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Black Kite: Soaring, Humbly
By W. Blake Gray
Sep 22, 2009
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I've always hated this story: "Rich guy buys winery, spares no expense to create 95-point collector's item."

New ideas, new energy and new capital -- these are good things.  It's the last part that turns me off.  Not that my vote counts: Wine Spectator writes this story all the time.  But I prefer writing about wines made for people who like wine, not possessions.

Here's where Black Kite Cellars is different.  The owners made their money in telecommunications, have only made wine commercially since 2004, and have a stack of 90-point ratings from all the right places (including here!)

Moreover, their wines are so site-specific -- three very different wines from just 12 acres of vines -- that they make me question the meaning of "terroir" for other wines.  How can we say we know the character of Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir -- or even a Pinot Noir from 50-acre Garys' Vineyard in Santa Lucia Highlands -- when the character of Black Kite grapes changes so much in less distance than I can throw a basketball?

But there's an air of humility around Black Kite, and it starts with location. 

In 1995, Donald Green, then CEO of Advanced Fibre Communications in Petaluma, bought a 40-acre parcel in Anderson Valley at a time when most nouveau winery owners were looking for ways to break the zoning laws for hillside vineyards in Napa Valley.  It came with an old Gewurztraminer vineyard; for a few years he sold the grapes to Handley Cellars.

In 1999 he had the old vineyard torn out and replanted 12 acres of Pinot Noir.  Since a certain movie hadn't yet come out, Pinot was not yet considered a path to fame and fortune.  Green sold his first few crops of Pinot to Handley, Schramsberg and Roederer.

In 2004, his daughter Rebecca Green Birdsall was restless.  A Dartmouth MBA, she had spent 13 years at Hewlett-Packard before leaving to give birth to her son Duncan in 1999.  She had been doing charity work with the family foundation, and chaired a campaign to restore the Conservatory of Flowers in San Francisco.

"I must admit, I really like the for-profit sector," Birdsall said. 

She told her father she wanted to take over the grapes, and Black Kite Cellars was born.

"I went from a very analytical business where you market everything from its quantitative features," Birdsall said.  "The wine business is totally different.  It's totally subjective.  We didn't know what this land could yield."

So she methodically set out to find out.

"We put together a panel of Master Sommeliers and had our wine blind-tasted with nine other Anderson Valley wines from the same year, and we listened," Birdsall said.

They decided they had good fruit, so they systematically tasted other Pinot Noirs to find a winemaker for it.  They liked some Oregon Pinots made by Jeff Gaffner under his Saxon Brown label, so Birdsall asked him to see the vineyard with her.  This leads to a good example of their humility, which Birdsall says is a product of her English upbringing (her father is English and got his start at British Telecom).

"On the phone call she undersold the place, saying, 'We have some problems'," Gaffner said.  "On the whole drive up, she undersold it.  She said, 'These grapes are OK, but it's like kissing your sister.'  The drive from Sonoma to Philo is not just around the corner, so she had my ear for an hour and a half.  I was expecting the worst.

"It's so remote, and you have to go through three gates on a logging road to get there," Gaffner continued.  "I didn't know Rebecca and I was wondering, are they ever going to find my body?  Then you come over the ridge and you're back into Anderson Valley.  We looked at the three different blocks.  The vineyard was beautiful."

For Gaffner, the beauty was not the scenery, but the huge differences in soil and climate in such a relatively small area.  That's what makes the Black Kite wines special -- and that's also why these are wines for wine lovers, not trophy seekers.

Like the best Burgundies, Black Kite's three vineyard-block wines express the mystery of terroir.  Redwood's Edge, at the top of the vineyard, runs right into Stony Terrace in the middle.  The River Turn block is further down, but the total change in elevation from top to bottom of the whole vineyard is only 289 feet.

Yet these are three completely different wines (all are $52).  The Redwood's Edge wine is perfumey and elegant, complex and elusive, with a very long finish -- a wine geek's wine.  The Stony Terrace is a straightforward full-fruit cherry-character wine, more California style.  River Turn is taut, with more cranberry character and even a hint of orange peel.

Black Kite also makes two blends, Kite's Rest ($42), the name of the total 12-acre vineyard, and Angel Hawk ($75).  It's funny to call them blends, since they're also both single-vineyard wines.  You can taste echoes of all three blocks, along with an appealing cinnamon spiciness, in the Kite's Rest, which I prefer to the more heavily oaked Angel Hawk. 

The Greens have always had the wherewithal to build a winery, but that wasn't where their passion lay: instead, they're still making their wine at Copain Custom Crush in Santa Rosa.  Birdsall, whose last job at Hewlett-Packard was to manage what computer peripherals were sold where, has also taken a cautious approach to selling their 1400 annual cases: the wine is 60% in distribution in California, New York, New Jersey and Nevada, primarily at restaurants, and 40% direct.  They actually don't want to be in the position of people who love their wine not being able to buy it.

"Jeff said right away, make sure you keep track of people who said the wine is delicious," Birdsall says.  "We have to make sure we don't overprice.  We don't want to have any arrogance in the way we approach the market."

The reason is that their reward is measured differently than it would be at Hewlett-Packard or Advanced Fibre.

"The most satisfying thing for my dad in particular is the number of people who have come back and said, 'We really love this wine'," Birdsall says.  "We had one customer tell us he liked it so much, he was taking our wine to the Alaskan tundra.  How cool is that?"