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Vineyard Vignettes

Author: Julie Fadda and Alexandra Russell
April, 2009 Issue


Rodney Strong Vineyards
11455 Old Redwood Highway • Healdsburg, CA 95488
(707) 431-1533 • www.rodneystrong.com
Case production: 800,000 cases
Planted acres: 967
Varietals produced: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Symmetry (a red Meritage blend) and Port
Employees: 143

At Rodney Strong Vineyards, it’s all about a love of the land. Both proprietor Tom Klein and winemaker Rick Sayre were raised in farming families, and their connection to—and respect for—Mother Earth is readily apparent.

“I was born in Michigan. My father was the first to escape the family farm,” says the soft-spoken Sayre. “I grew up in Southern California but finished high school here in Healdsburg, where my parents had bought a small prune ranch in 1966.”

“My family’s been farming since the early 1900s,” adds the equally mild mannered Klein, “mainly in the Stockton area. This was our first foray into the wine industry.”

Saying it’s been a successful initial inroad would, at this point, be a monumental understatement. This year marks a trio of anniversaries at Rodney Strong, any single one of which would make most wineries boastful. “It’s the 50th anniversary of Rodney Strong’s founding of the winery, it’s the 30th anniversary of Rick’s arrival to the winery from Simi, and it’s the 20th year since my family bought the winery,” explains Klein.

According to Sayre, the Klein family restored a balance to Rodney Strong, one that had been missing since its founder and namesake took the winery public in 1982. “Rod, being a pioneer, had done almost the same things Robert Mondavi did—but on a smaller scale and 25 years earlier,” Sayre explains. “Among them, he went public…and lost control almost as soon as he did.

“The first 10 years I was here, before Tom and his family stepped in, I worked for Sonoma Vineyards, Renfield, Shenley and Guinness of London. There were times when I didn’t know if I was going to have a job. Tom’s family has brought a lot of stability.”

They’ve also raised the bar as far as quality. “They asked what I needed to make the wines better,” recalls Sayre. “We talked about French oak barrels and upgrading the equipment for gentler fruit handling. Slowly but surely, those things happened. It was like a winemaker’s dream come true: One day I came to work and they said, ‘OK, we’ve made a decision. Here’s $8 million. Get to work.’”

“I think, in the wine business, your quality has to improve as the industry matures if you want to continue to stand out in your chosen segment,” says Klein. “And if you don’t, there are so many wine labels to pick from, why would anyone choose you?

“As a family that owns a winery, we care what the wines taste like, because we want to be proud when we share it with friends for celebrations or give it to them for their children’s weddings.”

Quality starts in the vineyards

Their shared quest for improved grape quality has led Klein and Sayre on a decades-long process of evaluating and managing the Rodney Strong estate vineyards. “Rod [Strong] was very active in the 1970s buying and planting grapes,” says Klein. “Unfortunately, today’s viticultural knowledge didn’t exist back then. We’ve learned so much since then about rootstocks, varietals, clonal options and site selection. Of the original 1,000 acres we had, we’ve sold off about 700 acres, mainly on the valley floor, and replaced them with 700 acres on the hillsides of Chalk Hill and in the Russian River and Alexander valleys. We’ve replanted all the remaining acreage either to new varietals or to the same varietals with more appropriate rootstocks or clonal options.

“So one of the biggest things that’s ‘new’ at Rodney Strong is really the quality of the fruit coming off our own vineyard sites.”

“To me, one of the things about being a great winemaker is consistency,” says Sayre. “You can’t have consistency unless you have vineyard ownership or a guaranteed source of grapes. Our vineyards provide a large percentage of the grapes we need. And being here from the ground up, I’m very familiar with these vineyards.”

But the quest for better fruit has been a team effort, Klein is quick to add, crediting the winery’s outside providers with stepping up their quality to keep pace with the estate changes. “Our goal was to get to half: 50 percent of production from our own vineyards,” he says. “It’s really a collaborative effort here. Everyone’s in Sonoma County. We’re all dedicated to staying in Sonoma County. We know the land, we know its history, we know this place. You just can’t buy that kind of experience.

“We all have a passion to make better and better wine. That desire has to be embedded both in the winery ownership and in the vineyard ownership,” Klein continues. “We’ve learned that it’s most important, when we buy wine from the outside, that it comes from the right site. We work with growers, but site is the key.”

Small lots

Along with improved fruit, Klein continues, “Probably our most exciting project is what we call the ‘winery within a winery’ [or ‘www’] program. In 2005, we hired David Ramey to consult with us on the www project. We have a small facility where we installed five-, seven- and 10-ton fermenters—much smaller than we use for our main winery—where we separate the small jewels that we find out in the vineyards.

“We call it ‘prospecting,’ because there’s always a ridge or a row that takes a certain aspect of the sun and combines with all the different elements. It can be different every year, but we’re starting to identify certain ‘sweet spots.’ From this, we’re producing Chardonnay, a Meritage wine called Symmetry and three additional single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignons—one, called Rockaway, that was released in 2008, another that’ll be released this year and the third in 2010.

“We’ve raised our own bar, and it’s starting to affect how we make all our wines.”

Stop by the tasting room to sample the results. While you’re there, you can take a self-guided tour that tells the history of Rodney Strong (both the man and the winery), identifies and explains vineyards and varietals, and even teaches the basics of barrel toasting and its important effect on wine (Sayre has studied cooperage extensively). If you want to know more, guided tours that include this information as well as time in the vineyard and the winery facility are conducted twice a day. And if you’re planning a visit in the coming months, the schedule for its popular summer concert series will be announced in May.

Working toward tomorrow

In addition to wines bottled under the Rodney Strong label, the Klein family has recently relaunched the Sonoma Vineyards label, with un-oaked Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc and “some very fruit-forward Syrah and Merlot.” Last year, it purchased Davis Bynum, a Russian River Valley producer of “classic, Burgundian-style Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Davis was very happy to have another family buy his winery as one brand,” recalls Klein. The umbrella company has been renamed Rodney Strong Wine Estates to reflect these additions.

“Rodney Strong is committed to making world class varietals that we feel show off Sonoma County,” Sayre explains. “We’re not chasing any new fads. Tom has built a success story, and we’re taking that further.

“We just want to continue doing what we’re doing—and make it better.”

 

Pahlmeyer
P.O. Box 2410, Napa, CA 94558
(707) 255-2321  •  www.pahlmeyer.com
Case production: 10,000 (varies by season)
Planted acres: 72 (Napa County); 30 (Sonoma County); plus purchased grapes from 10 growers
Varietals grown: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir
Employees: 13

Before Pahlmeyer viticulturist Amy Warnock went on vacation to Tuscany several years ago, she promised herself she’d figure out what she wanted to do with her career. She knew she desired a job where she could be outdoors (she’d been working in an office and didn’t like that), use her science background and incorporate sustainable practices, but that was about it. 

“We were riding a bus to Florence, and I remember thinking about how every place I’ve most liked to live or travel is a wine region. And something clicked. Winegrowing incorporated the elements of what I was looking for in a career,” she says. When she returned to the states, she immediately applied to UC Davis. “Someone asked me [at the time] what a viticulturist’s salary was, and I realized I had no idea. It didn’t matter. I just needed to wake up and want to go to work.”

Today, Warnock’s “office” consists of two vineyards: Waters Ranch, which is in Napa on a ridge that straddles Wooden Valley and Atlas Peak; and Wayfarer Farms, which is along the Sonoma Coast, west of Cazadero. Now that’s more like it.

In Napa, 72 acres are planted with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Chardonnay. There are also 56 acres directly to the west, which the winery donated to the Napa Land Trust to ensure they remain as open space.

In Sonoma, 30 acres are planted with mostly Pinot Noir (and some Chardonnay), at an elevation hovering around 1,100 feet. It benefits from cool fog in the evenings and warmer, sunny days. Owners Jayson and Paige Pahlmeyer began planting Waters Ranch in 1999 and Wayfarer Farms in 2002, when winemaker Erin Green chose 12 different clones of Pinot Noir. At Wayfarer, they set out to create a Cote d’Or style, planting vine rows closely, with 3 feet x 6 feet spacing.

Both vineyards are mountainous, without an entirely flat row in sight. This requires more labor-intensive efforts for caring for and harvesting grapes, but the resulting fruit is concentrated and elegant.

How Pahlmeyer began

When owner Jayson Pahlmeyer decided he was really serious about wine, he spent a great deal of time in France learning as much as he could. His heart settled around classic Bordeaux wines, and his dream became to produce a wine like Chateau Mouton-Rothschild. He purchased his first vineyard property (in Coombsville) with friend John Caldwell, where they imported and planted Bordeaux varietal clones in 1980. Chardonnay was added to the repertoire in 1989. Pahlmeyer purchased the Waters Ranch property in 1995, and its first grapes were harvested in 2001. The Wayfarer Farm was purchased in 1998, and its first harvest was in 2005.

Vineyards with a view

When I visited Napa’s Waters Ranch vineyard in January of this year, the vines were being prepruned, meaning they were being partially cut back (about half way) before the final pruning in February (when the sap is flowing). According to Warnock, this is better for fungus control, and it’s easier to make decisions for final pruning once the canopy is cleared out.

Warnock pointed out the cover crops, saying she plants certain types in weak areas to help add nitrogen and invigorate the vines, while in more vigorous areas she plants cover crops that compete with any “matas locas” (crazy vines). Those are pruned a little differently as well. She says she uses aerial images to clearly see areas of vigor. The vineyard also features perches and owl boxes to control gophers.

Between the east and west-facing parts of the vineyard, there’s a wildlife corridor where Warnock says there are deer and even a mama bear and her cub (“I’ve only seen their paw prints,” she says). The east side of the vineyard has most of the Bordeaux varietals, while the west has mostly Merlot and Chardonnay, because the temperature there is a bit cooler. From the top of the mountain, one can see as far as the Golden Gate Bridge and Mt. Tamalpais (it’s quite the stunning view), with southern Napa Valley and Carneros spread out in between.

“In the vineyard, we farm as sustainably as possible,” she says, then talks about a recent trip to Chile, where she visited 11 wineries with five other viticulturists. “The vineyards I toured were all sustainable, organic or biodynamic,” she explains. She returned inspired. “One of the biggest challenges in farming organically is weed control, so this year I’m doing a trial of organic weed control in two vineyard blocks. I’ll track the amount of work and compare costs to see if it’s feasible.” She also emphasizes it’s important to her to make things enjoyable for the vineyard crew, and to streamline operations to make them as efficient as possible without compromising quality.

By the time you’re reading this, the vineyard will be into bud break, and mowing will be taking place to ensure the cover crops are doing their job properly. Then canopy work begins. How it’s done depends on the varietal and the winemaker. “[Winemaker Erin Green] likes ripe Chardonnay,” says Warnock, so things are controlled that way. In general, Warnock strives to keep the vines clean and open, but not overexposed. This reduces disease pressure such as mildews and botrytis, while ensuring proper sun exposure and air movement. Warnock says this is one favorite part of her job. “I look for what [Erin’s] looking for in her wine and figure out how to make that happen in the vineyard.” Warnock says she speaks with Green on a daily basis.

In the cellar

Green, who grew up in Santa Rosa and went to UC Davis to major in fermentation science, is Pahlmeyer’s director of winegrowing and winemaker. She’s responsible for the estate vineyards, grower relationships, contracts, and all winemaking decisions. “Amy and [assistant viticulturist] Dawna [Grason] do detail management in the field,” she says. She also oversees the winemaking staff during the winemaking process and blends for bottling (all aside from having twin 9-year-old daughters!). But amid all those responsibilities, she says her favorite part of what she does is “watching the cycle and how it’s affected by the weather. Each season is unique; there’s always something new,” she says. “The end goal is always to make an outstanding product, but it’s a multifaceted process throughout.” Pahlmeyer’s wines are made at custom crush facility Napa Wine Company, where Warnock and Green have both worked in the past. 

When I spoke with Green, she was completing the malolactic fermentation stage for the 2008 vintage, and blending for the 2007 Proprietary Red bottling. The winery’s grapes are grown specifically to go into its Pahlmeyer brand. (“I want every block to make it into the Pahlmeyer label,” says Warnock.) Grapes that don’t make the cut, but that are still high quality, are bottled under a second label, called Jayson. I’ll let you guess where that name originated.

“I’m really happy with what we’re releasing now,” says Green. The 2006 Merlot and 2007 Chardonnay were great vintages for us.” Both of those wines will be released first to the winery’s mailing list in April, then nationwide.

Green notes that Pahlmeyer first became known for its Napa Valley Chardonnay, which was featured in the movie “Disclosure” [with the 1991 vintage]. “The current offering has complex layers of honeysuckle, fresh cut pineapple and ripe white peach. The palate is full-bodied with notes of lemon curd, and the finish is focused and long with lingering, toasty flavors,” she explains. The wine is whole-cluster pressed, fermented with native yeast in the barrel and inoculated with malolactic bacteria. The lees are stirred for eight to nine months, followed by barrel-by-barrel blending, then the wine is bottled unfined and unfiltered.

The 2006 Merlot is 89 percent Merlot and 11 percent Cabernet Sauvignon. Green says it’s, “Very concentrated with dusty cocoa, black cherry, generous spice with notes of plum and cassis. Full flavors are balanced with acidity and tannins, with a long-lasting finish.” The Merlot grapes are cluster-sorted, destemmed, then whole berry sorted into open-top tanks with no pumping. They cold soak for four to five days, then fermentation begins and they’re pumped through a screen, gently pressed at near dryness, inoculated with malocaltic bacteria, then barreled immediately. The wine is blended, barrel-by-barrel, 18 months later.

Earlier this year, the dark, full-bodied 2006 Pahlmeyer Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir was released, which features grapes sourced from Wayfarer Farms and from Hallberg Vineyards in the Russian River Valley. Other releases this year include the 2007 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay (floral notes, nectarine, minerals, fresh apple, crème fraiche and toasted brioche). The dense, supple 2006 Proprietary Red Wine is a Bordeaux blend with grapes sourced from the Waters Ranch and Stagecoach Vineyards, on mountainous hillsides on the east side of the valley.

Pahlmeyer is constantly striving to improve its product, and since “good wine starts in the vineyard,” it has quite the advocate in Amy Warnock. “We’re farming for quality,” she says of the hillside vineyards she oversees. “It’s better to have less, perfectly ripe grapes [than to compromise quality by focusing on quantity],” she says. “We’re making beautiful wines. We want to express each vintage’s individuality. To celebrate the differences.”

And what better way to celebrate than with an excellent glass of wine?

 

Small Vines Wines
2160 Green Hill Road, Sebastopol, CA 95472
(707) 823-0886  •  www.smallvines.com
Case production: 425-625 cases, depending on year and yield
Planted acres: None currently in production; vineyards for current wine production are leased back or fruit purchased from clients
Varietal produced: Pinot Noir
Employees: Winery—3 full-time; Viticulture company—20 full-time, 60 seasonally

Paul Sloan was only 22 years old when it came clear he belonged in the wine business. “I was a wine steward at John Ash & Co. A gentleman came in and ordered a bottle of Domaine de la Romanee-Conti,” he says. “He asked if I’d ever tried it, and when I said ‘no,’ he poured me a small glass and told me to enjoy my evening. He said, ‘You need to know what’s on your wine list. This is a very special thing.’ I knew it was a $3,500 bottle of wine—but that was about it.

“I was already a huge fan of Pinot Noir, but when I tasted [the Romanee-Conti], it triggered a fire for understanding why this wine offered so much more. It had an earthiness, acidity and balance that was unlike other wines I knew.”

Today, Paul and his wife, Kathryn, are the owners of Small Vines Wines, a venture that began with its first release in fall 2007, and stemmed from the vineyard management business they began in 1998, Small Vines Viticulture—which specializes in Burgundian-style growth methods.

In the beginning

Paul met Kathryn when she was working as a commercial photographer and living in San Francisco. A mutual friend introduced them because they both shared an affinity for rock climbing (although Kathryn had only done it at an indoor facility in the city). The friend suggested Paul could teach Kathryn outdoor climbing.

“We went to Goat Rock,” says Kathryn. “Then Mt. St. Helena. Then started taking road trips to places like Joshua Tree.” The next thing they knew, they were taking a 10-month sabbatical to rock climb and travel. “We only camped in National Forest areas, so we didn’t pay to stay anywhere,” she says. “We lived on $200 a month!”

When they returned to Sonoma County, they knew it was home. That’s when Paul started going to school (and simultaneously working for Warren Dutton of Dutton Ranch) to learn about viticulture. “Warren was the one who encouraged me to start my own viticulture business here,” he remembers. “We miss him very much.”

Small Vines Viticulture was born with the intention of bringing a different style of winegrowing to Sonoma County. “I asked myself why many California wineries weren’t paying attention to how growing grapes had been done in Burgundy for hundreds of years,” says Paul. “I read every book I could find on growing Pinot Noir in France,” he says. He also visited the region for a first-hand view. Paul had found his niche. He decided to create a business that used Burgundy’s time-tested methods, and then modified them for success in California. “You can’t change the soil or the climate,” he says. “But you can change how things are planted.”

One of the main things he discovered was that wineries in France planted their rows only a meter apart from each other. The average California winery has tractor rows measuring 8 to 12 feet apart and vines planted five to eight feet apart. So Paul decided to plant the vines in the vineyards he managed three to four feet apart, with a 4-foot tractor row. This essentially doubles—or sometimes even triples—the amount of vines in a typical vineyard.

Paul says this high-density planting style means there’s smaller, more concentrated fruit on each vine. The vines themselves are small as well (now you get the name). They’re trained to grow straight up, rather than in a “California sprawl” system (a “t-shaped” trellis structure), which makes them more accessible for farming. The end result is, there are less pounds per vine, but more fruit per acre. The vines are also taller than those planted in Burgundy, due to our warmer climate.

Currently, Small Vines Viticulture is the only vineyard management company in Sonoma County that specializes solely in high-density planting and, by extension, Small Vines Wines is the only winery in Sonoma County that makes wine exclusively from high density vineyards. Some wineries in Napa are also using the same practice (Opus One and Rudd are examples). Small Vines farms 22 vineyards for 17 clients and is committed to farming high-density vineyards they plant themselves. All vineyards are located in Sonoma County, except for one in Marin County, which is on McEvoy ranch (of olive oil fame), where most of the grapes are planted between the olive trees. Paul has also imported tractors that are made specifically for farming the closely spaced rows. They’re the smallest and lightest over-the-row tractors available in the United States, and offer significantly lower fuel costs, less emissions and less soil compaction. Most vineyards Small Vines manages are organically farmed, some are biodynamic (like the DuMol estate vineyard we visited in late fall) and a few are farmed sustainably.

In the glass

The Sloans recently purchased property in Sebastopol that has about eight newly planted acres and an old farmhouse they’re currently remodeling. It will be several years before that land is producing fruit, so at the moment they lease the vineyards or purchase all the fruit used in their wines. Everything they control with a lease is biodynamically farmed, a technique Paul is very enthusiastic about. “People are starting to want to convert [to biodynamic]. We truly believe it’s the way to revitalize the soil and a better way to farm. You’ll see it in the wines in the long-term,” he says.

Small Vines Wines makes only Pinot Noir (they’ve done Chardonnay but only a very tiny amount), and one of its current releases is a 2006 Russian River Valley, which just won a double gold in the 2009 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. Light in color but not on the palate, this lively Pinot has bright red fruit characteristics and excellent acid balance. Another is the 2006 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. Dark ruby in color, its elegance is noticeable even on the nose. It has dark fruit and earthy characteristics up front, and a smooth, round body. Both wines are multilayered with a long finish. The Sloans recommend about two hours of decanting time prior to enjoying. “Our wines are more Old World-style,” says Kathryn. “They take more time to come around.”

Paul’s winemaking technique is to “do as little to the wine as possible.” When the fruit is picked, it’s placed into T-bins or stainless steel five-ton fermenters (depending on how much comes in at a time). Then it goes into the barrel and does its malolactic fermentation there. “I like slow and cool fermentation,” says Paul. “It’s like a stew. The flavors are more melded and complex.” Unfined and unfiltered, once the wine is moved from the barrel into the tank, it’s allowed to settle for a couple weeks before being bottled. “I prefer the tannins and structure of the wines from free run juice,” says Paul, “which creates about 50 cases per ton on average.” He points out that the industry average is closer to 65 cases per ton.

Sloan says he’s looking for quality, handcrafted wines. Such a quest isn’t immediately profitable, and at this point, he says it’s “a labor of love; a long-term commitment.” But it’s a commitment that’s already receiving critical acclaim and widespread attention. Sounds like a great start to me.

Last spring, the couple began preparing their land for planting. In January 2009, the newest Small Vines were planted—the beginning of the Sloans’ next great adventure, one that promises to be enjoyed by generations to come. “We want a vineyard that leaves a legacy for our children [Dakota, 5, and Savannah, 3] and their children,” adds Kathryn with a smile. “We’d like to see our family stay connected to the land and enjoy a farming lifestyle here in California.”



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