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Perfect Pairing

Author: Richard Paul Hinkle
November, 2012 Issue

Bringing diversity to downtown Santa Rosa, one sip at a time.

 
There’s something about a thriving downtown that gives a city that certain je ne sais quoi, what the French refer to as “that without which” or “that indispensable, but indescribable something.” In this case, it’s the vitality of diversity and energy, the vitality that runs from the creative to the wacky, the vitality of art and culture. It’s an essential component that—in the absence of its existence—the “there-ness” of a place simply doesn’t come into being.
 
“That’s the reason we decided to locate our tasting room at Corrick’s, in the heart of Santa Rosa’s business district,” says Melissa Moholt-Siebert, co-proprietor of Ancient Oak Cellars. “My husband, Ken, and I are passionate about the importance and connection of art and culture. We believe those elements are given their best chance to flourish in a lively setting, where all sorts of things are going on. That’s Santa Rosa’s downtown district.” And now Ancient Oak will join the downtown scene with its first wine tasting room at Corrick’s.
 
(As of September 11, the Santa Rosa city council approved the proposal from staff allowing wine tasting rooms by right. This was the last planning obstacle, and the zoning change were expected to go into effect around October 18.)
 
Melissa credits Ken for their part in this new partnership: “He’s our crazy idea guy. He was the one who suggested I start a winery and, although we live on a ranch and love our connection with the land, we’re both also really urban-focused people. We love the feeling and energy of the whole notion of ‘downtown.’ And that part of Fourth Street [where Corrick’s is located] is just so alive.”
 
The notion of a downtown tasting room for Ancient Oak surfaced about a year ago, when Ken Moholt-Siebert was chatting with Corrick’s partner Keven Brown. Brown, whose family created the well-known stationery/gift shop nearly a century ago, recalls the conversation: “I’d known Ken and Melissa as customers,” says the Santa Rosa native. “They were obviously strong supporters of the local art community, and their children are both artistically inclined, one a dancer with the San Francisco Ballet and the other a musician and artist in the Artquest program at Santa Rosa High School. When Ken and Melissa mentioned they’d met at Pomona College—my alma mater as well—our talks took on a new depth.”
 
Brown, who co-owns the store with his wife, Jeri Yamashiro Brown, continues, “I’d been considering adding a winery tasting room in Corrick’s over the last few years and had been consulting friends in the winery business for advice. When Ken began to float the notion of a downtown venue for their tasting room, well, it just seemed so obvious that something could and should be done here.”
 
“We’ve had a spot for Sonoma County ARTrails in store for about two-and-a-half years. It’s now located just to the left as you enter from Fourth Street,” says Brown, who studied music at Pomona in the late 1980s. “It just makes sense for Ancient Oak to be located along the western wall adjacent to the ARTrails Gallery. We could therefore feature the finest of Sonoma County in one place, whether it's a beautiful coastal landscape by Brooks Anderson, some fine pottery from Nichibei or some full-bodied Pinot Noir from Ancient Oak Cellars. As for our hours, we’re open from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, and Ancient Oak expects to open the tasting room 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. We’ll have some extended evening hours, including First Fridays until 7 p.m., and we’ll be open on Sundays seasonally. It should fit in seamlessly, and we expect both businesses will benefit from our broadened customer base. It’s as win-win as you can possibly imagine.”
 
Melissa confirms the weekday hours, adding, “We’ll also have some Sunday hours on a seasonal basis. The tasting fee will be about $10, refundable with purchase, of course.
 
"One thing that really interests us is that, in my conversations with the California Visitor’s Center and Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce, I’ve learned that they expect 52,000 visitors to the Welcome Center this year. Of those 52,000, their reports are that 85 percent are coming in and seeking information regarding wineries and tasting rooms—and of that number, 55 percent are specifically asking for referrals to wineries and tasting rooms in the city of Santa Rosa. What a great opportunity to bring this wide group of new visitors into the downtown area, to share not only our wine but also the fantastic art and local products at Corrick’s, their great coffee, all the exciting local restaurants and the small shops that form the heart of downtown. That’s pretty exciting!”
 

Ancient beginnings

Ancient Oak Cellars, as a winery, is the outgrowth of a newly successful grape-growing venture that was started 17 years ago by Ken’s grandfather, Henry Siebert. “I was born in Berkeley, but I spent much of my summers on the 31-acre ranch that sits next to Cardinal Newman High School, next to the baseball diamond and football practice field,” remembers Ken, whose mother was the first female trademark/patent attorney in private practice in San Francisco (his dad was a research chemist). “I went to St. Mary’s High School in Albany, spent a year at UC Berkeley, which was a bit too big for me, then transferred to Pomona, where I studied the classics and architecture. That’s where I met Melissa at a women’s studies forum. We took a class together—human ethology.
 
“When we finished, we knew we didn’t want to stay in Los Angeles. We wanted an adventure. So, when a research job in neuroscience at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland opened up for Melissa, we headed north in our old Volvo station wagon. I worked on my master’s in architecture at the University of Oregon in Portland and worked at Portland Community Design on special needs housing, working to fix up beautiful old Victorians and build infill housing in red-lined districts. But as satisfying as that was and as much as I love building, architecture is somewhat of an isolated discipline. I just felt there was something more.”
 
That something more, he gradually discovered, was the lure of the land that his grandfather had been husbanding. “Grampa Henry had worked the land with the thought of passing it on to his son, my father. But dad died young, so Grampa began to look to me. All those holidays and summers, working up here on the ranch, came back to me as times I’d enjoyed immensely, so it wasn’t any kind of a stretch for Melissa and me to start thinking seriously about taking on the responsibility.”
 
In the early 1990s, Henry sought the advice of a friend, veteran farmer Bob Dempel, who suggested that grapes, particularly cold-climate Pinot Noir, would do well there on the edge of the Russian River Valley appellation. So cattle and sheep gave way to 15 acres of the varietal. “Bob did remind my grandfather, who was then 80 years old, that it was going to be a good three years after planting before he’d get any crop worth crowing about,” remembers Ken. “But to Henry that was just incentive. His answer to that was, ‘Well then, let’s get going!’ He could hardly wait to see the fruits of his efforts. We do still keep sheep on the property, as they’re very good at keeping our weed population at bay. And, as you know, lamb goes really well with Pinot Noir!”
 
Over the years, Ken did a little vineyard research, learned about viticulture and helped his grandfather plant the final acres of the vineyard that encompassed a stunning old oak tree (dubbed, in-house, “the ancient oak”) in the center of the property, east of Highway 101 and just south of Round Barn. “Henry was ‘old school’ in the sense that he was going to take care of that vineyard until the day he died. He welcomed my help, but it was his project. Our Pinot Noir is a Pommard [French] clone, and the budwood came to us from Adelsheim Vineyard [Willamette Valley, Ore.] by way of Iron Horse Vineyards.”
 
He says he might make a different root stock selection if he had it to do over again: “We mostly have 5C and SO4, which limit vigor and are fine for Oregon. But we have pretty thin soils and we often go months without rainfall, so 110-R might be better. That said, the fruit is really good. We still sell some of our grapes to Flowers and Crew, and have sold to La Crema and Rodney Strong in years past. When we found out just how good the grapes were, well, it just made sense to expand vertically and start making our own wine.”
 
It made sense, that is, if Melissa was willing to take on the winery side. “Yes, that was my part,” she says with a laugh. “Looking at my lab research background, Ken said, ‘You should start a winery.’ Ha! Of course, he mostly takes care of the vineyard side of things, so it does balance out. Our winemaker is Kent Barthman and the wines are made at Owl Ridge [Sebastopol].” Barthman, a burly Eureka native, made wine at Rutherford Hill for nine years, Taft Street for four years and was assistant winemaker at Far Niente. He has a good sense of the essence of winemaking, saying that, “if you get the right grapes, from the right vineyard, all you have to do is let the grapes speak for themselves.”
 
Melissa notes that all of the public process for the new tasting room went more smoothly than could have been imagined. “People were very supportive of our goal to bring a tasting room downtown. All of the feedback from the public and the planning people was positive. And, of course, it made it all the easier that we were working with Keven Brown, whose family has been at the core of downtown’s success for so long.”
 
Brown’s father, as you may know, is Corrick Brown, the long-time conductor of the Santa Rosa Symphony (SRS). “Dad’s still going strong at 82,” says Brown with more than a hint of pride. “He conducted the symphony full-time for nearly 40 years—he recently conducted at the opening of the Green Music Center—and he still plays piano, most often with my mother, Norma; he’s also an avid tennis and bridge player.” He pauses, regathering himself to the primary question.
 
“Corrick’s has always been more than just a stationery store. Our focus has changed some over the last 100 years, but we’ve always tried to carry distinctive gifts, whether silver, crystal or more practical items from our office and art supplies departments. ‘Artistic and unique gifts’ has always been a defining part of what we do.”
 
“A couple of years ago, we began to represent ARTrails on a year-round basis. We host an art opening on the first Friday of each month featuring different ARTrails artists. We also host informal concerts and Studio Saturday events, with artists and craftsmen working right here in the store.  I’ve enjoyed bringing diverse artists and musicians into our store—as a child, I remember the times my parents would bring a piano into Corrick’s to help celebrate a special anniversary or event. I’ve tried to bridge the gap between business and cultural venue by providing a space within our store to musicians, and now, of course to the ARTrails artists.
 
“I’m so thankful for the support of my wife and our entire staff as we’ve been shifting the focus of Corrick’s to include the newly expanded ARTrails Gallery, the addition of My Daughter the Framer and now of Ancient Oak Cellars. At times, my ideas may have seemed a little crazy, but Jeri and our staff, some of whom have been with us for more than 20, 30 and 40 years, have been patient and have helped make this a reality. Rick Burmester, who’s been with us for 35 years, and who was one of the founders of La Crema, for example, has been a lead source for contacts in the wine industry.
 
“So when Ken and I almost simultaneously began to broach the idea of having their tasting room here, well, it was a no-brainer. I'd had meetings over the last year with folks like Bill Traverso, who knows wine and knows the downtown like nobody else. He talked about the benefits—to us and to the city—of having a tasting room and hosting more special events with guest speakers downtown. Most wineries have excellent gift shops of their own, and many feature art in their tasting rooms. Several have downtown tasting rooms in other cities, so it was no great leap to imagine how to bring downtown Santa Rosa into the mix.”
 
Brown confirms that the process of getting approvals with the city’s administrators has gone smoothly. “Both the planning commission and the city council made it clear early on that all we had to do was ask. In fact, the planning commission was surprised that downtown tasting rooms weren’t already allowed.
 
“My family has always been a part of Sonoma County’s musical and artistic community; my parents and eldest brother are professional musicians and I’ve enjoyed being an amateur musician playing occasionally and singing tenor with Cantiamo Sonoma. My wife has been my greatest supporter—whether at the store or at home. Our daughter Mikayla, is 11 and sings in the Santa Rosa Children’s Chorus and studies piano with her grandmother, pianist Norma Brown.
 
“Ken and Melissa are strong supporter of the arts, too. They’re symphony patrons, and their children are both quite artistic.”
 
“That’s true,” echoes Melissa. “Our son, Austin, who is 16, is studying to be a professional ballet dancer. Lucy is 14, and she’s in her sophomore year at Santa Rosa High School’s ArtQuest, playing cello in the orchestra and participating in the visual fine arts program. Both our kids love fine food, cook a little—Austin taught himself to bake bread and we have room to grow lots of fresh fruits and vegetables—and are culturally aware.”
 
As the planners and council do their work, the one thing that’s certain is downtown Santa Rosa is soon to have a new cultural facet that will further brighten the area’s luminance. “Corrick’s used to be known as a ‘local’ place,” offers Ken. “When Keven added ARTrails, that gave the store a new and exciting dimension, to which we’re now adding our own small light to the mixture. I suspect that tourists will be utterly delighted by what they find there. Stores like this are a treasure for the community.”
 

The Grape in Liquid Form

Chardonnay 2011 Russian River Valley: Bread dough and vanillin, with a light touch of peach and French oak toastiness, neatly in balance. Just a hint of Fuji apple in the finish. Nicely done. Veal piccata.

Pinot Noir 2010 Russian River Valley: Dusty black cherry and black currant, with a lovely mushroom decadence that suggests rare beef and mushrooms in a way that any gourmand worth his or her salt would salivate over.

Pinot Noir 2010 Russian River Valley, Siebert Ranch: Raspberry and black cherry fruit, with a touch of clove spice, in a format that’s firm and supple and succulently inviting. The fruit is bright, the texture is salacious, and the food match-ups are almost endless. Be playful, be sensual, and you’ll be rewarded.

Zinfandel 2010 Russian River Valley, Pagnano Vineyard: Rewardingly pungent strawberry, raspberry and blueberry fruit, rewarding in that what’s promised in the nose is delivered, and then some, in the mouth. Sandalwood spice, for good measure. Salisbury steak, or just a grilled burger, with sharp cheddar cheese.

 
 
Richard Paul Hinkle is a most (mostly?) eclectic writer, happy to handle anything from business writing to speechwriting. See his work at www.RichardPaulHinkle.com.

 

 

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