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Vineyard Vignettes: Kobler Estate Winery, Benovia Winery, Rocca Family Vineyards, Tayson Pierce Wine

Author: Bonnie Durrance
October, 2015 Issue

NorthBay biz visits four outstanding small producers in Napa and Sonoma counties.

 

Kobler Estate Winery

107 West North Street
Healdsburg, CA 95448
(707) 473-8287
Case production: 1,200
Planted acres: 5
Grapes used: Viognier, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah and Grenache
Wines produced: Viognier, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Grenache, Rosé of Pinot Noir, Rosé of Grenache
Employees: 3
Around the Healdsburg Plaza, tasting rooms and fine wine abound. Yet, amid the plenty, a relatively young winery is gaining attention. Kobler Estate Winery was formed in 2010, but the family and the name have been in the industry for more than 30 years. “We started out as growers,” says Mike Kobler, youngest son of Michael Kobler, Sr., co-owner of Kobler Family Vineyards. “In the mid-’90s, Michael, Sr., and his brother, Otto Kobler, bought a 4.5-acre apple farm in Sebastopol and planted Syrah grapes. Beginning in 2000, they sold fruit to Pax Wine Cellars and Donelan Family Wines. “Our wines with Pax and Donelan never received scores less than 92,” says Mike, “It’s a really well-known Syrah vineyard in West Sonoma County.”
 
Mike and his older brother, Brian, fell into the wine business almost by default. In the late 1990s, Brian (now winemaker for Kobler Estate Winery) got hired as a cellar rat for Korbel. Eventually, he moved on to Geyser Peak, where he worked his way up to senior cellar technician. “Along the way,” says Mike, “[Brian] learned how to make fantastic wine.”
 
Mike graduated from Sonoma State University with a degree in economics in 2007, just in time for the economic downturn, and he couldn’t find a job. By then, his dad, who’d worked in the Canadian oil business, decided, along with the family, that it was time to transition from grapegrowers to professional winemaking. In 2010, they launched Kobler Estate Winery; the established name and reputation of the grapes smoothed the transition. “We were able to piggyback on that success,” says Kobler.
 

Making the transition

The family farms organically, which, Mike says, people really love. “We’ve never used any sort of pesticides in our vineyards. We also practice dry farming—we don’t water the Syrah. Farming that way has created a unique flavor that comes from our vineyard. You can taste the vineyard through the winemaking.”
 
Mike explains that Brian, as a winemaker, likes to taste the fruit. “We try to use no more than 30 percent new French oak,” says Mike, “so we can let very distinct flavors come through. It gives the consumer a very different insight as to what the grape variety can express.”
 
People who come into the tasting room (a couple of blocks from the Healdsburg Plaza) bring a range of expectations, says Mike. “We get a cross-section of consumers who are very educated on how a wine should taste,” he says, “and when they taste our Pinot Noir, Chardonnay or Viognier, it’s not what they were expecting. Others come in who don’t know what to look for, and we do a little education. I do vineyard tours and guide guests through the experience. I think that’s something that makes us distinct. Rather than just pouring wine and walking away, we’re actively engaged in giving you a good experience.”
 
The winery produces 1,100 to 1,200 cases annually and sells about 90 percent, thanks in part to its restaurant programs, but it’s also just started a mailing list to try and keep its fans supplied. The family tries to keep some back for the next year, “so we have some to sell.” Most popular are the Kobler Family Vineyards Viognier, Baciagalupi Vineyards Chardonnay and the Anderson-Ross Vineyards Pinot Noir.
 

Marketing a new winery

Marketing, for Mike, is mostly via word of mouth. “Our wine club members are excellent ambassadors,” he says. “We hand out our tasting cards and get referrals. We do the vineyard tours. Also I do the outside sales. I call restaurants and set up tastings.”
 
“John Ash [restaurant] has been a huge, huge boon for us,” he says. “It buys two to three cases every few weeks and offers our 2013 Anderson Rock Pinot Noir by the glass. We get a lot of exposure from the restaurant, and we’ve had a lot of traffic from people loving the wine.”
 
On vineyard tours, people might meet Michael Sr., who’s an avid gardener, and, if they’re lucky, says Mike, he may just send them home with some just-picked tomatoes.
 
“The winery is truly our passion,” says Mike. “As with all new businesses, there are great days and not-so-great days. A lot of times, you second-guess what you’re doing, but when you really love something, you trudge through it. We work as a team. We work together as much as we can, because we’re all invested in the success of the business. That’s something I’m proud of, and I hope future generations of Koblers will be, too. It’s truly a family winery.”
 

Benovia Winery

3339 Hartman Road
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
(707) 921-1040www.benoviawinery.com
Case production: about 8,000
Planted acres: 72
Grapes used: 85 percent Estate
Wines produced: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Zinfandel and Rosé of Pinot Noir
Employees: 8 full-time
 
With so much great wine around, savvy tasters are always looking for something new and distinct—something with a sense of place and that excites the imagination as well as the palate. Benovia Winery, owned by Joe Anderson, his wife, Mary Dewane, and winemaker Mike Sullivan, is small winery with three distinct vineyards.
 
“There’s a north, a middle and a west vineyard,” says Sullivan, who’s been part of Benovia from the start. “Two are on hillsides and one is on the valley floor. Each site has dramatically different soils and different climates. And they ripen differently.” As winemaker, he celebrates this difference and says the diverse soil and climate is expressed in the wines. The result is handcrafted wines with a sense of place.
 
The story of Benovia started with Joe and Mary’s 2002 purchase of the historic Cohn Vineyard, which they bought as part of a 55-acre ranch on which they make their home. So they started out with brand recognition. “It’s a heritage site,” says Sullivan. “Planted in 1970, it’s one of the oldest Pinot Noir producing vineyards in Russian River Valley. The site has a lot of acclaim.”
 
Their newest is the Tilton Hill Pinot Noir vineyard, located in the Sonoma Coast AVA, just above the town of Freestone, where the climate is more coastal in character—cold, windswept and foggy. “You’re not going to get a tan out there,” laughs Sullivan.
 
The winery and tasting room is located in a remodeled farmhouse on the site of their second vineyard, the 42-acre Martaella (named for Martha and Eleanor, the mothers of Joe and Mary). This vineyard is located on the valley floor, west of Santa Rosa, and grows Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes. “We produce a single-vineyard Pinot from that property,” says Sullivan, “and from the Cohn, we make a single-vineyard Pinot Noir every year.”
 
The tasting room is open by appointment only. “We chose to do that so we could give the customer a richer experience with some education involved,” says Sullivan. “We generally do an hour and a half tasting. The tasting room is adjacent to the winery, in an old farmhouse that we converted, so it feels like someone’s home. You come in and sit on the couch and look out at the beautiful view of Mt. St. Helena, and we’ll set some glasses out and tell you a little story.” They talk about how the winery started, and about growing grapes specific to each vineyard.
 

Hand-crafted—and it shows in the hands

Mike Sullivan grew up in the wine industry. His parents are grapegrowers, and he’s committed to growing wines that have a deep culture. “Pinot Noir is a very ancient variety,” he says. “We can trace it back in written history almost 2,000 years, to when the Romans went into France. It was around much longer than that; it’s a variety that has a lot of genetic diversity.” He uses heritage clones, some named for the places where they were sourced and some for the people who sourced them. He says these are very unique and have distinct flavor profiles with a lot of aromatic and fruit intensity, a lot of spice and herbs that make wines with a amazing complexity.
 
As a winemaker, he celebrates the differences the three locations bring to the wines. “The Cohn vineyard soils are high in iron,” he says, “so the wines have this mineral-inflected character that comes through.”
 
The vineyard out on the coast has a tougher life, and the flavors are very different, he continues. “The fruit is darker, with more blackberry and boysenberry. And the color is different.”
 
Most important, to him and to Benovia, the wines are authentic. “These are wines with a sense of place,” he says. “We take a lot of care farming our properties. There’s a lot of attention to detail. We’ve achieved the pinnacle of fruit quality by managing the canopy using artisan techniques. I fill and empty pretty much every barrel myself.”
 
He says when you say, “hand-crafted,” you can literally see that in the hands. “If you were to come out here in late September, you’d look at my hands and they’d be dark red—almost black. It’s sort of a badge of honor. If you’re down at the neighborhood bar during harvest and a bunch of winemakers are sitting around, ask to see their hands. You can physically tell.”
 

Rocca Family Vineyards

129 Devlin Road
Napa, CA 94558
(707) 257-8467
Case production: 2,500
Planted acres: 30
Grapes used: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay
Wines produced: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay and two red blends
Employees: 12
 
In Napa County, where two great, high-profile vineyards in very different areas—Yountville and Coombsville—produce very different fruit, the small, organic, boutique Rocca winery is quietly making prize-winning Cabernets by, as they say, “letting the grapes express themselves.” With the vision of owner Mary Rocca and the winemaking skill of Paul Colantuoni, Rocca Family Vineyards is achieving its goal of making highest quality wines with integrity, expressive of their own terroir.
 
The story starts in April 1999, when Mary Rocca set her sites on a highly regarded vineyard, located at the junction of Silverado Trail and Yountville Cross Road and surrounded on two sides by the Stags Leap District. “Our original intent was just to be farmers for a while,” says Rocca, a cosmetic dentist who grew up in Santa Rosa and West Marin, who bought the land with her husband, Eric Grigsby, a physician who grew up in Tennessee.
 
For them, the move was first about “the relationship we wanted to have with the land and nature. We love the idea of producing from the land, caring for the land,” she says. “Which is why we farm organically and sustainably.”
 
But the economy was going wild at the time, and so the natural thought occurred: From this world-class vineyard, we can make some great wine, and that will help to help pay for the land. “Which was a pretty naive view,” she laughs. “Because once you start making wine, you just get in deeper.”
 
Everybody’s heard the joke: How do you make a small fortune in the wine business? Start with a large one! As Rocca explains it, the costs of growing and producing wines adds up way in advance of the profits, so you have to be committed. The family wanted to stay small, but they also wanted to make a profit; they were determined to produce an excellent product and then find the right market for the wine.
 
“We didn’t set out saying, ‘This is the kind of wine we want to make.’ Instead, we said, ‘We want to find the best expression we can get from the grapes with minimal intervention.’ In other words, let’s let the grapes become the best they can be and let the wines reflect that. “Truth is the nicest thing there is,” she says.
 

It starts with the land

In the beginning, the Yountville vineyard, while producing high-end grapes, wasn’t being farmed organically. “When we purchased the vineyard it had been farmed non-organically for years using lots of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers,” says Rocca. “We wanted to change that and bring the richness back to the land by returning organic matter to it, establishing biological diversity and managing the health of the ecosystem.” Within several years, they converted to organic farming, which wasn’t easy.
 
“Once you decide you’re going to be organic, you have to follow all sorts of rules,” she says. “‘Organic’ doesn’t just mean you don’t use pesticides and herbicides. It means that you’re using compost, mulch and crop cover. It’s not just eliminating things, it’s also doing things that are good for the land.” In their Coombsville vineyard, they’re constantly working to increase their water efficiency, even to the point of placing tubes into the soil from the drip irrigation points, so water isn’t lost to evaporation.
 
The two vineyards produce outstanding grapes, but it doesn’t stop there. “My first winemaker, Celia Welch Masyczek, once said, ‘You can’t have great wine without great grapes. But once you have great grapes, you can’t have great wine if you don’t know what you’re doing.’”
 

The art of getting out of the way

Paul Colantuoni talks about “getting out of the way” of the grapes. One way is by letting them ferment exclusively in their own indigenous yeasts. “Usually, when people harvest grapes,” he says, “they bring them to their winery and then add sulphur dioxide to them. This kills any microbes that come in on the grapes, but it also kills the native yeasts. So then they buy dehydrated yeast—of which there are hundreds of different strains—that promote different flavors. That’s not what Rocca does.”
 
Rocca brings the grapes in, puts them in a tank and lets the fruit and yeast that came in on them “all go to it: It’s letting the grapes express themselves with as little interference as possible,” says Colantuoni. He says it makes a really big difference—and not only philosophically.
 
“The biggest thing about Rocca is our approach,” says Colantuoni. “We want to express our specific terroir as faithfully and beautifully as possible, so that the wines are really expressions of a specific piece of the world.” The approach seems to be working for them. “We’ve won every award you want to win at different times,” says Rocca. “And we’ve gotten really nice reviews. But in the end, what really matters is that people try it, like it and bond with it.”
 

Tayson Pierce Wines

1060 Rutherford Road
Rutherford, CA 94573
(707) 968-9780
Case production: 750
Planted acres: 25
Grapes used: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay
Wines produced: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay
Employees: 4
 
Talk to any of the early Napa Valley winemakers—people who came here as wine pioneers in the 1970s—and you’ll likely hear them talk about how they were energized by the tastes and culture of the great Bordeaux wines and how they were driven, from the start, by the dream of making a Napa Valley wine as good or better. Their great wines are now many and well known. So is there room in the dream for the new? Room for a new Napa Valley wine so good it dares to approach a great Bordeaux? Eric Rothchild, M.D., founder of the new, very small, but ambitious Tayson Pierce Winery (named for his sons, Taylor, Pierce and Grayson) thinks so.
 
Rothchild, a New Yorker, whose ophthalmology practice is in Del Ray, Fla., and whose second home is in Rutherford, grew up touring and tasting throughout the great winemaking regions and chateaux in Europe with his dad. His father and grandfather, who both dabbled in winemaking as a passion, taught him to appreciate the greatness possible in wine and the pleasures of the winemaking culture.
 
“I can remember gazing at the dining room table, when everything was set for special holidays, the white wine glass was there, the red wine glass was there, the dessert wine glass was there, and I just took a liking to it. My parents were very open to letting me try different things.” He developed a very educated palate at an early age, and his interest in the culture of wine naturally drew him to Napa Valley throughout his 20s—and back to France as often as possible. “To me, the homeland for classic winemaking was France and the great Bordeaux.”
 
The dream of making his own wine—a wine that would be as good, or at least approach the quality of the great wines he’d become used to in Napa Valley and France—first reared its head in 1988, after he’d finished medical school, started a family with his wife, Susan, and begun his private practice.
 
 “My dream was more owning a vineyard than owning a winery,” he says, well aware of the difficulties of starting a winery. And so, in 2003 and 2004, he purchased ownership in Copain Vineyard in Sonoma County. “I was involved with them for about five years,” he says, “and then I decided I wanted to do my own thing.”
 
For him, that meant Napa Valley, where he could concentrate on making the kind of wine he liked to drink: Cabernet Sauvignon that approached the great Bordeaux wines. He purchased a home in Rutherford late in 2005, and soon one introduction led to another. “Whatever you do here,” he says, “whether you’re a writer or a realtor or something else, you’re involved in the wine business. So I met a small group who introduced me to different people who helped me set up my own formal winery, and then they introduced me to different winemakers and different settings for us to make wine.”
 
He started out making the wine at Crushpad in South San Francisco. “It was just a beginning,” he says, ‘Being able to go and pick out the vineyards and obtain some grapes and then make wine with someone else being somewhat responsible. It was a great introduction and a great facility.
 
His basic goal was simple: to make the very best wine in his capacity so he could enjoy it and share it with others. The biggest advantage he brought to the table was his discerning palate, a result of his lifetime of experience with the world’s finest wines. “I knew how to taste and evaluate wine. I just didn’t know how to make it,” he says. “So we went to different locations, talked to people about obtaining grapes, then talked about the purchasing contract with the owner. Then we found out where to make the wine, with the winemaker—and then we did it!”
 
He says the nice thing about the art of winemaking is developing relationships with people in the industry. “It’s a small environment, with you trusting them and them trusting you. What I like about it is that it reminds me a little of the way my dad did business—a lot of arrangements and deals were made, and a lot of it made on a handshake—and that’s what I enjoy about Napa Valley.” He says a lot of the relationships he’s formed were made on the basis of handshakes (followed, of course, by the paperwork). “There’s a bond that you create when you do business that way.” He says. “I liked it. And I still like it.”
 
So far, he makes about 500 cases per year and sells through restaurants and three retail locations (one in Los Angeles, two in Northern California). He also sells direct-to-consumer through his online mailing list; there’s no tasting room but private tastings can be arranged by appointment.
 
“My goal is to make the highest quality wine that I can potentially make with my means and, at the same time, enjoy the process with myself and my family.”

 

 

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