At Tedeschi Family Winery in Calistoga, it’s as though time stands still. From the 1948 and ’65 Ford tractors parked at the head of the vineyard, to the extra-wide vineyard rows, which stand out in a valley cram-packed with tightly spaced rows to maximize sky-high price-per-acre rates. While the vineyard looks like a throwback to an earlier time, it has evolved. As I perch at a picnic table beside the one-acre Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard with Emilio Tedeschi, general manager, I learn that when his grandfather, Eugene, originally purchased the property in the 1950s, it was orchards, not grapevines, that dominated this spot. When the time came to plant grapes (Cabernet, Zinfandel and Merlot), Eugene remained true to his Italian roots. “From the stories I’ve heard, they just put the vineyards in right between the trees. It’s an old style of farming, but inefficient by today’s standards,” says Emilio.
When Emilio’s father, Emil, reestablished the vineyard in the early 1990s, he took a different tack, but more on that in a minute. In 1974, Emil moved to Hawaii to co-found Tedeschi Vineyards on Maui, the island’s first and only winery. Emilio shares some of the not-so-subtle differences in vineyard management. “There, you’re constantly pruning, because there’s so much vigor. They typically harvest about two months earlier, so there’s not a lot of downtime. They need to spend a lot of time in the vineyard.”
Returning to your roots
While Emil enjoyed the inherent challenges of growing grapes in Hawaii, he returned to Calistoga almost two decades later to actualize his dream of replanting his father’s vineyard. Today, the majority of fruit trees are gone, yet the extra-wide vineyard rows remain. In part to accommodate the classic tractors that are still in use and also to maintain the Old World approach to winemaking that Eugene established early on. “My dad is in tune with the plants,” says Emilio. “He inspects the vineyard as much as possible. Everything is maintained by hand—the suckering, cluster thinning and training the vines. He talks a lot about the balance of the vines and takes a very meticulous amount of care. Looking at the vineyard, it’s pretty immaculate.”
The Tedeschi vineyard is spaced six feet between vines and eight feet between rows, in contrast to the more typical four-by-four and four-by-six plantings often seen. “The wider spacing means fewer vines and more fruit on each one. You start off with a pretty good crop each year. You’re constantly thinning in accordance with the growing season, so the few clusters that remain at harvest have the best of everything. They’re the cream of the crop.”
The vineyard, which is dry-farmed, is predominantly clay with small amounts of volcanic ash. “The cool thing about the vineyard is the staggered orientation that points in a North-South direction. Because the rows are oriented this way, the vines get the full amount of sun in the morning and afternoon.”
Though decades have passed since Eugene originally comingled grapevines and fruit trees, the vineyard remains a family affair; Emil and Emilio are joined by Emil’s other son, Mario, who serves as the winemaker (a sister, Elaine, is a student at Cal Poly SLO).
A lot of love
At a time when technology is becoming more and more prevalent in the wine business, Tedeschi prides itself on remaining true to its roots, favoring a hands-on approach to just about everything. When asked how they compare to other vineyards in the valley, Emilio shares, “You’re looking at a vineyard that’s one acre. We spend every single day out here, we notice everything—step by step, day by day—how it changes and how seasonal changes affect the vines. We spend quality time with the vines. When it’s your backyard and you have so little, you want it to do well. There’s a lot of nurturing that goes into it.”
Calistoga has changed a lot since Emil made the first vintage of 300 cases in 2003, yet for the Tedeschis, the Old World approach to winemaking lingers. “We’re not pushing 15 percent alcohol. We’re making food-friendly wines by picking at a lower brix content,” says Emilio. One taste of the 2009 estate Cabernet Sauvignon reveals just that, with a smooth, long finish. The 2012 Primitivo from Russian River Valley is lush yet light. The 2013 Viogner from Alexander Valley is crisp and full-bodied with hints of stone fruit.
On my way out, I meet Eddy, the estate peacock, who’s a big fan of the grapes. As I give the vineyard and winery one last look, I’m left with a true glimpse of what goes into running a small family winery. Summed up best by Emilio: “This vineyard is our backyard. Our life.” What a wonderful life, indeed.
Desmond Estate Vineyards
By Julie Fadda Powers
6820 Starr Rd.
Windsor, CA 95492
Case production: About 300 cases
Planted acres: About four
Grapes planted: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay
Wines produced: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay
Employees: One (plus seasonal)
Bill Desmond Robbins has been living on the property where he grows grapes since he built his first home there in 1978. But putting in a vineyard was the farthest thing from his mind—at least at the time. That happened a little more than 20 years later, a serendipitous result of a conversation he had when working as a foreman and pouring concrete at Windsor High School in 1998. “The superintendent of the project knew where I lived and suggested I plant some grapes,” says Robbins.
“I then went to nearby wineries and asked what they’d be interested in buying. I met Susie Selby at Rabbit Ridge Winery, and she suggested which clones I should plant for Russian River Valley Pinot Noir. She also mentioned contacting John at Caldwell Nursery to help me get organized. John came out, helped me with soil samples and diagrammed the trellis system for the grapes. The vineyard was planted Fourth of July weekend in 2000 .”
But it wasn’t because he’d originally planned on making wine. “I wasn’t much of a wine drinker,” he says. “I figured I’d grow the grapes and sell them to pay my property taxes and buy some beer [he lists Lagunitas as a favorite]. I had no idea Pinot Noir would become so popular. It blows me away.”
It was 2003 before Robbins decided to make some wine. “I had enough grapes for one barrel, not enough for someone to purchase” he says. “So I made it myself in the garage. I took a class at The Beverage People and purchased an information booklet. I did a lot of reading and also took extension classes at UC Davis [all while still working full-time as a foreman for a Devincenzi Concrete Construction]. We were pleased, so Danette [who he’d marry the following year] took it to the Harvest Fair and it won a silver medal in the amateur competition.”
In 2004, Robbins married Danette and completed construction on their new home on the property, where they now live. It’s a beautiful setting surrounded by vineyards as well as flowering plants and manicured gardens that Danette tends (and yes, Bill did all the concrete work). He also keeps a lovingly restored 1956 Ford pick-up in the garage.
In 2005, Robbins was able to harvest enough grapes to make three barrels and was still making his wine in the garage and giving most of it away as gifts. By 2006, he had his first contract with River Road Winery and sold 10 tons of grapes. Since then, word got out and he now sells to a few others. In 2007, he became licensed and bonded and began to make wine commercially at Vinify Cellars (where he continues to make it now) and produced 80 cases. His production increased each year and, by 2013, he focused on his vineyard and winemaking full-time.
His label is Desmond Estate Vineyards. Desmond is Bills’ mother’s maiden name, his middle name and also his son, Phillip’s, middle name. In addition, Danette thought it would be beautiful in script.
The vineyard itself is vertically trellised and has four different soil types (Huichica, Sprekels, Felta and Zamora) and varies in slope from 2 to 9 percent. Different elevations and soil types produce varied flavors in the grapes. For example, the ones at a higher level have more jammy characteristics, while the lower ones lean more toward cherry. Robbins harvests the grapes over a two-week period, depending on his clients’ preferences. There are owl boxes on an adjacent property and three fox terriers for gopher control.
Robbins describes his winemaking style as Burgundian. The grapes are hand-harvested at night, so they arrive at the winery cold. They’re hand-sorted, then go through the crusher/destemmer and onto a shaker table, which is sized for the grapes, so any that have raisined will fall through. The individual berries are then picked through on another sorting table for quality . “Only perfect grapes are allowed,” he says.
Next, they’re gently fractured and cold soaked in the fermenter for about six days, kept at 45 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit. They’re punched down twice per day during the cold soak period, then warmed to 70 degrees, which is when the yeast is added to start fermentation. They’re fermented in a stainless steel tank until there’s minimal sugar left, then the free run wine is put into French oak barrels (50 percent new), where the final fermentation takes place.
“At first, half stayed in the barrel for 10 months, while the remaining half [the reserve] aged for 17 months. But now, it’s all aged 15 to 17 months in the barrel because, in my experience, it makes such a big difference,” says Robbins. Once bottled, the wine ages an additional 12 months prior to release. This year’s fall release will be the 2012 vintage.
When I visited in August, the grapes were about two weeks away from harvest. Robbins walked me through the vineyard, which is surrounded by oak and eucalyptus trees and has a seasonal creek nearby. He explained why some clusters are removed (if they’re ripening too unevenly) or their “wings and shoulders” are taken off, so only the best grapes remain.
Much of the wine is now sold via Wine Road events, the Vintners Market in San Francisco, as well as through their wine club. “The wine club is huge for us,” he says. “We get most members through the Wine Road and Vintners Market events.”
Fans, no doubt, of his classic, well-balanced wine—a true testament to classic Russian River Valley fruit (earthy, red fruit, cherry, bright acidity and a smooth mouthfeel). “I make such a small amount of wine,” says Robbins, “I really have to nail it every year.” And he most certainly does.
William Cole Vineyards
By Alexandra Russell
P.O. Box 692
St. Helena, CA 94574
Case production: 500-700
Planted acres: 2.5
Grapes used: Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay
Wines produced: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Ten (a Cabernet blend)
If you love a good story—one with history, treachery, innovation, murder, intrigue and, to top it off, world class wine—welcome to William Cole Vineyards. The place’s long, storied past is intimately entwined with the history of wine in Napa Valley, from founder John Weinberger’s purchase of the estate from the Krug family in 1869 to William and Jane Ballentine’s refurbishing of the home and operations beginning in 1999.
Here’s a small taste: While travelling from San Francisco to Napa via stagecoach in 1869, Weinberger was involved in a highway robbery. At the time, he was transporting his entire fortune (about $50,000 in gold). Weinberger pulled out a revolver and shot the would-be thief. He then completed his journey, making his way to St. Helena, where he purchased half of Charles Krug’s property to establish his own winery. Many years later, Weinberger was murdered by one of his cellar workers, who’d fallen in love with the vintner’s daughter. Following his death in 1882, Weinberger’s widow, Hannah, became the first woman to run a winery operation and serve as winemaker.
Seriously, there’s too much story for this space. Suffice to say, this place meets three of the four possible criteria for a property to be certified a National Historical Landmark, including association with important events, historic figures and architecture (it only needs one to be certified). The Ballentines are working closely with Napa County Landmarks to pursue certification.
“My goal is to showcase this property and give it the respect and homage it deserves,” says William Ballentine, winemaker, whose own family roots run deep in this valley. He grew up across the street from the property and remembers playing in the vineyards he now owns.
When he and Jane bought the property, the winery operation had been shuttered since Prohibition, and part of the building had been turned into a private vacation home. “There were still buggies is the barn, and we have some of the original rugs and furnishings still in our home,” he says with an incredulous shake of his head. Also well preserved are the private grounds and gardens, designed by famed landscape architect Thomas Church (it’s one of the last intact Church gardens in existence anywhere).
Ballentine, who clearly loves the history not just of this property but of Napa Valley in total, is a compelling storyteller. Representing a fourth generation in St. Helena (the winery is named for Ballentine and his son, Cole), Ballentine, it seems, knows everyone—every family connection, backroom deal, winery sale and vineyard planting that’s led to the valley’s current dynamics. “We’re trying to preserve what this is—what this means
,” he says. “We live here. This is our life. This is about family. It’s rare to have so many generations in this valley.”
Of course, in Napa Valley, there’s no history without wine and vineyards. “We’re a wine industry town,” he agrees. “Everything is tied in somehow.” The five-acre William Cole property is no exception. Its 2.5-acre estate vineyard is all that remains of the original land purchase from Krug (it was once 240 acres). Here, Ballentine pursues farming and winemaking in Old World fashion. “Everybody wants to update and change things,” he laments. “But that’s not how I make wine. I want it natural; I want purity. I do it how my grandparents did.”
For William Cole, Ballentine focuses on Cabernet Sauvignon and credits the vineyard’s mix of four soil types—loam, gravel loam, tufa and creek rock—for the grapes’ diversity. Bolstered by a small amount of sourced fruit, “Each vintage, each wine, has a personality,” he says. “All of them are different, but they’re linked by style—they’re clearly from the same family. I’d describe them as elegant, soft and fruit forward, but always in-balance. They can hold up to weight but they’re not too heavy.
“I’ve never met a chef who didn't love my wine,” he smiles.
The cornerstone of production is Cuvée Clair (named for the Ballentines’ daughter), an elegant blend of 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon. In 2010, Ballentine added a small production of Chardonnay to the offerings, sourced from the eastern hills;Cuvée Jane Marie is named for his wife.
And then there’s Ten, a magical blend of equal amounts from 10 Cabernet Sauvignon vintages, each barrel aged since it was harvested. Ballentine calls it “a once in a lifetime wine—it’s like a vertical in a bottle.” Like most William Cole wines, it’s only available through allocation, at the winery and online. And that’s just how Ballentine likes it.
“We plan to stay small on purpose,” he says. “We sell a lot of wine to a few people,” he continues. “We have the best, most loyal customers.”
Frostwatch Vineyard & Winery
By Alexandra Russell
5560 Bennett Valley Road
Santa Rosa, CA 95404
Case production: 1,500
Planted acres: 15
Grapes used: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon
Wines produced: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Kismet (a Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon blend)
Employees: 1 (Occasional independent contractors)
Frostwatch founder Brett Raven grew up in Lafayettte, Calif., but “my parents bought a place northwest of Cazadero when I was younger, so we traveled through Santa Rosa many times on our way to hunt, hike and camp. Also, before I went to UC Davis, I attended Santa Rosa Junior College for two years, because I wanted to play basketball. So I was very familiar with the area.”
Unlike many successful North Bay vintners, Raven didn’t study wine at Davis. Instead, he studied agricultural business, later earned a law degree at Hastings College in San Francisco and became a practicing attorney in a San Francisco firm. “But my girlfriend at the time—now my wife, Diane—was in ‘fruits and nuts,’” he laughs, referring to her degree in plant science. “And all her friends were in viticulture and enology, so I got a great introduction to wine.”
The interest was encouraged by Raven’s boss, Fred Furth (founder of Chalk Hill Winery), and other colleagues at the firm, who “encouraged my love of wine and furthered my exposure to the wine industry,” says Raven. “[Working with them] definitely increased my passion for it.”
The passion turned to action when the Ravens decided to look for a place to plant a vineyard of their own. In 1995, they purchased 22 acres of pastureland in Bennett Valley and set about making the dream come true. Today, 15 acres are planted to winegrapes (the rest of the property is taken up by the family home and garden, horses and paddocks) and Raven is happily established as a full-time vintner.
Designated Sonoma County’s 13th AVA in 2003, Bennett Valley is known for rocky soil and cold, often foggy nights. “Bennett Valley is unique, because it’s subject to much cooler temperatures at night,” says Raven, who continues, “but cold air is like water, in that it always drains away to lower elevations until blocked by a physical barrier.
“So, if you’re surrounded by valleys, peaks and hillsides, like we are, you’ll get very cool overnight temperatures. Even over the summer, we can get into the 40s at night.” Hence the name Frostwatch.
To best exploit these characteristics, says Raven, “We looked around at what everyone else in the area was growing. Matanzas Creek has been highly successful with Chardonnay and Merlot, and it’s done a nice Sauvignon Blanc. So that’s an indication of what works in the soil.”
The Frostwatch property includes Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Merlot—not all of it intentional (at least not initially). “When we stared, we planted a block of Chardonnay, but as the plants started coming up, it became clear that some of them were not
Chardonnay. Turned out, 50 plants were either Sauvignon Blanc or Semillon. The nursery said, ‘sorry,’” remembers Raven. “I almost tore them out, but then I remembered Matanzas Creek’s success with Sauvignon Blanc, so I decided to leave them in and make wine from them separately. It’s called Kismet.
“I loved it. So I did that for four or five years and eventually took cuttings from those plants and planted two more acres just for that wine.”
As a winemaker, Raven says, “I’m a big believer in balance. I want my wines to have interesting textures, fruit on the entry, a broad mid-palate with richness and acidity on the finish. I want my reds to have silkiness, but I also want some acidity. It shouldn’t be cloying or ponderous.”
Raven honed his skill as cellar master for David Ramey while his Frostwatch vineyards were maturing. In 2009, he struck out on his own, shifting the work away from Ramey (where he’d been making and cellaring his wine) to Vinify in Santa Rosa. It’s a good fit. “I can do all my own work or, in a pinch, I can get help from a Vinify employee,” says Raven. “I like that I can come here at 2 a.m. if I want to. I can be completely hands-on. I even drive my own forklift.”
This same enthusiasm and attention to detail can be heard when Raven talks about his grapes. The Chardonnay vineyard, for example, is “composed of the Wente clone from the Platt vineyard, which is a selection from the Hyde vineyard 97/99 block. I also have Clone 4 Chardonnay, which is a Davis clone.”
Pinot Noir is “a Swan clone, which is a selection from Delinger. There’s a particular bottling called the Octagon block, and we were able to get cuttings through Chris Bowland, who supplies vineyard and harvest labor.
“All these selections are for smaller berries and smaller clusters, which gives you lower yields but greater intensity. My wife, who’s an accountant, thought I was crazy: ‘Lower yields?’ But you get great acid, balance and really intense flavors.”
To sample Frostwatch wines, contact Raven to set up an appointment. Depending on his schedule, he’s happy to meet up either at Vinify or the vineyard itself.