California: Wine, Californian Wine Regions, Napa Valley, Sonoma County, & More Profiled

Q&A with Richard Sanford, Owner and Winemaker at Alma Rosa

Santa Barbara wine pioneer Richard Sanford is among the inductees into the 2012 Vintners Hall of Fame. Sanford started one of the first modern wineries south of the San Francisco Bay Area in 1982 and for several decades, his Sanford Winery and Vineyards was the lone outpost in the now-sizzling Santa Rita Hills area of Santa Barbara County. He was the first winemaker to prove the potential for Pinot Noir in the Santa Rita Hills and spent the next 20 years making some of the best regarded Pinots from the region including bottlings from arguably his best vineyard, Rinconada. Sanford left his namesake winery in 2005 and founded Alma Rosa Winery & Vineyards in Lompoc.

What prompted you to pursue winemaking as a career? If not winemaking, what path would you have chosen?

Upon returning from military service in Vietnam in 1968 I wanted to pursue an activity more connected with the land. During my tenure in the Navy I had been introduced to a wonderful Volnay by a fellow naval officer. That became my inspiration to pursue a career in agriculture and I chose winegrowing to attempt to duplicate the quality of that wine. After 40 years as a winegrower I cannot imagine any other path.

Wines to Go Buy This Week: "Comfort Wines" - A Zinfandel by Glenn Hawk and Tulip Hill's Cabepulciano (yeah you read that right)

I live in San Francisco and January weather here means 50 degrees and rain. Constant bone-chilling rain, or so it seems. And before the rest of America emails to remind me how good I have it and how freaking cold it is in New York or Ohio or whatever other frozen tundra they call home, I'm just gonna say that when you are cold, you are cold, and comfort food -and comfort wine- goes a long way towards warming your heart when Old Man Winter starts to have his way with you. So with this in mind, I bring you two comfort wines you should go buy this week.   

Glenn Hawk Zinfandel - I typically don't gravitate to Zinfandel. I associate Zins with "cocktail wines", that is, wines that are delicious for a few sips of a single glass but can be a bit too fruity and overwhelming for those of us who tend towards enjoying multiple glasses. So I don't recommend many Zinfandels simply because I don't drink many of them. Every once in a while I stumble back down the Zinfandel path and am reminded of how good the varietal can be. I recently tried the 2009 Glenn Hawk Zinfandel from Livermore Valley (just south of Napa in the shadow of Mt. Diablo).

Q&A with Wes Hagen, Winemaker at Clos Pepe Vineyards in the Santa Rita Hills

Wes Hagen assumed control of Clos Pepe Vineyards in Santa Barbara’s Santa Rita Hills in 1998, though it was first planted in 1994. This former English teacher brings an analytical and thoughtful approach to winemaking, specifically Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. He received his viticultural and winemaking training from the University of California at Davis extension program. His small lot production and strict allocation program have helped earn him 90+ point scores from Wine Spectator, Robert Parker and Decanter Magazine.

What prompted you to pursue winemaking as a career? If not winemaking, would you still be teaching English?

I was teaching college in Minnesota and it was very cold. I got a call from California that my Mom and Steve Pepe had purchased a horse ranch near Lompoc. I came back for Christmas, fell in love with the place, and left Minnesota immediately for the Pinot Promised Land.

Q&A with Dan Duckhorn, founder of Duckhorn Winery

With the founding of Duckhorn Vineyards in 1976, Dan and Margaret Duckhorn played a pioneering role in establishing Merlot as one of North America's great premium wine grapes. Duckhorn Vineyards produces several single-vineyard Merlots and Cabernet Sauvignons, as well as a highly regarded Sauvignon Blanc. Their work as wine industry leaders has been recognized on many fronts including the New York Times which dubbed Dan as “Mr. Merlot.” The Duckhorns took that same Merlot vision and applied it to Pinot Noir in Mendocino’s Anderson Valley with Goldeneye. In July, 2007, GI Partners, a private equity firm, purchased a controlling interest in Duckhorn Wine Company. 

Q&A with Bernard Portet, Winemaker at Heritance

Mentored by his father, a technical director at Château Lafite, Bernard Portet grew up tasting each wine vintage. Born in Cognac, his family has owned vineyard property in France since the late 1600s.  A firm believer that making wine is all about a specific place, Portet’s journey led him to the United States, Australia, Morocco, South Africa and South America. Due to the similarities of several of his favorite wine regions in France, it was California’s Napa Valley that inspired him. With a clear vision of the potential of the Napa Valley, in 1971 he co-founded Clos du Val. He pioneered several Napa Valley regions and developed a keen focus upon the Stags Leap region. Portet remained at Clos du Val for more than 35 years. His latest wine label, Heritance launched in 2011.

Q&A with Nicholas Miller of Bien Nacido Vineyards - Santa Barbara County

Bien Nacido is not only the most well-known and respected vineyard on California’s Central Coast, but is has the distinction of being one of the major viticultural nurseries in California for certified, varietal budwood. In addition to Bien Nacido, the Millers operate two other vineyard sites, French Camp east of San Luis Obispo, and Solomon Hills in Santa Maria, with well over 2,500 combines acres, as well as two custom crush facilities in Santa Maria and Paso Robles. Bien Nacido was called on of the top 25 vineyards in the world by Wine & Spirits Magazine, and Food & Wine Magazine called them one of the ten best vineyards. The Wine Advocate, Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast routinely award over 90 point scores to wines made from Bien Nacido fruit.

Bien Nacido is the most widely sourced vineyard on the California Central Coast. Certainly with 800 planted acres it produces a lot of grapes, but beyond that, why is Bien Nacido so sought after?

Bien Nacido seems to have that magical formula of making wines with a sense of place.  Long term customers, such as Jim Clendenon of Au Bon Climat say they can pick a Bien Nacido Pinot Noir out of a blind tasting. Whether it’s cool climate Syrah, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir or another varietal, our winery customers enjoy receiving product that is uniquely Bien Nacido.

Q&A with Peter Mondavi, Jr., Winemaker at Charles Krug Winery

The name Mondavi is synonymous with wine, there is no denying that. Peter Mondavi, Jr., son of Peter Mondavi, Sr. and nephew of Robert Mondavi, heads the Charles Krug- Peter Mondavi Family Napa Valley Winery. Part of the Mondavi vision, and one that he believes only a successful family-owned and operated business can make, is the investment of $25.6 million made to replant the 850 acres of their Napa Valley vineyard land, renewing the winery’s focus on Cabernet Sauvignon and other red Bordeaux varietals and converting to sustainable farming methods. In 2010 the winery received the California Governor’s Historic Preservation Award for the restoration of the winery’s historic structures.

What prompted you to pursue winemaking as a career, and was there ever a thought about leaving the family business for something else?

My original intent was to pursue some form of engineering, thus the BS in Mechanical Engineering. But my experience working in virtually every aspect of the winery during my summer vacations since I was 8 years old was too strong of a draw. There are way too many draws and positive aspects to living and working in the Napa Valley and in the agricultural business of winemaking.

Q&A with Larry Londer, owner of Londer Vineyards in Mendocino

Larry and Shirlee Londer of Londer Vineyards crafted their first wine in 2001. Since then, they have received critical scores from the top wine magazines for their Pinot Noirs. They helped Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley become a contender in producing high quality Pinot with the help of their first winemaker, Greg LaFollette. Originally from Denver, Larry practiced ophthalmology and Shirlee ran an optical shop in Albuquerque, New Mexico for 27 years. Their move to Northern California signaled their second careers. Today Londer Vineyards makes wine sourced from within and without Mendocino, but focus their attention on the Anderson Valley.

Your focus is on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in the lesser known region of Mendocino. Is that a hard sell given you compete with well-known Carneros and Russian River?  

Not really. You need to price the wine consistent with our own area and not try to price it like it was coming from Russian River. The blanket of fog that ordinarily curls up from the coast most summer nights and then burns off during the warm dry sunny days allow the vineyards to produce grapes that slowly develop and ripen. We are one of the coolest of the state’s so-called cool-climate wine regions. This is ideal for growing varietals such as Pinot Noir, Gewurztraminer, and Chardonnay.

Q&A with Jerry Lohr, Founder of J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines

Jerry Lohr is considered one of the pioneers of California Central Coast wines. In the late 1960s, he began investigating grape growing regions while searching for the ideal location for a vineyard. Raised on a South Dakota farm, his research led him to the Central Coast. He originally planted 280 acres in Monterey County in 1972 and unveiled his San Jose winery the following year. In 1987, he planted Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and other red varietals in San Luis Obispo County’s then little-known Paso Robles region. Today, in addition to over 1,300 acres in Monterey County, J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines farms 2,300 acres of estate vineyards in Paso Robles, and 35 acres in the Napa Valley, and has tasting rooms in Paso Robles and San Jose. J. Lohr wines are available throughout the United States and in over 30 countries globally. In 2007, U.C. Davis honored Jerry with its Award of Distinction, and in 2008 he was named Wine Industry Person of the Year by the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance.

There are over 6,000 bonded wineries in the U.S. from every state in the nation (not to mention fierce competition from abroad).  Is the U.S. wine business currently saturated?

I am very supportive of evermore wineries. More wineries mean more locations where people can have a wine experience. People always take pride in their local wine. Wine tourism has the best multiplier effect of any agricultural product. Anyone having a good wine experience then passes it on to friends. Word of mouth is great.

Q&A with David Hopkins, Winemaker at Bridlewood Winery in Santa Ynez

With more than 30 years of winemaking experience behind him behind him, David Hopkins still visits vineyards and winegrowers every week to taste grapes and begin to formulate his blends, something he has become well known for. An avid surfer and scuba diver, Hopkins oversees the 105 acre estate at Bridlewood Winery crafting blends and wines from the California Central Coast with fruit from Santa Barbara to Monterey County.

What prompted you to pursue winemaking as a career? If not winemaking, what path would you have chosen and where do you think you would be right now?

I happened upon winemaking somewhat accidentally. One Friday afternoon at Fresno State, my microbiology class ended early and my lab partner asked me if I wanted to help him rack wine barrels at the student winery. Four hours later, I emerged from the winery completely enthralled with the experience I just had. Monday morning, I was standing in front of the Enology department’s chairman asking him how to get a job in the wine industry. I think it was the unique combination of agriculture, food science and the art of wine tasting that really drew me into the world of wine, and I haven’t looked back since.

If I had not agreed to help my lab partner that day, I would have likely pursued a career in floriculture, specifically in studying tissue culture for orchid production.

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