeill, Hanzell Vineyards

Looking out over Hanzell Vineyard with Michael McNeill

looking out over the historic Ambassador’s Vineyard, inside the historic Hanzell Winery with winemaker Michael McNeill, April 2014, photo courtesy Kate McKay

Elaine: Hanzell has had a few winemakers, including one that seems like a distinct style shift from what was established by Bob Sessions, and what you’re doing now. Part of what I find interesting in talking with you is how you describe your role as winemaker. You’ve said you’re job is to remain consistent with the Hanzell style. I’m curious how you worked to identify that style considering the various shifts and changes in winemaking here?

Michael: Well, initially it was a lot of information gathering when I got here in 2008. And unfortunately at that point in 2008, Bob’s dementia was setting in. So what I tried to do was really look back at what was being done in the late 90s, through the 90s, and essentially emulate that. But looking at the wines, tasting the wines, trying to in a way project how we would make those wines today.

I was looking through the records of what had been done, to get a sense of how things were done. I’ve had many conversations with Jose Ramos [Director of Vineyard Operations], Ben Sessions [Bob’s son who also works at Hanzell]; there is some living history here that I have been able to reference. I describe the way I see my role here as being guardian of the style of wine that we’re making here. But, being a winemaker, you always want to push the boundaries of quality. You always want to make it as best you can, or better than it was before. And how do you go about doing that while still respecting the style? It’s a challenge.

So, I view it very much like steering a tanker, with a real eye looking way ahead, making small, careful, thoughtful adjustments, so that you’re not changing things drastically, but you’re doing small-scale experiments to see how those changes might work, and carefully evaluating them over time.

Looking at Bob’s career here, 30+ years as a winemaker, if you look at where he started and where he finished, there were some pretty radical adjustments. We went from no barrel fermentation to 25 percent barrel fermentation. That’s a jump, but it took 20 years to get there. I see my role as kind of the same. We have planted new vineyards. We’re integrating those new vineyards into what we’re doing here. The Hanzell Sebella Chardonnay has been something for me to sort of – if I need to have my own ego stroke or my own project – Sebella has been very much something that I’ve brought here. But I strongly feel that Hanzell is really about this place and about the style that we’ve developed over many, many years.

Elaine: In some ways, it’s easy to guess the answer to this, but just to make sure I understand where you’re coming from: What about that period in the 90s makes you choose that as a concentration of focus?

Michael: One, those wines were spectacular, and have certainly shown their ageability; they have stood the test of time. And I really feel that those wines really showed what Bob was doing at his best. There was a real clarity, a real transparency to the wine that really is uncommon.

Elaine: That makes sense.

Michael: One of the nice things about being the Winemaker here at Hanzell is that it’s already here. It’s already established. It already has a style so I don’t have to wave my hands to get attention. So many young winemakers have to make a real bold statement to get attention now just because of how the wine industry is. I learned to make chardonnay and fell in love with pinot noir when I was at Chalone Vineyard back in the early 90s, so I think that I was uniquely qualified to come to Hanzell.

I spent six years at Chalone. It was a very, very special place to me personally. And back then, when we talked about age-worthy Burgundian-style chardonnay and pinot noir in California. It was Chalone, Calera, Mount Eden, and Hanzell. Chalone is no longer what it once was; and I really felt that — it really saddened me deeply. I don’t want to see that happen again. I don’t want to see it happen here.

Chalone was my winemaking finishing school. That’s where I really feel I was developed as a winemaker. At Chalone there was an established house style, so the challenge was making the wine better, but still, respecting the style of the house has been something that I’ve been brought up with.

I’ve done the opposite as well – after leaving Chalone, making wines in Oregon, up and down the state of California, having to make impact wines. But coming here felt very natural. I really and truly felt like the prodigal son coming home. Hanzell is a perfect place for me, and I hate to say I’m perfect for it, but I think I bring a unique set of sensibilities that most others wouldn’t. I certainly think that there are probably better winemakers out there. But I think to be successful here requires you to subvert your own ego, and really be able to take the back seat.

The historic Hanzell winery with Michael McNeill

standing in the historic Hanzell winery next to the original temperature control tanks, with Michael McNeill, April 2014

Elaine: I’m curious where you find satisfaction in this work.

Michael: Every time somebody tastes one of these wines, or makes the comment like, “Gosh, I really don’t like chardonnay, but I really like this wine,” it gives me a tremendous sense of satisfaction. It was funny – every year we do library tastings with the entire staff, prior to offering a selection of library wines to our Ambassador’s Circle collectors. We – Lynda Hanson [Associate Winemaker] and I, started at the same time, we had one of our wines in the Library offering. We just looked at each other and said, “We’ve arrived.” We’ve been here long enough where we have a library wine now. That was very, very rewarding.

[At an event] last night, I took a magnum of ’98 chardonnay. I had a lot of people coming up to me, “This is the wine of the night.” And even though obviously, it was Bob’s wine, I’m still proud of its place. I’m proud of the style, it’s something that I really believe in. You know, that’s really satisfying. When people say, “Oh. Hanzell, this is fantastic,” … for me, just being associated with the property and the legacy here is very satisfying.

And the other thing is when I started, and we still do, we have tasting panels. The first few tasting panels, included myself and Lynda,  Jean Arnold, and Bob — who would still taste with us then because he had a lot of clarity — but also Kim Giles who was Bob’s predecessor. Kim Giles still sits in on tasting panels. And Michael Terrien sat in on them as well. In that I had access to the experience of Hanzell from 1967 until that day. So we were tasting through various blends and such, as Ben Sessions likes to say, there was a lot of constructive disagreement. But at the end of it, they all said, “McNeill, good luck with that.”

It’s great because I get a lot of input from people who have been so closely associated with the wines and the making of the wines on the property to bounce ideas off of. That’s the kind of thing I think is rare today, to have that kind of depth of history that’s still a part of the current day. Does that make sense?

Elaine: Yeah. That definitely makes sense. It seems like even those relationships, and bringing all of that to fruition would be rewarding; being the one that continues the legacy that means something to you. What made you want to shift back to a more heritage approach for your career after that period in Oregon and other parts of California?

Michael: Well, I guess I went from Chalone up to Oregon, and that was in 1996 and 1997, beginning of 1998. But I was there for the ’96 and ’97 vintages. The winter of ’96-’97 was a record year up there for rain. And the way the winery was set up, I walked in, in August, and I was handed a stack of two-dozen contracts, and told, “Go make wine.” And so I was driving from vineyards all the way from Eola Hills in Willamette Valley all the way down to Ashland in the Southern part of the state. I put 7000 miles on my truck in six weeks.

Then I went from making wine there to Savannah-Chanelle in the Santa Cruz Mountains. There I was doing similar things. I was making wine from vineyards from the Russian River all the way down to the Arroyo Grande Valley. There’s something kind of fun about seeing all these different vineyards and working with all this different fruit. But then I got the job at Keller Estate in 2003, and I really enjoyed working with the vineyard, and I got much more involved with grape growing. I guess my career started in the lab, my degree is in chemistry, so that’s a natural thing. It started there and went to general winemaking, and then I kept going farther out into the vineyard. That’s been great for me, because it’s been a constant learning experience because I hadn’t been in agriculture or a farmer before.

Tasting Hanzell

Elaine: So then you went from Keller to here?

Michael: Um-hm.

Elaine: Yeah. Was it just too exciting an opportunity not to come here? How did that happen?

Michael: It’s a great story, actually. I had been at Keller for five years. It was interesting. Jean Arnold was president here at Hanzell, and I had actually interviewed with Jean twice before. Once at Chalk Hill; when Dave Ramey left Chalk Hill, I interviewed there for the job. That’s when I first met Jean. I didn’t get the job. And then in ’98, I had just come back from Oregon and I started at Savannah-Chanelle, and I got a call from the same headhunter, and it was for the job at Williams Seylem. And Jean was then the president, and I didn’t get the job.

But Jean really made an impression on me, and I made it a point to maintain a relationship with her. Every time I saw her at a tasting, I made a point to go say hi. And if I hadn’t seen her for a long time, I would just call her up out of the blue just to say hi. But I’d never actually come here. I would just say, “Hey, Jean, how are you? How are things?”

So in April of 2008, it was a Thursday, I had an epiphany that I had pushed the rock as far as I could up the hill at Keller, and I was like, “God, what am I going to do? All I’ve done is chardonnay and pinot noir. Where would I go? What kind of winery would want me?” And I said, “Well, it doesn’t matter. This weekend, I’m going to clear my calendar and spiff up my résumé and get ready to look for a new job.” And when I came back from lunch on Friday, there was a message on my voicemail: “Hey McNeill, it’s Jean Arnold. How are you? Hey, we’re looking for a new winemaker. Maybe you know of someone. Give me a call.”

Elaine: Oh wow.

Michael: So yeah.

Elaine: That’s remarkable timing.

Michael: I still get goose bumps telling that story because it was one of those perfect storms. I just thought, “My god, that’s the place I need to be. I’m perfect for this job. It’s the perfect place for me. I have to get this.”

Elaine: That’s cool. So then you started in 2008?

Michael: Yes, I started July 1.


The remainder of the conversation with Michael McNeill will post Thursday. In it we discuss McNeill’s views of whole cluster fermentation in pinot noir, the idea of starting your own wine label, and what it means to capture site expression as a winemaker.

For the second half of our conversation:

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