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Q & A: Peter Molnar of Obsidian Ridge Vineyard
By Tina Caputo
Jul 31, 2012
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I’ve tasted and enjoyed many wines from Lake County over the years, but until recently, I’d never really toured the region’s vineyards.  There’s really no excuse for that, since Lake County is less than a two-hour drive from my house.  It’s just that it always seemed so… far. 

I’m embarrassed to admit that it took the promise of aerial transportation to entice me to spend some quality time in Lake County.  But boy, am I glad I made the trip.    

As part of the North Coast appellation, Lake County is bordered on the west by the Mayacamas Mountains -- which define the border between Napa and Sonoma counties to the south -- and the Vaca Range to the east.  Its vineyards surround Clear Lake, one of North America’s oldest geological lakes. 

This combination of factors results not only in stunning scenery, but also in distinctive and delicious wines, with great structure and acidity levels.  And the region’s under-the-radar status means there’s terrific value to be found in Lake County compared to other North Coast AVAs.

During my long-overdue visit, I was able to tour one of area’s most unusual and beautiful vineyards:  Obsidian Ridge.  Planted at an elevation of 2,640 feet in the Red Hills AVA, in southern Lake County, the 105-acre vineyard is absolutely filled with shiny black obsidian rocks -- some of them the size of beach balls!  

The Cabernet Sauvignon ($28) and Syrah ($28) wines that come from the vineyard’s red volcanic soils are equally impressive, showing concentrated black fruit, soft tannins and dried-herb notes.  

The man in charge of overseeing this special vineyard is Peter Molnar, who along with partners Arpad Molnar (Peter’s brother) and winemaker Michael Terrien, founded the Tricycle Wine Co.  In addition to the Obsidian Ridge Vineyard and wines, the company includes Poseidon's Vineyard in Napa Carneros, the Molnar Family and Kazmer & Blaise wine brands, and a partnership in Kádár Hungary, a Central European Cooperage.  (The cooperage comes in handy, as it supplies barrels for the Obsidian Ridge wines.)

Originally from Hungary, Peter’s family first ventured into Lake County in the late ‘90s, as grape growers.  Today Obsidian Ridge is known as one of the region’s standout grape and wine producers. 

Peter took time out from his duties managing the vineyards and cooperage to tell me more about the extraordinary Obsidian Ridge Vineyard.

Wine Review Online (WRO):  How did you become involved in the wine business?

Peter Molnar (PM):  After escaping from Hungary during the 1956 Revolution, my parents emigrated to California and started planting vineyards in the 1960s and `70s.  We did not live In Napa, but my brother and I spent some of our summers working in the vineyard, tying, training and watering.  Our parents wanted us to understand what manual work entailed and what was supporting us.  It was not an extensive education, but I think it was when the hook was set. 

Ironically, the Berlin Wall fell as I finished college and I bought a one-way ticket to Budapest.  My first job was helping privatize the Hungarian wine industry – a bit of a jump into the deep end of the pool.  I had the chance to build a winery, refurbish a cooperage and start a negociant company -- that’s a lot in four years. 

When I got back to California, I took a crush job at Acacia and started helping my father with Poseidon’s Vineyard in Napa Carneros, which he planted in 1974.  In 1995 I started making wine with Michael Terrien.  In 1996, my father and I were asked by a friend to check out Amber Knolls, now the Beckstoffer vineyard in Red Hills, when it was still a walnut orchard.  That visit started our Mayacamas journey.

WRO:  What attracted you to the Obsidian Ridge site? 

PM:  My father and I started looking around Lake County in 1998.  One cold February afternoon a local real estate agent finished the day by saying, “I have one more spot.  It’s not for sale, but I know the owner....”  The light was fading and we were cold from being out all day, but the site was amazing:  A 50-year-old abandoned walnut orchard.  There were hundreds of dry farmed bonzai walnut trees, many not much more than 6-feet tall, and obsidian everywhere you looked.  It was a 30-second buying decision. 

Ranging from 2,350 to 2,640 feet in altitude, north facing with amazing volcanic soils, the property reminded me of some of my favorite Spring and Diamond Mountain sites.  At $4,000 an acre I knew we could grow great fruit at a very compelling value. 

WRO:  So what did you plant there?

PM:  The site has 90 acres planted to six clones of Cabernet Sauvignon, and the balance of the vineyard is planted to Petit Verdot, Petit Syrah, Malbec and Syrah. 

WRO:  What was it like preparing the rocky soil for planting?

PM:  The soil is nuts.  We pulled out over 200 tons of obsidian rock -- some the size of the front end of a pickup truck -- just to put in the irrigation system.  We built tractor pads, erosion berms and some walls with the obsidian.  As we are just on top of the North Coast Magma Pocket [a magma pocket is an underground chamber that fills with lava] we have obsidian flumes all over the property.  When soil scientist Paul Skinner finished his analysis, his conclusion was simple:  He said it was the rockiest site he had ever measured. 

WRO:  Does the obsidian provide any benefits for the vines?

PM:  The main benefit of the obsidian is the drainage.  The rocks and gravel go down at least 12 feet, probably more.  Canopy and vigor are limited.  Yields are limited, with small and intense berries. 

WRO:  What role does the vineyard’s high altitude play for the fruit?

PM:  It moderates the sun and provides much greater UV and phenolic intensity than lowland vineyards.  The UV breaks down pyrazines throughout the season, which results in lower levels of green bell pepper character.  It also results in higher levels of tannin and structure, with lower levels of bitter tannins and higher levels of acidity. 

WRO:  What’s special about Lake County as a growing region?

PM:  Our wines, like in any distinctive region, are dictated by our soils and climate.  The Red Hills AVA is the in Alta Mayacamas Mountains, with elevations from 1,500 to 3,000 feet, and on some of the youngest soils in the North Coast.  The reds are structured but also keep high-toned and bright characteristics.  Late September and October can be very cool at night, we can even get frost, and the acidity really hangs on.  I also detect lots of what the French call “garrigue” -- the chaparral, dried herb, wild note -- in ours and others’ wines. 

WRO:  Are there any myths about Lake County you’d like to bust?

PM:  That Lake County is hot.  Working with Southern Oregon University research climatologist Greg Jones, and looking at heat summation maps of the past 40 years of the North Coast, the reality is that there are many nooks and crannies in the four-county area that are great for the right varieties. 

WRO:  How much wine are you making?

PM:  Tricycle Wine Company is a partnership, and currently we make about 10,000 cases a year at our facility in Sonoma.  We are currently on the 2009 release and we feel it’s one of our best, but I have to say we are pretty excited about 2011.  Last October was warm and dry up here and we picked some really balanced fruit. 

WRO:  How much of that production is for Obsidian Ridge, compared to the other brands?

PM:  It’s about 7,000 for Obsidian Ridge.

WRO:  With such a small production for a 100-plus-acre vineyard, where do the rest of the grapes go?

PM:  We also grow for a number of great wine programs, including Honig, The Prisoner, Derenoncourt California, and Steele Wines, as well as a few bigger players.

WRO:  Where are your wines available?

PM:  Our wines are sold in much of the United States with New York, California, Hawaii and Chicago being some of our strongest markets.  We can be found in most of the East and Texas as well. 

WRO:  When you’re not drinking Obsidian Ridge wines, what do you enjoy drinking at home?

PM:  Frankly, I drink our wine often.  I am always trying to understand the material we’re working with and how the wines evolve.  We’re 10 vintages into this, but still learning.  That said, I love the Sonoma Coast Pinots because I am an abalone diver, and washing down grilled abalone with fruit you can almost see from the water is a great pairing….