Archive for September, 2009

Up on a Hillside and Down in the Valley

September 30, 2009

Hawley Winery sits on the upslope of Sonoma’s Bradford Mountain. Preston of Dry Creek operates downslope on the valley floor. Both take an organic approach to making wine, choosing natural methods that link older times to modern sensibilities.

Austin, John and Paul Hawley

Austin, John and Paul Hawley

John Hawley lives above the hillside where he grows merlot, cabernet sauvignon and viognier grapes. Along with his two sons — Paul and Austin — Hawley makes a variety of  other reds and whites, including a juicy viognier that won “Best of Class” in 2007 and 2008 from the California State Fair. The 2008 tasted of fresh honeysuckle and apricot with a creaminess that demanded another sip, even at a 10 a.m. tasting!

Hawley, Preston and Gustafson Family Vineyards (which was profiled in last week’s blog Up, Up and Away)  were part of a tour organized by the Wine Growers of Dry Creek Valley to spotlight organic viticultural practices.

Corked! Comeback

Paul Hawley helps out around his dad’s winery, but he has earned his own notoriety in a different field. The younger Hawley co-directed the mockumentary “Corked!” — a satirical send-off of the wine business — with Ross Clendenen, a Healdsburg High grad (and son of Hawley’s vineyard manager) who studied filmmaking at the Brooks Institute of Film in Santa Barbara.

The Hollywood Reporter’s positive review called Corked! “a pithy delight” and “a brilliant lampoon of winemaking.” The movie debuted last year and was shown at the Cannes Film Festival. If you missed it, the film returns to wine country for a special two-day run at the Raven Performing Arts Theater this weekend (Oct. 3-4) in Healdsburg.

Nurturing Naturally

Back in the real-life vineyard, the elder Hawley is convinced that organic farming is the right approach.

“Our grapes every year seem to be better and better… after going organic,” said Hawley, an industry veteran whose resume includes principal winemaking duties at both Clos du Bois and Kendall Jackson.

Hawley Hillside Vineyard

Hawley Hillside Vineyard

Two hawks circled overhead as Hawley explained how hard his 10 acres of merlot, cabernet sauvignon and viognier vines have to work to survive . The vines are planted on shallow volcanic soil that over eons had been leached of its nutrients by seasonal rains that washed the topsoil downhill to the more verdant valley floor.

“Soil is the basis of everything,” he said.

While there are no synthetic pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers, Hawley does use natural amendments, including grape pomace, to revitalize the land that supports the family business.

Organic to the Max

Hillside runoff winds up in places like Preston of Dry Creek, a winery with eco-friendly operations on the floor of Dry Creek Valley..

Lou Preston, the namesake proprietor, takes the organic attitude to an even higher level with a big dash of bio-diversity thrown in for good measure.

Preston Vineyard

Preston Vineyard

He bought the first 40 acres (which had been planted in prunes and pears) off West Dry Creek Road in 1973. Today, Preston oversees organic vineyards and a wide array of complementary fruit orchards, olive trees, vegetable fields, livestock and poultry. Winery tractors burn bio-diesel (recycled vegetable oil from local restaurants) and most electrical needs are fed by an on-site solar power plant. Recycle and re-use aren’t just catch phrases here. They are the law of the land.

“Man must drink, but you need to eat well, too,” Preston quipped as he led visitors past a field of tomatoes and peppers towards a pen stocked with chickens and pigs.

The winery owner and his wife, Susan, sell their organic fruit and produce at local farmer’s markets. I can personally vouch for the apple-chili chutney, which adds a new, spicy dimension to the common pork chop. If you visit the winery, be sure to check out Preston’s artisan bread, which he bakes in a customized kitchen adjacent to the winery.

“Our job is to bring to our customers an experience that is indicative of our place,” Preston said. “Which is pretty unique.”

Lou Preston and Friend

Lou Preston and Friend

Preston produces 12-13 wines a year.  The L. Preston, a combination of syrah, cinsault, mourvedre and carignane that resembles a Rhone-style blend, is a perennial favorite. I also liked the 2008 sauvignon blanc ($22), which was clean, crsip and quite tasty on a 90-degree afternoon in Dry Creek Valley.

“We have diversity in a viticultural setting,” Preston explained. “We are passionate, perhaps obsessive, with a different kind of land management. There is not so much of a monocultural approach. We eat and drink from the land where we live.”

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Up, Up and Away

September 24, 2009

You can’t find Gustafson Family Vineyards without a map and determination, but the effort to reach this stunning Sonoma mountaintop winery is well worth it for the unforgettable view, let alone the great wine and handsome architecture.

Gustafson, with vineyards at 1,800 feet above sea level, was the third stop on a September morning tour of three Dry Creek Valley wineries that practice viticulture with good intentions and Earth-friendly practices to produce world-class wines. I’ll cover the other two wineries — Hawley Vineyards and Winery and Preston of Dry Creek — in subsequent posts. So, stay tuned!

Gustafson Winery

Gustafson Winery

There are 20 acres of vines at Gustafson — zinfandel, petite sirah, syrah, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, petite verdot, sauvignon blanc and riesling. The vines are planted on a 240-acre parcel of steeply rugged terrain that was once a sheep ranch. The wild unplanted site captured the owner’s eye  and imagination in 2002 as he drove along Stewarts Point-Skaggs Springs Road , scouting for new vineyard locations.

“I could have gone anywhere I wanted to and I chose this spot,” said owner/proprieter Dan Gustafson, a farm boy who became a landscape architect and successful builder in Minnesota. He explained his motivation while standing in the shadow of a giant 300-year-old madrone tree that guards a zinfandel vineyard heavy with deep purple fruit.

Dan Gustafson and Mighty Madrone

Dan Gustafson and Mighty Madrone

“We knew that vines would grow wherever there was madrone because they both love this red volcanic soil,” he said.

Still, the vines struggle for nutrients and water pumped into the vineyard sites from a well. There are numerous natural springs on the property which also supports a crop of wild turkey, deer, and feral pigs.

“A flock of turkeys can easily eat 200 pounds of fruit a night,” Gustafson sighed.

For visitors on this day, there was an al fresco luncheon on the winery terrace, catered by Forestville’s Mosaic restaurant and featuring an all-Gustafson lineup of wines. The tour was part of a bigger public event, Zintopia, put on by rhe Winegrowers of Dry Creek Valley.

My favorite, the 2007 zinfandel ($36), was smooth with a pleasantly jammy nose and good plum flavors. The 2007 Petite Sirah  ($32) was a slightly better match for the main course of melt-in-your-mouth short ribs over creamy wild mushroom risotto.

Flat space is at a premium on this site. The steepness of the terrain (the grade runs up to 29% in some spots and averages 19%) demands almost all the work be done by hand and on foot.

The stone-and-wood winery sits 17 miles outside Healdsburg, just up the hill from the Lake Sonoma Dam. It’s another 18 miles, as the crow flies, from here to the ocean, which by car translates into a 35-mile twisting -and-turning drive to the Pacific.

Gustafson has a small tasting room that is open by appointment during the week with public tasting on Saturdays only. The posh layout includes private living quarters for Gustafson, who splits his time 50-50 between wine country and  his family in Minnesota.

Winemaker Emmett Reed, who apprenticed at a few other places before signing on at Gustafson,  lives on the property just down the hill from the winery. He and Gustafson are constantly on the prowl, monitoring the progress of their young vines on a daily basis.

Gustafson Vineyards

Gustafson Vineyards

“Every vine is touched at least 12 times a year and with 1,000 vines per acre, that’s a lot of hard work,” Gustafson said. It’s a two-man team, with a part-time tasting room employee and extra help brought in for big projects, like the 2009 harvest.

There are other vineyards within a few miles of the property, but no old-timers here with knowledge to share about any long-term history of winemaking on this spot.

“We are continuing to learn more and more about the vineyard,” Reed explained. “There’s really nobody to tell us what to do or how to do it up here.”

Coming Up Next: Going downhill is not a bad thing if it takes you to Hawley Vineyards and Winery.

Imagination Rules at Imagery Winery

September 18, 2009

If your tastebuds need a new temptation — something that veers off the well-traveled cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir and chardonnay path — chart a course for Imagery Estate Winery in Glen Ellen where variety is the spice of life.

Imagery’s master of temptation is Joe Benziger, a member of the winemaking Benziger family that turned its hugely successful brand, Glen Ellen, into a gold mine by selling the business to a corporate suitor in 1993. The family still makes fine wine under the Benziger Family Winery label while Joe branched out with Imagery to produce small lots of boutique-style wines from a cornucopia of lesser known varietals.

Imagery's Joe Benziger

Imagery's Joe Benziger

To enhance the uniqueness of the wines, each wine features an original work of art on its label.  The label-turned-canvas idea germinated from a chance meeting between Joe and Sonoma artist Bob Nugent, who now oversees the collection of artwork created by artists from around the world. The only requirement: artists must include an image of the Parthenon in their work.  More than 200 different labels have been created and dozens more are in development for use in future production. There is a rotating exhibit of the original artworks on display in the tasting room.

Lagrein, Cinsault and Mourvedre, Oh My!

imagerylagreinlabelTake Lagrein, for example. This northern Italian grape is quite rare in the U.S., but that didn’t stop Joe from forging ahead. He located a source (French Camp Vineyards near Paso Robles) and turned the grapes into a delicious red wine. Imagery’s 2005 bottling ($40) is worth trying for its uniqueness, but it’s worth going back for another glass due to its jammy good taste and a touch of sweetness from aging in French oak.

Cinsault is widely planted in France, but it is primarily used there and in other parts of the world as a blending grape. You rarely run across this hot weather-friendly grape bottled by itself in California, unless you’re in the lively and inviting tasting room at Imagery.

“The cinsault grapes are huge,” Joe told me on a recent visit to the winery, making a circle with his thumb and finger to show the size. “They were so big, I couldn’t put them through the de-stemmer (a special machine that separates grapes from their stems).”

The dark, rich wine was smooth, with just a hint of tannin to provide complexity.

“It feels like ‘furry’ tannins to me,” Joe said, trying to explain the delicate tingle on the tongue produced by the wine.

Mourvedre is another interesting grape, not as rare as Lagrein nor as widely planted as Cinsault but important as a blending grape in regions like France’s Rhone Valley, where it shines. Rhone-style wines made in California nearly always include some mourvedre, but at Imagery Joe puts the grape in the spotlight as a solo performer. The newly-released 2006 mourvedre ($42), grown in a high valley in Lake County, tasted of plums and purple fruit.

So Many Wines, So Little Time

Joe says he makes 18-22 kinds of wine each year. The exact number depends on supplies from growers and from the estate’s own vineyards. I really liked his current release of petit verdot, another French grape used primarily in Bordeaux for blending.imagerypetitverdot

“It’s difficult to grow and hard to ripen,” he explained. “But if you get it right, it’s great.”

A barrel sample of the 2008 petite verdot displayed a lot of potential, and tannin.

“I think this may be one of the best I’ve made,” he said, eyes bright with excitement. “At least I hope so.”

Blending Outside the Box

Joe is proud of his lineup of more traditional varietals like cabernet sauvignon and merlot, which include “estate” wines produced from vines grown on the Imagery property just down Highway 12 from B.R. Cohn and right next door to Arrowood Vineyards and Winery.

Imagery’s reputation, however, has been bolstered through Joe’s careful blending of traditional mixes like cabernet/merlot and cabernet/sangiovese plus some really “outside the box” concoctions.

Examples of the latter include a chardonnay-based wine (they call it white burgundy, $29) blended with pinot menuier (which is traditionally a champagne grape) and pinot blanc (a French grape often found in Alsatian wines) and Code Blue ($36), a blend of syrah grapes co-fermented with California blueberries. The blueberries (about one ton) were harvested in June at the peak of maturity and kept frozen until the syrah grapes ripened and were harvested.

The Imagery tasting room is open daily (10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.). It features a covered patio for outdoor sipping overlooking a bocce ball court plus a rear patio where there are about a dozen umbrella shaded tables.

Nearby is the Sunny Slope vineyard, home to estate grapes that go into the delicious Sunnyslope merlot (2004, $42) and Sunnyslope cabernet sauvignon ($45). The winery’s top-of-the-line wine is called Pallas, after the daughter of Zeus, the Greek god. The cabernet (with about 6 percent malbec) is $60 while a 60/40 cabernet-malbec blend carries the winery’s highest pricetag ($70).

Birds, Bees and Wine… Please

September 11, 2009

A visit to Quivira Winery in the Dry Creek Valley begins with a short stroll through a biodynamic garden brimming with organic vegetables, buzzing bees, cackling chickens and the promise of some pretty nifty wine.

Quivira Winery

Quivira Winery

The one-acre vegetable garden (actually dozens of raised beds heavy with summer squash and tomatoes on a recent visit) sits in front of the modern tasting room just off West Dry Creek Road outside Healdsburg. The vegetable-growing operation is a joint effort to supply local restaurants with fresh produce, with the proceeds going to charity.

Biodynamic and Organic

Quivira sits on about 60 acres of benchland and ridges alongside Wine Creek, a seasonal stream that runs through the property before emptying into Dry Creek. Quivira has been a leader in fish-friendly vineyard practices and has worked hard — as a certified biodynamic and organic winery — to be a progressive steward of the land. Check out our video tour of Quivira.

The Dry Creek Valley is an acknowledged leader in the production of zinfandel, which is the center of the Quivira universe. There are three regular zin bottlings — including the  always dependable Dry Creek Valley blend — but the syrah and grenache wines are also pretty special and there is a very good 2008 sauvignon blanc to toast the waning days of summer.

This year’s sauvignon blanc harvest is nearly done, but the vines loaded with zinfandel, syrah, grenache and some other red grapes are still waiting to be picked over the next two months.

Steven Canter

Steven Canter

Really Good Reds

The most enjoyable wine I tasted with talented winemaker Steven Canter was the 2006 Anderson Ranch zinfandel ($34). Canter explained the fresh red fruit flavors and cherry nose were characteristic of this wine, made from vines grown on a 9.5-acre tract just north of the solar-powered winery.

The 2007 Wine Creek Ranch grenache ($26) was delicious and ready for immediate enjoyment. I’d like to taste it with duck rillettes or any mild sausage grilled over vine cuttings.

Over the next few years look for some exciting new offerings from Canter, who has worked as a winemaker on three continents. He will be using some decidely un-Dry Creek Valley varietals like montepulciano (from Italy’s Abruzzo region) and abouriou (from the southwest of France).

“I’m convinced that it (montepulciano) will be a real star here,” said Canter, who believes a blend of the fruity red Italian grape with zinfandel could be a great combo.

Quivira’s tasting room is open daily. There’s a $5 tasting fee, but it’s waived if you purchase any bottle.

Upcoming Zin Event

Quivira is one of more than 30 regional wineries participating in Zintopia, a zinfandel-focused event at the Lake Sonoma Warm Springs Recreation Area from 2-7 p.m. Sept. 19.  Tickets for the tasting, put on by the Winegrowers of Dry Creek Valley, are $75.