With all the focus on what’s new and hot in the world of wine, we sometimes forget about the established wineries that paved the way for those up-and-comers. They were the ones that put down roots(tock) in California when the rest of the wine-loving world insisted that good wines could only come from France. While some of these pioneering wineries have stuck to their guns over the years, continuing to concentrate on the wines they built their names on, some of the most successful vintners are exploring new territory.
I was reminded of this a couple months ago, when I was invited to lunch at Landmark Vineyards, in the Sonoma Valley (Kenwood, to be more precise). This is a winery that’s been around since 1974, and made its name for Chardonnay. Although the winery has a fine reputation, I’d pretty much moved them to the back of my mind to make room for newer players. The invitation made me curious to find out what was “new” at the 36-year-old winery -- and if nothing else, I’d get to meet some nice people and share a tasty lunch.
What I learned when I got there was even more interesting than I’d hoped.
Founded by Damaris Deere Ford, the great-great granddaughter of John Deere (yes, of tractor fame and fortune), Landmark Vineyards started out as a Chardonnay-only winery. In the early 90s, Ford convinced her son, Michael Deere Colhoun, and daughter-in-law Mary to move from the East Coast and become partners in the winery.
In 1993, at the recommendation of Eric Stern, Landmark’s winemaker since 1989, the Colhouns hired famous winemaking consultant Helen Turley to collaborate with Stern on the wines. As a result, Landmark’s rich, opulent wines -- particularly the signature Overlook Chardonnay -- earned high praise from wine critics and California Chardonnay fans.
Enter the Rhônes
In the early 2000s, a new opportunity came Landmark’s way -- in the form of a vineyard pest called phylloxera. The pesky root louse was slowly killing off the winery’s 11-acre estate Chardonnay vineyard (the rest of Landmark’s fruit is purchased from local growers), and it needed to be replanted. Rather than simply putting in more Chardonnay, Landmark’s team took a hard look at the site and determined that it wasn’t the right variety for the estate.
What to plant instead? In the name of “research,” Stern -- a major fan of Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines -- and associate winemaker Greg Stach headed for France to taste and tour, and they determined that Landmark’s vineyard site would be good for Rhône varieties (a somewhat unusual choice for Sonoma Valley).
While they were switching varieties, they also decided to convert the vineyard to organic. To help with the process, in January of this year the Colhouns brought in renowned organic vineyard specialist Phil Coturri.
The vineyard -- dubbed Esprit du Rhône -- is now planted to 65% Grenache, 15% Syrah, 13% Mourvèdre, 5% Counoise, and about 2% Viognier. The vines were sourced from Château de Beaucastel (Rhône Valley) via Tablas Creek, the Central Coast winery co-owned by the Perrin family of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Now, the rows between the vines are mowed by sheep -- not tractors.
The change in Landmark’s estate vineyard has created a renewed sense of excitement at the three-decades-old winery.
“To express terroir is to have the property alive,” Coturri said of the organic vineyard.
And Stern is looking forward to the winemaking opportunities that new varieties will bring. “Blending -- that’s the secret of winemaking,” he said.
To help pay for the Rhône project, Landmark has started an “adopt-a-vine” program -- “Friends of the Vine” -- in which wine lovers can “buy” an individual row in the vineyard. “Owners” have naming rights to their rows, and first dibs on purchasing the wines that they produce. (The cost? $2,000 for membership, plus $500 per case for the wine.) The wines will be bottled under the “Esprit du Rhône” label.
In the spirit of Landmark’s emerging Rhône program, Stern made 12 gallons of Viognier wine this year from purchased fruit -- which I was able to sample during my lunch visit. The Viognier was just how I like it -- made without oak, aromatic but still crisp.
That’s not to say that Landmark has any plans to abandon its successful signature Chardonnay wines. But if that Viognier is any indication of Stern’s skill in making Rhône-style wines, Landmark should have an interesting future ahead of it.