Just as top chefs have become celebrities in our food-obsessed culture, certain winemakers have skyrocketed to superstar status. Utter the names Helen Turley or Heidi Barrett in a room full of wine-lovers and you're sure to receive enthusiastic nods of recognition and admiration. But even the world's most famous winemakers are quick to spout that true-but-overused adage: Great wine is made in the vineyard. So what about the growers who lovingly tended the vineyards that produced all that fabulous fruit? Is there such a thing, you may wonder, as a star grape grower?
As a matter of fact, there is. You may not find them on the Food Network, or hosting fancy wine dinners in Aspen, but their names are prominently displayed on the labels of vineyard-designated wines.
Also known as single-vineyard wines, these bottlings are usually pricier than multi-vineyard wines, and are typically produced in limited quantities. Naming the vineyard on the label lets buyers know that the wine inside the bottle was made from special fruit that possesses certain characteristics.
Though some vineyard-designated wines are named for properties owned by the wineries themselves, many of the best vineyards are owned by independent growers who don't produce any wine of their own. Instead, they grow grapes on behalf of winery clients, who pay growers by the ton or by the acre for their fruit. Grapes from top winegrowers are usually in great demand, which allows them to charge top dollar for their grapes, and to pick and choose who buys them. (Would you want to see your name plastered on the label of a so-so wine?) Many growers will allow their winery clients to determine how their designated vines are farmed and when the grapes are harvested, in order to achieve customized results.
Are vineyard-designated wines better than non-designated wines? Only if you prefer the characteristics of the fruit that come from those particular vineyard sites.
In California winemaking circles, names like Sangiacomo, Dutton and Bien Nacido (among others) have attracted avid grape groupies. Their vineyard names grace the bottles of dozens of wines made by vintner clients including Tandem Winery, Benziger and Alcina Cellars (Sangiacomo Vineyard); Kistler Vineyards, Nickel & Nickel and Patz & Hall (Dutton Ranch); and Au Bon Climat, Lane Tanner and Qupé Winery (Bien Nacido Vineyards).
Based in Sonoma, the Sangiacomo family has been in the agriculture business--originally growing apples and pears--since 1927. In 1969 they started planting grapes, and today they are known as one of the largest and most-respected grape growers in the region, farming more than 1,000 acres of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon in Carneros, Sonoma Valley and Sonoma Coast regions. The family's down-to-earth demeanor and consistent fruit quality have earned the Sangiacomos a place of honor among Sonoma County growers.
Another famous Sonoma farming family, the Duttons, also began planting vineyards in the 1960s. Warren and Gail Dutton bought their ranch near the town of Graton in 1964, and planted it to apples and Chardonnay grapes. Though many at the time thought the area was too cold for grapes, the Duttons proved them oh-so-wrong. In 1974, Martin Ray Winery became the first producer to designate Dutton Ranch on its label, followed by Kistler in 1979. Today, the family farms more than 1,100 vineyard acres (about 50% organic)--mainly within the Russian River AVA. Chardonnay is still the family's signature variety, and its Pinot Noir and Zinfandel are also in demand. Dutton Ranch is known for its earth-friendly farming practices, as well as its terroir-focused selection of rootstocks and clones to match each vineyard site.
Bien Nacido Vineyards, located in the Central Coast wine region of Santa Maria Valley, began making a name for itself in the 1970s. Since 1969 the property--all 2,000 acres of it--has been owned by the Millers, a fifth-generation California farming family that got its start growing citrus and avocados. In the `70s, the Millers realized that the property's soils and cool climate were perfect for growing grapes, so they began planting varieties like Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Merlot. The ranch--part of an 1837 Spanish land grant--was originally called "Rancho Tepusquet," but the family decided to rename it Bien Nacido ('well born') in honor of its new vineyard venture.
The modern ranch--made up of many custom-farmed blocks--now includes about 600 acres of vineyards, planted mainly to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, along with smaller amounts of Pinot Blanc, Syrah and Merlot. Thanks to the quality of its grapes and its artisan approach to farming, Bien Nacido has helped put Santa Maria Valley on California's wine map. More than 35 wineries currently make vineyard-designated wines bearing the grower's name, and many would-be clients are on a waiting list to buy grapes from the ranch.
I recently paid a visit to Bien Nacido, and had the opportunity to taste a variety of wines made by the grower's winery clients (including a couple from the Millers' rising-star Solomon Hills Vineyard, located just south of Bien Nacido, in Orcutt). Though the wines from each vineyard vary in style, the quality of the fruit shines through. In general, the Bien Nacido wines are known for their elegance and grace, while Solomon Hills is gaining recognition for its more powerful flavor profile. You'll find notes on four of these wines on the WRO Reviews page.