Traveling over the winding roads of the Mark West passage from Napa Valley to Sonoma requires you to slow down a bit both physically and mentally. Sonoma is just a bit quieter than Napa; a bit more laid back, a bit more relaxing. Yes, the lavish château-like properties that dot Highway 29 have earned their adoration over years of making stunning wines from Napa Valley fruit, but the rustic wineries of Sonoma—some dating back 150 years—pride themselves on a slightly different, casual attitude than some of their friends over the mountain, while still producing stellar wines. I recently had a chance to visit with a few of these owners at their properties dotting Sonoma County, tasting with them as their guest. Here is the first of two installments, where I will uncover some undiscovered, very special wines.
Kim Pfendler’s love of wine came from her love of her husband, the late Peter Pfendler who purchased his 1000-acre cattle ranch in the hills of Petaluma in the 1980s. After retiring early in life from his career in aviation, Peter began planting a handful of acres on the property in the early 1990s around the same time he met and began dating his charming wife. Kim was in the entertainment industry in Hollywood working in film. The two met through mutual friends, quickly fell in love, and married.
Sadly, when their now 10-year-old son was still a baby, Peter passed away suddenly and quite unexpectedly. Though the easy route may have been to sell their ranch and go back to Los Angeles, Kim decided to stay in Sonoma, working the ranch and developing their wine business. Initially, she only sold their fruit to established wineries throughout the region. Eventually, knowing it was Peter’s goal to make their own wine, she began the Pfendler Winery in 2007, shortly bringing on winemaker Greg Bjornstad to help her create their Pfendler Wines brand. Today their production is still small. They have fewer than 1000 cases total, but their mineral rich, mountain fruit Pinot Noir and Chardonnay shine, exhibiting the effects of the expressive terrain and ideal maritime climate with foggy mornings, cool evenings, warm days, and constant wind off the bay, keeping temperamental Pinot Noir grapes happy and healthy. 2012 wines are currently available through the winery, which I had a chance to taste while visiting Kim at her home on the ranch. Fresh and balanced best describes her citrus, pear, and melon-filled Pfendler Chardonnay. It’s layered and elegant with juicy red berry, a touch of earthiness and spice fill the palate of their estate Pfendler Pinot Noir. Pfendler Chardonnay, $38, and Pfendler Pinot Noir, $45, are both available via the winery website.
Sitting across the table from Richard Arrowood, owner of Amapola Creek, I almost had a pinch-me moment as iconic winemakers are my most impressive celebrities. Now approaching his 50th vintage in Sonoma Valley, the master winemaker spends almost as much time on his Montana ranch as he does at his Amapola Creek Winery in the recently designated Moon Mountain AVA of Sonoma. To taste with him while listening to a lifetime of stories, Arrowood makes every guest stopping by his place feel like they are in their own home. Working with his help of his daughter Kerry, Arrowood reminds me a bit of my grandfather who raised me – bright and incredibly intelligent, explaining the details of his craft with enthusiasm and continued excitement.
Arrowood began his career in the 1960′s, initially working at Korbel and Rodney Strong, then moving on to winemaker for Chateau St. Jean from 1974-1990 where he created their first vineyard designate Cabernet Sauvignon, helping put Sonoma Valley on the map for great Cabernet. He later went on to open Arrowood, which after many persuasive discussions with Robert Mondavi, he sold to the legendary owner. Shortly after Constellation purchased Mondavi he opted out, dedicating his full attention to developing Amapola Creek, named to honor of his mother and her favorite flower – the poppy.
With over 100 acres of ranch land, of which 20 acres are planted to CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers) certified organic vines, Amapola Creek focuses on small production, high quality, elegant wines that tell the story of Arrowood, his distinguished palate and deep passion for the vine. I am rather picky when it comes to Zinfandel, and Amapola Creek is one of the best I have tried. The Amapola Creek 2012 Monte Rosso Vineyard Zinfandel comes from fruit grown right above his property line known for its mineral rich, red volcanic soils growing highly concentrated, old-vine Zinfandel that average 118 years. Aged 14 months in new and neutral French and American oak the wine is filled with dried cherry, blackberry jam, nutmeg and clove spice with a hint of fresh herbs mingling with dark chocolate. $42, available via the winery website.
Tim Reuling and his wife Jackie of Reuling Vineyard were initially looking for a Sonoma property to establish a bed and breakfast on, as Jackie is quite the cook and both have love of entertaining, effortlessly welcoming guests into their home and their world. After living in Northern California for some time and looking for a property they found the perfect location in 1998 in Forestville outside of Sebastapol in the Russian River Valley. The B&B took a backseat, as Tim says “what do you do when you own property in Russian River….you plant grapes,” transforming the overgrown, neglected apple orchard into an organically and sustainably farmed vineyard benefiting from a cool, marine influenced climate.
Today the 16 acre property, of which just over 12 acres are planted to vines, grows remarkable Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Initially the couple opted to just sell the majority of their fruit to winemakers like Mark Aubert and Peter Michael, but a few years ago they decided to start making a bit of their own wine, bringing on Matt Taylor, formerly winemaker for the acclaimed Napa Valley winery, Araujo. A Sonoma native with a wife and kids Matt had wanted to get back to Sonoma to raise his family, but wanted to work the same quality vineyards he had been a part of with Araujo. When Tim and Matt met they knew they would be able to create something special at Reuling. Utilizing everything from owl and bat boxes to fight pests, cover crops with a handful of grazing, grass-fed sheep to help keep the land fertile and control erosion, and only using natural pesticides when needed, the vineyards and Jackie’s expansive garden is thriving.
The result, wines with character and a great sense of place. I am a sucker for a great Russian River Chardonnay and the brand new release of their 2012 Reuling Vineyard Chardonnay, their first, is one of the best I have had recently. Bright and light, with mineral notes of crushed stone, honeysuckle, juicy melon and dried stone fruit with just enough creaminess add interest without overpowering the freshness of the wine. Ripe red cherry, cola and tart cranberry linger on the palate of their 2011 Reuling Pinot Noir, finishing with a hint of toasted caramel. Both wines are available through allocation via their website.
One of the most inspiring and enjoyable times you can have as a wine lover is sharing a glass of Vision Cellars Pinot Noir with its owner/winemaker, Mac McDonald. An East Texas native, and son of one of the best Moonshine makers in the state at the time, Mac had a sip of his mom’s blackberry wine when he was a kid and said I am going to make this one day. Later he went on to fall in love with earthy, robust Burgundy and set his heart on making high quality Pinot Noir.
Through hard work, tenacity and great relationships (like that of Caymus owners, the Wagner Family) his dream is reality, crafting beautiful Pinot Noir wines from some of the most sought after fruit in California, including his insanely delicious Vision Cellars Gary’s Vineyard Pinot Noir from Santa Lucia Highlands, and his lush, earthy and elegant Vision Cellars Ms. Lil’s Pinot Noir from their own estate vineyard named after his vibrant wife, Lil. Planted to vines just a handful of years ago, every release of the Ms. Lil’s Pinot gets better and better, proving the quality of his Russian River Valley land and his skilled, yet hands-off winemaking approach. These wines are delicious, but more than their acclaim is the joyful demeanor and welcoming disposition of Mac that comes through in every glass. Though he will talk through the technical properties of each of his wine, he would prefer to share a glass, often over a meal, telling stories filled with lots of laughter, as wine is meant to be enjoyed with friends, and it would be a rare occasion that Mac met someone he didn’t call a friend.
Though most of Mac’s production goes to restaurants around the country, a selection of his Vision Cellars wines are available via the winery website. Mac will also be in the Dallas-Fort Worth area the end of this month, participating in the Fort Worth Food and Wine Festival, and will host a special dinner on April 1 in Weatherford at Boo Ray’s Restaurant. Details for both are also available on his website.