A visit to any vineyard is pretty much going to be spectacular. There’s often a long drive lined with row upon row of verdant vines eventually leading to some sort of grand house or winery – or both! – nestled among the lush scenery.
However, when the occasion is to see where a wine you know and love…well, that ups the spectacular quotient by a lot.
So it was with our visit to Emeritus, a small (between 8,000 and 10,000 cases) pinot noir producer in the charming town of Sebastopol in Sonoma.
Let’s back up a little. I’ve been collecting Emeritus since 2005, and sometimes have occasion to correspond with the winery’s owner, Bryce Cutrer Jones. So when he found out I was planning a trip to Napa, he insisted that I make a stop in Sonoma first. (“I give the very best tour in wine country, including anything Napa,” he wrote.)
Sadly, he was out of town so the task of showing us around fell to his daughter, Mari, who works as Emeritus’ assistant marketing manager.
We drove up to the winery, but unlike my scenario above, there’s just a short drive into a dusty parking lot and a small, neat industrial building with a makeshift soccer field to one side, and lots and lots of vines!
Mari greeted us with a glass of their Red Ruby saignée wine – a rose crafted by bleeding off some juice to create a more concentrated, robust pink wine – and suggested we bring the glasses along as we strolled the vineyard.
(Note here that my husband took a glass to be polite; he has a very strong bias against pink wine, not that he ever tries any. One glass later and he was ready to bring some home!)
This property is called Hallberg Ranch, for the family who sold the land to Bryce. Prior to Prohibition, the land was planted with zinfandel vines. Later, the Hallberg family converted the property to an apple orchard. Bryce was after them for years to sell, and they finally gave in in 1999, shortly after Bryce sold his other wine venture. (You may have heard of it: Sonoma Cutrer Chardonnay.)
Bryce and his team began the work of clearing the land and replanting the 115 acre parcel with pinot noir. The soil is mostly sandy with clay underneath, though as the land goes up a hill, the amount of clay increases. As a result, grapes planted at the summit tend to produce wine that’s a bit fuller and more masculine.
Because they are planted in the low part of the valley, there is lots of fog that helps keep the grapes cool and retain their acidity. In addition, the vines are dry farmed – ie, there’s no irrigation – which means the fruit is riper earlier than their neighbors. Organic viticulture is used, though they aren’t certified.
Next, Mari takes us into the winery, which used to be where the apples were processed. (The former owners also had an on-site commercial kitchen, where apple pies were made for sale. Alas, it is no more!). The large sorting room led into the tank room, where the wine ferments in stainless steel. This in turn led to the barrel room, which was stacked high with wine biding its time until bottling.
Tour over and glasses empty, we returned to the tasting room to try their other two wines.
First up, the 2010 Hallberg Ranch Pinot Noir. It has lovely notes of strawberry and a hint of earthiness that’s very easy to drink. This wine is crafted to enjoy young, over the next 2-3 years.
The second wine, the 2010 William Wesley Pinot Noir, is more age-worthy. These grapes grow not on the property we saw, but further north on the Sonoma Coast, a much more challenging environment!
These vines are planted on steep slopes at a 950 foot elevation. Days are hot and dry (no moderating fog) and the growing season short. This wine has more snuff than the Hallberg Ranch version, though the similar flavors show their relationship.
And, with that, our tour was done. Mari was a charming hostess, and seeing the vineyards and learning about the meticulous care that goes into creating the wines made me appreciate them even more. Of course, now we’ll have to create a space in the wine fridge for the rose that will be coming our way next spring…