Extreme Wine: Vineyard Edition

P1030341When I started working on my book on Extreme Wine  (due out in the fall) I asked Wine Economist readers for ideas. Who are the most extreme wine people, for example? I received many nominations but one particularly caught my attention.

It came from a California winegrower who asked that winegrowers (although not him/herself) be included on the list. Everyone says that wine is made in the vineyard — and some growers go to real extremes to make that happen — but it is the wine makers who get all the attention.  The Pisoni family was cited as an example. Fruit from Pisoni Vineyards goes into some of the best wine in California, although only a little of it is bottled under the Pisoni name.

Good point. A quick search on Robert Parker’s website turned up a long list of Pinot Noir and Syrah with the Pisoni Vineyards designation (Parker calls it a grand cru vineyard in one review).  The 2008 Pisoni Estate Pinot earned the highest score (98/100), but all the reviews were strong. Clearly there’s something special about this vineyard and the people who farm it.  I visited several extreme winegrowers in 2012 (most recently on Red Mountain). Here are three that illustrate different sides of the extreme winegrower phenomenon.

Serendipity

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As luck would have it, at about the same time I was having this extreme wine people conversation I received an invitation from Wine Yakima Valley to participate in a program they were organizing to help wine enthusiasts get to know several of the most noteworthy (read “extreme”) vineyards in the Yakima Valley AVA (which celebrates its 30th birthday in 2013). A perfect opportunity for me to do some extreme vineyard / wine grower research!

The Vineyard Tour Series highlighted the work of  four outstanding growers at Red Willow Vineyard, DuBrul Vineyard, Upland Estates and Boushey Vineyards. What a great opportunity. Each of these vineyards is famous for the quality of the wines made from its fruit and each is discussed in Paul Gregutt’s valuable book, Washington Wines & Wineries: The Essential Guide.

Gregutt knowingly breaks down Washington wine into grapes, AVAs, wine makers and wine growers. Boushey is one of his “grand cru” designates while Red Willow and DuBrul make “premier cru” in the top 20 list.  All these vineyards have interesting stories, but the DuBrul program was the best fit for my schedule.

Tough Love

I ended up spending a hot July afternoon at DuBrul, walking the vineyards with Hugh, Kathy and Kerry Sheils and gaining an appreciation of the unique terroir. This is how the Sheilses describe their site:

Our DuBrul Vineyard is situated on a basalt promontory with sweeping vistas in all directions.  The steep rocky south facing slope is composed of dissected terraces comprised of coalesced alluvial fan deposits primarily from the Ellensburg Formation.  The soils in the vineyard are made up of relatively thin loess (wind-deposited silt) over the more coarse-grained alluvial fan deposits.  The volcanic ash and heterogeneity of the rock types within the Ellensburg Formation add to the complexity of our terroir.

It’s hard land — literally. I think I remember Hugh saying that the spacing of the vines was partly determined by the lay out of the previous apple orchard there. The land was too equipment-busting tough to cultivate any other way, so they were forced to accept what they had to a certain extent. Wade Wolfe laid out the vineyard and Stan Clarke advised on the winegrowing — that’s as good a combination as you can get in Washington State.

The grapes are in high demand and are sold to only a few carefully selected customers — if you see the DuBrul Vineyard designation on a wine label you can expect something pretty special. So special that some of it is reserved for Cote Bonneville, the estate wine that Kerry makes.  The wines get high marks from the critics. At $200 the top of the line Cote Bonneville Du Brul Cabernet Sauvignon is the most expensive Washington State wine.

But DuBrul Vineyard isn’t about the money, it’s about the place and the particular geological forces that shaped it over the millenia and that shape what’s in your wine glass today. And, of course, it’s about the extreme wine people who have nurtured it.

History in a Bottle

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The first thing you see when you approach Larkmead Vineyards, which is located in Napa Valley up the road near St. Helena, are the 120 year old head-trained Tocai Friuliano vines planted in a block between a house and the road. Man, that’s history, I thought, as I surveyed these gnarly old vines and imagined the tenacity of the owner and the commitment to a less-than-fashionable Napa Valley variety.

I was right about the history, but wrong about the commitment to Tocai. Turns out the Tocai vines were kept through the years  in spite of  negligible market demand because they made such a darn fine hedge in the summer. Completely blocked out the road and its noise! Only in recent years did the winemaker decide to make lemonade out of the lemons. Now the unusual wine quickly sells out its tiny production each year.  (I was too late to try the most recent vintage. Sigh … maybe next year).

We came to Larkmead for the history (although not specifically for the Tocai Friuliano). Larkmead got into my head when I first read Jim Lapsley’s history of Napa Valley wine, Bottled  Poerty. The legendary Andre Tchelistcheff identifed the “big four” quality wine producers in the valley when he came to work here in 1938: Beaulieu (Tchelistcheff’s new employer), Beringer, Inglenook and … Larkmead.

Larkmead? I knew the wines were very good, but I didn’t appreciate the historical significance. I needed to find out more.

My curiosity was especially piqued because of what I knew about the other three wineries and the way that they fell into corporate hands and met different fates. Perhaps the saddest story (but with a happy ending) was Inglenook, which went from producing some of Napa’s best wines to being a lowly jug wine brand. Only recently, after years and years of effort, has Francis Ford Coppolla managed to bring the estate, its vineyards and the Inglenook brand back together to make excellent wines. Congratulations to him on this achievement.

We tasted with Colin MacPhail and Sonny Thielbar and enjoyed the wines quite a lot. But what I liked even more was the sense of history. Although everything about Larkmead is up to date, there’s a very strong sense of of identity here. The people at Larkmead know what they are –the stewards of the land — and who they are, too.  After talking, tasting and thinking a bit I realized that several generations of extreme wine people were necessary to preserve these vineyards and to sustain a particular vision of wine through all of Napa’s ups and downs. The Tocai vines that first caught my attention aren’t central to all this (as I secretly hoped), simply an unexpected reminder of how hard it can be for a vineyard and winery like this to stay true to itself.

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We visited Anne Amie Vineyards twice during our Willamette Valley expedition (I taught a class for the University of Pinot at the International Pinot Noir Celebration) — first to attend a casual food and wine reception and then again for a “magical mystery tour” seminar and luncheon.

We’ve been to this place on many occasions, starting about 30 years ago when it was called Chateau Benoit (after the founding family). We liked the wines then, especially the sparkling wines as I recall, and it has been interesting to watch the place evolve as the region’s wine industry developed. Much has changed. We called it Chateau Benoit (pronounced Ben-OYT) when we first visited because that’s how the founders said it, but I understand it morphed into a French-inflected Chateau Ben-WAH later on. And it 1999 it became Anne Amie when Robert Pamplin bought the operation and named it after his two daughters.

More than the name has changed — Pamplin has invested much energy into developing Anne Amie’s Pinot Noir program as you might expect in Oregon — but much has remained the same, including some of the original vineyards (which is where this story fits into today’s post). As we drove up the long road to the hilltop winery, we passed the original (1979) block of Muller Thurgau vines that produced the grapes that went into the wines we tasted on our very first visit.

It has taken a good deal of persistence to maintain these vines because they have faced a lot of challenges. The first is economic — there’s not much of a market for Muller Thurgau here in the U.S. It might make economic sense to pull them out and put in a more marketable variety.

And then there’s nature. The bottom of the hill gets pretty cold in the winter and these old vines sometimes suffer. And I think I remember that they’ve been hit with Phylloxera, but nursed along rather than grubbed up as you might expect.  I like the wine that is produced from these grapes — crisp and clean — but more than that I appreciate the extreme perseverance that is behind it. This particular Muller Thurgau vineyard is singled out for special mention in Wine Grapes by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and Jose Vouillamoz and it is easy to see why.

These three vineyards only scratch the surface of extreme winegrowing, but I hope they make the point that my anonymous correspondent suggested. If wine really is made in the vineyard as we all like to say then we ought to honor and celebrate wine growing as much as we do wine making. Here ‘s a toast to the growers! Cheers!

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Thanks to Barbara Glover and Wine Yakima Valley for inviting me to take part in their vineyard program. Special thanks to Hugh, Kathy and Kerry Sheils for answering all my questions and sharing their wine growing experiences with me. More thanks to  Colin MacPhail and Sonny Thielbar at Larkmead and to Ksandek Podbielski at Anne Amie. Happy New Year to all!

Photos: Old vine Tocai block at Larkmead, Hugh Sheils at DuBrul, those old 120 year old Tocai vines once again, and the view from Anne Amie looking down the hill at the Muller Thurgau block.

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6 responses

  1. Did not see your request for extreme wine, but if I had, my nominee would have been Tony Coturri in Glen Ellen. Eclectic wines that are produced by letting the grape become the wine it wants to be – natural yeasts, etc. Very nice, often very interesting, wines. His father started the business, Tony carries it on.

  2. I enjoyed very much your vignettes on Pisoni, De Brul, Larkmead, and Anne Amie. A helpful area to add would be the small century heritage vineyards of Zinfandel, Carmenere, Mourvedre, and Carignan scattered throughout northern California. I recently learned a little about this from Brain Maloney at DeLoach Vineyards http://refer.ly/a3YW

  3. Thank you so much for this information-packed post. I’ve had family in the region for generations, but was woefully ignorant if its wine. Learning more about the growers and their history of resilience and determination certainly whetted my appetite to learn a lot more about Washington’s wines.

  4. Mike,
    It’s nice to hear about unique places where wine is grown in our country, so many wineries take great vineyards and blend the character away. The best wines in the world, at least to me, come from somewhere, not someone. Some of the most memorable wines I have tasted over the years come from small, distinct vineyards (think Lucien Albrecht Clos Schield, Allegrini La Poja, anything from the Rabaja area), it’s great to see that there are some in our part of the world that are taking the time to define, and respect a vineyard as a singular place.

    also, love the new look of the blog.

    cheers
    Daniel

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