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Lancaster Estate

Author: Julie Fadda
October, 2008 Issue

    • Case production: 4,000 Lancaster Estate; 5,000 Roth
    • Planted acres: 53 acres total, Cabernet Sauvignon (65%), Merlot (26%), Cabernet Franc (4%), Malbec (4%) and Petit Verdot (1%)
    • Additional grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Zinfandel
    • Employees: 10
    • Contact: 15001 Chalk Hill Road, Healdsburg, Calif.  95448
    • (707) 433-8178 - www.lancaster-estate.com

 

“Sure, I read reviews,” confesses Lancaster Estate winemaker Jennifer Higgins. “I can’t help it; everyone here reads them, so I see them whether I want to or not. But they never influence what I do, simply because there’s such a delay between grape and glass that I’d be chasing my tail. You just have to trust the 100 small decisions you make every day and do what you feel is best for the wine.”
Spoken like a true mother hen. And indeed, Higgins nurtures the Lancaster vineyards with an undeniably parental combination of strength and compassion. It’s an approach that, according to the winemaker, flows down from owners Ted and Nicole Simpkins, who live on-property. “I’m really proud of the wines we’re making. There’s a pride that starts with the owners and comes all the way through.”
Higgins, who’s been with Lancaster since the winery produced its first commercial vintage in 1999 (she was named winemaker in 2004), is only too happy to oblige. “Someone once asked me about my winemaking style, and I think I said, ‘easygoing-yet-demanding.’ The bar is set very high here. The crew is fun, but there are no corners cut. We call it ‘the perfection bubble.’”
Lancaster Estate and its sister label, Roth Estate, focus primarily on Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux-style red blends. Higgins explains the difference: “We have two completely different styles of Cabernet. The Lancaster, being a blend of all five [varietals grown on the estate], is more layered and round. The Roth is all about showcasing Alexander Valley at its finest. When I line up 30 wines that I’m blending, I’ll know after one taste if it’s for Lancaster or Roth. I can just tell—I can almost tell you right now [pre-harvest]; give me two more weeks.” (Some grapes for the Roth label are sourced from a neighboring vineyard.)
“We’re in Alexander Valley, but we’re at its southernmost tip,” she says, gesturing to the vineyards. “Right over those hills [directly in front of us] is the Russian River Valley; right over this way [to our left] is Knight’s Valley. So we’re in the cooler area; we have a lot of fog influence. There are years, in the summer, when the fog doesn’t burn off until 11 or 12 o’clock. Because of that, there’s a natural acidity here—not overly so, but it lends itself to a great, balanced wine.
“And if you look at the topography of the estate itself [steep rolling hills and deep valleys, all in close proximity; it looks like a roller coaster track], there are tons of pockets. We have five different soil types and many different hillside aspects. We’ve tried to maximize which clones and varietals should go where. Lancaster Estate is 100 percent estate grown; and a big chunk of the Roth is estate grown as well. Other fruit for Roth comes from a few vineyards in the same neighborhood.
“No other winery can make our wines. I’ve walked through these vineyards for 10 years, and I know where the soil is thinner and which vine rows need more water. The vines are like children, always growing and changing. They get moody, hungry and thirsty—all those things—and I don’t want to miss anything.”
There she goes again, sounding all maternal: “We’re not necessarily hands-off, but I like to see what the wine wants to do,” she continues. “We don’t inoculate, it’s all native yeast fermentation and nothing gets filtered. I let everything express its personality—but I’m also paying attention. If it starts going off, I’ll pull it back; I won’t let anyone run into the street [laughs].”
As we continue to talk, Higgins’ true passion as a winemaker starts to reveal itself. She confirms: “I love making Cab. It’s a powerful grape, it has a lot of layers and it’s classic—and at this point, I’m really getting to know it.
“I think the Cabernets they’re making in Napa are just amazing,” she says. “But I also think Alexander Valley can definitely make the same kinds of powerful wines. We’re getting some really intense fruit from these vines.”
As we taste through several vintages of Lancaster, her enthusiasm grows. We start with a 2001 Cabernet. “This is an older vintage for us, so it’s integrated and mellowed. It has that nice, 7-year-old California Cabernet taste. I just think that’s the age when all the good ones start to knit and come together. Some people like them older, but I still like the fruit.”
Moving on to a 2004: “This was my first grape-to-glass vintage as winemaker,” she says proudly. “It’s still young, but it’s already much bolder, more forward. There’s also nutmeg and clove spice—that’s something that comes out of the estate. It doesn’t matter what vintage, it’s consistently there. You can smell it and know it’s Lancaster.”
Moving on to a just-released 2005 Sophia’s Hillside Cuvee (Sophia is one of the Simpkins’ twin daughters), she gushes, “Tobacco leaf, smoke, coffee: Cab, Cab, Cab. I was doing a winemaker dinner, and they paired this with a salmon steak that was blackened and charred. And the smoke in the meat with this wine…” I take a sip and have to agree with the pleasurable reaction.
But she saved the best for last. The 2005 Nicole’s Proprietary Red is dense with color—almost black (blue when you swirl it)—with smooth, bold flavors and a lingering finish. “This is the winemaker’s folly. I get to put whatever I want in it,” smiles Higgins. “Nicole’s is fun, because I can say, ‘This is the best Cab of this year.’ I collect from all over the estate and choose my favorites. It’s usually from one or two little blocks, but it changes from year to year.
“I tell people it reflects the winemaker: full-bodied, approachable and easygoing.” There’s that smile again.
A small amount of Sauvignon Blanc (named for second twin Samantha) is also produced, sourced from a neighboring vineyard owned by Truman Clark (great grandson of Cyrus Alexander, for whom the Alexander Valley is named); the land is part of the original Alexander family homestead.
“I started making Sauvignon Blanc, because I would go do winemakers’ dinners, and I was pouring our reds and my friends’ white wines,” explains Higgins. “The 2006 was our very first vintage, so we had to decide what style of Sauvignon Blanc we wanted to make. I like food pairing, and I wanted one that smelled and tasted like the varietal. You get the lemon and you get the grass—that nice, herbaceous character—the acid is bright, but not so bright it strips the enamel off your t

    • Case production: 4,000 Lancaster Estate; 5,000 Roth
    • Planted acres: 53 acres total, Cabernet Sauvignon (65%), Merlot (26%), Cabernet Franc (4%), Malbec (4%) and Petit Verdot (1%)
    • Additional grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Zinfandel
    • Employees: 10
    • Contact: 15001 Chalk Hill Road, Healdsburg, Calif.  95448
    • (707) 433-8178 - www.lancaster-estate.com

 

“Sure, I read reviews,” confesses Lancaster Estate winemaker Jennifer Higgins. “I can’t help it; everyone here reads them, so I see them whether I want to or not. But they never influence what I do, simply because there’s such a delay between grape and glass that I’d be chasing my tail. You just have to trust the 100 small decisions you make every day and do what you feel is best for the wine.”

Spoken like a true mother hen. And indeed, Higgins nurtures the Lancaster vineyards with an undeniably parental combination of strength and compassion. It’s an approach that, according to the winemaker, flows down from owners Ted and Nicole Simpkins, who live on-property. “I’m really proud of the wines we’re making. There’s a pride that starts with the owners and comes all the way through.”
Higgins, who’s been with Lancaster since the winery produced its first commercial vintage in 1999 (she was named winemaker in 2004), is only too happy to oblige. “Someone once asked me about my winemaking style, and I think I said, ‘easygoing-yet-demanding.’ The bar is set very high here. The crew is fun, but there are no corners cut. We call it ‘the perfection bubble.’”

Lancaster Estate and its sister label, Roth Estate, focus primarily on Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux-style red blends. Higgins explains the difference: “We have two completely different styles of Cabernet. The Lancaster, being a blend of all five [varietals grown on the estate], is more layered and round. The Roth is all about showcasing Alexander Valley at its finest. When I line up 30 wines that I’m blending, I’ll know after one taste if it’s for Lancaster or Roth. I can just tell—I can almost tell you right now [pre-harvest]; give me two more weeks.” (Some grapes for the Roth label are sourced from a neighboring vineyard.)

“We’re in Alexander Valley, but we’re at its southernmost tip,” she says, gesturing to the vineyards. “Right over those hills [directly in front of us] is the Russian River Valley; right over this way [to our left] is Knight’s Valley. So we’re in the cooler area; we have a lot of fog influence. There are years, in the summer, when the fog doesn’t burn off until 11 or 12 o’clock. Because of that, there’s a natural acidity here—not overly so, but it lends itself to a great, balanced wine.

“And if you look at the topography of the estate itself [steep rolling hills and deep valleys, all in close proximity; it looks like a roller coaster track], there are tons of pockets. We have five different soil types and many different hillside aspects. We’ve tried to maximize which clones and varietals should go where. Lancaster Estate is 100 percent estate grown; and a big chunk of the Roth is estate grown as well. Other fruit for Roth comes from a few vineyards in the same neighborhood.

“No other winery can make our wines. I’ve walked through these vineyards for 10 years, and I know where the soil is thinner and which vine rows need more water. The vines are like children, always growing and changing. They get moody, hungry and thirsty—all those things—and I don’t want to miss anything.”

There she goes again, sounding all maternal: “We’re not necessarily hands-off, but I like to see what the wine wants to do,” she continues. “We don’t inoculate, it’s all native yeast fermentation and nothing gets filtered. I let everything express its personality—but I’m also paying attention. If it starts going off, I’ll pull it back; I won’t let anyone run into the street [laughs].”

As we continue to talk, Higgins’ true passion as a winemaker starts to reveal itself. She confirms: “I love making Cab. It’s a powerful grape, it has a lot of layers and it’s classic—and at this point, I’m really getting to know it.

“I think the Cabernets they’re making in Napa are just amazing,” she says. “But I also think Alexander Valley can definitely make the same kinds of powerful wines. We’re getting some really intense fruit from these vines.”

As we taste through several vintages of Lancaster, her enthusiasm grows. We start with a 2001 Cabernet. “This is an older vintage for us, so it’s integrated and mellowed. It has that nice, 7-year-old California Cabernet taste. I just think that’s the age when all the good ones start to knit and come together. Some people like them older, but I still like the fruit.”

Moving on to a 2004: “This was my first grape-to-glass vintage as winemaker,” she says proudly. “It’s still young, but it’s already much bolder, more forward. There’s also nutmeg and clove spice—that’s something that comes out of the estate. It doesn’t matter what vintage, it’s consistently there. You can smell it and know it’s Lancaster.”

Moving on to a just-released 2005 Sophia’s Hillside Cuvee (Sophia is one of the Simpkins’ twin daughters), she gushes, “Tobacco leaf, smoke, coffee: Cab, Cab, Cab. I was doing a winemaker dinner, and they paired this with a salmon steak that was blackened and charred. And the smoke in the meat with this wine…” I take a sip and have to agree with the pleasurable reaction.

But she saved the best for last. The 2005 Nicole’s Proprietary Red is dense with color—almost black (blue when you swirl it)—with smooth, bold flavors and a lingering finish. “This is the winemaker’s folly. I get to put whatever I want in it,” smiles Higgins. “Nicole’s is fun, because I can say, ‘This is the best Cab of this year.’ I collect from all over the estate and choose my favorites. It’s usually from one or two little blocks, but it changes from year to year.

“I tell people it reflects the winemaker: full-bodied, approachable and easygoing.” There’s that smile again.

A small amount of Sauvignon Blanc (named for second twin Samantha) is also produced, sourced from a neighboring vineyard owned by Truman Clark (great grandson of Cyrus Alexander, for whom the Alexander Valley is named); the land is part of the original Alexander family homestead.

“I started making Sauvignon Blanc, because I would go do winemakers’ dinners, and I was pouring our reds and my friends’ white wines,” explains Higgins. “The 2006 was our very first vintage, so we had to decide what style of Sauvignon Blanc we wanted to make. I like food pairing, and I wanted one that smelled and tasted like the varietal. You get the lemon and you get the grass—that nice, herbaceous character—the acid is bright, but not so bright it strips the enamel off your teeth.”

Lancaster Estate is open for tastings by appointment only. Higgins explains, “there are only about 10 employees, and we want to make sure everybody gets a great experience. It’s a private tour through the vineyards and includes a complimentary tasting in our wine cave, whether you’re by yourself or with 10 people. Ask any question you want. It’s all very friendly.”

Sounds like an invitation worth accepting, if you ask me.

eeth.”
Lancaster Estate is open for tastings by appointment only. Higgins explains, “there are only about 10 employees, and we want to make sure everybody gets a great experience. It’s a private tour through the vineyards and includes a complimentary tasting in our wine cave, whether you’re by yourself or with 10 people. Ask any question you want. It’s all very friendly.”
Sounds like an invitation worth accepting, if you ask me.

 

 

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