Q&A with Ana Keller, Grower & Estate Director, Keller Estate

You were 18 years old, living in Mexico City and just about to enter college when your father purchased 650 acres of land in Petaluma.  As a teenager, were you excited about spending time in California? Did you ever think you’d one day be responsible for growing and selling grapes and being in the California wine industry?

I’ve always loved plants, and I kept a collection of cactus and succulents. However, I had no idea this would become my life. Later, as a student, took a wine appreciation course and liked it, but it didn’t bite me then. It wasn’t until I came to Sonoma and had to work on our first stuck fermentation that I was hooked.  It was then, that I feel in love with wine.

Ana Keller

Photo: Courtesy Keller Estate

You have three siblings, yet you are the person in charge of running the vineyard and winery for the family.  How did your transition into this role come about and what life changes did you need to make in order to take the reins?  

I am the youngest of four. By the time this project came about my siblings already had their working life organized, yet I was just out of college. It was hard at the beginningbeing a 27 years old young woman, new to the business and with a solid chemistry background, but no sales or marketing experience. I had great mentors — Ted Lemon, but certainly the most important mentor was my dad. He still is, at 88, staying healthy and in isolation as we speak!

Mr Keller

Photo: Courtesy Keller Estate

When your father purchased the property, he originally envisioned it as a second home and a place to enjoy working on his cars.  What caused him to decide to plant wine grapes, which had not previously been done in what is now known as the Petaluma Gap?

They wanted to incorporate agriculture to the project and got curious about growing grapes because they drove their cars around Napa and Sonoma and loved seeing the vineyards 

As the story goes, your family originally planted Chardonnay, on the advice of UC Davis and the idea that if the grapes didn’t fully ripen, that you could at least sell them for sparkling wine.  When did you realize that you’d made a great decision planting Chardonnay and what was the first growing season like? 

The first vintage was in 1993! The Chardonnay grapes were sold to Rombauer, they let us know very clearly from the start that they did not know what quality we could expect. Fortunately, the fruit was great, showing the gorgeous minerality and acid that is a trademark of our La Cruz Vineyard. For the first few years, we sold all our fruit to them. B1996 we were very confident! I actually got married in 1997 and we were able to serve Chardonnay from our property.  

Recently you’ve started practicing organics and biodynamics.  You also have a flock of sheep that graze in the vineyards. How does your team feel about these changes and what prompted you to go this direction? Have you noticed a difference in the quality and flavor profile of the fruit as a result?   

We decided that we need to farm our wines and work from the soil up. This is the approach that we have taken, when we look for the different tools that organic and biodynamic farming offers. 

My focus was to really incorporate organic matter into our heavy clay soils and eliminate the use of Round Up was also a big priority for me. The hardest part was that we had to change the way we approached problems. We no longer had the “conventional” toolbox. Once we eliminated that toolbox, change came easier.  

Our sheep was truly a 5-year project. We started with 20 Baby Dolls and we now, have a different breed, called Dorper and are up close to 300. We found a great partner who grazes them on our land we are fertilizing and mowing at the same time.

Keller Estate

Photo: Courtesy Keller Estate

How involved are you in the vineyard work and the winemaking?  How do you balance being a mom, a wife, and Keller’s estate director while also going on the road to sell wine?  You must be a champion at multi-tasking! 

Balance? Who said such thing can be achieved anywhere else than wine! First, I have a great partner in crime, my husband is very much part of the solution to the confusion. I just know I can’t do everything well all the time, and I routinely move priorities around, so that everything that is important to me at one point or another is receiving my full attention. Since the beginning I’ve been in charge of our entire operation, so I’ve had my hand in everything, from vineyard management, to winemaking (focusing more on stylistic decisions), and sales.  

Some time ago, you were the President of the Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Alliance.  What are you most proud of during your tenure on the board and how long do you think it will take for wide-spread recognition of the high quality of Petaluma Gap grown fruit?  

My fondest memory, or rather, my aha moment, was when we decided to hold a tasting of Petaluma Gapgrown wines. I remember discussing with the board, to ask the wineries supplying the samples that they have at least 75% Gap fruit. By the time we held the tasting, we had almost 50 bottles of 100% Petaluma Gap fruit. That was when I realized it was going to be successful. It wasn’t the most relevant moment, it wasn’t even a public moment, but for me it was the beginning.   We can’t sit on our laurels, we have to continue growing better grapes, telling our story, and getting people to taste and understand our region.  

In a previous interview we heard you say that you are always tickled when dining in a restaurant and you see someone at a nearby table order a bottle of wine that came from Keller Estate.  When that happens do you introduce yourself to the neighboring diner?  Do you have any stories to share about this experience? 

I think one of my first times was at Wild Goat Bistro in Petaluma. When I saw our bottle being brought out, I was so surprised! I actually got up and thanked them for ordering our wine. Every time since then, I’ve been doing that!  

The grape glut is a daily news item and some growers are in the unfortunate position of having unsold fruit.  What advice do you have for them to weather the storm?  

Quality, quality, quality. At the end of the day, good fruit can be sold.  

It’s been almost a generation since your family acquired Keller Estate.  You have three teenage sons; do you want them to follow in your footsteps? Are they showing any interest in doing so? 

My sons are used to hearing wine, marketing, the vineyard and business as topics of conversation most days of our lives. I know it will be a part of theirs, but exactly how, we don’t know. I really want them to go out and explore the world. I’ll be here for a while, I’m patient.  

Q&A with Kerith Overstreet, Bruliam Wines

Your dad inspired you to be a doctor and get your MD degree, which you did in 1998, yet you’ve chosen to be a winemaker.  Tell us what inspired you to go from pathologist to enologist?  Do you ever think about going back to medicine? 

Kerith with bottlesThroughout medical school and residency training, I was always an enthusiastic taster.  I reflect on those years as “due diligence!”  Ever cost-conscious medical students, we pooled our resources to purchase wine by the case, in order to qualify for the 10% discount.  But more than discounts, sharing wine fostered community.  Sipping together forced us to relax, slow down, and celebrate our small student victories.  There I started to recognize wine as the glue of humanity.  During my residency, I joined a social and somewhat rigorous tasting group.  Once a month, we’d blind taste by theme, like SB [Sauvignon Blanc] under $15.  The chairman of UCSD’s neuropathology department also loved wine, so sometimes he gifted us magnificent, old bottles of BordeauxBack then, I never thought about making wine myself. 

The first domestic Pinot Noir to steal my heart was sourced from Garys’ Vineyard in Santa Lucia Highlands, another bottle that pre-dated my winemaking career.  John Brecher and Dorothy Gaiter, two amazingly talented and beloved wine writers, had recommended it in their weekly column.  After reading their article, I bought the bottle on a whim, and it forever altered my professional arc.  Today, I play with fruit from Soberanes’ Vineyard, Garys’ neighbor.  Kismet?  Serendipity?  Dumb luck?  I still keep a wornout copy of that crumpled newspaper article in my study.  From time to time, I’ll pull it out, re-read it, and laugh. 

Your marketing of Bruliam Wines includes the tagline, “wine is elemental.”  Can you share with us what that means to you and how wine is woven into your everyday life?  

Bruliam labelImagine discarding a stable career in medicine to make twenty-five cases of wine.  Any undertaking so quixotic, extravagant, impractical, and frankly ridiculous demands family support.  As penance, I named Bruliam after my three kids: Bruno, Lily and Amelia.  “Bruliam” sounds enough like cadmium or polonium that our original logo is a riff on the Periodic Table of Elements.  Instead of an atomic weight/atomic number, you can see a little dot for Bruno and a double dot for the twins.  It’s also a cheeky nod to my past career in medicine.  When we say, “wine is elemental,” we mean it both as twist on the Periodic Table of Elements and a testament to the ways winemaking has wiggled into every crevice of our daily lives.   

Kerith with kidsLike every working mom across the globe, my challenge is finding that work/life balance.  Bruliam Wines is my baby.  I built this winery from scratch, all by myself, from one barrel of Pinot Noir.  But I’m also a wife and a mom, a “hovering, helicopter mom,” according to my teenage son. I answer emails while waiting in the school pick-up queue and manage PO’s from the bleachers at swim meets.  Having a small, family winery means that Bruliam is part of our lives 24/7, 365 days a year.  My kids understand that harvest is a zoo, work travel is part of the gig, and hospitality happens on weekends.  I am lucky that my children accept and honor my career path.  That said, none of my kids aspire to be a winemaker…yet!  

You are buying grapes from a few different growers in the Petaluma Gap.  Can you share why you’ve chosen these growers and how this relationship has evolved over the years? 

I came to winemaking with a strong background in science but none in viticulture.  So, I chose to align myself with iconic vineyards and longtime growers whose reputation for excellence exceeded my own.  Call it marketing.  Call it plucky.  I plied them all with various homemade treats until they sold me grapes.  Biscotti are well and good, but I actually stalked Mike and Steve Sangiacomo for at least a year before they sold me fruit.  Every three months I sent a chipper and polite email inquiring after grapes.  I finally wore them down by 2012, when they sold me 1.5 tons of Pinot Noir.

Gap's Crown

In contrast, Gap’s Crown is my oldest vineyard partner. I have  been playing there since 2009, which speaks to the power of relationships.  Because I’m lucky to partner with the best grape growers in California, I am deeply committed to their fruit.  Our relationship is something of a sacred pact.  In exchange for access, I promise them a wine that is expressive of their vineyard, reflective of their farming, and brings pride in our partnership.  Writing their vineyard name on my bottle is an expression of our yearslong collaboration, from vine dormancy to bud break to harvest.  The importance of my grower relationships cannot be underestimated.  But my vineyard selections are also intentional.  I work with specific growers in specific vineyards because those sites have something special to say.  Consider Sangiacomo Roberts Road and the Gap’s Crown Vineyard.  These next-door neighboring vineyards yield Pinots that taste wildly different.  Pinot is so deeply informed by minute deviations in terroir, climate, and soil.  To me, the joy in crafting single vineyard Pinots is finding the richest and most characteristic traits for each vineyard site and allowing every step of my winemaking to cultivate that precept.   

We like to talk about the effect of wind on the grapevines in the Petaluma Gap.  As a winemaker with a background in science and chemistry, how would you describe the effect of wind on our wines? 

Wind absolutely informs the personality of Petaluma Gap wines.  Wind dries out residual moisture from morning fog and mitigates rot pressure. As the sun hits its peak, the wind keeps grapes cool so that they retain their acidity.  Wind roughens up the skins and makes them thicker, so winemakers can extract more color and flavor from the grapes.  Lastly, at their gustiest peaks, winds can even shut down photosynthesis.  The grapes will stop accumulating sugar even as they mature their acidity and tannins.  This decelerated sugar production allows for slower, even ripening and a longer “hang time.”  

We’ve heard you say that Bruliam Wines is a family affair, with your husband, Brian (doing the numbers), and three children, Bruno, Lily and Amelia also involved.  How do you and Brian engage three teenagers in the work of farming the vineyard and making the wine? In a few years they’ll be off to college; how will that change the dynamics of your winemaking? 

At Torrey Hill (our estate vineyard), the kids help fertilize the vineyard and sort fruit.  Both Amelia and Bruno do punch downs during harvest, and Amelia is the go-to harvest babysitter for multiple Grand Cru wineries.  If I have a lot fermenting with 100% whole cluster, I send Bruno into the woody tank to foot tread” the clusters (yup, fancy lingo for barefoot stomping).  He is a swimmer with a great sense of humor and jumps into the tank in his speedo.  We have priceless video footage I’m saving for his wedding.  His swim coach thinks its hilarious.   Only in Sonoma County…. 

I am lucky to have kids who are proud of their winemaker mom, and they feel involved and invested in what I do.  Since the inaugural vintage, the kids have designed the label art for our estate Russian River Valley Pinot.  The handdrawn labels change with each vintage and always feature our pound pup, Dexter.  Luckily none of the kids have been through a dark teenage spell – yet.  I always half expect to see Goth Dexter dog with a spiked collar and black X’s for eyes.  Hopefully someone will take a digital design class in college so they can just email me a new label design every spring.   

You make your wine at Grand Cru Custom Crush in Windsor.  Why did you choose this facility? 

Grand Cru offers a beautiful hospitality space with six tasting lounges.  The spaces include bar tops and reclaimed wood tables, designed to hold big or small groups.  I welcome visitors by appointment! 

You’ve enumerated the tasks in the winery that you’re responsible for, including being the “Go-to-Tank Sanitizer.”  What’s the worst task you’ve ever tackled?  Can you share any pictures? 

Kerith in barrelWhen I ferment in little woody tanks, I need to climb inside and shovel out the grapes.  It’s sweaty, sticky work.  If I’m shoveling out a tank from the inside, I need to slither out the tank door on my bottom.  It’s slimy.  Hand waxing rosé bottles or magnums is time consuming.  Packing case boxes on the bottling line is mindnumbingly boring.  Handplacing foils on “bellissima” glass while watching bottles whiz by made me sea sick.  But honestly, even the dirtiest, most boring day in the winery is still pretty terrific.  Plus, holding every winery position myself is cost effective.  I can’t pay myself a bonus for writing website copy because there’s nobody else to do it.  But it’s free to tell myself I’m awesome!   

Your wines are in some very prestigious restaurants – The Mark by Jean-Georges in NYC, Bouchon in Beverly Hills and Farallon in San Francisco. How did this happen and how did you feel after landing your first orders with these iconic restaurants? 

Funny story.  I landed my very first restaurant account at Dry Creek Kitchen.  Back then, Drew Munro was the wine buyer, and he remains one of the kindest, warmest, and most gracious people in the industry.  I was so nervous, clammy and sweaty, sticking to my seat.  I poured him a sample of my Pinot and waited expectantly for his reaction.  He was thoughtful and methodical.  He swished and spit.  And then he looked at me and said, “I’ll take a case.”  I was so relieved that I promptly burst into tears.  Utterly confounded, Drew turned to me and said, “Don’t cry.  I’ll take two cases.”  For all I know, those ‘09s are still sitting in their basement storage cellar! 

You’ve been making wine for ten years now; which of the wines you’ve made are you the most pleased with and why? 

I have a soft spot for my 2014 Sangiacomo Pinot.  The alluring aromatics, the core of red fruit, and the soft, restrained tannins showcase the beauty of this ranch.  2014 also marked the first year that I played with non-Saccharomyces yeast (super cool).  I split the fruit into three fermentation protocols that also included native yeast and woody tanks.  A long-time mentor from Famous TwoName Winery came to sort with me, which was pretty special too.  Good times.  

For the last three years you’ve participated in the Sonoma County Barrel Auction, helping to make the Petaluma Gap women’s lot.  What was your role in that effort and what are the plans for 2020?

Petaluma Gap women winemakers

Supporting the Gap through the Sonoma County Barrel Auction has been a joy!  It’s so much fun to work with so many talented friends and colleagues.  I love tasting everyone’s samples from different vineyards across the Gap.  Each individual wine is delicious and speaks to site.  I participated in the big Petaluma Gap lots as well as each of the two women’s winemaker lots.  Through the auction, I have met wonderful industry and trade professionals, consumed fabulous meals (all in the name of fundraising), and forged deeper friendships.  I am grateful to participate each year.  I believe 2020 marks the inaugural Pinot versus Syrah smackdown.  Guess we will have to do a LOT of tasting.  Hmmm, tough job… 

You recently added Chardonnay into the mix of wines you’re making.  Where do the grapes come from and what inspired you to begin making a white wine? 

I source my Chardonnay grapes from Charlie Heintz’s ranch way out in west county (Sonoma Coast).  I’m inspired by white Burgundy, so my Chardonnay is Burg-aspirational.  My goal is to make a lean and zippy, food friendly, acid driven, citrusy Chard.  The terroir at Heintz really lends itself to that particular style. 

Kerith on tankYour sense of humor is woven throughout your marketing efforts, with some delightful stories and humble anecdotes.  Where does your creativity gene come from? 

Thank you for saying so.  Mock yourself and you’ll rarely offend anyone else.  But speaking frankly, I am notoriously a graceless spaz.  If there is a hose, I will spray myself.  If there is a line, I will trip.  If there is a “quick connect” fitting, I’ll clamp my own finger.  Clumsiness aside, my life is lucky.  And being a winemaker means that my life is also richrich in delicious wine, fresh, seasonal Sonoma produce, brilliant colleagues, and inspiringindustry friends.  But my life is far from Instagram perfect.  The kids leave empty ice cream containers in the freezer.  In 2016, I lost the dog at Sangiacomo (actually).  Just recently, I showed up to bottling with the wrong glass mold.  Once, even spit into a dump bucket, and it splashed back at me.  Grossest part-I didn’t know I had a wine spit stain on my forehead for at least three hours.  Sharing that messiness brings authenticity to what I write and what I post.  My winery photos are not staged or glamorous.  Rather, they’re a diary of my work.  And pratfalls are funny.  It’s always easiest to go for the laugh. 

Q&A with Ron Noble, Noble Family Vineyards

You and your wife, Yun Chu, have a 24acre vineyard in the Petaluma Gap.  How and when did you acquire the land and why did you choose this site? 

We acquired the property in 1999 with the aspiration that one day there would be a vineyard there.  The vineyard wasn’t developed until 2008.  We wanted to make sure we knew what we were doing so we hired experts to test the soil and give advice on what to plant.  They confirmed that Pinot Noir would grow well here so we decided to plant five different clones: 115, 667, 777, 828 and Pommard 4.  We chose these clones because we love the rich aromatics and silky textures that they bestow to a glass of Pinot.  

Is Yun involved in the vineyard with you? 

Ron & Yun Noble

Yun is a gourmet cook and spent many years in the food and restaurant business. She is meticulous in her approach to hospitality and guides our visitor experiences to the property. Yun is also involved in coordinating with the vineyard management crew, tasting the wine during its processing, and the shipping of our purchased wines.

When did you first get involved with the PGWA?

We joined the Petaluma Gap Winegrowers in 2015, just after planting our vineyard. We’ve met other growers through the group and like to attend the events to stay connected with what’s happening in the Gap.

Do you farm the vineyard yourselves or do you have a vineyard team that does that for you?

Ron Noble with grapevinesAlthough officially “retired,” I’m still consulting as a civil engineer specializing in coastal, port and harbor, riverine, and water resources engineering. When not working on an engineering project, I wander the vineyard and marvel at its beauty. Clendenen Vineyard Management developed the vineyard for us and we used them to manage the property until about a year ago, when we hired Atlas Vineyard Management to take over.

What impact has the wind in the Petaluma Gap had on your vineyard?

Noble Vineyard

I’m a sailor, so I love the wind and understand its benefits. This land is naturally perfect for growing grapes, especially Pinot Noir, due to the wind created by the cool Pacific air and the gaps in the coastal hillsides. The gaps create a “wind tunnel” that cause the yields to be smaller and the grapes to ripen later. It also thickens the skins on the berries and the fog helps to extend the growing season by keeping the surrounding air cool. The combination of wind and fog allows the grapes to reach their full potential and is the secret to growing some of the best Pinot Noir grapes in the world.

To whom do you sell your grapes and what is the highest rating that has been received?

We have sold our grapes to seven different winemakers. This has included MacRostie, Joseph Phelps, Three Sticks Wines and Taft Winery.

What is on your personal highlight reel of being a vineyard owner in PGap?

My personal highlight was seeing the Petaluma Gap become an official American Viticultural Area (AVA) two years ago, and now being able to promote our grapes and the resulting wines as coming from the Gap.

What is your favorite grape variety (to grow and to drink) and why?

Ron & Yun Noble Drinking Wine

Yun and I prefer Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, which is what we are making. Our vineyard is exclusively Pinot, and we purchase chardonnay grapes from Steiner Vineyard and Dinner Vineyards in Sonoma Mountain AVA. We also purchased Cabernet Sauvignon grapes in 2019 from Oakville.

Did you purposefully pursue owning a vineyard as a way to have a career in the wine industry?  Was this your first role or have you had others along the way?

This is my first role in the wine industry, though I have dreamed about making wine since my early 20’s. As the years went by this interest intensified. I witnessed a close friend, the late Orville Magoon, develop the world-class Guenoc Estate Vineyards and Langtry Estate Vineyards up in Lake County. He inspired me and I knew I could follow this path as well. It would just take time.

Can you tell us about your “we made it” moment?  What was achieved and how did you feel?

Our first “made it” moment was when we sold our first crop of grapes. But the big moment was when we launched our own label, Ron Noble Wines, and released our first wine — the 2018 Estate Pinot Noir — labeled as Petaluma Gap. It’s amazing to be taking our first orders for wine this week from people we have met along the way. Megan Baccitich is our winemaker; she honed her winemaking skills working for Paul Hobbs and recently signed on to develop our winery. We’re off and running as we complete the dream – growing, making and selling top quality wines.

Q&A with Tom & Ashley Darling, Co-Owners of Darling Wines

The two of you met at college while you were students. When did you first start talking about making wine? Were you both “all in” or did one of you have to talk the other into it?

Tom: We didn’t really think about wine until a couple of years after graduating. In 2014 we were living in Washington, DC and visiting different wine bars in the city. After doing a Google search for “what is Beaujolais,” we started reading and learning more about the basics. Then in 2015 we traveled to Northern California and made our first visits to wineries. This experience solidified my passion for continuing to learn about the industry and ultimately led me to taking a part-time tasting room job in Middleburg, VA. Fast forward to June 2016; I decided to propose to Ashley and took her to Bordeaux to visit wineries and vineyards. Following that I signed on for a harvest internship to see if winemaking was a realistic option for the future. Later that Fall we moved to Napa and I worked my first harvest.

Ashley DarlingAshley: We had never been to a vineyard or winery while we were students. In fact, we hadn’t even visited Northern California until 2014 when we did a ten-day road trip from San Diego to San Francisco. We were dating at the time, craving adventure, exploration, and new experiences. I was “all in” on my yoga career; Tom was still searching for his passion. My colleague booked a tour for us at Tres Sabores Winery; looking back, the impact of that one experience created a new trajectory in our lives. We were enamored by the world of growing and making wine. We were inspired by the connection — with the Earth, with cultures around the world, with history dating back to pre-biblical times. A year later, Tom started working in a cellar in St. Helena and it became obvious that we were both “all in” on the idea of winemaking.

You both were born on the East Coast and had great jobs there. Did anyone ever tell you how difficult it would be to make a living at winemaking?

Ashley: Absolutely. We’ve been told how difficult it will be to make a living by our families, mentors, and advisors. I think that’s part of what energizes us to pursue it.

It is widely reported that moderate wine consumption is good for your health. Ashley, as a registered and experienced Yoga teacher how does wine fit into your lifestyle?

Ashley: One of the key principles in Yoga is finding balance. For example, balancing “sthira” and “sukha”, or “effort” with “ease”. Working in the wine industry also requires balance and I believe this concept is especially important when working around alcohol. 

Tom, you also have a day job as a sales rep for Springboard Wine Company, known for launching small, family-owned boutique brands. Are there things you’ve learned from this experience that help you build your own brand?

Tom: Absolutely. After working a couple harvests and learning the basics of winemaking, I kept hearing over and over again that the hardest part of making wine is selling it. Since cellar positions are scarce, this led me to search for a wine sales position. I already had experience in software and medical device sales; with my newly acquired knowledge of wine it was a natural fit. I have learned so much already — how to access the buyers/decision makers, presenting wines relative to the account, on premise vs. off-premise, pricing, etc. We are constantly learning. This experience has really helped us position ourselves (we think!) for future success and allows me the flexible schedule to handle all of our winemaking during harvest.

Tom, you’ve played team sports – including hockey – which is classified as a “collision sport” and one in which teammates look out for one another. How did that experience prepare you for the competitiveness in the wine industry?

Tom: I would actually shift this question from hockey to tennis. I did play hockey for a large part of my life, but as I was a bit “undersized,” I picked up tennis as well. I was years behind my peers when I started playing tournaments but the “underdog” status was incredibly motivating. At that point I decided to put all of my energy into tennis to catch up and by 18 I was ranked #3 in New England and in the top 200 in the United States. From there I was able to play NCAA Division 1 at Elon University. That journey is the source for my inspiration today. Ashley and I don’t come from a wine family, we are not from California, we have minimal formal training in winemaking–we are newcomers. These thoughts provide the same motivation as I had in tennis – to show up early, stay late, ask too many questions, and constantly read and learn as much as possible.

You launched Darling Wines in 2017 with just two barrels of Syrah. Why did you choose Syrah as the varietal for such an important step in your winemaking journey?

Ashley: We knew the first vintage would carry high risk. Syrah offered a friendlier barrier to entry so that we could take on that risk.

Tom DarlingTom: More importantly, we love Syrah. It is one of the most fascinating grapes to work with; you can harvest at 12% or 15% potential alcohol, choose to destem or use whole clusters, and make a perfectly balanced wine. It is a chameleon in that way, which is not true with many other varietals, and this allowed us to explore which style and technique is most representative of our ethos.

After working with Napa wines, we really gravitated toward the coast. Once zeroing in on coastal vineyard sites, the most inspiring Syrah’s we tasted were the more savory, floral, and classic styles; we focused on finding a vineyard that was capable of this level of expression and was cool-climate, higher elevation and well drained. That led us to McEvoy Ranch.

What other varieties does Darling work with and why have you chosen them? How has the wind in the Petaluma Gap impacted the flavor profiles of your wines?

Tom: After our 2017 Syrah, we continued to explore the coastal vineyard sites and to taste as much as we could; we were inspired by Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and more specifically, the more restrained styles of these varieties.

Pinot Noir gave us similar options as Syrah, flexibility with earlier harvesting and use of stems, so this was a natural choice. It has become an obsession and we are creating our own criteria for vineyards that fit that expression–high acid sites with earlier bud break and longer hang time i.e. utilizing Petaluma Gap’s wind, fog pressure, and moderate climate, courtesy of San Pablo Bay and the Pacific Ocean.

Chardonnay seemed to get a bad rap in our circle of family and friends. Oaky, buttery, sweet, are some of the reasons our customers steer clear, so we created a challenge for ourselves to make a more refreshing style that they can appreciate. Harvesting earlier, adding no new oak or batonnage, and keeping bright acidity are some of our criteria. We are excited for what is in barrel right now.

Ashley: Our favorite and most memorable wines are Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from France. These wines have stuck in our minds and touched our hearts with a certain wow-factor. We’ve chosen to work with them in an attempt to produce the style of wine we love to enjoy at home on our own dinner table.

You select fruit sources based on the vineyard size and the owners’ commitments to sustainability. Which vineyards have you chosen to work with?

Tom: Searching for sustainable, organic and biodynamically-farmed vineyards led us to smaller, family-owned sites. We are currently working with Azaya (Organic), McEvoy Ranch (Organic), Keller Estate (Organic and practicing Biodynamic), Grand Vent (practicing organic, no Glyphosate) and Flocchini (practicing organic, no Glyphosate). Finding vineyard partners who take a stand on stewardship and organics gives us confidence that the wines we put in our customers hands will not have any harmful chemical residuals in the finished product. Their investment in our wine also supports family-owned farms and vineyards.

Your wines are aged in neutral oak. Do you use neutral oak for all your wines, and if so, why?

Tom: Working with different vineyards, our goal has been to learn how each individual site expresses its terroir, whether that is in Western Marin or off Lakeville Highway on the way to Sonoma. By starting with as few variables as possible (i.e. all neutral oak, whole cluster, low SO2, native yeasts, etc.), we can create a transparent window into the characteristics of each vineyard and adjust our program as needed. With our 3rd vintage now in barrel, we still haven’t seen the need for new oak.

We’ve heard that you foot-stomp the grapes. Do you do this together? Is it hard work or fun? What does this old-world method do for the flavor profile of your wines?

Ashley: Yes, we do it together and it is pure fun!

Tom: We use this technique when fermenting whole cluster. At the beginning of fermentation, we gently tread to break up clusters and release juice and sugar to get the native yeast going. Then, we continue to foot tread throughout the ferment, a little each day as needed, to continue slowly feeding the yeast. We also use punch down tools by hand at the end of fermentation and are using our hands and feet as much as possible instead of pumps and machinery. As for flavor, we love the savory and floral character when fermenting whole cluster and we also gain texture on the palate from the stems. 

What’s next for Darling Wines?

Ashley: We’re planning to launch the Darling Wine Club this spring! We’re also crafting in-depth monthly, educational newsletters to connect with our consumers. Tom and I daydream of brick and mortar–winery or vineyard property–some space to bring our real vision to life, and a couple little Darlings running around!

Tom: We want to expand our production. We currently produce 400-500 cases and have received some great, early support from restaurants like Zuzu, The French Laundry, Meadowood, Bouchon, and Redd Wood. The rest of our wine goes to our mailing list. As we continue to learn about new vineyard sites and possibilities we will expand, maybe adding a new varietal and some regional blends, to complement the wine club launch.

Q&A with Hsiomei Hung & Roger Mead, Lichau Hill Vineyards

Neither of you have backgrounds in viticulture–you’re both urban professionals—but you moved to Sonoma Mountain after falling in love with a property that just happened to have a vineyard on it. When did it become “real” to you that you are now grape-growers? Were there ever any doubts or regrets?

Roger Mead - Hsiomei HungMoving to this property is the best thing that has happened to us since we became emptynesters. It’s true, we did not set out to become growers. We were simply looking for a low maintenance second home close to San Francisco, where it would be hot during the summer and mild during the winter. We stumbled across the property on-line and said to the broker, “it’s beyond our budget and not what we are looking for, but we’d like to see it just for fun!” Then, we fell in love with it.

We knew nothing about growing grapes and were concerned about the three-acre vineyard and what to do with it. But, with the help of some new friends, we committed to growing premium grapes. Roger’s former law partner, Dick Keenan, who planted the Kick Ranch Vineyard, introduced us to Glenn Alexander with Bacchus Vineyard Management and Sanglier Cellars. Entirely by chance, we met Francisco Araujo with Atlas Vineyard Management. Fast forward seven years and we are still constantly learning; while challenging, it is also very rewarding.

Hsiomei, you spent many years as a currency trader in NYC. To be successful as a trader, you have to be comfortable with uncertainty and avoid hasty decisions. Have these qualities helped you with managing the vineyard business?

I came to New York City from Taiwan in 1973 to study. After getting my degree in 1978, I joined an international bank and went through its management training program. I learned I’m attuned to numbers and chose to work in foreign exchange trading. Throughout the 80’s I traded foreign currencies in NY, London, and Singapore, wagering bank capital in what we called “proprietary trading;” that is, trading to make a profit for the bank, not to fill customers’ orders. This was before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the formation of the European Union, and the Euro. Trading involved near instant decision-
making and embracing uncertainty. One had to be disciplined, measured, intuitive and quick all at the same time to be successful. Farming involves uncertainty, but of a very different type. I can’t really say that my trading background helped me become a grower, but I’d say without my tolerance for risk we would not have plunged into this new venture. And what a miss that would have been for us!

Roger, you’re an attorney and an experienced commercial litigator. Your bio states that you “seek to understand and solve your clients’ problems and help them seize opportunities.” Does this skill translate to being a grower?

Roger MeadI’m more deliberative than Hsiomei. My favorite advice for her is “measure twice, cut once.” I enjoy solving problems, which requires unpacking and understanding the underlying issues. Hsiomei says I’m an engineer at heart, because I can fix most anything if I can figure out how it works and have the time to put my mind to it. The ability to fix things comes in handy at the vineyard; it seems that there’s always something that needs to be fixed or improved. Being hands-on is a good thing.

Lichau Hill Vineyards has just three acres of grapes, and it’s planted to Cabernet Sauvignon. Most people think of Pinot and Chard in the Petaluma Gap, not Cab. What is unique about your site that makes this variety do so well?

We wish we could tell you! Our vineyard was planted in 1998. When we took ownership in 2012, everyone was telling us we were growing the wrong grapes on the wrong side of the mountain. But at an elevation of 1250 feet, we are higher than the pinot vineyards near us. We are most often above the fog line, with a southwest exposure that brings heat to the vines during the day, and big daily temperature swings. We are located on Sonoma Mountain; premium cabernet is grown on just the other side of the mountain. The wind on our side adds nuance; and the climate change with warmer temperatures seems to benefit us. Notice all the palm trees that surround our vineyard!

Lichau Hills Vineyard

Your grapes have been used to make highly-rated wines from Adobe Road, Sanglier Cellars and Desire Lines. How did you get connected with these winemakers?

The first couple of years, we relied on our vineyard manager to sell our grapes. Then in 2015 Glenn Alexander, who had seen the vineyard when we bought it, approached us and began buying our grapes for his label, Sanglier Cellars. In 2016 we connected with Adobe Road through an industry event. We’re very excited about the Petaluma Gap Cab they are making from our grapes and about the waterfront winery they are building in Petaluma. In 2018 we were looking for an additional buyer to take some remaining fruit. Dick Keenan suggested we write to a few winemakers who crafted Sonoma Cabs, and that’s how we connected with Desire Lines. They just happened to be looking for a hillside “windy” Cab.

When we asked what your favorite varietal wine is you replied, “Cabernet, of course!” Before you owned the vineyard, what are some of the more memorable Cabs you’d tasted and why did they stand out? Was it the wine itself or the time and place when/where it was enjoyed?

When pressed, we always say “our favorite variety is Cabernet from grapes grown in the Petaluma Gap, and specifically those that are grown on the southwest flank of Sonoma Mountain!” LOL! The truth is, we’ve always enjoyed lots of varieties. And it’s also true that since becoming Cab growers we’ve developed a greater appreciation for all the nuances that Cab has to offer.

Is there a unique flavor that comes from Lichau Hill Cab?

Tasting notes for Sanglier’s 2016 vintage Family Reserve Cabernet, made from our grapes, describe it as “opulent, smooth, lush, textured, with ample cherry and spice.” Starting with the 2017 and 2018 vintages, we’ll be able to taste what other winemakers, with different styles, do with our grapes and how they showcase the range of flavors that are present in our fruit. Your website says that when you bought the property that the vineyard was “neglected” but that you committed to making it “the best that it could be.”

What are some of the enhancements that were needed to bring the vineyard back to life?

This is easy. We gave it love. And, a lot of loving work.

With a small vineyard, it’s hard to find a vineyard manager to agree to take on tending the vines. You are working with Atlas Vineyard Management; how did that relationship get started?

Timing was everything. As luck would have it, Atlas Vineyard Management had spun off from Premier Pacific Vineyards at the time we connected with them and Atlas didn’t think we were too small for their separate portfolio. It didn’t hurt that we are just five minutes from their operational hub at Gaps Crown. We knew none of that at the time; we just saw their phone number on a sign on what looked like a well-managed vineyard. We called and connected with their chief viticulturist, Francisco Araujo, and have enjoyed a great relationship with them ever since.

Owning a vineyard is not for the faint of heart, it can feel like playing roulette as you deal with what Mother Nature provides. Has the challenge of owning vineyard property brought additional stress or has it strengthened your commitment?

Yes, sometimes there is stress, but more often just fretting and worrying. Having said that, the joy of being here with the vines and in nature makes it all worth it.

Hsiomei HungHow much time do you spend in the vineyards; is a walk among the grapevines part of your daily routine?

Roger walks the property daily when we are here. Before and after harvest, I walk every row to drop second growth and conserve energy in the vines. I don’t know why, but when the vineyard is done growing and picking, I love to visit it. It’s laborious, but it feels intimate and makes me appreciate the crew’s efforts when they tend the vines.

You have a son named Weishen. Does he share your love of wine and does he have any interest in the business of growing grapes or making wine?

Weishen hasn’t shown any interest in growing grapes or making wines. He’s a millennial techie. But he loves that we love it.

Q&A with Winemaker, Tom Gendall, Cline Cellars

Given your accent, we know you’re not from California.  Can you tell us where you were born and what motivated you to get into the wine industry?

I am from Christchurch, New Zealand and lived there until 2011, when I moved to Sonoma. The high school I attended was broad-minded; in our final two years we had to choose at least 5-6 “experiences” before graduating, as a way of learning about possible careers. These “experiences” ranged from scuba diving and rock climbing to wine tasting. What teenager doesn’t want to drink at school (with parental permission of course)? Within a few weeks of completing the wine tasting course, I was accepted at Lincoln University and had planned my whole degree out. I’ve never looked back.

Tom Gendall family


Who was your first mentor in the wine industry and why did you look up to them?  Are you still in touch with them today?

My first mentor was Greg Miller, the Vineyard Manager at Pegasus Bay, one of the most successful wineries in New Zealand.  I started working for Greg just as I turned 19 years old.  Not only is his understanding and management of the vineyard, techniques, outcomes, and logistics phenomenal, but the way he oversaw numerous crews and easily managed the people and personalities really struck a chord with me. He gave me my first full-time job, as his Assistant Vineyard Manager, when I was 22. I helped him plan and plant a 50-acre organic vineyard while also helping to manage the 100-acre estate vineyard and the crews that worked with him.  I am still in touch with him and most of the Pegasus Bay team. We stay in touch; Greg has visited me here in Sonoma and we usually drop in on him when we are back in New Zealand.

 

You’ve spent time in both the vineyard and the winery, and have been quoted as saying “the grapevines will tell you what they need in order to make the best possible wine.”  In other words, you’re a “grapevine-whisperer!”  How does that work?

Grape-whisperer is definitely going a bit far–even though I may have occasionally talked to my vines, they haven’t actually talked back, at least not “yet!”  Mainly it is about knowing what the vines are trying to tell you through growth, stress, soil, how the clusters look, etc. We have a lot of modern tools to measure all of this and give you a greater understanding of what the vineyard is doing.  The more time you spend in the vineyard, the more these things become apparent, and second nature. For example, knowing where you have a stressed section, dense canopy, when to speed up or slow down the spreader or sprayer, these are all important.

After leaving New Zealand, you worked in Germany for Weingut Keller making Riesling and Pinot Noir.  Now at Cline, you’re making Pinot Noir here in the Petaluma Gap.  Can you describe the differences in growing conditions and flavor profiles between the two areas?

The other day I was fortunate enough to have one of Weingut Keller’s Pinots–a 2012 that was peaking and very Burgundian in style. It still had fresh acidity, some clean fruit and was dominated by earthy flavors. California Pinots are much more fruit-forward with a focus on the primary fruit.  The secondary characters come in through techniques like stem-inclusion and barrel choices. Weingut Keller emulates Burgundian-style Pinots, whereas California focuses on what it does well—showing off its bright fruit. As far as growing conditions, Germany has a lot more rain pressure throughout the growing season and is similar to Oregon in weather patterns. Here in the Gap our disease pressure is from fog and humidity, but we have an abundance of sunshine.

You met your wife, Michele, in New Zealand in 2008.  You both work in the wine industry.  Does that bring you closer together or is “wine-talk” off limits when you’re at home with the family?

We love talking about wine, as long as we don’t argue too much. Just the other day we went wine tasting, which is treat for us.  We definitely have different palates.  It’s fun for both of us to justify why we like different wines, neither being right nor wrong, just different. I think it has brought us closer together; we both have the same goals and dreams and working toward a shared future is fantastic.

Michele’s family owns a vineyard in Sonoma Valley.  The two of you manage the vineyard and make some wine under the Gordenker label.  Gordenker produces less than 300 cases per year and you’ve called it a “labor of love.”  What are the challenges and how do you fit it into your busy schedules?

Michele and I took over management of the vineyard in 2012 and made our first 100 cases of wine back then.  Previously it was managed by Phil Coturri, who planted it back in 1998.  The challenges are the same as anything – balancing and time management. For me it means early mornings or late nights to get things done, and depending on the task, working weekends.  I find it relaxing to spray the vineyard (when the sprayer works properly) and to do detailed tasks there.  It’s like gardening for me. I know the vineyard like the back of my hand and it is a place where I am very at ease. The winemaking is all done at a custom crush facility where Michele and I have both worked multiple harvests, so we trust their system and know how to make great wine there. Michele does the bookkeeping and we both do sales, although lately she is definitely doing more of that than I am.

In 2017 you and Michele lost your home to the fires in Sonoma County.  Have you recovered fully and do you ever think about leaving the area?

I do not think you ever fully recover from something like that, but you definitely learn and become stronger. We had a 1-month old at the time and the support from friends, family and the community has been overwhelming. Some things definitely leave scars and you see it here and there in everyday life. We are actually about to move back to Glen Ellen; it’s all very different, but the future is bright. We think about moving back to New Zealand all the time (my mother never lets me forget), but not in a very serious way–we are too embedded in the community and the lifestyle here. My biggest fear is that my children will have an American accent!  My two-year old, Paxton, is just starting to talk now.

Cline Cellars has a large team for winemaking and production, including Charlie Tsegeletos, who has been with Cline for a very long time. How do you split responsibilities and what’s it like to work with such a tight-knit team on large-scale production wines?

We actually have a surprisingly small team for the production. Charlie is Director of Winemaking and I’m the North Coast Winemaker.  We also have a Lab Manager and Cellar Master. The way we have split things up has been that Charlie is in charge of our Appellation and Ancient Vine Series (our big programs), while I am in charge of the Sonoma Series.  We collaborate on everything, and being a small team we all help each other out and have direct input to all of the wines.

The Cline Family has two wineries – Cline Family Cellars and Jacuzzi Family Vineyards.  Jacuzzi makes wine from some very unusual grape varieties.  What was the learning curve like for working with some of these lesser-known varieties?

I’ve been working for Cline and Jacuzzi for four harvests now and for the last one I’ve got the added responsibility of winemaker at Jacuzzi. It’s been a great introduction period and there has been a lot to learn — including how to pronounce the varietal names!  Working with and learning from Charlie has been fantastic– from getting an understanding of new growing regions, the idiosyncrasies of each variety, new fermentation techniques and how to cellar Italian wines.  Italian varieties are generally high acid, high tannin wines–it has been both fun and challenging.

Cline is also known for its “Green String” growing method.  Does this carry over into the vineyards?

Yes, this is a big part of the Cline philosophy and what makes me love working for them so much. We moved to the Green String philosophy back in 2001, which is a play on string theory where everything is connected, much in the same way that in nature, everything is connected. After moving away from all pesticides and herbicides, we now only dust sulfur on our vineyards, we use weed-whackers and our wooly-weeders (sheep and goats) to control weeds, along with mowing and some cultivation. Canopy-management is extremely important and allows us to avoid using heavy fungicides.  We use organic compost teas, along with bacterial isolates, to help fight disease and seaweed extracts and oils to help strengthen our vines. We are certified sustainable and consider ourselves beyond organic, although we are not officially certified.

What is your philosophy toward “natural wine-making” and allowing for nature to take over, for example, using only native yeast for fermentation and cover crops for weed control?

I love the idea of natural wine-making and we use some of the practices of “natural” winemakers.  We refrain from inoculating all of our reds (except for a couple of particularly frustrating Zinfandels) and about a third of our whites are also made with native yeast.  We use no fining-agents (except for bentonite), we make vegan wines and minimize our use of SO2, (typically our SO2 at bottling is below 100ppm). We use cover crops, while leaning more towards volunteer cover crops, to help build organic matter back into the soil and colloidal structure in our heavy clays.  This helps with cracking and drying out and breaks up the pans that are around.  We also use compost and compost teas as fertilizers.

As far as my personal philosophy, the less you do to the wine the better.  In California we have an excess of great sun that makes fantastically fruity wines, but they typically need a little touching up in the winery which I don’t have a problem with.  I would rather help the wine a little to be great, rather than flatly avoiding it on a philosophical basis and end up with bad wine.

You and Megan Cline have begun a special project making wines in terra cotta amphorae. How are wines made in amphorae different that those made in traditional oak barrels?  What about concrete tanks?

The amphora project is fantastic and I have learned a lot. It started in 2015 with Syrah, before I arrived at Cline.  Since then we have been making a red and a white; a lot of research has gone on behind the scenes.  Amphorae are fantastic ageing vessels for high-tannin wines; we have fermented a lot of varieties in them and flirted with making an orange wine. I love the effect of the amphora on the wines–it gives them a richness, length and body that is fantastic, while keeping the fruit in our reds very fresh and giving far more complexity to our whites. One defining characteristic is the saline quality of these wines; it heightens the perception of acidity.

You’ve made wine from many different grape varieties – Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet—what’s your favorite grape variety to work with?  What’s the hardest to grow? What’s your go-to wine for celebrations?

Each has its own challenge; the trick is to understand your site and what you are trying to achieve. There is a fine line between pushing the limits at your site for hang-time and flavor development, without sending ripeness through the roof.  The harder you push, the better the wines, but there is a fine line.

My favorite varieties are Pinot Noir and Riesling. I also love working with Merlot and Cab, as well as Viognier–I need to start drinking it more. I used to love growing and working with Riesling, but the opportunities here in California have been limited.  We are just releasing a new Riesling from Cline early next year, with 8.5% alcohol–very fresh and easy drinking. For celebrations, Michele loves Champagne so that’s what we start with.  My friends could all tell you the drill at our house—Champagne, followed by maybe a dry German Riesling, or a Chablis or Austrian Gruner Veltliener.  Then we go into reds, usually Burgundy or Bordeaux, depending on the meal, and sometimes from the West Coast or northern Italy.  We finish with a sweet German Riesling or Sauternes. That about sums up our celebrations–usually lots of wine poured!  We keep a fairly diverse cellar to with wines to suit our tastes and to surprise our friends.

In April 2020 you’ll be cruising the Danube with two other Petaluma Gap wineries.  Do you have anything special planned for those who are on the cruise?

I was going through my wine collection and have lots of special things–the amphora wines will be joining us on the cruise along with a brand-new range of wines I’ve been working on with Megan and Hilary Cline.  There will also be some fantastic, alternative varieties from the Petaluma Gap. Just for fun, I’ll be pulling a couple of wines from my personal cellar, so there will be no shortage of great wines!

When your son, Paxton, grows up, do you want him to follow in your footsteps?

I would love him to, but that’s completely up to him.  After all, he’s only two! My favorite memory from my time in Germany, was learning about Weingut Keller.  It has been in their family since 1789.  There are four generations living a on the property, the oldest being Herr Keller (in his 80’s) and the youngest being Max, who was 7 or so. Even the children had their own little mini-ferments! I remember one day overlooking the winery and seeing Herr Keller with the biggest smile I had ever seen on his face.  When I looked into the winery his son, has grandson and his great grandson were all working together to make wine and I could only imagine the satisfaction and happiness he felt.  I would love that one day, too.

Q&A with Grower, Scott Welch, Jackson Family Wines

Scott WelchWhy did you choose viticulture as your profession and how did you get your first job?

I grew up on a Chardonnay vineyard in Potter Valley, Mendocino County and life revolved around viticulture and the ranch, so I guess I was born into that first job.

When did you start working with Jackson Family Wines managing their Petaluma Gap vineyards?

I started managing Jackson Family Wines’ Petaluma Gap vineyards in 2017.

You have deep knowledge of soil types and grapevine clonal selections.  Where did you study this? Was it a challenge or is farming in your DNA? Did you have a mentor?

My family taught me that knowledge is a powerful and important tool, and they supported my efforts to not only study viticulture, but become a more rounded person in all facets of life.

You’ve spoken many times about the various soil types in different vineyard properties and the clay that is prevalent in the Petaluma Gap.  How does this soil type benefit the vines?

Our notorious Diablo Clay is a challenging soil type to work with, but clay provides a greater water holding potential, allowing vines a steady amount of moisture during bud break and early shoot growth in wet years.  This steady availability of moisture in the soil profile allows us to go further into the Spring/Summer before using stored or purchased water for irrigation.

We’ve heard you talk about the quickly changing weather in the Petaluma Gap and the need to be able to adapt quickly.  What is the single-most important tool that you wouldn’t leave home without when heading out to the vineyard?

Muck boots.  Tracking mud into the house during the evening is a big no-no.

Jackson Family Wines has many vineyards in Sonoma County.  Is Cloud Landing the only vineyard you are responsible for? How big is it and what varieties are grown there?

I manage three vineyards within and near the Petaluma Gap AVA.  They add up to around 550 acres and are all predominantly Pinot Noir and a smaller proportion being Chardonnay.

We’ve heard you talk about the challenges that animals create for farmers—for example, the birds that watch and wait for the grapes to ripen.   Are they your biggest challenge?  What are some of the others and how do you deal with them?

We primarily rely on Integrated Pest Management practices to protect our vineyards from pests. Birds are our number one challenge in the animal kingdom. We deter birds with our falconer and will also use sound deterrents, laser lights, and some netting throughout the three ranches I manage.

Where did you learn to speak Spanish?  Does it come easily to you?

Scott Welch and familyMy dad is bilingual and I had an amazing Spanish teacher in high school, so both of them helped me build a foundation.  I’ve since improved little by little within the vineyard.  It did not come easily.  In fact, I stuttered as a child, and after finally crawling over that hurdle in my adolescence, I discovered that the Spanish vernacular opened the door for similar challenges.  However, it was too beautiful and fun of a language to give up on and I now enjoy speaking it every day.

As a vineyard manager it’s important to create trust and teamwork for the safety and benefit of all.  Can you tell us some stories about your team and how you work with them?

We stress open communication within our group.  Whether it’s by phone, text, or radio my team knows they can always chat with me or other members of our management team.  We listen to new ideas and inputs that can help us farm to the highest standards.

What’s your favorite wine in the JFW line-up (or are you more of a beer-kind-of-guy)? 

I’m more of a White Claw-kind-of-guy these days…

Just kidding, the question is:  What are we eating with it?!

At the end of this year’s harvest, how do you plan to celebrate?

Go “trick or treating” with the kiddos, I hope!

Q&A with Winemaker Jake Hawkes, Carpenter Wines

Jake HawkesYou and your dad started making wine together. You’ve said he’s the smartest man you know. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from him about the business of winemaking?

My dad taught me the value of being stubborn and oblivious. This is a hard business and, to some extent, a changeable one. It takes years for a vineyard to produce, years more for the wine from it to be ready, years beyond that to make any money. It’s good to know what you care about, what you love, what means something to you and to do that thing irrespective of what the market or your peers do or say. Self-belief is more important than approbation.

You have an eclectic work history, having performed a variety of jobs from nightclub bouncer to being an English teacher in Texas. What was your favorite gig and how did the myriad of jobs you’ve had prepare you for the rigors of winemaking?

If my varied past prepared me for anything, it prepared me to love people and be able to relate to them. In spite of winemaking being such an earthbound trade, in the end, that’s my job: working with people. I want the best vineyard workers and cellar hands and sales people and I want them to go to war for me. If I can’t see their value and relate to them, that doesn’t happen.

Growing up your goal was to live anyplace but where you grew up, in the Alexander Valley. Why did you want to escape and what drew you back to Sonoma County?

What drew me back here were three things. First, I find it incomparably beautiful. I’ve been to a lot of places, a lot of them famously beautiful, and I think Sonoma County comes out on top. Second, I love my family. Third, I grew up in the society of Mexican farm laborers. They were my first workmates and drinking buddies, and I didn’t want to live without their daily company anymore.

Your Old Road #3 Vineyard (Flocchini) is in the Petaluma Gap. What attracted you to making Pinot Noir from this vineyard? Do you plan to label this wine as Petaluma Gap AVA in the future?

Flocchini VineyardI’d had wines from surrounding vineyards, among them Keller and Griffin’s Lair and had been impressed by them. I have also always generally admired the area: the air and light on the stretch of Lakeville Highway south of Ernie’s and north of Black Point are inspiring. More than any of that, I love the Flocchinis. They are a couple of old dairy men who were born on the property where a vineyard now grows. They were born on the land and have worked it all their lives – since the 1940s. If they are still making people like the Flocchini brothers, show me a few.

And yes, we’ll label the Pinots with the dual appellation Sonoma Coast/Petaluma Gap.

Which wine are you most proud of in the Carpenter Wines line-up?

I like our Single Clone bottlings. We ferment and bottle La Tâche, Pommard, and Swan clones all by themselves. If you’ve loved Pinot for decades, it’s a fascinating and unique study of its various beautiful faces.

What was your scariest moment as a winemaker and how did you “save the day?”

My scariest moment was after I’d bottled a few vintages and put them in a warehouse. When you’re bottling, you’re working too fast to worry. You just stack the wine up as fast as you can and go back for more. But, when I came back the next morning and opened the door and saw all that wine looking back at me, I threw up in my mouth. What was I going to do with all that stuff? My wife, Laura, saved the day by selling it.

Laura and JakeLaura is the proprietor of Carpenter Wines; how did you meet and how do you work together as partners in the business?

Laura and I have known each other forever. We’ve lived together on floors and in shoe boxes and now, the most beautiful place on earth. I make, she sells.

What’s the next big thing for you?

A nap.

Q&A with Grower, Scott Tweten, Volamus Vineyards

Scott TwetenYour vineyard property at one time had five different grape varieties, but now it’s all Pinot Noir.  Why did you make this change?

When we purchased the property in 2006, the existing vineyard had been planted with the idea that the prior owner, who intended to make their own wine, wouldn’t have to drink the same varietal two nights in a row. A couple of the varietals struggled in the cool Gap climate and at just over 3 acres, the vineyard is barely large enough to squeak by commercially with just one varietal.   Once we were feet on the lot, I made some investigations with a few nearby vineyard owners, stopping by and introducing myself, and discovering what they were growing.  Realizing that we had stumbled into an ideal location for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and not being a real white-wine guy, I set off to transform the vineyard to only Pinot Noir by re-budding the other varietals the following season.

On your blog you’ve talked about patience and the search for the perfect vineyard manager.  Have you found that person and what have you learned along the way?

When we arrived in Sonoma County and found ourselves owning a vineyard, my wife, Patty asked me if I would be taking classes at UC Davis in viticulture.  In medicine and in aviation, after the book learning the real education comes by doing under supervision.  Consequently, I opted instead to hire the farming talent and learn by observing and doing.  Unfortunately, that first year it was difficult to get many vineyard management companies to journey to Penngrove from their home territory.  I interviewed the few that would and wound up using someone who didn’t have the experience with Pinot Noir or rebudding and especially not with the winds of the Gap.  We probably lost 1/3 of our rebuds due to wind damage and had to repeat it the next season.  Since then I have had three more vineyard management companies.  The determinates for me of what make a good vineyard manager is knowledge and responsiveness.  The second vineyard manager grew over 3 years from an average vineyard size of 5 acres to an average vineyard size of 30 acres and we were lost to the big guys.  The third fellow was never able to maintain a labor force capable of timely vineyard operations.   We currently use Alta Vineyard Management run by Eric Neil.  Eric’s done this for as many years as I’ve been a physician.  He knows cool climate Pinot Noir like no one else I’ve talked with and it’s not just the How and When but the Why you do it.  Having Eric for our vineyard manager the past three years has been like a masters’ program in viticulture.

You spent four years in the Air Force as an officer; has that experience had an effect on how you approach managing your vineyard and selling your grapes?

“Uncle Sam” was kind enough to pay for medical school; in return I gave four years of service as a Flight Surgeon—a general practitioner for the flyers and their families.  I traveled internationally for the first time and spent about half of those year’s overseas, in 2-month blocks.  Patty and I also learned to fly through the flying club on base.  Then the Air Force brought me to California; I’d been trying to get here since the day I graduated high school in Minot, North Dakota.  I made life-long friends and had experiences that shaped me to who I am today.   How to manage people, how to manage complex problems and how to make the best of a situation are used routinely with the vineyard.  The attention to detail required in the service, as well as in medicine, is right at home in the vineyard.  As a matter of fact, the name of our vineyard, Volamus, comes from U-2 squadron I was attached to as a flight surgeon:  Solum Volamus or “alone we fly” was the squadron motto.  As Patty and I are both pilots, it seemed a fitting name for our new endeavor.

What is on your personal highlight reel of being a vineyard owner in the Petaluma Gap?

In the beginning it was just about walking out the front door and having a vineyard for a front yard.  After the potential of the vineyard became clear, it has been satisfying bringing the best- possible quality fruit into production.  I’ve enjoyed being involved with the wine industry here in the county, albeit at a small level.  I’ve met so many people who love what they do whether it’s growing grapes, making wine or selling wine and people love to talk about what they love so I’ve learned so much in the process.  These days, the annual rhythm of the vineyard has a beauty and pace that defines the year.  Winter-dormancy and pruning leads to Spring bud-break and bloom.  Summer-veraison and ripening leads to fall’s hectic harvest.  Each season has the required phases to accomplish.  It’s very satisfying.

Scott Tweten plus wife

What impact has the wind in the Petaluma Gap had on your farming practices?

We lost a good portion of our initial rebud because our first vineyard manager didn’t sufficiently support the new shoots of the rebuds.  There are definitely adjustments that have to be done to farming practices because of the winds: Only irrigate or spray at night when the wind won’t blow it off course.  Young vines need more support and the rows require hedging to avoid shoots from drooping into the downwind row.  On the upside: rapid drying of the vines and clusters after a misty foggy morning, the onshore coastal marine layer each night that provides moderation of the climate and provides the cool climate that allows the Gap to do so well with cool climate varietals.

You’ve talked about how owning a vineyard is a family affair.  How have your wife and daughter been involved and has that communal effort impacted family life? 

We moved from Marin County when our daughter was 5.  My wife and I both grew up in middle class families and wanted to eschew the sense of entitlement that seemed so prominent there while we raised our child.  In Sonoma County, our daughter attended the local elementary school in Penngrove and went on to Hillcrest and Analy in Sebastopol; she’s at Cal now.  She was always surrounded by kids who lived on farms or vineyards or smaller towns.  She helped hand-raising chicks (she’s Vegan now) and used to run the dogs around the vineyard.  She and my wife helped pick MOG on harvests and occasionally I could even convince my daughter to help with re-suspending irrigation drip lines or placing bird reflective ribbons.  For a few years I made a barrel of wine each year and the annual bottling party was an excuse to get the family and friends together and bottle a vintage.  Patty has also done all the graphic design for the vineyard (logo, swag, biz cards, etc), as conveniently, she’s a graphic designer.  These days our daughter is off at college and Patty is working as a creative director in the wine industry so the vineyard has done much to help shape us and move us forward.   However, we still have our front yard to return to when we’re all together.

Your day job is as an anesthesiologist, which can be long hours and high stress.  Are there any parallels with owning a vineyard?  Which is more satisfying?

The years of training with too much work and too little sleep have given me an appreciation for the frenetic pace of harvest. These days it’s much less common for me in medicine with the exception of the occasional nights being on-call.  The good news is that as someone who can’t sleep past 6 AM, my days off are incredibly productive.  Anesthesia and medicine are very detail-driven and episodic.  The vineyard has a long-term rhythm and the detail is in making sure that the something that is done today will have the desired effect down the line.  A nice yin to the yang.

To whom do you sell your grapes and what is the highest rating that has been received?

We’ve sold to several wineries over the dozen years that we’ve shepherded the vineyard.  We’ve had several good scores by various raters.  The best would be the 2013-2015 vintages that we sold to Lando Wines which received 91-points from Wine Spectator for their Sonoma Coast releases that we were a majority grape in.   This year has been difficult.  We had hopes of a long-term commitment from a new buyer last year, but due to a massive fruit glut and the slowing of wine sales they backed away.   We’re flirting with a new (to us) winemaker and hope to get asked to the dance in short order.  Until then, I’ll keep that confidential.

When did you first get involved with the PGWA?

Probably my first year here, my friend John, from Koos Family Vineyards, and I heard about the formation of the Petaluma Gap and went to an early meeting held at Adobe Road Winery.  I’ve followed the development of the PGWA since and participated as appropriate and when able.  I think that the PGWA provides a needed voice for the unique growing area that it is and for its member vineyards and wineries.  The word seems to be out if you look at all the new vineyards going in.

What’s next for you?

Hard to say.  Thirteen years is the longest we’ve lived in any one place; our daughter’s off to college and we’re not getting any younger.  But every time I come home after a long day at work or from a vacation away, I’m struck by the beauty and tranquility of where we live.  I’ve planted over 150 trees on our 6-acre parcel in addition to maintaining and improving the vineyard.  Maybe I’ll sit in the shade of those trees for a while and enjoy the fruit of my labor, preferable fermented, before chasing something new.

Q&A with Winemaker Shane Finley, Thirty-Seven Wines

Shane FinleyYou’ve said that the book, Wine for Dummies, got you hooked on the idea of becoming a winemaker.  When did you first think it might be possible to earn a living as a winemaker?  Were there any setbacks or turns in the road that made you think twice? What did your parents say?

After returning from France in 2003, I was finally able to visualize the possibility of winemaking as a career. Copain had just offered me a full-time position as cellar master and I had completed three vintages on three continents. I began to feel pretty confident then that wine would be a long-term venture for me. Yes, there were some obstacles—obviously navigating France was a challenge since I didn’t speak the language when I arrived. But I was able to teach myself while working. Thankfully our crew was very patient and there was a lot of pointing and miming. My parents have always been supportive of my decisions, but at the beginning, they were skeptical about my leaving a secure corporate job for an unstable and unknown winemaking career. Now, my mom might be the biggest California Pinot Noir fan in the state of Minnesota!

You graduated from Virginia Military Institute, famous for its rigorous, character-building educational program.  Was living as a cadet in military barracks a warm-up drill for the rigors of harvest? 

Shane Finley on barrelsAttention to detail is paramount in winemaking and the Virginia Military Institute definitely instilled that in me. In addition, I learned to multitask, plan and prioritize under pressure. So, while I didn’t have any viticulture classes at VMI, it certainly was great preparation for the fast-paced, stressful and detailed harvest environment.

What impact did your winemaking experiences in Australia and France have on how you make wine here in California?

When you are immersed in making wine in any region, there are so many opportunities to visit and taste wines that can never be replicated outside of those areas. The biggest benefit for me was to the ability to access wines that in the US were unaffordable or just not available. I gained a lot of cellar and vineyard experience abroad, but more importantly I was able to educate my palate. In the long term this gave me a valuable global point of view. I am so grateful for the conversations and time I spent with winemakers in Australia and France; whenever the opportunity arose to spend time with them, I always tried to focus on the “why,” rather than the “how.” For me, understanding the thought process was extremely important.

How did you meet Al & Lisa Brayton, owners of Thirty-Seven Wines and Paradise Vineyards, and become their winemaker?

Dan Moberg, owner of Vintelligent Marketing, introduced me to Al and Lisa and the rest is history.

What is your favorite grape variety at Paradise Vineyards? 

That is an incredibly tough question given the diversity we have in the vineyard. What I enjoy most about Thirty-Seven Wines Is the opportunity to work with so many different varieties. For many years, I was focused on Pinot Noir almost exclusively. Now, with Thirty-Seven Wines, I am able to work with so many different varietials—Albariño, Riesling, Petit Verdot, Cab Franc and even Blaufrankish. But, if I had to pick one, it would be Albariño. It’s a unique and exciting variety – fun to make and even more fun to drink!

Which of Thirty-Seven’s wines are you most proud of?

I am proud of all the wines we make. We work hard in the vineyard to accentuate the true characteristics of each variety and strive to make sure each of our wines is unique. Lisa has been a huge advocate and driver of precise vineyard practices. That being said, we have worked extremely hard on our Cabernet Franc blocks. It is not easy growing Cabernet Franc in the Petaluma Gap, but as a result of our hard work I think our “Hermit” is one we can all be extremely proud of.  It is a wine with all the hallmarks of true Cab Franc and plenty of vibrancy, depth and structure.

37 wines vineyard row

We’ve heard you say that “my wines show the essence of the variety, vineyards and vintage.” As winemaker for Thirty-Seven, you’re working with grapes grown on the edge of San Pablo Bay. How does being at the end of the Petaluma Gap wind-tunnel impact the grapevines and the flavor profile of Thirty-Seven’s wines?

One of the best characteristics of our vineyard is its ability to maintain acidity. All of our wines, from the earliest picks to the latest picks, have great acidity. This provides plenty of verve and nuance and helps to provide structure for the wines. The winds from the Gap and the temperature inversion that occurs so close to San Pablo Bay, give us some challenging conditions. But it is also what makes our site unique and allows us to grow Pinot Noir and Chardonnay as well as Bordeaux varieties. The moderate temperatures, cooling wind and the long harvest period, are cornerstones for our success.

You’ve made wine for some other top pinot noir brands in the country – Copain, Dumol, Pisoni, Kosta Browne and Lynmar—how does Gap fruit differ from that of the other AVAs where these brands are sourcing fruit and have you modified your winemaking techniques for Thirty-Seven to deal with these differences?

In general Petaluma Gap wines tend to have darker characteristics. Our reds certainly show that component. What I love about California is the variety and excellence across so many different appellations.

Harvest means long hours, little sleep and lots of hard labor.  How do you stay balanced during this time?

I have great support from my family. I rely on good music, plenty of caffeine and hydration! And now that I’m getting older, vitamins help, too.

Tell us about your family and how they influence the wines you make.

My family is key. My wife, Barb, pulls double duty during the harvest. We have two kids -our son, Graham, who is 6 and our daughter, Stella, who is 11.  Their greatest influence is the support, patience and love they give me.

Shane Finley and family