Tags Posts tagged with "pinot noir"

pinot noir

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: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2015/05/26/a-conversation-with-michael-mcneill-hanzell-vineyards-part-1/

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

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: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2015/05/28/a-conversation-with-michael-mcneill-hanzell-vineyards-part-2/

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

Andy Smith in the Vineyards of West Sonoma Coast and Green Valley

Andy Smith in Jentoft VineyardAndy Smith walking through Jentoft Vineyard, West Sonoma Coast, Jan 2015

“It’s okay to blend,” Andy Smith, winemaker and partner of DuMOL Wines tells me. It is morning and we are walking through the rolling hills of Jentoft Vineyard, a site near Occidental DuMOL planted specifically for blending.

Smith has agreed to spend the day driving me through DuMOL vineyards. We’re discussing the region but also his evolution as a winemaker.

Jentoft is unique for DuMOL in that it is one of only a few sites they farm in the rolling hills off Occidental Road.

Beginning in the mid 1990s, DuMOL made a name for itself making Pinot Noir and Chardonnay of the Russian River Valley. More recently, the team has expanded further into sites hugged by the hills mere miles from the Ocean.

The addition of these cooler climate vineyards also reflects the winery’s shift towards a leaner style over the last decade.

But for Smith, the winery’s move into sites near Occidental is not just about climate.

“People talk about climate, but, for me, the soil makes the flavor. Soil is the building blocks of the flavor, and the climate is the vintage variation.” Together, Occidental vineyards have something unique to offer.

“To me the wine [in this area] always has a sense of air-oir, not just terroir, a conifer-spicy element.” Smith says.

Blending DuMOL 

Andy Smith in Wild Rose Vineyard

Andy Smith in Wild Rose Vineyard, Green Valley, Jan 2015

I ask Smith if he’d ever make a single vineyard bottling from Jentoft.

“I think the single vineyard thing,” he says, pausing briefly, in the midst of answering, no. “There has to be something distinctive, and agreeable, and verifiable, and repeatable. I am sure this site can make a distinctive wine that is a distinctive part of a distinctive blend.”

DuMOL bottles a number of single vineyard sites, but has developed and farms even more. The goal for DuMOL is to bottle excellent wines rooted first in their own farming. Some sites, in Smith’s view, offer that beautiful component within a multi-site blend, while other sites carry their own sense of completeness.

The point is that high quality vineyards sometimes best serve as components in a blend rather than on their own.

Developing a site’s character, be it is for blending, or single bottling, takes time. Jentoft, for example, was planted in 2007.

“This site is just starting to come into its own for us.” Smith explains. “The first year a vine gives fruit can be quite nicely structured and well balanced. Then, the next few years the vines are like unruly teenagers. Around eight years a vineyard starts to find its balance. Then around fourteen years there is another plateau, and vines become much more self regulating.”

What that means today has changed from viticultural views of even ten years ago.

“That is the fun part of the change in the last ten years,” Smith says. “From the idea that we need to tell the vine what to do. Today farming includes beautiful cover crops, insectiary rows, and then seeing the results. For me, that is the exciting part. You can taste the results as well. The wines taste better at lower alcohol.”

Evolving the DuMOL Style

I ask Smith about his evolution as a winemaker. We are discussing Smith and his contemporaries from the early days of DuMOL.

“We were young guys in the late 1990s,” Smith says. “Starting out making rich wines. Now many of us are making lighter wines, with aromatic perfume. You know everything is different.”

But the change in style, Smith points out, occurred as part of a larger context, not driven by wine alone but the overall food culture.

“In the late 1990s, the scene was booming. Restaurants were booming. Chefs were going on with pork fat, and the wines reflected that.” Big flavor was not just a Parker fancy, but a cultural fascination.

“Some of my wines, I go back, and taste, and wonder, what was I thinking?” Smith laughs. “But, you know, it was the taste of the day. Now we have less new oak, and less toast. We have really moved to a more ethereal style with more perfumed aromatics. If you want more honey in your chardonnay, or more cassis and black fruit in your pinot noir, you pull leaves and expose clusters. Now we avoid sun exposure on the fruit.”

Smith’s reflection on sun exposure gets to the core of how DuMOL has shifted its style from bold flavor to graceful richness – DuMOL’s wines today a dance of movement and flavor.

“We’ve pulled back the wines as the farming has improved too.” Smith points out. “You can’t just go on and say, I am going to pick at 21 brix. You have to take a few years getting in tune with the farming, the soil health, and all that.”

DuMOL Today

Andy Smith in Heintz Vineyard

Andy Smith in Heintz Vineyard, Green Valley, Jan 2015

DuMOL’s focus on farming has helped the label grow at a judicious rate, focusing on quality as it allows for growth. It’s maintained such an approach by expanding its volume only as its farming allows. As a result, quality remains in the hands of the DuMOL team, relying on fruit they’ve cultivated to match the house style.

“That’s part of our philosophy.” Smith explains. “I don’t like any extremes – no extreme pruning, no extreme exposure to the grapes, not too much, if any irrigation. Vines are a crop we maximize, and you maximize that by making the vine work hard, not stressed but hard.” I ask Smith to say more about how he maintains that middle line in the vineyard, avoiding extremes.

“The soil health is, of course, really important.” He responds. “Water is available for the vine. The roots are really deep now but because they haven’t been force fed water, they don’t binge on it. Vines are self regulating. They take what they need, and don’t take too much. When you over irrigate, you force the vine to take what you give it, and it takes and takes and takes, then collapses and ripens through dehydration.”

Then there is the architecture of the vine.

“The way we farm with tight spacing, we are looking for grapes that are bright and fresh, with thick skins though we are achieving that without exposing the clusters to sun. It gives more herbal complexity, dense deep tones, and bright fruit.”

The result shows through beautiful integrity from bottling to bottling.

DuMOL wines offer concentrated flavor and structural density with bright fruit, and delicious acidity across varieties thanks to the farming, while cellar choices preserve the wines’ pleasing texture and freshness. The combination Smith describes as his winemaking goal.

“I like texture, but I also like freshness. Any texture or density,” Smith clarifies, “should come from the vines.”

***

DuMOL makes Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, and a small amount of Viognier from Sonoma County.

DuMOL Wines: http://www.dumol.com

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

Wine & Spirits Sommelier Scavenger Hunt

Sommelier Scavenger Hunt Somms15 Sommeliers for Wine & Spirits Sommelier Scavenger Hunt

To open their Top-100 festivities this year, Wine & Spirits hosted their inaugural Sommelier Scavenger Hunt on Monday of this week. The event was designed to seek out, and celebrate the new classics of domestic wine.

As Wine & Spirits editor, Joshua Greene, explained, the last six months have been spent preparing for the Sommelier Scavenger Hunt event. Towards that end, five teams of three sommeliers each from around the country were selected. Each team was then assigned to visit a different domestic wine region tracking a particular varietal expression for that region. In traveling the region, they were meant to study the region’s specific viticultural conditions, and then select six wines to represent a coherent picture of the breadth and typicity of their region’s unique terroir. Along with each region’s flight, the sommeliers offered a ten minute informational presentation.

Joshua Greene introduced the event. Following are notes from his introduction, followed by a brief look at each of the flights.

Introducing the Sommelier Scavenger Hunt 2014

“Sommeliers like competition. They often test themselves, whether in sommelier exams, going to Tex-Somm, or otherwise. We wanted them to do something collaborative. Rather than battle on their own, we decided we would have them work together, and then compete in groups. To win, they would have to work together.

“[In this context,] what does winning even mean? Rather than finding a wine that would be hardest to guess in a blind tasting, [for the Sommelier Scavenger Hunt] it is about finding a wine that would be the easiest to guess [as from its region] in a blind tasting. We asked them to go out and find the future classics, that really describe the place the wine is from.

“[The Sommelier Scavenger Hunt] is also about travel, and getting to know the place. I got into [wine] because I like to travel. A lot of wine travel you see is more about lifestyle, and expensive. We decided we wanted them to do something more like The Amazing Race.

“While there they would select six wines meant together to be broad, and precise, [expressive of its region]. We’re asking them to show you a really specific connection between the place and the wine. We want them to show you that connection so that when you taste the wine you really feel that connection. We asked them to really think, what is terroir? and what is a great wine?

“Our staff got together and chose five sommeliers we really enjoy working with, and asked them to choose a team of two more, and then choose a specific region and varietal focus.

“We’d like you to think about these wines as you taste, as to where it is from, not do I like this wine?, but where is it from? how it communicates to you as a drinker, as a taster.”

Joshua Greene then introduced the first group from the Finger Lakes. Following are brief notes on the five group presentations.

Tasting the Sommelier Scavenger Hunt 2014

The quality of wines throughout was impressive. It was a pleasure to be able to taste these, to see the selections chosen to represent each region, and to be included in seeing the work each group had done together.

Sommelier Scavenger HuntJoshua Greene and 15 sommeliers from around the country fielding questions about domestic wines at the end of their Wine & Spirits Sommelier Scavenger Hunt presentations

TEAM FINGER LAKES: RIESLING

Matthew Kaner of Covell in Los Angeles, Pascaline Lepeltier MS of Rouge Tomate in NYC, Steven Morgan of Squire Wine Co in Chicago

While viticulture in the Finger Lakes has historically focused on hybrid varieties made into quaffing sweet wines, more recently winegrowing through the area has turned towards crafting serious quality wines in a range of styles. With the oldest bonded winery in the United States, newer producers have the benefit of a wealth of already established geological and viticultural knowledge to draw on in exploring quality wine production. Riesling has risen to prominence as the signature grape for serious wine with a range of possibilities for the region.

The Finger Lakes flight showed good consistency of quality over the broadest range of styles of any of the flights. Due to the vast range of winemaking goals or style choices occurring in the region, this group had the greatest challenge in striking the balance between expressing regional typicity and coherence with breadth. Producers of the Finger Lakes are still exploring the region’s unique signature. That said, the wines all offered distinctive personality, and very good quality at mind blowing value.

* Tierce 2012 Finger Lakes Dry Riesling
all stainless steel, no malolactic fermentation. a wine with nice clarity, lots of length and “extraordinary personality.” very small production.

* Bellwether 2013 Finger Lakes A&D Vineyard Dry Riesling
ultra small production. captures a nice balance of weight to acid without residual sugar. great mouth watering length.

* Kemmeter 2012 Finger Lakes Sheldrake Point Vineyard Riesling
nice precision, juiciness, and length. clarity, focus, and balancing breadth.

Ravines 2011 Finger Lakes Argetsinger Vineyard Dry Riesling
one of the stand out wineries of the region — available, affordable, bring out its personality with food

Hermann J Wiemer 2012 Finger Lakes HJW Vineyard Dry Riesling
one of the founders of quality in the region. nice overall balance, with a changeable finish. place along side food for additional balance.

Bloomer Creek 2012 Finger Lakes Auten Tanzen Dame Second Harvest
the wild card of the tasting, a very slow fermentation for additional richness and complexity, with an oxidative style, and a bit of residual sugar. pair with clam chowder to match the fleshiness of the wine, and give the acid something to cut into.

TEAM SANTA BARBARA COUNTY: CHARDONNAY

Ian Becker of Absinthe and Arlequin, Haley Guild Moore of Stock & Bones Group, and Gianpaolo Paterlini of 1760 and Acquerello all in San Francisco

Chardonnay proves to be one of the greatest quality varieties in the incredibly diverse growing region of Santa Barbara County. Though Pinot Noir from the region receives more consistent attention, the potential for quality on its white cousin is very high. The wines selected offered a very linear focus with lots of flavorful fruit expression and mouthwatering acidity.

The team for this flight chose to focus on a very specific style of chardonnay for the region. Within the competition, the Santa Barbara County flight was most expressive of the team’s preferred style, when considering the breadth of styles in the region as a whole. That said, the region’s signature clearly showed through the wines selected, and the quality was very good. This was also the most pleasing, tasty flight of the tasting.

Qupé 2011 Santa Maria Valley Bien Nacido Block Eleven Chardonnay
the outlier of the tasting, the Qupé was the only Santa Maria Valley chardonnay selected, and was chosen out of regard for the heritage it expresses of the region. giving nice citrus curd mixed with olive, this wine offers a oceanic creamy waxy quality familiar of the Santa Maria Valley with tons of mouthwatering length.

Au Bon Climat 2012 Sta Rita Hills Sanford & Benedict Vineyard Chardonnay
flinty mixed citrus, with a creamy palate. this wine strikes the balance of restraint, focus, and rich flavor, with tons of juicy length.

Chanin 2012 Sta Rita Hills Sanford & Benedict Vineyard Chardonnay
clean, crisp mixed citrus fruit, with a moderately creamy palate and a focus on length

* Tyler 2012 Sta Rita Hills Zotovich Family Vineyard Chardonnay
pleasing reductive tension brings a taut focus to the mouthwatering mixed citrus flavors. nice mineral length

Sandhi 2012 Sta Rita Hills Rita’s Crown Chardonnay
the most linear, and taut of the chardonnay’s shown. all about structure. mouth watering and lightly drying both.

Pence 2013 Santa Barbara County Chardonnay
delicate citrus blossom coupled with expressive citrus fruit layered with clay accents on a nervy taut mouthwatering line

TEAM ANDERSON VALLEY: PINOT NOIR

Vanessa Trevino Boyd of 60 Degrees Mastercrafted, Steven McDonald of Pappas Bros. Steakhouse, Christian Varas of River Oaks Country Club all in Houston

Ranging from a genuinely zone 1 cool climate close to the ocean just into a zone 2 climate a bit inland, Anderson Valley carries the most definitive signature of the region’s tasted. Pinot Noir has risen to prominence as the area’s trademark variety.

The Anderson Valley flight had the tightest, most recognizable expression of regional typicity giving a wash of red fruit, and buckets of mouthwatering acidity throughout. It was the flight in which the region offered the most apparent expression before cellar technique. It was also clear that this is largely due to the area, rather than simply from the group selection, for example.

Drew 2011 Anderson Valley Morning Dew Vineyard Pinot Noir
light carbonic elements on nose, a wash of red fruit through the palate, long mouthwatering finish. wants air to open

LIOCO 2011 Anderson Valley Klindt Pinot Noir
high tone, lifted aromatics, spiced palate. red fruit throughout. lots of length.

Copain 2011 Anderson Valley Kiser ‘En Haut’ Pinot Noir
lots of clarity, tight focus with lots of precise structure but soft red berry and open midpalate

Lichen Estate Anderson Valley Solera Volume 2 Pinot Noir
unique of the flight yet still expressive of the region. red berry fruit with layers and folds of concentration, vintages 2011, 12, 13 blended in solera-type method

Elke 2011 Anderson Valley Donnelly Creek Vineyard Pinot Noir
bright, crisp red fruit both nose and palate, accents of forest and herb, lots of mouthwatering length

Phillips Hill 2011 Anderson Valley Two Terroirs C&R Pinot Noir
nice cut of red fruit with structural strength, and spiced oak accents throughout

TEAM WASHINGTON: BORDEAUX-VARIETY REDS

Lindsey Whipple of Charlie Palmer Group in New York City, Will Costello of the Mandarin Oriental in Las Vegas, Mark Hefter of Crush Wine Bar MGM in Las Vegas

The Washington wines selected carried dusty mineral and saline crunch throughout. Five of the six wines grew from Red Mountain, and one originated from Walla Walla. We were also able to taste an older vintage on the final wine. Unfortunately, one of the wines was unavailable for tasting due to unexpected distribution issues.

This was the most challenging flight for me as several of the wines were intensely concentrated, inky dark on the palate. Still, the quality was good throughout.

Avennia 2011 Columbia Valley Sestina Red Wine
funky unusual nose, dusty mineral crunch through palate, bell pepper throughout

* Delille Cellars 2011 Chaleur Estate
nice acidity, opens and lengthens significantly with air, elegant finished, balanced concentration

àMaurice 2011 Walla Walla Estate Red Night Owl
intense concentrated palate, good tension, lots of length, inky dark

Upchurch 2011 Upchurch Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon
highly concentrated, inky dark, challenging intensity

Fidélitas 2011 Red Mountain Optu Red Wine
unfortunately, do to a mix-up with distribution we were unable to taste this wine.

* Cadence 2001 Red Mountain Ciel du Cheval Vineyard
nicely balanced, aged wine with the dancy feet to balance the fruit concentration and dusty tannin. pleasant, beautiful.

TEAM NAPA VALLEY: CABERNET SAUVIGNON

Michael Madrigale of Boulud Sud in New York City, Josiah Baldivino of Bay Grape in Oakland, Michelle Biscieglia of Blue Hill in New York City

Team Napa Valley balanced their presentation of Napa Valley Cabernet with both valley floor, and differing mountain expressions of the fruit. The wines selected also paid tribute to a range of historic houses well respected for their quality contributions to the development, and sophistication of the region’s wine.

This flight was most successful in hitting the balance of the three elements requested of the sommelier team in choosing their wines — coherence, breadth, and typicity of the region.

Robert Sinskey 2009 Stag’s Leap District Napa Valley SLD Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
concentration, intensity, dark polish

Robert Mondavi 2011 Oakville Napa Valley To Kalon Vineyard Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon
considered the 1st growth of Napa Valley, Mondavi owns the largest portion of the historic To Kalon Vineyard. this is a wine of concentration, polish

* Corison 2010 Napa Valley Kronos Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon
offering characteristic floral aromatics, and nicely balanced, mouthwatering palate

* Mayacamas Vineyards 2008 Mt Veeder Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
still ultra nervy youthful wine, pleasing mouth watering length and nice palate tension

* Smith Madrone 2011 Spring Mountain District Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
the most distinctive of the cabernets selected, the Smith-Madrone shows refreshing bell pepper aromatics, and ultra mouthwatering length

* Diamond Creek 2008 Diamond Mountain District Napa Valley Volcanic Hill Cabernet Sauvignon
pleasing mountain tannin and dustiness, nice acidity, want to revisit

***

The winning team of the Sommelier Scavenger Hunt will be announced at the Wine & Spirits Tuesday evening Top-100 tasting.

Post Edit: It was announced tonight that Team Napa Valley won the Wine & Spirits 2014 Sommelier Scavenger Hunt. Congratulations Team Napa Valley!

Copyright 2014 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com

0

Truchard Vineyards & Winery

Truchard Vineyardslooking towards the fault line that runs through Truchard Vineyards
— each hill contains a different soil type, and grows a different grape variety

One of the first to plant in North Carneros, Tony Truchard began establishing his Truchard Vineyards in 1974 at a time when others thought growing vines in Carneros might be crazy. Even more unusual, his thirst was for Cabernet. He remains to today one of the few people growing the variety in the area. Consistently 10 degrees cooler than the heart of Napa Valley where Cabernet thrives, people at the time believed Carneros wasn’t warm enough to ripen grapes.

Planting his first vines on his own by hand, Truchard persisted thanks partially to the inspiration of his neighbor, Frank Mahoney, who had already established Carneros Creek Vineyards near by. Mahoney was among the first to bring drip irrigation to the area, a technology developed for reclaiming the deserts of Israel, and today used through California wine country.

Beginning first on a 20-acre parcel, the disadvantages seen by others in Carneros would become an advantage for the Truchards. With the lack of agricultural promise, neighbors offered their parcels to Truchard for purchase. Buying land as he could afford it, today Trucard Vineyards grow over 200 planted acres on 400 contiguous acres all north of the Carneros Highway.

While South Carneros proves flat and entirely clay pan, North Carneros rolls with hills and fault lines. The fault line that cut through Truchard Vineyard has pushed such a range of soil types that along the retaining pond each hill includes a different soil type, and thus also a different grape variety. In volcanic ash they’ve planted Syrah, in clay Merlot, clay with limestone a mix of both Bordeaux and Burgundian varieties, in sandstone they also grow a mix of grape types.

Today Truchard is considered one of the premium growers of Carneros, with 12 different planted varieties including Zinfandel, Tempranillo, and Roussanne most unusually, but also each of the 5 Bordeaux reds, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Sauvignon Blanc. Most of their fruit sells to quality producers, but they also produce their own wines under the Truchard label.

Truchard Wines

Truchard WinesMost incredibly, Truchard has avoided raising wine prices. Today, Truchard offers some of the best quality for cost in Napa Valley. While the label does include two reserve level wines (available to wine club) coming in around $75, the remainder of their portfolio ranges between $25-38. Finding a quality North Coast Pinot Noir, or a Napa Valley Cabernet at those prices is almost unheard of.

Truchard wines offer nice mouth watering acidity, vibrant flavor, and pleasant clean fruit throughout. They are wines with easy presence — nicely balanced, well integrated, stimulating and never forceful. The standouts in yesterday’s tasting include the 2013 Roussanne, 2010 Tempranillo, and 2011 Zinfandel. That said, any of these wines would do well at the table. Following are notes on the current portfolio.

* Truchard 2013 Roussanne, Carneros Napa Valley $25
Pretty, lifted aromatics are followed with vibrant acidity through a creamy palate of light (not sweet or heavy) almond paste, citrus blossom and curd with a delicate white pepper finish. The 2013 Roussanne will age nicely, but is beautiful and yummy now.

Truchard 2012 Pinot Noir, Carneros Napa Valley $35
Offering pretty, bright red aromatics the 2012 Pinot Noir carries forward with a nicely focused, mouth watering palate of raspberry bush and cranberry. This is a nicely balanced wine with a taut, lean, and pleasing palate.

* Truchard 2010 Tempranillo, Carneros Napa Valley $30
Both nose and palate here carry red, and red violet fruit alongside pretty rose and violet elements, and a hint of molasses throughout. The palate is wonderfully mouthwatering and fresh, with polished tannin, and an ultra long finish.

* Truchard 2011 Zinfandel, Carneros Napa Valley $30
A unique Zinfandel offering high tone red fruit and mixed exotic spices, the Truchard Zinfandel offers wonderfully mouth watering acidity, easy tannin, and an ultra long finish. This is a yummy pizza and pasta wine.

Truchard 2010 Merlot, Carneros Napa Valley $30
Keep an eye out for the 2011 Merlot as the 2010 is already almost sold out. The Truchard Merlot carries the recognizable blue fruit and flower midpalate of Merlot filled out and lengthened with nicely the integrated herbal traction of Cabernet Franc. It’s a nicely balanced, and surprising combination for California Merlot.

Truchard 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon, Carneros Napa Valley $38
Giving screaming good value, the Truchard Cabernet hits that balance of doing well with age on it and drinking well now. Carrying black currant, a touch of pine, and refreshing red and green bell pepper this wine has tons of flavor without over extraction on a nicely structured frame.

Truchard 2012 Syrah, Carneros Napa Valley $30
Wanting the most time in bottle, and the most air upon opening, the Truchard Syrah brings inky dark aromas and flavors through a perfumed musk and pine lift. The same carries into the palate touched throughout by an ashen patina carrying through an ultra long taut finish.

***

Want to read more on Truchard Vineyards?

Check out Tom Riley‘s article for the San Jose Mercury News here: http://www.mercurynews.com/eat-drink-play/ci_26078260/napas-truchard-caves-goats-winning-chardonnay

Thank you to Mathew Fitch. CHEEEESSSSE!!!

Copyright 2014 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com

1

Visiting School House Vineyard

John Gantner, JrJohn M Gantner at School House, July 2014

It’s a hint of old Napa — a vineyard far up Spring Mountain set down a slope behind an old house. There are no signs inviting visitors, or announcing the name. It’s the site of School House Vineyards.

What is now School House Vineyards began as an 1800s 160-acre homestead, the School House just at the top, including tens of acres of vineyards. By the late 1930s, the last generation of the original homestead was ready to be closer to healthcare in town. Electricity didn’t reach the site until the late 1950s.

“My father purchased this in 1940. He wanted land in the Mayacamas Range.” Owner John M Gantner explains of his father. “It took him three years to find this place. He believed to make good red wine you should be in the mountains of the Mayacamas, not on the valley floor. At the time, acreage up here wasn’t worth anything. No one could afford to keep hillside vineyards in operation so it went to forest.”

Some of the original vines would be recovered on the property after establishing deer fencing, and clearing extra growth. The vines would prove to be an old vine mixed-blacks Zinfandel planting that has since served as the School House Mescolanza Red Blend.

Nancy Walker and John M GantnerNancy Walker and John M Gantner

School House Pinot began thanks to the experimental history of the Valley floor. Friends of Gantner, the story goes, had established Pinot vines with cuttings brought back from Romani-Conti in Burgundy. Valley floor temperatures proved too high for the fruit, however, so the vines were pulled out. John’s father believed, however, the mountain’s cooler temperatures would do well hosting the variety. In 1953, John’s father took cuttings before the vines were removed to plant on Spring Mountain.

“I dug many of the holes,” John explains. “My dad put me to work.” He laughs quietly. “I didn’t have much to say in it.” The Pinot remains to this day dry farmed.

IMG_1504“He made the first wine in 1957,” John says of his father. “We’ve made a Pinot Noir every year since.”

School House Pinots age beautifully. Earlier this year over dinner with friends we enjoyed a 1974 with still-vibrant, focused red fruit and forest. Over lunch this summer, Gantner and his wife Nancy Walker shared both a 1998, and 2002, both expressive of vintage with pure mountain fruit.

Chardonnay would be established in 1968 with cuttings from Stony Hill, though it wouldn’t be labeled and sold as a School House wine until 1991 when Gantner and Walker would take over the property from his father. Before that the family would make the white only for themselves.

Nancy laughs briefly as we discuss the Chardonnay. “The thing you learn from making wine,” Nancy tells me, “is you don’t place blame. Everybody makes mistakes.” The couple decide to share an example.

Gantner had traveled previously in China, but in the early 1980s decided he needed to return to the region. He wanted to see Tibet. Harvest had finished but Chardonnay was still finishing in barrel for home wine. Living in San Francisco at the time, Walker drove up the mountain to check on the wine only to discover the bungs had been pounded in too tight, and the wine had exploded over the entire garage.

IMG_1503In 2006, they would also establish Syrah, these vines in partnership with Pride Mountain who takes half the fruit. Gantner would break the rules, establishing the vines with irrigation, but then returning to dry farming once the roots were established. School House keeps the few rows of Grenache and Mourvedre mixed in to bottle as a Syrah blend.

Gantner hands me a bottle to take home and sample. It’s a beautiful, lean while expressive, fresh and savory Syrah, lightly grippy, and mouth watering with the long finish of pure mountain fruit.

Copyright 2014 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com

 

0

The Vineyards of Eyrie

With the 2012 vintage, Eyrie Vineyards bottled separate Pinot Noir cuvées from each of their five vineyards for the first time. They have previously bottled Sisters, and Daphne in select vintages, and consistently offer the Original Vines Vineyard on its own as well.

The warm ease of 2012 in the Willamette Valley brings fruit to the fore of Pinot Noir in a region that readily celebrates notes of cedar and earthiness. It was a year that winemakers easily could have gone for riper, plush styles. For Eyrie, president and winemaker Jason Lett, kept the focus on the vibrant fresh acidity Eyrie is known for, thus allowing the fruit of 2012 to carry liveliness, and show in concert with earth elements, silky texture and ultra long finish.

Refined rhubarb and earth in a mouthwatering and lean presentation describes how I think of the hallmarks of Eyrie Pinot. The combination first drew me to following their wines. Seeing the vineyard designates of 2012 side-by-side layers in fascinating surprises.

Citrus elements lift from the glass in many of these wines, ranging from hints of lime blossom, into grapefruit, and all the way to the nose tickling pith of pomelo. The red fruit includes cherry blossom in some cuvées, and mixed red with white cherry fruit in others. The hallmark rhubarb resonates in some sites with berry fruit, and in others just with cherry.

The great secret of Eyrie wines rests in them staying open for as much as a week, if you can last that long, getting better in the glass as time goes on. The third day sings where the first day is still waking up. I hold high admiration for the life Eyrie shows through in the glass. It’s a shame more wine tastings, or tasting notes don’t allow such time with a wine, to celebrate this side of wine.

The Individual Wines and Vineyards

Eyrie Pinot Vineyard Bottlings click on image to enlarge

In tasting these wines together, it is the energy and muscle that changes most clearly between them. In August, my sister Melanie and I walked the Dundee Hills with Jason, visiting each of the Eyrie vineyards. Following are notes on each cuvée bringing tasting and walking notes together for each.

The Original Vines Reserve

*** The Original Vines Reserve brings such complexity, energy, and pleasing palate tension thanks to those gorgeously knarled, own root vines planted in 1965. The Original Vines Vineyard was the first to be planted by Eyrie founder, David Lett, at 220′-400′ elevation. Hidden mid-hill near the center of the Dundee Hills, the site stands along the bathtub ring of the Missoula flood. As a result, the site shows the greatest soil diversity of the Eyrie vineyards.

Near the top of the hill (where the oldest vines grow, and the greatest varietal variation as well — all the first Eyrie plantings are there) the red volcanic Jory soil that defines the Hills puts a red dust patina on the wines. At the bottom of the slope, in what is called the South Block, it is more of a taupe colored sedimentary earth deposited from the Missoula floods. The vineyard as a whole comes with chunks of Jory coupling alongside sedimentary in a patchwork of color.

The Original Vines Reserve carries lithe ease of strength — neither sinewy nor muscular, neither soft nor too tight. Aromas and flavors bring together rose petal with white cherry, rhubarb and raspberry, and light cedar through a wonderful energizing palate tension, and ultra long finish.

Outcrop Vineyard

* The newest of the Eyrie vineyards, Outcrop Vineyard grows around 250′ elevation planted between 1982 and 2000 by the Eason family, then purchased by Eyrie in 2011. It grows a little under 5 acres entirely of Pinot Noir and stands adjacent to the lower portion of the Original Vines plantings. The Outcrop Pinot brings the most masculine structural presentation of the wines, while at the same time showing the most apparent pink and red berry notes. There is a lot of complexity here with layers of cedar and forest, alongside red cherry and berry, coupled with lime and grapefruit accents. The Outcrop carries an almost sinewy leanness, that expands into incredibly focused length with air.

Sisters Vineyard

*** Sisters Vineyard has consistently offered a beautiful delicacy in its single vineyard bottlings. There is a gracefulness to the fruit from this site that at the same time offers great persistence on the palate. The vineyard itself stands at 200′-360′ elevation, and is the most unique of the Eyrie sites, growing not only Pinot Noir but also a range of varieties not otherwise associated with Eyrie. First planted in 1987, the site originally was known as Three Sisters for its first vines of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Pinot Gris. As the varietal collection expanded, the name shifted to just Sisters.

Sisters Pinot is one of those wines I want to enjoy through the course of a day — a languid afternoon with just one bottle. There is so much sapidity here, coupled with floral elements, and that refined rhubarb, all touched by a volcanic patina, and refreshing evergreen accents.

Rolling Green Vineyard

* Up the road, Rolling Green Vineyard was established at 6 acres to Pinot Noir, with a small portion of Pinot Gris in 1988 at 540′-700′ elevation. The sloped site grows from more iron rich Jory soil than seen at the Original Vines site, with worn stones of basalt throughout producing a lean profile of lithe strength, with some of the masculine structure of Outcrop, but more pine, citrus, white and red cherry tension followed by a long saline crunch mineral finish. It tastes like that satisfying moment after a hike, drinking a citrus and cherry margarita on the porch of a cabin in the middle of a pine forest.

Daphne Vineyard

** Established in 1989, at the top of the hill, Daphne Vineyard grows Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Meunier in even darker iron rich Jory than Rolling Green, at an elevation of 720′-820′ elevation. The Pinot Gris from Daphne serves as the core of Eyrie’s Estate bottling. For the Pinot Noir, Daphne vineyard, with its slightly rounder, though still gracefully focused palate has been bottled on its own in select vintages.

Here the vines offer a bit fuller flavor, and exuberance than the quieter grace of Sisters. The flavors come in as mixed red fruits and citrus alongside a touch of cedar and pine cascading into an ultra long, stimulating finish. It’s a wine that can’t help but light you up.

Oregon Pinot Noir

* Bringing together a blend of Pinot from each of the sites, the Oregon Pinot Noir bottling is effectively Eyrie’s Estate Pinot. A little snug on first opening, this wine loves air, showing better with time open. It brings together rose petal with ripe cherry and lime powder accents, on a body of wet rock, light saline, and a red volcanic patina for an ultra long finish with lots of focus.

The 2012 Oregon Pinot Noir is available now. Eyrie is planning a late Fall/early Winter release for the Vineyard designates.

***

Thank you to Jason Lett.

Copyright 2014 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com

 

 

2

A Visit to Antica Terra w Maggie Harrison

Jr acting normal in Antica Terra Vineyardwith Jamie, Maggie, and Rachel at the top of Antica Terra, July 2014

It’s early evening at the end of a full day of wine tasting. Jamie Goode is driving, my daughter, Rachel in the back seat. I am trying to help navigate our way through country roads where street numbers do not show clearly. We’ve driven past our destination.

A half mile on, Jamie finds a driveway where we can turn around. As we turn, I’m scouting the horizon hoping to spot where we are headed in order to confirm the proper turn. Then, atop the hill high above us, I see it, and I can’t help but call out pointing. “Oh my god! Is that where we’re going? Look at that vineyard!” It’s Antica Terra high atop the hill. The vines clutch to steep slope side almost glowing in evening light. I make a phone call, and Maggie Harrison drives down the hill to meet us. We’re climbing the dirt road into Antica Terra.

Maggie Harrison, Jamie GoodeMaggie Harrison and Jamie Goode near the top of Antica Terra, July 2014

In the late 1980s, near the top of a hill in Eola-Amity, two New Yorkers paired up and planted Antica Terra vineyard to Pinot Noir, the steep, rolling slopes a call to complexity and concentration in the cooler reaches of Southern Willamette Valley. In 2005, after a few years making wine themselves, the pair decided to sell the site to a trio of friends, that would then also bring in Maggie Harrison as partner and winemaker.

At the time, Harrison was happily installed at Sine Qua Non in Santa Barbara County, working as assistant winemaker to Manfred and Elaine Krankl, while also making her own celebrated Syrah, Lillian. The Antica Terra team offered Harrison the winemaking post but she had no interest in moving. Wanting to convince Harrison, the Antica Terra partners chose to act covertly, asking her to visit the site simply to advise on viticulture for the upcoming season, hoping a glimpse of the vineyard would change her mind.

She flew to Portland, and with one of the partners, drove the length to Amity along suburban then country roads. Not until, but immediately upon arrival to the vineyard hill she knew. Within minutes, she tells us, she stepped behind one of the giant oak trees on the property for privacy, and called her now-husband to tell him, “we’re moving to Oregon.”

We’re standing at the top of the vineyard as she recounts the story. “This place has something to say,” she tells us. We’re looking into vines impossibly small for their age, but the canopy across the original sections is consistent and healthy. Harrison is explaining her attachment to the place in her characteristic humility. “I don’t know that I’ll be the person to best capture this place in the long run, but I had to work with it given the chance. I wanted to be part of it.”

Maggie Harrison, Jamie Goode, and Rachel walking the slopes of Antica TerraMaggie, Jamie, and Rachel walking the slopes of Antica Terra, July 2014

Harrison’s work with Antica Terra has helped deepen vine health too, thus bringing greater overall balance to the vineyard. While the original owners put in ample work establishing and cultivating the site, by 2006 there were still some sections they’d not been able to bring into total balance.

Standing near the top of Antica Terra, Harrison would look out over the top of the vines and see stress bands running the vineyard, waves of yellow leaves blowing through the canopy. The difficult sections did not seem to correlate with any particular element of planting — it wasn’t consistent to clonal type, vine age, or training method. No one knew for sure what was happening.

Harrison took an unconventional approach to treating the stressed portions of the vineyard initially. “It was like standing there with a sick kid. I needed to do something. So, I would walk the rows and put a teaspoon of molasses at the base of each vine.” Harrison explains. At Sine Qua Non, Harrison and Krankl collaborated for years with Austrian winemaker Alois Kracher. “Kracher told me molasses had the most available nutrients for the vines, so I tried it. I don’t know that it helped, but it was something I could do.”

The approach, while surprising, illustrates Harrison’s ideas of intention. Whether the molasses itself assisted the vines or not remains unclear, but the time walking and tending the vines one-by-one everyday gave Harrison insight into the site.

Antica Terra at Sunsetview from the top of the hill at Antica Terra, July 2014

As Harrison walked the vineyard she tracked the range of the stressed sections, and apparent soil changes. Eventually she placed flags in what turned out to be 38 spots where the team would later attempt to dig soil pits. Bringing in the backhoe gave insight. Topsoil proved less than 18″ in most spots, with vine roots clutched together in a ball above bedrock. Stress bands showed through those sections with shallow roots anytime temperatures rose too high. The roots had no way to find their water.

Though the decision was difficult — Harrison’s preference is to leave soils largely as found other than planting — they chose to rip ground down the middle of each row to a depth of 5 and a half feet. “It was horrible at first.” She admits. In ripping the ground to gain greater long term access for the roots, the roots that were in place were cut. “After a while though we started to recoup the vineyard.”

At the same time, the Antica Terra team chose to go organic. The initial change from conventional to organic farming is not easy. Vineyards tend to hyper-react initially to the change, over-growing weeds or fungus, taking a year or two to adjust depending on site.

Harrison’s view of going organic parallels the response to shallow soils in the vineyard, it’s a philosophy tempered with utility. “I believe in making a choice, saying, here is my intention. At the same time, I reserve the right to do whatever needs to happen to preserve the vineyard.” She explains. “So, in 2006, I said, we are going to go organic, unless I am going to lose the entire vineyard. Then, we’ll need to talk.” Though it was hard at first, the gamble worked. By 2007, the team was successfully farming organic.

Antica Terra Pinot NoirMaggie Harrison showing a Pinot Noir cluster in Antica Terra, July 2014

The promise of concentration and complexity spotted by the original owners of the site, proved true. The vines from Antica Terra produce few clusters, all of them small, with lots of hens and chicks throughout. The clusters tend to predominately hold berries without seeds, evidence of the challenged conditions growing in bedrock. The 2014 vintage, Harrison explains, offers the highest fruit production she’s seen from the site since 2006, though walking the rows with her, it’s clear the cluster count is still low compared to lower elevation plantings.

The reduced seed count offers an advantage in the cellar for Antica Terra wines. Seed tannins tend to be harsher than skin tannins. With fewer seeds present per cluster (and these clusters that often hold thicker skins) Antica Terra Pinot can expect still ample tannin presence, but worry less about tannin bitterness.

In the cellar of Antica Terrain the cellar of Antica Terra, July 2014

Beginning in 2009, Harrison bottled some of the Antica Terra vineyard fruit on its own. Back in the cellar, we’re tasting from the 2011 Antikythera, Antica Terra’s Estate Vineyard Pinot noir. It shows the dark concentrated elements of the vineyard cupped with multi-colored fruit edges, and a light dust patina. Though the wine is not lacking in fruit, fruit doesn’t seem to be the point. Instead, it’s a wine of elegant strength, with a core of precision and a lifting, lifting long finish.

***

For Jamie Goode’s write-up on the Antikythera: http://www.wineanorak.com/wineblog/oregon/the-lovely-antikythera-pinot-noir-2011-antica-terra

***

I’ll be writing more about Antica Terra wines in a future post (I’m kind of crazy for the 2012 Aurata Chardonnay — and listening to Maggie’s views on Chardonnay proves interesting).

***

Thank you to Maggie Harrison.

Thank you to Jamie Goode.

Thank you to Michelle Kaufmann.

Copyright 2014 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com

A Visit to Noel Family Vineyards
Lisa and Michael Noel
Lisa and Michael Noel, Noel Family Vineyards, Chehalem Mountains, July 2014

We’re sitting together at the farm table looking at family photos. Michael and Lisa Noel’s oldest was married this Spring and I expressed interest in the event. They’ve kindly offered me a collection of snapshots to look through. In the album, I’m struck by the easy closeness of the now-married couple, and the sweetness of the Noel’s son. As I turn the pages I can’t help but comment on how kind he looks. In one photo he stands hugging his grandmother. It’s clear he loves her being there, and she feels comforted. When I look up, Michael is beaming. Lisa and I have gotten almost weepy, our eyes watering.

I’ve driven beyond the pavement of King’s Grade Road on the Western side of the Chehalem Mountains to visit a tiny Pinot Noir planting at the top of the hill, and meet the family behind it. The site is 3 acres, with 2 planted to 6 clones of Pinot Noir, creating what is effectively a field blend of the variety. Noel Family Vineyards relies entirely on the 2-acre site for its fruit. They source from no other growers.

Looking West from Noel Family Vineyardslooking West into Ribbon Ridge AVA from Noel Family Vineyards, July 2014

From the site, the Noel’s garner a perfect view. Facing south near the house, we look to the Dundee Hills, the first planted area of Willamette Valley. At the other side of the property, the vineyard itself slopes west. We stand firmly within the Chehalem Mountains AVA, but look towards the Ribbon Ridge AVA, and the coastal mountains that form the western boundary of the Willamette Valley. Standing in the view, a slight breeze picks up. By the time I leave, it is persistent.

Falling in Love with Wine

Noel Family Photo Album of Valpolicella, 1996a page from Michael and Lisa’s 1996 photo album, trip to Valpolicella

It was 1996 when the door opened to wine for Lisa and Michael Noel. The couple met in college at Carnegie-Mellon, eventually moving to Alabama for work. Lisa’s family, however, originates in Italy, and some still live there in Verona. The local culture of the region relies on neighborhood wineries where table wine comes from refilling the growler at your favorite cellar door.

In the midst of a visit with family, Lisa and Michael accompanied their relatives on an errand to refill the growler with Valpolicella from a local winery. Soon after arrival, however, the winemaker offered an invitation.

“Dip your glass into the vat to get some wine, he told me,” Michael explains. Michael climbed to the top of a ladder, drawing wine from the cement fermenter with his cup. “Then he asked, do you want to come inside the house?” Michael adds. He’s giddy as he describes the experience now almost twenty years old, “We weren’t even wine people at the time but were so excited to go there. I was leading the way [to the house],” he tells me smiling.

The family spent hours together tableside with the winemaker and his family enjoying wine, food, sharing stories. The experience changed their perspective. “It wasn’t even about the wine,” Michael explains. “There we were sitting in his home with him.”

The experience in Italy was a sort of first step to wine. Upon return to the United States they began exploring American wine. In the meantime, work had brought them to Oregon.

“Michael wanted to drink local,” Lisa tells me. Lisa enjoyed wine too but at first wasn’t drawn to the lighter body of Pinot Noir. She’d gotten used to the 1990s style of California Cabernet. “I wasn’t excited about Pinot Noir at first but he was persistent. So we drove around together tasting, and learning about local wines.”

Eventually the passion for learning pushed a more hands-on interest. Michael began making wine in their garage while they also started looking for affordable property they could plant to Pinot Noir. “Michael doesn’t do anything half-heartedly,” Lisa tells me smiling. By the mid-2000s the couple had found their property in the Chehalem Mountains and together cleared the land, and planted vines.

At Home in the Chehalem Mountains

Noel Family Vineyards Pinot NoirMichael unabashedly admits to liking pretty wines. In pairing with a winemaker, and vineyard manager both he sought to develop with them an expression of the beauty he sees in the place they now grow their wine. The result holds.

Noel Family Pinot are lovely wines both characteristically Chehalem while also their own — pretty, delicate with integrated, and distinctive spice elements, carrying nice tension and depth, all about red fruit, and a Northern forest aroma and flavor held in fine boned balance.

With the abundance of the 2012 vintage, Michael and winemaker Todd Hamina decided to satisfy Michael’s curiosity and work with new coopers. The result generated Noel Family’s classic Estate style Pinot Noir, alongside a special vintage bottling named, Night. Night carries a darker core, aroma and palate profile compared to the Estate, bringing in light blue and black fruit accents, with a bit more apparent tannin, and strength of presence. It’s a wine for wine lovers still finding their way into Pinot, and pairs well with stronger food flavors like truffle accents or funky cheeses.

To taste the wines, the three of us sit around the table of Michael and Lisa’s home enjoying food and family photos. They designed their table as a center piece to the home. It’s in homage, Michael explains, to their early experience in Italy. We’re surrounded on two sides by windows, some looking south to Dundee, the rest west to Ribbon Ridge. The windows were largely added to the home during renovation — the table, surrounded by windows, to be shared in appreciation for the advantages of growing local.

***

For more information on Noel Family Vineyard and Wines: http://noelfamilyvineyard.com/

***

Thank you to Michael and Lisa Noel.

Thank you to Jill Klein Matthiasson.

Copyright 2014 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com

0

This write-up appears as a follow-up to a previous article on Santa Barbara County wine growing.

Santa Barbara Wine Country

For more information on over-arching growing conditions for the region, such as climate and weather patterns, please see that article, which appears here: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2014/05/20/understanding-santa-barbara-county-wine/

Santa Maria Valley

Driving South through California on Highway 101 the sand dunes begin to appear as the road comes closer to the ocean. By San Luis Obispo (SLO) county (home to Paso Robles, San Simeon and its famed Hearst Castle, as well as Morro Bay) ocean succulents, and cypress dot the roadway, growing from sandy loam of the seascape. The highway hugs ocean through Pismo Beach, then cuts inland again lifting over a slight climb in elevation, through the drop on the other side. You’ve arrived in Santa Maria Valley.

Santa Maria Valley proves the second oldest appellation in California, after Napa Valley, and includes some of the oldest contemporary vineyards in Santa Barbara County (SBC), as well as some of the most distinctive Chardonnay plantings in the state. However, the area has received historically less attention for wine than its Southern siblings such as the Sta Rita Hills.

The Agricultural Richness of Santa Maria Valley

The Northern most appellation in Santa Barbara County, the land formation as well as the appellation of Santa Maria Valley include sections of San Luis Obispo county. From the North, it is the San Rafael Mountains that circumscribes the Valley floor, and the intersection of the Santa Maria River with the water flowing through North Canyon from Twitchell Reservoir that marks the SLO-SBC border. Bien Nacido Vineyards, for example, sits just inside the North-western edge of SBC while its strawberry fields on the flats sit just inside the South-eastern rest of SLO.

Santa Maria Valley proves one of the most agriculturally diverse, and active regions of North America hosting a range of berries, avocado, spinach, beans, squash, broccoli, cauliflower, and even a cactus nursery. With avocado entering the region in the 1870s, this section of California quickly became the primary supply for North America. It still hosts (one of) the largest groves in North America.

Grape growing through the region reaches back to the 1830s, with more contemporary vineyards being established beginning in the 1960s, many of those early own root vines still giving fruit. As a result of such agricultural diversity, the area includes one of the more residential farming communities in the country, with farm workers able to remain year round as they rotate between crops.

Local cattle ranching and indigenous beans find focus through the tradition of Santa Maria BBQ. It appropriately claims the title of Best BBQ in the West, offering a local-oak fired tri-tip that proves more spice-rubbed than sauced, coupled with a side of pinquinto beans. The beans stand as a reminder of the relevance of land formations in agricultural development. The small pink morsels originate from and grow only within this area of the Central Coast.

Winegrowing Santa Maria Valley

SMV map

click on image to enlarge

Santa Maria Valley AVA offers the only valley in North or South America with unhindered ocean influence. No hillside formations rise within the center line of the appellation to shade or shield portions of the valley floor. The mouth of the valley opens to the Pacific, with the West-East narrowing funnel of the region cut by the San Rafael Mountains to the North, and the Solomon Hills to the South squeezing together near Sisquoc. The center of the valley is defined by the open pull of the Santa Maria-Sisquoc river bench.

The shape of the valley generates a clockwork regularity of fog at night through morning, then wind by afternoon. It is the wind that balances disease pressure from the ocean humidity. Open valley floor also means temperatures average one Fahrenheit degree warmer per mile driven East. Some slight nooks along the river bench, or canyon formation along the Northern mountain and Southern hills offer variation.

Considering Soils

Soil variation within the valley can broadly be cut into four types. Along the Northern portion of the Santa Maria-Sisquoc River colluvial soils cover slope sides giving rocky freshness to grapes grown throughout. Moving towards riverside, soils become unconsolidated as mixed alluvial soils appear from old wash off ancient mountain rains.

Bien Nacido, for example, grows vines from hilltop, through slope-side, and into the rolling flats approaching Santa Maria Mesa Road. The absolute flats they reserve for other crops. Walking the midslope vineyards of Bien Nacido offers a mix of rocky soils rolling into Elder Series, and then finally sandy loam near the bottom. Bien Nacido, and Cambria (growing directly beside Bien Nacido to the East) both contain a mix of colluvial and Elder Series soils, with some dolomitic limestone appearing near the tops of slopes, and shale in mid-slopes further East in the Valley. By riverside, soils are entirely unconsolidated giving a mix of some Elder series, and some sandy loam.

Across the street from Bien Nacido, the soils change, becoming unconsolidated alluvial soils. Rancho Viñedo grows in entirely unconsolidated soils, Pleasanton Clay Loam. In broader context these sorts of unconsolidated soils are often treated critically when it comes to grape growing. After rains soils like Pleasanton Clay Loam act like cement, as the soils do not absorb water easily crops grown in such ground tend to flood. However, in a region where rain is rare, thanks to the rain shadow effect of the San Rafael Mountains, such concerns become almost irrelevant. The rare cases when flooding does occur in the region come from ocean storms hitting so hard and fast the question of soil has little to do with the result. Flooding would have happened anyway.

On the Southern portion of the Santa Maria-Sisquoc River soils dramatically change. The Western portion of the appellation rises from ancient sand dunes, once part of the sea floor. Sections of the valley, then are almost pure sand mixed through in areas with silt from mountain erosion. The South-western quadrant of SMV moves from almost pure sand, into sandy loam as you travel North-east, or silty loam as you move into the Solomon Hills.

Sections of the newer Presqu’ile Vineyard, for example, appear as incredibly sandy giving a sense of suave tannin to red wines. By the time you reach the Dierberg planting a touch closer to the river, however, it has become more sandy loam. On the plateau of the Solomon Hills North of Cat Canyon, overlooking the valley, Ontiveros Ranch grows in unconsolidated silty soils.

Moving East along the Southern side of the river, the valley squeezes closer to the river bench, and the ground changes to predominately mixed cobbles and rocky loam. Riverbench Vineyard, for example, includes blocks on rocky clay loam, approaching Foxen Canyon, or more rocky plantings approaching the riverside.

While the North-eastern section of Santa Maria Valley contains a predominance of colluvial soils and Elder Series from the Mountains, sandy soils appear mixed throughout Santa Maria Valley with some sections of these vineyards including sandy loam.

Though the valley’s soils can be described through four major types, and the region’s climate has an overall sense of regularity, throughout the appellation there are subtler distinctions within sites that must be expected. As examples, thanks to the ocean influence salinity plays unexpected while sometimes significant role in vine vigor. Slight rolling character in what might seem an otherwise flat vineyard site can create slight air pools that change growing temperatures for vines in those sections. Individual vineyards, then, have significant internal variation.

Establishing Santa Maria Valley Wines

Modern day viticulture appeared in Santa Maria Valley in 1964, with the planting established by Uriel Nielsen in what is now the Byron Winery and Vineyard facility. The area benefits from the cool climate of SMV while hosting the slightly warmer day time temperatures that give darker red fruit in comparison to plantings on the Western side of the Valley.

In 1972, Louis Lucas and Dale Hampton would establish what would become the famous Tepusquet Vineyard, simultaneously pronouncing the great viticultural promise of the region shown through the cool climate, the ocean influence, and the water availability even in desert conditions. The Tepusquet Vineyard now stands in the Cambria Winery and Vineyard facility at the Northern side of the Sisquoc River.

Soon on the heels of the Nielsen and Tepusquet plantings, in 1973 the Miller brothers would begin one of the most influential vineyards of the valley, Bien Nacido. The site would establish itself as what was at the time the largest certified nursery-service-plus-vineyard in the state. By maintaining soil testing on a regular basis and ensuring the health of the vineyard through FPMS certification, Bien Nacido could not only generating crop for area winemakers, but also vine material for future regional vineyards.

These three early vineyards served as what were essentially viticultural test plots surveying what grape varieties, clonal types, and rootstocks could prosper in the region. Figures such as RIchard Sanford, while known more for his original plantings in Sta Rita Hills, also played key roles in helping to identify the appropriateness for Pinot Noir in the region, the valley’s signature variety.

Other vineyards, such as SIerra Madre originally planted in 1971, would prove influential for their later replants. Santa Barbara County includes a long history of influence on the more well-known Napa and Sonoma counties. Well established winemakers known for their North Coast wines utilized grapes grown in SBC to blend and bring added dimension to their North Coast wines. Off paper, then, SBC’s grape quality has been long established.

In the 1990s, however, that reputation was backed up by a series of purchases from big name wineries such as Robert Mondavi, and Jackson Family. In the 1990s, Robert Mondavi took interest in the Sierra Madre site, and decided to use portions to graft newer Pinot and Chardonnay clones in order to study their viability. The unique quality of the site became inspirational force for a range of winemakers both within the region and without. Mondavi’s clonal changes predominately remain within Sierra Madre, some of which offer fruit unlike that seen anywhere else in the state.

Newer vineyards such as Solomon Hills, or Dierberg both planted in the 1990s, and Presqu’ile in the 2000s, expand insight on ripening in SMV. Set near or on the Western boundary of the appellation, each receives cold air, and afternoon ocean wind bringing ultra cool climate focus to their fruit development.

Pinot Noir of Santa Maria Valley

Pinot Noir proves Santa Maria Valley’s signature grape. The valley’s signature marks its Pinot with red fruit character integrated through with the classic blend of Chinese Five Spice and tons of juicy length. The subtle complexity of this flavor study, coupled with the region’s mineral tension, and juiciness give it a profile distinctive from its Pinot Noir neighbors to the North and South.

Within the appellation, soil and temperature changes give fine-tuned distinctions to wines grown from different vineyards. Fruit from the South-western quadrant, for example, consistently carries the suave tannin of sandy soils, and a brighter red profile than the wines of the warmer North-eastern section. The sandy soils have also shown the ability to manage a high portion of whole cluster during fermentation to good effect.

With older vineyards such as Bien Nacido still showcasing own-root original plantings of Pinot Noir, now inter-planted with comparatively younger grafted vines of the same vine material, SMV also offers unique opportunity for winemakers to experiment with fruit from older and younger vines grown side by side. At Byron, sections of the original clonal and rootstock experiment planting are maintained allowing winemakers there the opportunity over decades to separately vinify fruit by clone-to-rootstock combination.

The best Pinot Noir from Santa Maria Valley has also proven its ability to age well. The subtlety of the valley offers its Pinots what is an almost brooding even while red fruit character, that turns outward again as it ages giving slightly older examples a beautifully surprising energy and lift.

Chardonnay of Santa Maria Valley

While Pinot stands as Santa Maria Valley’s best known variety, some of the most distinctive Chardonnays of California herald from the region. Unique clonal material grows through SMV offering distinctive flavor profiles from vineyards such as Sierra Madre.

The underlying Santa Maria Valley Chardonnay character shows up as Meyer lemon curd on toasted croissant with a long ocean crunch finish. Depending on area of the valley you can imagine that profile dialing down towards more mineral at the Western-reaches, or up towards riper in areas like Cambria. The ocean influence often gives a distinctively pleasing saline crunch or slurry to the white wines, in some of the cooler and sandier vineyard sites it verges into olive.

The mineral presence plus ample juiciness of the fruit give a lot of room for successful oak integration, and/or more reductive character. The two techniques give breadth and length of presence to the juiciness of the region’s fruit without having to dominate its flavor.

Other Varieties of Santa Maria Valley

Rhone varieties appear in small but successful portion through Santa Maria Valley. Most famously, Syrah has done well through the Northern-middle portions of the appellation with producers like Qupe bringing attention to the quality possible from the grape grown in the valley.

At the furthest Eastern side of SMV, Rancho Sisquoc grows a range of grape types successfully producing the range of Bordeaux varieties in warmer pockets near the close of the SMV funnel, as well as unexpected successes such as Riesling and Sylvaner.

***

Hawk Wakawaka Wine Reviews remains ad-free without a pay wall, and takes hundreds of hours a month to research and write. If you enjoy and value the work you find here, please consider supporting this project with a monthly donation, or one in any dollar amount via the form below. Your support is greatly appreciated.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Thank you!

Copyright 2014 all rights reserved. When sharing or forwarding, please attribute to WakawakaWineReviews.com