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A Place in Time

Author: Julie Fadda
December, 2009 Issue

The third stop in our Hidden Gems series is historical Knights Valley.

 
The next time you’re traveling Highway 128 between Calistoga and Healdsburg, take a moment to truly enjoy your surroundings. That narrow stretch you’re in—nestled among rolling hills, well-kept vineyards and mountainous peaks—is the heart of Knights Valley, where time almost seems to stand still. Just don’t forget which way you’re headed.

I’m serious. I take pride in my sense of direction, but for some reason, every time I travel to Knights Valley, I get turned around. Why is that? Is there some sort of undiscovered Mystery Spot at work? Have I just been fooling myself this whole time, thinking I know where I’m going? Or is Knights Valley just the kind of place that commands a closer look? I’m going with the latter. 

The Knights Valley AVA encompasses 36,800 acres (and includes Franz Valley), with about 2,000 of them planted to vineyards. The remaining area consists largely of farmland (including cattle ranches) and forested areas. It’s the easternmost AVA in Sonoma County, a former stagecoach stop and was once home to the Wappo tribe. It’s nestled between Alexander Valley, Chalk Hill and Napa County, in a narrow stretch that, millions of years ago, was the natural route of the Russian River…until Mt. St. Helena erupted and changed its course.
 

Looking back

The Wappo tribe lived peacefully in the area for generations, though many moved to Clear Lake in the 1870s in response to a widespread belief that their Gods were planning to do them harm if they remained. Before that, in 1843, land grants encompassing most of Knights Valley and Calistoga were given to Jose de los Santos Berryessa. He made Knights Valley his private hunting preserve and built an adobe lodge that still stands today. In 1851, Thomas B. Knight, a participant in the Bear Flag Revolt at Sonoma, purchased 9,000 acres of the land grant (the end of the valley that later became known as Knights Valley), added a second story to the lodge and planted vineyards, orchards and wheat.

Calvin Holmes later purchased much of Knights Valley in 1858 and 1861, and he and his wife, Elvira (known as Ella), built a large Victorian house that still stands, beautifully restored, today.

In 1875, the Knights Valley Land and Contract Company (which owned 7,000 acres in the area) planned out the town of Kellogg at the intersection of what’s now Ida Clayton Road and Highway 128. It had a general store, a school, a few homes and a hotel.

In 1887, Holmes’ son, William Frank Holmes, built a home (for his bride) on Sugarloaf Ranch, on the land now owned by Peter Michael Winery; in 1889, a winery was built just north of the hotel.

By 1912, the largest crop in the valley was winegrapes. But prohibition economics and vine disease brought an end to that. Fires in 1964 and 1965 destroyed Kellogg’s school and store.

Beginning in the 1970s, landholders began developing vineyards in response to the growing market for winegrapes. Today, winegrapes are once again the biggest crop, and not a lot else has changed. There’s only one working winery in the valley (Peter Michael); the rest of the vineyard owners either make their wine elsewhere or sell their grapes to established wineries. The most well-known purchaser is Beringer Vineyards, which has been buying Knights Valley fruit since the 1880s (and owns a lot of vineyard land there).

In the late 1800s, Johan Folkers purchased 700 acres surrounding the 1889 winery. It eventually became known as JHA Folkers Winery, one of several bulk wineries in the area—and one of its clients was Beringer.

The region’s first two wineries, if you’re heading north from the current Napa County line, were located in what’s now considered Napa County (Knights Valley was considered Napa County until 1880). Southernmost was the Delafield Winery, which had a limestone cave (it’s still there) and was built in 1887. Delafield, like most other wineries in the area, burned in a fire in the early 1900s.

“Lots of wineries ‘burned mysteriously’ around prohibition,” laughs Everett Ball, a fourth-generation Knights Valley resident and the great grandson of Folkers. Ball is a historian of the valley and has done years of research to compile its story. He mapped the valley’s original layout for me: Up the road from Delafield was the Jacob Grimm winery (now called Storybook Mountain Winery), which was built in the late 1880s. It had three 100-foot caves, which are also still there. This is the official first winery in the Knights Valley AVA, because part of its vineyard reaches over the current county line.

Next was the Pratt and Teale winery (1895), the area’s largest, none of which remains. The Folkers winery was next in line, then the Hood Winery, which was actually the valley’s first, built in 1878 by George Hood. Last was the John Strebel winery, located on what’s now called the bald hills area on the western edge of the AVA.

Party time

Knights Valley wasn’t—and still isn’t—entirely about wineries. First, it was a popular stopping point for people traveling by stagecoach from Calistoga to the Geysers. When Folkers purchased his property, it included the 125-room Kellogg Springs Hotel, located seven miles from Calistoga. Turns out stagecoaches used to stop every seven miles to change horses. Notice how the towns around here are about that far apart from each other.

Another reason the area prospered was quicksilver mining—but that industry’s heyday only lasted during the latter part of the 1870s. One mine was the Ida Clayton, who was a teacher at a school of her own name. 

Ball and his wife, Gloria, reside on part of the property Folkers once owned. A retired managing accountant for Silicon Valley startups, Gloria was born in Guerneville and is one of the organizers of Sonoma County Land Rights Coalition. Everett is a retired industrial power engineer from PG&E. The couple grows five acres of Sauvignon Blanc; they’ve been growing grapes for 25 years.

From the 1870s through 1890s, Knights Valley revolved just around those who lived there. Ball’s family had a campground with a dance pavilion. Residents would take turns hosting events at different ranches, including the Holmes house, the third floor of which was a ballroom. “They’d have all-night parties, and they’d break at midnight for supper,” says Gloria.

And even though Kellogg is no longer there, its memory persists. “It seems if a town once had a U.S. Post Office, it never disappears,” says Everett. “I was by the road a couple years ago and some people stopped to ask where Kellogg was. I told them they were about 60 years too late!” he laughs. Another town that never really came into its own was Knightsville, where the Brookshire Hotel (built in 1860; eventually renamed Fossville Hotel) stood, none of which remains. 

So it seems the area saw a bit more action a century or so ago. Today, it’s about as quiet as can be—and its residents like it that way. “So many residents are multigenerational,” says Gloria, “and they’re very protective and proud of their years of stewardship.”

Earlier this year, Jess Jackson was awarded approval to build a 5,000-case winery and tasting room, to be called The Pelton House winery. His plans include a complete renovation of the Folkers Winery building, one of the few remaining historical structures in the valley. “There’s been great interest in the community in the historical designation of the Pelton House,” says Gloria Ball. “We’re an independent group, and most residents are now supportive of Jess Jackson’s new winery. He’s taken great measures to honor their ideas about restoring the last remaining winery.”

An ongoing commitment

When Sir Peter Michael established his Knights Valley property in 1982, he had three things in mind: world-class vineyard terroir, elegant rather than overstated wines, and a 100-year commitment to the development of a great estate. An engineer by training and an entrepreneur by bent, Michael came to California in the 1970s and fell in love with the countryside. He spent seven years looking for a property and, when he saw this land, he bought it on the spot.

It’s 630 acres (a square mile that’s “anything but square,” says Peter Kay, director of sales and marketing), 120 of them planted with vineyards. Since it’s a former cattle ranch, Michael has made an effort from the beginning to rejuvenate it by planting about 10,000 redwood and other native trees, especially along Kellogg Creek, and also ensuring it’s certified as fish-friendly. 

The property’s elevation rises from 550 feet to almost 2,000. An unusual thing about it is Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay—warm climate and cool climate grapes—are planted within 500 yards of each other. This is because when it heats up in Lake County, the rising warm air creates a draw, pulling cool marine air in from the coast and cooling the Chardonnay vineyards. The Cabernet vineyards are protected from that airflow. 

Peter Michael strives to put snapshots of the individual vineyards in the glass. So here are a few virtual ones, beginning at the highest point. The La Carriere (“the quarry”) Chardonnay vineyard is the steepest and rockiest. It faces south and east. Belle Cote (“beautiful slope”) is named after a ski run in Courchevel, France. “But La Carriere is the one that really could be one,” says Kay. Looking down, I have to agree. It’s wide enough and has gentle turns along the mountain’s curved surface. It has thicker soil and is shielded from the sun by woods along one side.

A lower vineyard is Les Pavots (“the poppies”), which runs from 900 to 1,400 feet above sea level. It holds Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Its rocky, red soil is decomposing Rhyolite of ancient volcanic origin. The Les Pavots Cabernet Sauvignon blend is the glass of wine Sir Peter had in mind when he was looking for the property. The first estate-produced bottling came from this vineyard (1989) and was released in 1992.

Farming practices mean using low-impact, sustainable and largely organic methods. The family is very concerned with its stewardship of the property. They want 100 years of family ownership (at least) and when that first century is complete, their goal is that people will consider it one of the world’s great wine estates. All vines are tended by hand by Javier Aviña (who’s been the vineyard manager for 18 years) and his crew. 

Winemaker Nicolas Morlet uses centuries-old French winemaking techniques, coupled with the best of modern technical oversight. The estate produces Sauvignon Blanc “because the owners love it,” says Kay. There are also six Chardonnays, two Bordeaux blends and two Pinot Noirs, both from non-estate vineyards. The grand total is about 15,000 cases annually.

The Chardonnays are barrel fermented with full malolactic, aged sur lies in the barrel and stirred regularly. I found the steep, rocky La Carriere vineyard produced a round wine with stone fruit characteristics, a tease of roasted marshmallows and even some butterscotch. The east-facing Belle Cote vineyard wine had more citrus elements and a sharper flavor profile, with orange peel, tangerine, minerals and vivid acidity.

The 2008 L’Apres-Midi Sauvignon Blanc is whole cluster pressed and cold fermented, then gently filtered to retain stability (all other wines made here are unfined and unfiltered) and aged in oak barrels. Its cedar nose was my first hint it was different from a lot of other Sauvignon Blancs I’ve tried. Nutty and round on the palate, it’s smooth and lush.

The 2006 Les Pavots smells like a pie. I seriously wanted to take a bite instead of a sip. There are blueberries, blackberries, vanilla on the finish, a balanced acidity and a touch of cedar on the nose. It’s a beautiful, elegant wine. So far, so good, Peter Michael.

Delightfully down to earth

Close to Peter Michael’s property is vineyard land owned by Gerhard and Linda Reisacher of Delectus winery, which produces its wines in south Napa. In 2004, they purchased the 112-acre parcel bordering Mt. St. Helena and overlooking Knights Valley from altitudes of 1,200 to 2,200 feet. The plan is to retain its natural beauty, especially due to its historical significance: it’s right along the original Ida Clayton Toll Road and was once a sanctuary for author Robert Louis Stevenson.

Gerhard is an eighth-generation Austrian winemaker who grew up among vineyards working alongside his father, Karl. He came to California after tasting numerous Napa Valley Cabernets and becoming “mesmerized by their uniqueness and style.” He worked at several wineries before starting Delectus with Linda in 1995. Linda began her wine industry career as a sales executive. Today, she oversees the winery’s marketing and business operations. They initially focused on carefully selected, vineyard-designated wines that represent a sense of place, aiming for big and bold but not overpowering. Over time, however, their love for the wines produced from mountain grapes led them on a four-year search for property perfectly suited to Delectus’ future.

“We chose Knights Valley because it’s beautiful and because of Gerhard’s passion for hillside fruit,” says Linda. “When we saw the property, we knew it was the place.”

They plan to plant all five Bordeaux varietals and Petite Sirah. The rest of the property will remain forested. Right now there are 18 acres planted, 15 of Cabernet Sauvignon and three of Merlot. The winery harvested its first estate vineyard crop in 2008. Due to the property’s high elevation overlooking the valley floor, it’s above the fog layer (the vines never see the fog—well, they have a view of the fog, but they’re not in it).

The first harvest was field blended and is aging in French oak barrels (Gerhard separates the same lots between the two types of barrels, then combines them in his final blend). Gerhard says it’s the best he’s put in the barrel. And that’s quite a statement, considering Delectus’ highly acclaimed efforts thus far. He’s equally ecstatic about the potential for the 2009 vintage.

“Gerhard has the ability to make wine with an old soul,” says Kent Higginbotham, who does sales and marketing for the company. “He just gets it.”

I tasted the 2008 in the French oak—it’s already chewy. I’d likely bottle it at this point but I’m not a winemaker. All I know is, it’s damn good now. But Gerhard will keep it in the barrel another year, then age it in bottles until sometime in 2011. The wine in the American oak is a little edgier, but with an equally broad range of texture and flavor. “We’re trying to create a complete palate experience,” says Kent.

I also tried the 2008 American oak barrel sample of Cabernet Franc from John Pelkan’s Knights Valley vineyard—leathery, meaty nose with a hint of spice, a silky texture and dense, dark fruit. The 2007 from the same vineyard is in the bottle and set for release next year. The same wine in French oak has a similar nose, but bolder tannins somehow encased in a smooth texture, with blueberries and figs on the palate.

“These wines slug you,” says Higginbotham. “Hit me, slap me, make me pay attention!” The people here are very down to earth. 

When I visited, they were bringing in the 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon. I sampled some that had come in the day before—already dark in color, it was the best grape juice I’ve ever tasted! What a wonderful start.

“Everything is driven by palate here rather than lab analysis,” says Gerhard. “I pay attention to which barrels work well with what vineyards. We’re still at a size where we taste every barrel [the winery produces about 4,500 to 5,000 cases annually]. Every one is different, even in the same lot.

“I’m looking for balance. I want the palate feel to open up, sit well, round out and have a long finish. You don’t want too much of any one element, like oak, acid, tannins or alcohol. If it’s balanced, it fits.”

There are plans to excavate caves and build a winery that could house up to 10,000 cases of wine on the property. “We’re not in a hurry,” says Linda. “We can take our time and do it right. In the meantime, we’re just thrilled with our Knights Valley vineyard.”

Bavarian blends

Alex, Christian, Isabella and Pierre Ehret and Susan Robertson are owners of Ehret Family Winery, which is located in Santa Rosa. The family’s Bavarian Lion vineyard is on the Knights Valley floor and encompasses 600 planted acres. 

“Knights Valley is small and fairly unknown,” says Pierre Ehret, “but it has incredible fruit.” This is largely due to its temperature fluctuations and soils. “After budding occurs, sometimes there’s a frost, so you need to have frost protection measures,” he says. “The chance for frost here is greater than other places, because it’s a narrow valley and there’s no wind. Our frost sprinklers [developed by vineyard manager Alex Vyborny] use stored runoff water to form an ice layer around the fruit. It has an igloo effect.” Knights Valley’s weather is what sets it apart from other AVAs, says Ehret.

The Ehrets’ property was once a ranch where Pierre’s father, Werner, bred cattle. They’ve owned the land since 1976 and planted it partially to vineyards in 1996 at the urging of Beringer. “In 2004, we decided to [make wine commercially] ourselves and market it under the Ehret Family label,” says Ehret (most grapes are still sold to other wineries). They grow Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Petit Sirah, Merlot, Malbec, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and are planting Zinfandel. “The soils here are alluvial, well-drained, cobbled and rocky. The grapes have to struggle to grow, so they become more intense in taste,” he says.

Another focus is affordability. “We want to produce wine at a price point where people perceive the value of what they’re drinking. So we’re consistently making a fabulous wine, but at an affordable price.”

Nick Goldschmidt has been the winemaker since 2005, when the estate produced 960 cases of 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon. Its next releases will be the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon (earthy, dark and multilayered with soft tannins), Cabernet Reserve (300 cases) and Bella’s Blend (450 cases; the intensity of its hillside fruit shines), which is named after their 5-year-old daughter. Meantime, the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon, Bella’s Blend and Syrah (for the first time) have just been bottled.

You may recognize Pierre’s name for a couple other reasons. He’s been the owner of the Flamingo Conference Resort and Spa in Santa Rosa since 1979. He’s also a LeMans series (endurance) racecar driver (he drives in the GT2 category). When Susan isn’t working on marketing and branding for the winery, she’s spending time with Bella or working on her psychology degree (she plans to graduate in October 2010). The Ehrets also have two sons, one in Switzerland and one attending SRJC

“Knights Valley hasn’t changed much in the past 30 years,” says Susan. “We even have some cows on the estate still.” 

Across the bridge

Tim Carl is a native of St. Helena who spent years traveling before relocating to Knights Valley in 2006, when he and his business partners (long-time friends Jim Bailey, Tom Costin, RoAnn Costin and Essel Bailey) purchased property and established Knights Bridge Winery. Wines are made at a facility in Napa, with fruit for the Estate wines coming from the Knights Bridge Vineyard (only about 250 cases each of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc) and additional grapes purchased from throughout Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties for some vineyard-designate wines.

“The great thing about Knights Valley is, it’s so small and rustic,” says Carl. “The soils are volcanic, and the temperature swing is up to 60 degrees in a single day. The resulting wines have great complexity and soft tannins.”

Carl is a sixth-generation grapegrower, and his wife Lynn (who’s originally from Rutherford) is fourth generation. “We grew up in the vineyards,” he says. His career spans several different industries. He worked in world-class restaurants, lived and worked on a farm in Northern Italy (he cooked there—which he says “sealed the deal for food and wine”) and served in the Navy stationed in the Persian Gulf. Following that, he gained a PhD in genetics and went on to a fellowship at Harvard, then worked as a management consultant, often helping governments worldwide incorporate medical findings and scientific research into improved policies, such as more comprehensive AIDS policies in central Asia.

About four years ago, he and his partners cofounded Knights Bridge Winery and Vineyard on property that had an existing vineyard. It was a “diamond in the rough,” he says.

He describes the area as a “throwback to the 1940s. You can drive through and not know you’re there—I kind of like that. 

“We chose Knights Valley because it’s the best place to grow Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. Those are the three varietals we love to drink. It’s also a place that won’t change. It’ll always have a rustic, bucolic feel. It’s not going to get covered in houses or become a vacation destination. That’s a big deal.”

The partners own three separate wineries: Knights Bridge, Huge Bear (Sonoma County) and Pont de Chevalier (also in Knights Valley). “They’re separate entities with separate winemakers. All the wines are unique,” says Carl, “but we often find the best wines come from unfined, unfiltered and natural yeast. Limit the manipulation to the bare minimum, and you get a better sense of the place the wines come from.” 

Knights Bridge has 25 acres of 20-year-old Cabernet Sauvignon vines, and includes all three of Knights Valley’s volcanic soil types. Its elevation spans from 300 to 1,000 feet. “The vineyard has many different aspects, with south and north-facing vineyards, different elevations and diverse soils. Because of this, we get complexity. It’s the hallmark of our wines. The Estate Cabernet Sauvignon shows Knights Valley terroir: violets, lavender, cedar, tobacco, cassis and very smooth tannins.

“The Estate Chardonnay is rich; it retains bright acidity and has spiced pear, lemon and apple fruit. The Estate Sauvignon Blanc often has a floral nose (orange blossom, jasmine, key lime), and none of the off flavors like grass or cat pee.”

Looking forward, Knights Bridge is planting six acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, with some Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc in the mix. “This is a forever thing. We’re always trying to improve. We want to be good stewards of the land and good neighbors. This isn’t a project. This is my life,” he smiles.
 

Knights Valley Wineries

This list consists of wineries that either have vineyards in Knights Valley or source grapes from the area.* Varietals mentioned are only those sourced from Knights Valley.
 
Adobe Road Wines
www.adoberoadwines.com
Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah

Anakota
www.anakota.com
Cabernet Sauvignon

Beringer Vineyards

(Foote Ranch, Knights Valley Ranch)
www.beringer.com
Alluvium Blanc (Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon), Alluvium Red (Bordeaux blend), Cabernet Sauvignon

Delectus
www.delectuswinery.com
Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot

Ehret Family Winery

www.ehretfamilywinery.com
Bella’s Blend, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc
 
Elements of Sonoma
(707) 942-1505
Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, E3 (Bordeaux blend)
 
Everett and Gloria Ball
(707) 942-5571
Sauvignon Blanc

Grable Vineyards
www.grablevineyards.com
Chardonnay

Hans Fahden Vineyard
www.hansfahden.com
Cabernet Sauvignon
 
Kendall-Jackson Highland Estates
www.kj.com/wines/highland-estates
Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Wine (Cabernet blend)

Knights Bridge Winery
www.knightsbridgewinery.com
Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc

Knights Valley Ranch (vineyard)
(707) 942-0250
Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Merlot

Ledson Winery
www.ledsonwinery.com/winery
Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot
 
Linked Vineyards
www.linkedvineyards.com
Cabernet Sauvignon

Morlet Family Vineyards
www.morletwines.com
Cabernet Sauvignon

Pax Wine Cellars
www.paxwines.com

Syrah

Pelkan Ranch and Vineyard
jrpelkan@aol.com
Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah

The Pelton House
www.peltonhousewines.com
Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot

Peter Michael Winery
www.petermichaelwinery.com
Bordeaux blends, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc

Petrified Forest Vineyardswww.petrifiedforestvineyards.comCabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc
 
Summers Winery and Vineyard
www.summerswinery.com
Merlot

Speedy Creek Winery

(415) 710-4706

Stratford Winery

(707) 963-3200
Cabernet Sauvignon

Stryker Sonoma

www.strykersonoma.com
Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot

Three Coins Wines
www.threecoinswines.com
(part of Lawer Family Wines)
Syrah

Totem Ridge Vineyardswww.totemridgevineyards.comCabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc
 
Vérité Winery
(sourced from Kellogg Vineyard)
www.veritewines.com
Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot

*We’ve done our best to be as complete as possible, but if you know of a winery or vineyard that’s not listed here and should be, please contact us and we’ll add it to the list.

 

 

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