The Longboard Vineyards’ motto is “wine, waves and soul.” And those are, without a doubt, the three main ingredients that make up this one-of-a-kind (or, shall I say, “one-of-da-kine”) winery. Read on and you’ll see what I mean.
Surfer/winegrower Oded Shakked (who co-owns the winery with partners Robert Watkins and Bruce Lundquist), sees many parallels between surfing and winemaking. “Both things remind a person that the major control is not up to you. Nature gives you good waves and good grapes. Surfing and winemaking are activities that force you to work with, rather than against, what nature gives. In those activities—and in life—it’s all about balance,” he says.
The Longboard lounge (called that because they want people to hang out for a while) is a few blocks off the Healdsburg Square, but well worth the extra steps. Inside, it has a handshaped redwood surfboard bar, a sitting area with plush furnishings, a collection of vintage surfboards compliments of Oded’s friend, Steve Collins, who’s a major Bay Area collector, surf-related artwork and—not to be missed—a 42-inch plasma television featuring (you guessed it) action-packed surf videos. “People come in here, watch the videos and tell tall surf tales,” says Shakked.
This is no ordinary tasting experience. I’ve actually seen this same space occupied by three other wineries over time, but it’s been completely transformed. I’m not kidding. The employees’ business cards are even shaped like longboards.
“One of our challenges is driving traffic to the tasting room,” says Watkins. “Everyone who comes here is looking for us. So we’re trying to attract more people from the square.” He says other winery tasting rooms have done a great job of sending people to Longboard—a practice they gladly reciprocate.
You may recognize the owners’ names from their former place of employment, J Winery and Vineyards. Having worked together there successfully (the winery’s size tripled in five years under their direction), the three decided to “take the plunge”—literally and figuratively—in 2005. A big reason to be involved in a smaller operation (J does 70,000 cases annually), for all three, is to spend more time with their children. Robert has 8-year-old daughter Sydney; Oded has 11-year-old Benny and 15-year-old Dean; and Bruce has six kids: Amie, 20; Emily, 18; Aaron, 15; Adam, 13; Caleb, 11; and Molly, 9.
“We wanted to come to work in jeans,” says Oded. “And I haven’t missed one of my kids’ Little League games since I left.” He also jokes he wanted a way to tax deduct his surf trips.
Longboard Vineyards has actually been producing wine since 1998. So this year marks its 10th harvest. It also marks the first release of a highly anticipated Pinot Noir. “The 2006 Pinot Noir [from O’Neel vineyard on Hall Road and Wohler Bridge vineyard near River Road] will be gone fast,” says Watkins. Silky and layered with elements of Queen Anne cherries, cola, strawberries and minerals, I found myself breathing it in with every sip. No wonder people are excited about it.
“I love making high-end wine,” says Shakked. “But there’s no need to be pretentious while doing that. It’s only wine. It can be high-end, but it can be enjoyed with a relaxed attitude.”
That relaxed attitude translates into Shakked’s personal version of making wine. “I don’t believe in formulas,” he says. “The only formula is, ‘What are the grapes like this year?’ It’s like cooking. If you’re making tomato sauce, it’s going to taste much better if you use tomatoes from your own backyard, not imported ones you get from the grocery store. If the ingredients are right, the sauce makes itself.”
The winery offers Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir. I tried two vintages of the Russian River Valley Syrah. The 2003 has anise and cocoa on the nose, followed by a smooth mouthfeel and peppery, dark cherry flavors. The 2004 is entirely different, with a floral bouquet in both smell and taste, and a sort of cayenne and white pepper spice. I also tried the 2004 Syrah “Da Kine Vineyard.” Anise and blackberries lead off this earthy wine, with dark berry and bing cherry flavors. This is Shakked’s vineyard, named after the Hawaiian pidgin term meaning “the best.”
“When I planted my own vineyard [which is a field mix of Syrah, Merlot, Malbec, Petite Sirah, Grenache, Carignane and Zinfandel], I knew it would be a single vineyard wine.” The 2004 “Da Kine Vineyard” Merlot is a jazzy, spicy, high-energy wine that’s certain to make you and your friends smile (it did me!).
Syrah was the first varietal at Longboard. Next came Cabernet Sauvignon. The Rochioli family, Shakked’s neighbors on Westside Road, were going to replace their Cabernet vineyard, which had been planted in the 1960s, but Shakked talked them into keeping it. “And now I’m the only one who gets those grapes. I feel very lucky to have them. You can’t go wrong with anything grown by the Rochiolis. They’re class people—class growers,” he says.
I also tasted the 2005 Sauvignon Blanc, which has an endless summer appeal of lemon, honeydew and (I swear) a bit of butter on the nose with a long-lasting citrus taste that doesn’t bite a bit. Think of a Sauvignon Blanc you can swim through.
“There’s no dud in the mix,” adds Watkins. “Oded’s instinctive winemaking scares the hell out of me sometimes—but the result is always good.”
The winery was planning to harvest its Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir shortly after my late August visit, and harvest will continue through October with the later-ripening varietals (Syrah, Merlot and then Cabernet). “Distribution-wise, we’re gearing up for our biggest fall ever,” says Watkins. “But growth wise we’re about the same as last year. We’ve tripled in size over the the past three years, so it’s nice to have a level year.”
Their success almost certainly has something to do with their relaxed and friendly attitude. Oded says they do a lot of business with a handshake. He adds, “I can make the wine, but not really sell anything—Robert and Bruce are better at that. Bruce has those kinds of relationships with the bankers. Robert works with multiple distributors.” This winning team has the right credentials and all its bases covered.
When all is said and done, and harvest has come to an end, Oded will certainly be surfing. He cites his favorite local spot as Salmon Creek “when it’s breaking really nice” and Bolinas or Stinson for the kids; abroad, he likes Hawaii’s Hanalua Bay and Hanalei as well as Costa Rica. “I haven’t been to the South Pacific yet [Indonesia, Tahiti, Fiji],” he says. I get the feeling he’ll head there soon. Robert says he likes to sail in the off-season, and that Bruce “coaches every sport known to man.” (Not a surprise with six kids!)
In the meantime, they say their biggest reward is seeing people coming in to taste the wine and having a good time. “People really feel at ease here,” says Shakked. “They get it. Many times an owner is here, and people like that.”
“Besides,” adds Watkins. “In what other tasting room do the employees wear flip flops?”
The words on the back label emulate that feeling. “Stay loose, trust your own palate, get wet often and spend more time surfing and sharing life with friends and family and less time reading the back copy of wine bottles.” I couldn’t possibly have summed up this winery any better myself.
When I left, Oded asked me about my kids (I have two boys, Tony is 7 and Joe is 5), and advised me, “Just get them into sports and music and they’ll be fine.” I smiled and laughed a bit, but then he said, “No, I’m serious!” OK, Oded, I’ll do that. Maybe we’ll all learn to surf someday, too.
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