Q&A with Al & Lisa Brayton, Owners of Thirty-Seven Wines and Paradise Vineyard

Al, you grew up in Shasta County CA and, after getting out of high school, attended the US Air Force Academy. Did you know at the time that you wanted to be an attorney? Did you plan to own a vineyard? What twists and turns did your life take along the way?

When I entered USAFA, my plan was to become an engineer and fly fighters and make the Air Force a career. I barely knew wine existed. While at the Academy, it became apparent that math and science were not my strongest subjects, and I ended up with a double-major in Economics and Engineering Management. I was also selected for a special program at UCLA which allowed me to complete an MS in Finance before heading to pilot training.

Paradise Vineyard

Unfortunately, while at UCLA, my thyroid went bad and I was no longer eligible for pilot training.  Facing career choices that included being a missile officer living in a silo in South Dakota, or going back to school, I got an early admission to law school and convinced the Air Force to let me go back to school.  The only catch was I had to do a year of active duty at March Air Force Base as a Management Analysis Officer before I could resume my education.  

I still barely knew wine existed, generally drank beer and Seven and Seven, and thought the Mateus Rosé bottle was kind of cool.  It wasn’t until I was in law school, and started making wine as a home winemaker, that I decided if I got a chance, I would like to own a vineyard.  It took another 25 years before I was able to do it.

Lisa, how did you meet Al? Was it while working at Al’s law firm (Brayton Purcell LLP) or before then? How did you end up working there?  

I starting working at Al’s law firm back in 1992 as a clerk in the file room. My office was in an old bank vault. Al was the “wizard” who made everyone nervous, including me. I am certain he did not know I existed for at least the first five years of my employment at the firm. Funny to think about that now.

Eventually our paths crossed, as I advanced to different administrative positions and ultimately into a job that placed me in direct contact with Al.  I remember hearing stories that he was building a house and planting a vineyard on Highway 37 and that he planned to work part-time from the vineyard. Cracks me up thinking about it now that I live at that vineyard property on Highway 37.  

Lisa and Al Brayton

Photo credit: Mary Steinbacher

Fast forward 6 years. At a birthday party in his office, a discussion arose about Al’s homemade Port. Turns out my father had recently gifted me with a bottle of his favorite Port – which I loved. It was our joint interest in Port that drove Al to invite me to his home at the vineyard (remember, he is my boss) to taste the two Ports side-by-side.  I was so nervous!  The funny thing is I didn’t know a darn thing about wine – all I knew was that I enjoyed Port and he did too.  As you can guess, shortly thereafter, we began seeing each other – outside of work – secretly!  Oh yes, it was very hush, hush as the boss was going against his own policy of “no fishing off the company pier.”  A year later, when the news of our relationship surfaced, I was given the option to continue working at the office and end our relationship, or work from home as a contract employee so I could maintain my blossoming relationship with the boss.  In my 

opinion, even though I was a single mother with two young boys, there was no option other than the latter.  It was the best decision I ever made!  

Nine-and-a half years later, in 2015, I proudly became Mrs. Brayton.  We were married by our dearest friend, Michael Marron, overlooking Paradise Vineyards and the grapevines that Al had planted on Highway 37 back in 2001.  My sweet husband has been my introduction to growing grapes.  And, a big thanks to dad for that bottle of Port!

Al, you are well-known for your courtroom savvy and business acumen.  Owning a vineyard and launching a winery brand is not for the faint of heart; are the same skills required for both endeavors?  

I think the answer is yes, and no.  Certainly, many of the skills I use as a trial lawyer, whether talking to a jury or negotiating a settlement, don’t work well on the vines–they rarely listen, and are much more responsive to Lisa!  An early lesson from business school was that “sunk costs are not relevant for decision making” and that rubric has served me well in both arenas.   The fact you may have $150,000 invested in a case that goes “south,” has nothing to do with whether you should invest another $100,000.  The same is true with winery and vineyard operations.  Thorough preparation and planning, and attention to detail, are important in both endeavors, as is the manner in which you treat the people you do business with.  One of the toughest things to get used to in the vineyard are the things you have little control over–you are really just a farmer.  As a result, you control what you can and try to minimize your exposure to adverse events.  In the courtroom, the biggest variable is how a jury that you select will respond to your case; at least you have total control over the cases you select and how well they are prepared.

Paradise Vineyards is one of the most spectacular properties on the North Coast.  How did you find the property and what did it take to make it what it is today?

Paradise Vineyard

When I got out of the Air Force in 1983, I took a job in Novato with McQuaid, Bedford, Clapper & Lynch, and initially commuted from Vacaville – this was in the era when Highway 37 was still “Blood Alley.”  As I passed Sears Point, I often thought the hilltop would be a spectacular site for a restaurant–perhaps with chefs from San Francisco and Napa that rotated quarterly.  

Over the next few years, I moved to Marin County, but still continued driving regularly to Fairfield for our cases in Solano County.  I watched the property.  Then, in the late 90’s, I noticed a “For Sale” sign on the hilltop and decided to take a look.  Much to my surprise, I discovered it wasn’t all brown hills, but there were a few acres planted to grapes on the far side of the property.  In 2000, after lengthy negotiations, I purchased a ten-acre parcel with plans for a homesite and vineyard, plus a 50% interest in a 210-acre adjacent parcel that included the existing grapevines plus wide areas for development.  

Over the next several years we contoured the hills, planted an additional 100+ acres of grapes, put in a dam and created a reservoir.  Later, I was able to buy out my partner and finish planting the vineyard.  Along the way there were varietals we tried in our test vineyard that didn’t work out as we had hoped, so we either re-planted or T-budded.  We still have a little more of that to do, but overall, we are very happy with what we have created.   Today we farm 140 acres.  We use about 10% of our production for our own wines, and sell the balance to others.

Who buys your grapes?  Is all your fruit contracted or will you have some available from the upcoming harvest?  

Got grapes?  Yes, and plenty of them!  With 140 producing acres and 13 different varietals, we bring in approximately 400 tons of fruit, depending on the year.  That is no small chunk of change. The good news is this year’s crop looks fairly normal; the bad news is this year’s crop looks fairly normal!  But the macro bin is half full!

Al said the lawyer in him says we should pay attention to the clause in our grower contract about not disclosing who we sell to without permission.  Suffice it to say our buyers include some well-known larger wineries, as well as some folks like us who are small family winemakers.  If you see Al running around the vineyard or at PGWA Board meetings, check out his baseball cap for a clue.  

This is a tough year to sell grapes, and while we had a couple of our customers from last year not renew their contracts, we gratefully have three remaining contracts and anticipate we will have quality Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah and Merlot available from the upcoming harvest. Like many small growers, the uncertainty is concerning at times.  But, remember, the macro bin is half full!

We are also using this slow time to re-evaluate the future of several production blocks in the vineyard. Six acres will be removed this year and another four or five next year as we re-evaluate what to plant.  We also have an additional 13 acres coming into production over the next few years.  Grapevines are clueless and unaffected by the state of the industry and the pandemic; right now, they are in their glory growing beautifully in the Petaluma Gap.  It’s hard to believe harvest is only a couple of months away.  This is a precious time in the vineyard; as growers we are blessed to be surrounded by such beauty every day.

Al, your first wine was made with the help of your friend, Father Tom Turnbull.  What was the variety, how many cases did you make and where did the grapes come from?  

Al BraytonMy first wine was made while I was still in law school, and it was made as a home winemaker at Father Tom’s property which was located just off Silverado Trail at Stags Leap.  He had 15 acres that was planted primarily to Merlot.  I spent all my money on Slovenian Oak barrels and some glass carboys, so I didn’t have money to buy grapes.  The solution was to approach surrounding property owners, and get permission to go through and pick leftovers when they were done.  Not ideal, but the price was right, and thankfully their picking crews were moving quickly and they left some fruit hanging.

My first production was a field blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and then some Chardonnay.  It was bottled in bottles scavenged by us from the dumpsters of some of the finest wineries in the Napa Valley, with Father Tom acting as quality control to insure we got just the right color and bottle style, with my job being to crawl in the dumpster and pass them out.  Father Tom’s wife, Mary Jane, then soaked the labels off and sterilized the bottles to get them ready for our fall bottling.

Total production was probably under 40 cases, and while I thought the wine was wonderful, it wasn’t very good.  There is a reason I leave the winemaking to Shane Finley, our winemaker who has been with us since 2013.   

Lisa, the name, Thirty-Seven Wines, was not chosen just because of your location on Highway 37, but rather to recognize the thirty-seven interlocking circles that create the Flower of Life.  Based on your love of flowers, we assume you suggested the name.  Can you tell us more?

All the credit goes to Valerie Moberg.  Val and her husband, Dan, have been a part of our team for over 12 years.  They joined us to help develop and market our brand.  When the decision to bottle a “reserve” wine was made, we wanted a striking and classy brand and logo to with it.  Location, location, location.  Brilliant!  Let’s call it Thirty-Seven Wines.  Super, now we needed a logo.  

Thirty Seven Wines label

Photo credit: Mary Steinbacher

Val began researching the number 37 based on our desire to have a sense of place and our location on Highway 37.  It was during that search, Val found that thirty-seven circles makes the most common version of the Flower of Life and one of the most basic geometric shapes.  It symbolizes creation and the unity of all living things.  It brings together all the essential elements and reminds us we are built from the same blueprint.  Val thought this was the perfect symbol to represent the vineyard location, as well as our emphasis on sustainability and the concept that wine can be such a wonderful way to connect people.  

Shane Finley is a very talented and experienced winemaker.  How difficult was it to find the right winemaker?

Team member Dan Moberg, from Vintelligent Marketing, introduced us to Shane back in 2012.  Dan has spent the greater part of his career in the wine industry and had excellent connections and good insight on what we needed to bring our brand to the next level.  We actually met with two other winemakers, but there was something about Shane that just felt right.  With a military and financial background, he speaks Al’s language and his experience with Burgundian and Rhone wines fit the bill as well.    

Bringing on a new winemaker opened the opportunity for a brand overhaul.  When Shane came on board in 2013, we were still bottling under the Paradise View brand; only our Reserve wines were bottled as Thirty-Seven.  We decided then to buckle down and focus our efforts on marketing and producing just one brand, so Paradise View was put to bed.  Today, the Thirty-Seven brand encompasses all our wines: the “Essential” portfolio, previously Paradise View, focuses on “economical, big-bang-for-your-buck,” everyday wines and the “Reserve” portfolio features more focused, rich and full-bodied wines.  

Shane Finley is the man.  He has found his Paradise-groove and has taken ownership of crafting Thirty-Seven into a brand that can stand up to the best of them.  Shane has crafted over 45 gold-medal wines and 28 wines rated 90 or higher by Wine Enthusiast, not bad for our small brand of 2500 cases.  Bravo Zulu Shane!  

For the last couple of years your Pinot Noir has been carried by Costco.  Was it challenging to get your foot in the door there?   

Actually, Costco approached us in 2016.  Anna-Marie Ferris, Assistant buyer at Costco tasted our Pinot Noir at an event in San Francisco.  Since then Costco has sold out our Essential Pinot Noir.  Our wine is in five local warehouses and ten in southern California.  Fortunately, our vineyard is loaded with Pinot Noir, which has enabled us to increase our case production over the last two years, to accommodate additional sales.  We are excited that the 2017 vintage has almost sold out.  With that, comes the birth of the 2018 vintage and having Petaluma Gap as the AVA on the label.  Additionally, it looks like our Syrah will be finding its merry way onto the shelves of Costco in the very near future.  

Lisa, you play so many roles with Thirty-Seven – overseeing the vineyard crew, watching over sales and marketing, mastering the technology behind your virtual tastings, attending technical classes at SRJC and being the queen of hospitality for all your events.  How do you manage to do it with such grace and exuberance?

Remember that earlier I mentioned knowing nothing about wine?  Well, I knew less about growing grapes, sales or marketing.  Al asked me to sit in on vineyard meetings with him.  It was his way of making me feel a part of his dream.  Listening in, I felt significantly out of my league with discussions about fertilizers, petioles, canopy management, stages of berry development, integrated-pest-management; that’s when I looked into viticulture classes at SRJC and am so glad I did.  Through their excellent wine and viticulture program, I now have a solid foundation to build on.  Every day is a learning day.  

Lisa Brayton

I enjoy working with Atlas Vineyard Management and being a part of the day-to-day operations in the vineyard and keeping our winemaker, Shane, up to date throughout the growing season and during harvest.  As a people gal, I find happiness in hosting tasting events in the vineyard, virtual tastings, cave dinners, working with the many non-profits we partner with throughout the year and using these as opportunities to connect with people.  Admittingly I am a bit shy, but love being a part of something which brings joy to so many.  

You were married on Sept 6, 2015.  What wines were served at your wedding and why did you choose them?

We had a fairly large wedding, with a lot of food and wine.  Wines were chosen based on crowd favorites and what paired best with the food.  The caterer used some of our wines in the dishes, which were prepared and served family-style, such as Chardonnay in the Chicken Francesca and Reserve Merlot in the Braised Short Ribs.  We served Albariño with Hog Island oysters, along with our Tolay Red Blend, during the cocktail hour.  At dinner the Essential Chardonnay and Syrah were poured family-style at the tables, while, at the bar, we served Pinot Grigio, Albariño, Pinot Noir, Reserve Chardonnay, Reserve Hermit, Reserve Merlot and Reserve Malbec.  Lastly, at the dessert bar, we shared our Port (in memory of our first dinner together) and Late Harvest Molly’s Delight, named after Al’s mother, with brownies, mixed berries and sabayon.  

You both have grown children with former spouses.  Are your children interested in following in your footsteps?  

The kids have been very supportive of the vineyard and have poured with us, or for us, at various tasting events.  They also are spreading the word about our wines with the younger generation.  My daughters both have full time careers in health care that we would not recommend they abandon for the vicissitudes of growing grapes or making wine.  Lisa’s sons are also fully committed–Alex to school, and Vince to a job in the hospitality industry.  That being said, Vince has showed a real interest in working as a sommelier and has completed course work towards that end, so who knows what the future holds.  One thing for sure, as you noted in an earlier question, this business is not for the faint of heart.

Q&A with John Flynn, Owner/Grower, Griffins Lair

You grew up in the Midwest in farm country. Your mom and dad were college professors, but your mom grew up on a ranch near Santiago, Chile. What influence did that have on your decision to become a vineyard owner/grower?

My family has been ranching since the early 1900s. My great grandfather grew up in Michigan and after attending the Michigan School of Mining, moved to South America to explore mining and natural resources. His journey took him on a meandering path across several countries and ended on a cattle ranch west of Santiago, Chile, and from its highest hills, just within sight of the Pacific Ocean.

Kingston Vineyards, Santiago Chile

Kingston Vineyards, Santiago Chile

This plot of land which we lovingly call “The Farm” has acted as glue for our family for generations now. My mom grew up there with her four siblings: home schooled, racing horses and milking cows. She and her four siblings all moved back to the US for school, but my Aunt Sally returned to Chile to help run the farm with my uncle, Enrique. We are all close to this day and do annual reunions which gather three generations of all five families – it’s a lot of people! Even in this crazy COVID era we have family Zooms which span ~20 different families across the US and Chile.

In the 1990s we planted a portion of the farm with grape vines—an incredible piece of foresight by my cousins, Courtney and Tim, as well as my uncle Michael. This is now Kingston Family Vineyards (Kingston is my mom’s maiden name). At the time we decided to do this, I was visiting Chile (on a Christmas gift ticket from cousin Tim) and ended up spending a summer riding horses in the hills and (ineffectually) helping dig some of the first irrigation trenches of the new vineyard.

Spending time at the farm as a child engendered me with a love of the countryside and open space in a way that is hard to describe—for everything from wild animals to soaring mountains. When I look at an open vista, I feel my heart rate slow and I’m both calm and focused. It’s almost meditative. The natural world holds a balance that people can learn a lot from—interminable desire for life and growth, periods of feast and famine, competition for resources, symbiotic relationships. Most importantly: long-term success is driven by planning for the future each step of the way. Things happen slowly in nature: creating the right biome for durable success requires years of careful and deliberate decisions and actions. Whatever path my life took, I knew from a young age that I would take care of a little bit of land.

You attended the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and have degrees in engineering and finance. How did that prepare you for your role as a vineyard owner in the Petaluma Gap?

In short, it didn’t! I went to college wanting to be an aerospace entrepreneur. I quickly found out that my odds on that path were poor, to say the least, and I pivoted! Along the way, I wrote my senior thesis on vineyard management, as our project in Chile was of great interest to me. So, you could say that a seed was planted during that time, but the reality is that none of that really prepared me for what we do today.

This is a project of three passions—wine, family and land—which have brought us to where we are today. We have surrounded ourselves with great advisors and have a simple goal: to grow the best Pinot Noir and Syrah grapes that we can and to work with the most talented and creative winemakers that we can to make distinctive wines that bring people and families together.

Your mom’s ranch in Chile started out as a dairy and cattle ranch. Then, about 20 years ago, grapevines were planted and Kingston Family Vineyards was launched. Can you tell us how that transition came about and why? Do you spend time in Chile and are you involved with the ranch at this time?

I alluded to this earlier, but this really comes down to a bit of multi-decade foresight on the side of my cousins and uncle.

Agriculture is a cyclical industry, and a low margin one at that. To survive, we realized early on that we had to diversify. My family experimented with cheese, pigs (“las chancheras”) and a number of other smelly things that we eventually lost money on, and stopped doing. In the 1990s we were down to two legs of the business—dairy and forestry. No stool has ever stood for long on two legs and we knew we needed a third leg, if our kids were to ever spend time on the farm.

Kingston Family Vineyards was born out of the mind of my cousin Courtney. She, her brother Tim, and her father Michael have doggedly pursued this vision for the last 25 years. The idea was to grow cool-weather Pinot Noir and Syrah in our unique location about 15 miles from the Pacific Ocean. Does that sound familiar? [Griffin’s Lair sits in the Petaluma Gap a little under 20 miles from the Pacific Ocean, albeit a continent away]

The farm will always hold a very sentimental place in my heart. While I am lucky to make it down every other year, it is always on my mind. And yes, I remain involved with it to this day and always will.

Jim and Joan Griffin developed the vineyard at Griffin’s Lair in the late 1990’s. What attracted you to this property and when and why did you and your family purchase it?

Griffin’s Lair is a very special place. Joan and Jim planted the vineyard in the late 1990s with an incredible vision—they created one of the finest vineyards in Sonoma County. They understood that the land would generate a unique terroir as a result of the distinctive soils as well as the Petaluma Gap winds and coolth of San Pablo Bay.

Griffins Lair

Griffin’s Lair Vineyard – Photo credit Erin Malone, Lightspeed Films

Griffin’s Lair has diverse soil—predominantly from the Haire, Clear Lake and Diablo family—which results from three active faults—the Tolay Fault, which sits right above us, as well as the Roche-Cardoza and Rogers Creek faults. On top of that, the location at the southern end of the Petaluma Gap provides both a cool evening wind that extends ripening and adds complexity to the resulting wines, as well as a morning marine layer which brings a tinge of saltiness to the fruit. This was an empty field surrounded by dairies when Jim and Joan arrived. Their vision was extraordinary.

Jim and Joan faithfully executed on their vision for Griffin’s Lair for more than twenty years. You’ve said you’re picking up the baton where they left off. Do you plan to expand or build on that vision in any way?

Jim and Joan built something very special. Our intention is to continue to cultivate this land to produce the best fruit it can. We adore old-vine wines and believe the flavor profile of Griffin’s Lair will only grow more distinctive and nuanced as the vines age.

We are philosophically organic farmers and the vineyard is certified sustainable today. Our goal in the coming years will be to become certified organic and possibly, with time, biodynamic. This piece of land is not just a farm, but also our family home and it is important to us to control what goes into and comes out of it with an absolute assurance that it will be good for people to consume for all time to come.

John Flynn & Alix Rogers Erin Malone at Lightspeed films - smaller

John & Alix and their daughter at Griffin’s Lair – Photo credit Erin Malone, Lightspeed Films

Kingston Family Vineyards, your mom’s ranch in Chile, is recognized as among the best estate wineries in that country and more specifically is credited with making some of its best Pinot Noirs. The vineyard is located about 12 miles away from the Pacific, just as Griffin’s Lair is close to the Pacific here in California. Are there differences in the growing conditions at these two vineyard sites?

What can I say, we really like Pinot!

It’s true, the parallels between the sites are remarkable on some levels and that certainly influenced our feeling of familiarity as we undertook this project. These are both cool weather valleys in relatively dry climates with diverse soils.

That said, the land is quite different. The Casablanca Valley in Chile is much drier than Sonoma County (hard to believe!) and while both areas benefit from the marine cooling because of the proximity to the ocean, the Petaluma Gap’s distinctive wind pattern and the nearby bay brings a unique and complex flavor profile to the wines. Generally, the Petaluma Gap is a tough growing environment which results in moderate vigor and lower yields – our yields are 2.5-3.0 tons per acre.

Also, the soil types, while individually diverse in both locations, are totally different.

Atlas Vineyard Management tends the vineyard at Griffin’s Lair. What direction have you given them for how they are to farm the property? Do you plan to pursue organic farming practices? If so, what challenges do you anticipate with vines that are now over 20 years old?

Our vines require a lot of TLC and Atlas has been an excellent partner in that pursuit. This is a tough location for the vines to grow—while we have less risk of frost than other locations in Sonoma County, this is a generally difficult growing environment due to the cool winds. It’s compounded by Pinot Noir being a somewhat fickle varietal. We believe in clonal diversity as a tenet of delivering a unique flavor profile to winemakers. This is also reflected in the difficulty of the farming process as different clones respond differently to the terroir and express very different levels of vigor. Atlas has also been instrumental in helping us to fend off viruses which are rampant in older vines.

As I mentioned before, we are philosophically organic farmers today and plan to become certified organic in the coming years. We believe that people deserve to have control of what they put into their bodies and it’s important to us that our wines are free of synthetic chemicals.

Griffin’s Lair has been the fruit source for so many highly-rated wines — from wineries such as Spottswoode, Pax Wines, Adobe Road and Desire Lines. How do you make connections with these winemakers? Are there any restrictions you put on the winemaking or marketing and promotion for those who purchase your fruit?

We are extremely proud of our winemakers. One thing we didn’t realize entirely when we took over Griffin’s Lair was that equally important as the talent of the winemaker is the personal connection that you feel with them. We spend a lot of time with these people and have a great deal of respect for them—just as in your normal day job, the most important element of any work is who you work with. The winemakers are also some of our closest advisors. We seek out their input on every major decision we make and welcome them to determine farming techniques employed as well as harvest timing. We have been extremely fortunate in this regard.

We do not place any requirements on our winemakers from a marketing perspective although we generally expect that wines made from Griffin’s Lair will be designated as such. We believe this is in the advantage of the winemaker—consumers want to know exactly where the products they consume come from. Given how many wines from Griffin’s Lair have received high ratings, we believe this is also helpful for wine sales for the winemakers.

On a much wine-nerdier note, we are deeply interested in the differences between wines made from fruit grown in similar locations. This is something we gained appreciation for while traveling around Burgundy 15 years ago and since that time have invariably sought out wines which are specifically denoted in terms of the winemaker as well as the specific site. The more specificity the better!

We believe that the marriage of winemaker talent and idiosyncratic terroir is what makes wine beautiful. And just to mix up the beauty a bit we insist that every winemaker have a unique mix of our four clones of Pinot Noir and four clones of Syrah – every wine is different even if it is the same varietal and same vintage from Griffin’s Lair. We encourage our winemakers to disclose their clonal mix to help consumers understand this important difference.

You’ve expressed a love for Burgundian wines and the finesse and attention to terroir that winemakers in the Burgundy region undertake. Do you see parallels in the wines made by the Petaluma Gap winemakers that are using your grapes?

I absolutely do. California’s wine industry is much younger than France’s. I believe that we are on a unique journey here, but one where we can look to France to understand and predict some of the twists and turns we will take in the future.

For me, Sonoma County, and Burgundy in particular, have cultural similarities both in terms of the focus on distinctive world class Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines, but also in terms of the culture of the people. These regions are characterized by open minded, explorative and creative people who appreciate nuanced differences while also realizing that part of the experience of tasting a glass of wine is drops of flavor remaining from your last glass. This is not a hermetically isolated experience, but a dynamic experience influenced by a number of external elements: age, temperature, food and so forth.

At the same time there are clear differences, not the least being the soils and marine influence of the Sonoma Coast. Burgundy has been broken down into 6 sub-regions and ~100 AOCs (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée – in English ‘protected designation of origin’), each of which have been created to encompass unique flavor profiles of the wines from that specific location/terroir. These AOCs are as small as a few acres in some special instances, although most are tens to hundreds of acres and some are larger.

John Flynn & Susan Colb - Erin Malone at Lightspeed films

John with his mother, Susan Kingston Colb, at Griffin’s Lair- Photo credit Erin Malone, Lightspeed Films

The recent creation of the Petaluma Gap AVA is an example of this parallel path progressing in Sonoma County as we identify more and more specifically the differences of the Sonoma County terroirs. Today we have 18 AVAs in Sonoma, a number which I hope will grow with time. Even just within the Petaluma Gap there are at least three distinct growing regions in my mind, and the Petaluma Gap composes just over 5% of Sonoma County’s vineyards.

If you had to pick one wine to celebrate a momentous occasion, what would it be?

Isn’t it obvious from above? DRC for sure, but only if you are buying!
[DRC= Domaine de la Romanee-Conti]

Q&A with Cody & Emily Rasmussen, Desire Lines Wine Co

Cody and Emily Rasmussen

You both grew up in Iowa and wine wasn’t part of your family experiences. Do you remember the first wine you tasted and whether you liked it?

Cody: Outside of communion at the Lutheran church I grew up in, the first wine I ever tasted was at the Morgenhof Estate in Stellenbosh, South Africa. I was on a J-term study abroad trip in 2008 and we spent a half-day in Stellenbosch visiting wineries. I remember being absolutely fascinated by the glass vials in their tasting room with all sorts of different soil profiles from their various vineyard blocks. It blew my mind that somehow the different soils would impact the taste of the wine. My classmates and I bought a few bottles to bring home and ended up opening a couple bottles back at the hotel with pizza in the hot tub. I can remember thinking, “I’m sitting in a hot tub, in South Africa, looking up at Table Mountain as the sun sets over the ocean – if wine doesn’t taste great here, maybe it’s not for me.” Luckily, the wine was good enough to pique my interest, and a later study abroad semester in Italy sealed the deal.

Emily: When we were juniors in college, Cody came home from his study abroad in Rome with some Prosecco to share with friends over New Year’s. I remember loving it, but I think it had more to do with the fact that Cody had brought it thousands of miles in his suitcase to share after being out of the country all semester long. We popped that same Prosecco a year and a half later on the night that we got engaged, and made that particular bottle into a lamp that now sits in our living room.

Cody, you’ve said that the book, Reading Between the Wines, by Terry Theise, changed the course of your career. What was it about that book that caused you to shift into making wine?

Reading between the winesI think it was Terry’s capacity to personify a wine and to dig deeper than associative tasting notes (green apple, white flower, peach, petrol, etc.), in order to more fully understand a wine, that opened my eyes to the possibilities of wine. He’s a wonderfully talented writer and he’s so clearly in love with his growers in Germany and their vineyards and wines. I’ve re-read that book probably seven or eight times; it’s my standard beach read on vacation. I love the pictures he paints of families gathering together on Christmas morning to harvest their eiswein, and of the grandfather who wanted to be buried near the vineyard in the same slate soils as his beloved vines. Work in the vineyards and cellar isn’t a life of riches, but it’s a wonderfully rich life and I think the book cuts right to the heart of that.

Cody, Anthony Beckman from Balletto Vineyards gave you your first job in the wine industry in 2011. Without any experience, why did he hire you, and was your experience working that harvest what you expected?

This is one of my favorite stories, just because I’m so grateful to Anthony and the whole crew at Balletto for taking me under their wings. When I had my phone interview with Anthony from my college dorm room in Massachusetts, he explained that he liked to pay it forward every year by hiring someone without experience because he’d had a hard time getting his first gig in the wine industry. Ironically, I’d worked in a paint factory in our hometown one summer and it prepared me pretty well for my first harvest – long hours, physical labor, attention to detail, and fluid engineering at a large scale.

Harvest at Balletto was fantastic. It’s a family-run winery and they treated us like family. We had dinner together a few times a week, and Anthony had an open sample-tap policy, which meant that I was free to taste any ferment I liked before or after my shift. I took full advantage of that policy. Most nights Emily would drive to the winery to pick me up, join for dinner, and wait patiently while I tasted through all 20 open top fermenters before driving me home. We shared a car, and she needed it to get to and from work. We lived only six miles from the winery and I think I fell asleep in the car most nights on the way home.

Emily, when Cody first told you about his wine experiences while on a study abroad trip in college, were you concerned that he would come back a “changed person” and might be going down an incompatible path?

The funny part about this is that both Cody and I would have been voted “least likely to drink in college,” let alone working in wine, back in high school. But when Cody went to Rome and wine was a part of the lifestyle there, I loved hearing his stories. It all sounded so magical – hearing about the house wine he and his friends had with their pizza before getting gelato on the walk home. Now that’s how I feel when we tell our friends and family back in Iowa about our lives here in Sonoma.

trailThe name “Desire Lines” is a term borrowed from architectural landscape lexicon and is used to describe informal paths worn into the ground as routes that are preferred to established sidewalks or roadways. How and why did you choose this term for the name of your winery?

Finding a name was one of the hardest steps for us in creating our own wines—our fridge was covered in rejected prospective names for about a year. About dozens of failed prospects and three rejected trademark applications later, I was on a backpacking trip with a good friend who is a creative genius. Backpacking trips allow hours of conversation about everything under the sun, and at one point Erik commented that “desire lines” would be a cool wine brand name as we passed a use trail veering away from the main trail.

The name seemed perfect because it captured our move from Iowa to California, the meandering routes I drive to check on all of our vineyards, and even the symbolism of forging our own path in winemaking along with our day jobs. All those paths are deeply personal, and we love sharing those stories in the course of explaining the brand name. Trust Erik to absolutely nail it – Em has since promised a lifetime of marketing services to his soon-to-launch wine brand, Filaments Wine Co.

The first wine you produced under the Desire Lines brand was a Syrah. At the time, Syrah’s reputation had been compromised and confused with high-alcohol Shiraz. It was considered a “hard sell.” What made you choose this variety to launch your brand?

Cody Rasmussen in vineyardUnfortunately Syrah still is a hard sell, but it was a bit of serendipity for us. I love the Syrah that we make from Griffin’s Lair for Bedrock (my day job), and when we found out that Nathan and Duncan from Arnot-Roberts were dropping their rows we shouted, “We’ll take one!”

Also, probably because I’m stubborn and occasionally immune to good sense and reason, and because I honestly believe Syrah is wonderfully suited to be planted all across California. It’s a Mediterranean variety that flourishes in the cool and windy northern reaches of the Rhone Valley (hello California!) and yields a huge range of wine personalities. I’m particularly fond of the more-traditional producers from the right bank of the Northern Rhone (Jamet and Jasmin in Cote Rotie; Gonon and Gripa from St.-Joseph; Clape, Allemand, Gilles, and Robert Michel in Cornas).

You’ve been known to go “vineyard hunting” searching for great fruit and leaving notes on scrap paper tied to fences to try to reach the owner and buy some grapes. Did it work? What causes you to seek out a particular vineyard?

It did work in that case, which to this day still seems ridiculous. I’d read about Cole Ranch in the SF Chronicle after I’d had a wine from the vineyard that I thought was surprisingly compelling for California Riesling. On its face, it seems suspicious that Riesling would do well in California – the variety reaches its fullest expression in the most northerly vineyard regions on earth, while California basks in what’s mostly a warm and sunny Mediterranean climate. But, California does have cold little pockets here and there, and Cole Ranch is one of them. It snows in the valley a couple of times each winter, and by the time harvest rolls around in late October the nights are dipping down to the mid-20s Fahrenheit. The first grapes that we pick each year on harvest morning, before the sun crests the ridge, are literally frozen clusters.

Cole Ranch is and was pretty emblematic of what we look for in a vineyard site – older vines in a cool and/or windy location that has made great wines in the past, or maybe by some accident of history has potential that we think is yet untapped. Farming is critical for us; our most important relationships are those we have with our growers. No other variable or vendor has such an outsized impact on wine quality as good farming.

You’re currently getting Syrah from Griffin’s Lair and Cabernet Sauvignon from Lichau Hill in the Petaluma Gap. What has your experience been in working with these vineyard owners?

It’s been such a pleasure working with Hsiomei Hung and Roger Mead at Lichau Hill, the Flynn and Colb families at Griffin’s Lair, and Joan and Jim Griffin (the eponymous former owners of Griffin’s Lair).

Joan and Jim were “our” first growers because Griffin’s Lair was the first vineyard that we worked with for Desire Lines, and we couldn’t have worked with better folks from the get-go. Their attention to detail and respect for the site were exemplary. Joan took viticulture courses at the JC shortly after they bought the property and they both felt really strongly about soil health and integrated pest management practices before those were cool. The whole crew at Griffin’s Lair (John and Alix Flynn and John’s parents Norm and Susan Colb) have done a wonderful job carrying on that legacy.

Lichau Hill labelHsiomei and Roger are both fantastically sweet, wonderful people. Hsiomei made me breakfast at 5:00 AM on the morning of the pick while we waited for the picking crew to show up (it was pitch black outside and very cold, so we huddled in the kitchen) and they always have fresh produce from their orchard picked and ready for me to take back to the cellar crew whenever I visit. I love that they never tore out the Cabernet in favor of Pinot, even though I’ll bet all their neighbors thought they were crazy not to, but now we’re very lucky to get to work with twenty-year-old vines at such a beautiful site.

Now that Caleb, your son, has arrived, how has that changed your roles at the winery while also caring for a baby?

Caleb RasmussenWe are definitely planning to teach Caleb how to do punch-downs as soon as he can walk! :) It’s actually been pretty smooth adjustment to having the little guy around. I work mostly from home, talking to our customers and setting up allocation releases, and during harvesttime we love going to visit Cody at the winery. Our boss (and dear friend) Morgan Twain-Peterson made his first wine at age 5, so if Caleb expresses interest, we’ll try to top that record.

You moved to California in 2011, almost a decade ago. Since that time, you’ve seen wildfires, and floods and now Covid-19. In hindsight, would you do anything differently?

It has been a crazy few years… Perhaps the best thing we’ve done for our business in that regard is diversifying our vineyard sources. That’s a lesson that we learned from Morgan at Bedrock. Having vineyards spread out all over the state makes for some really long drives during harvest to drop off bins and taste fruit, but the upside is that we’re relatively well insulated from severe weather events in any one growing region. It breaks my heart to even think about the possibility, but the threat of wildfires isn’t going away.

We’ve also tried to hold aside certain wines in our library, in the tradition of the grape-growing families of France that sell old wines from the cellar to pay the inheritance tax bill, as a nest egg and to diversify our income sources. Our Experimental Series of wines has been helpful in that regard. In just a few weeks we’re going to sell the first wine that we ever made (a 2014 Syrah from Eaglepoint Ranch in Mendocino) and give a big portion of the proceeds to charities for restaurant workers and food banks. We’ve jokingly referred to that wine as our rainy-day fund for years now.

Looking back to the launch of Desire Lines, what aspect of the business are you most proud of?

My proudest moments have been sharing our wines with folks and having someone remark, “Wow that tastes just like Shake Ridge,” or “Hey that smells exactly like Griffin’s Lair.” We leave our own little thumbprint on our wines, but I think it’s so important that the wines reflect when and where they’re from. We want to taste the vineyard, the vintage, and the variety in the glass, and sometimes that means taking a step back in the winery and letting the science-magic run its course. Other times, other times it means intervening on the wine’s behalf, and learning to tell the difference is the hardest part of being a winemaker.

More specifically, I’m really proud of our labels and all the credit goes to our wonderful label artist and our good friend, Adam Stoner. Each of our single vineyard wines has a hand-drawn illustration of the vineyard on the label and the vineyard name is the largest font on the front label. In the course of designing the label, we were inspired primarily by two things: European wine labels obviously, with the vineyard name given pride of place over the domaine name, and pre-war California fruit crates with their vibrantly idealized California landscapes. I love that visual export of landscape as the brand, and I think that’s basically what wine does at its best. The labels are a great way for us to explain the various vineyard settings to folks and to re-iterate that, for us, vineyard identity in the wine is paramount.

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!