Solitude label has been around for nearly three decades, yet these days it's
well under the radar.
Back in the 1990s it was a "gotta have" Chardonnay as winemaker
Richard Litsch made a wine considered amongst the elite in California at
that time. He worked for Rombauer after his studies at U.C. Davis and
then traveled to Australia and New Zealand to do some espionage there.
Returning to California he landed at job at Chalone when it was a
super-serious, dedicated-to-quality brand.
In 1986 he struck out on his own, launching the Solitude brand. This
was a reliably good bottle of Chardonnay for many years and it's still good
Litsch sold it to our friends Walt & Tina Dreyer, who along with their
son Jonathan, own Solitude and a few other labels. I believe they got
their start when they purchased Grand Cru Vineyards, a once-prominent little
winery in Sonoma's town of Glen Ellen. Winemaker Richard Litsch is
still making the Solitude wine.
We had lost track of the brand at one point and Walt stopped by to show us
his latest vintage. We liked the fragrance and flavors, but found the
wine to be a bit sweet.
"How can this wine be in a portfolio called "Dreyer" when
it's not "dry"?" we wondered. Well, we skipped that
vintage but a year later Walt brought by the new vintage and it was, in
Upon release the Solitude Chardonnay, from the Sangiacomo Vineyards in
Carneros, is typically a bit tightly wound. But with a bit of time
in the bottle, this develops handsomely. We like the creamy,
vanillin notes on the nose and palate. There's ample toasty oak
without the wine being just a wood bomb. Add to the mix some apple
and pear-like fruit and a touch of wood spice and you've got a rather
showy bottle of wine.
We have the 2013 in stock presently and it's closing in on its peak.
winery was created specifically to focus on Chardonnay. The project
was started by Brice Jones in the 1970s, planting Chardonnay vineyards in
the Windsor area of Sonoma, as well as in Sonoma Valley.
We were amongst the first people to see this amazing facility with its
various state-of-the-art innovations. Winemaker Bill Bonetti had been part of the
design team and his input was heard by the architects. I recall
seeing a conveyor belt for "sorting" many years before this sort
of thing was common here in California. They also chose to pick into specially-designed
boxes which could be quickly chilled to allow the fruit to start its journey
towards being wine at a low temperature.
Bonetti was amongst the early winemakers to "whole cluster press"
his Chardonnay. Now you hear radio ads for Chardonnays from huge
wineries which routinely "whole cluster press" their wine, or at
least, they say they do.
While the wines have been nice and sometimes very fine, this firm has had
its ups and downs in terms of marketing.
Five Chardonnays are currently produced, but sales of these are restricted
until someone determines they're not selling quickly enough. It's
really a quirky system.
The basic Chardonnay is a twenty-buck bottle called "Russian River
Ranches." This is their "entry level" wine, being a
nice, mildly appley, lightly citrusy dry white.
Russian River Ranches is no longer offered to wine stores...this is to allow
restaurants to ask a small fortune and have a wine that's
"exclusive" since it cannot be found in retail stores.
You see, consumers feel violated or ripped-off when they find a wine in a
store for $18-$20 after they paid $40-$60 in a restaurant.
It currently costs restaurants less than $15 per bottle.
Replacing the Russian River Ranches in the retail market is a wine called
"Sonoma Coast" Chardonnay. We passed on early vintages and
only recently tasted the current bottlings of both, side-by-side.
I was able to taste this, totally blind, at a wine judging in 2013...we had
no idea what the wine was, apart from its vintage and that it was labeled
Chardonnay. The three judges at my table unanimously voted to not
award this even a modest Bronze Medal, meaning this was as dreary as dreary
The Cutrer Vineyard wine is a Russian River Valley wine. I find notes
of ripe pear and a touch of wood...dry...medium-bodied. Very nice,
Les Pierres comes from a rocky vineyard on Sonoma Mountain. It's a
marvelous wine for those who are in tune with the wine. For the rest
of the world, it's a simple, light, dry white wine. Too bad, because
it's actually rather nice.
Some years ago some marketing genius determined it would be best to focus
sales of the Russian River Ranches wine to restaurants and "allow"
stores such as ours to buy The Cutrer and Les Pierres from time to
time. Many customers, of course, don't hear the whole Sonoma Cutrer
story when dining out, so they amble into the shop, see the $30-$40 bottles
of the single vineyard wines and think we must be gouging customers since
they paid "only" $30-something for the wine they had in a
One year, ages ago, we were told there was no Russian River Ranches for our shop and I
sent the founder, Brice Jones, a nice letter asking him to kindly send us a
list of wines he'd suggest as substitutes for Sonoma Cutrer. This
would alert customers to the fact the winery was still in business and give
them a tip on an alternative. Two cases of wine arrived the following
week, though I never did hear from Brice.
The original shareholders grew interested in cashing out on their investment
and the these shares were eventually purchased by the Kentucky liquor
company of Brown-Forman. This is the same firm which now owns brands
such as Fetzer, Jekel and imports Bolla wines, sells Jack Daniels, as well
as Lenox China and Hartmann luggage. The firm finally
fired "poor" Brice Jones and today you won't find a mention of his name on the
winery web site. Not even on the "history" page.
Winemaker Bill Bonetti is still mentioned, however.
A high-end bottling of Chardonnay was released for the first time maybe a
decade ago. It's called Founder's
Reserve. Someone from the winery even came by the shop to show us a
fact sheet of this wine. It's apparently "too precious" to
allow us to actually taste the wine since production is small and the price
"You sell it on the reputation of Sonoma Cutrer." we were told by
the sales rep (who didn't even leave a card, not wanting us to pester him
asking for cases of Russian River Ranches).
"Not on my reputation." I replied.
The distributor's representative and the winery rep departed, in search of
more important customers, restaurant wine buyers.
I was later told by the distributor rep that I was the only person who
understood the quality of the wine and had an interest in buying them.
The restaurant buyers found the wines too simple or not rich enough (big,
flabby or even slightly sweet) to offer them to their guests. But of
course, we are but a mere "retailer" and not as high a profile
place as Barney's Beanery down the street.
Currently in stock: Russian River Ranches No Longer available at
2013 The Cutrer Vineyard SALE $31.99
2010 Les Pierres (list $41)SALE $37.99
STONY HILL VINEYARD
winery was the model for dozens of Napa Valley cellars in terms of its
"cult following" back in the 1960s and 1970s...the fact that they
sold wine exclusively to friends on their mailing list and a handful of
dining establishments...and that they were, once-upon-a-time, widely
regarded as the best Chardonnay in California.
The Stony Hill story begins in the 1940s when Fred and Eleanor McCrea, who
lived, I believe, in Hillsborough, purchased an old piece of a hillside
where someone kept goats, had a few fruit trees and grew a bit of
wheat. It was their "weekend getaway" home, except getting
away during World War II, with gasoline rationing, was a bit difficult.
Fred worked for an advertising agency in San Francisco and was in love with
the place. The wine business was tiny in Napa in the 1940s and yet
they had some friends who encouraged them to plant grapes. U.C. Davis
experts suggested Pinot Blanc and Riesling, but McCrea was enthralled with
the notion of Chardonnay. The university gurus didn't think Chardonnay
would ripen (and/or that it might be subjected to frost damage, take your
pick), but McCrea stuck to his guns and planted some anyway, adding a
small parcel to the state total of 225 acres. ((Today there are more
than 90,000 acres of Chardonnay.))
Riesling is still made and I can tell you, we opened a bottle of a 15 year
old Stony Hill in 2008 and this was amazing with a capital
"A." They used to sell those grapes to Lee Stewart who had a
small, boutique winery across the valley called Souverain. He was the
leading Riesling-meister. A former BV associate named Joe Heitz bought
Chardonnay grapes when the fellows at the Christian Brothers Winery refused
to pay a premium price for these higher-than-usual-quality grapes. The
going rate was $40 a ton and not a penny less!
McCrea knew he had good fruit and was a bit sad to see it blended away into
anonymity at Christian Brothers, so he started making his own. They
built a small winery in 1951 and a few years later entered their wine in the
state fair, winning a gold medal. Word spread about this lovely and
exclusive wine and by the 1970s you had to be on the mailing list to buy
Stony Hill wines.
I went to visit them and have a taste in the early 1970s...Fred and Eleanor
were sweet people and enjoyed reminiscing about their days in the Burlingame
and Hillsborough communities.
Fred had a bit of help with the winemaking from a fellow who'd worked at
Beaulieu, though this guy was mostly a vineyard expert. He could tap
friends such as Stewart and Heitz for help if he needed guidance. They
used to have high school kids in Napa come help during the harvest and later
it dawned on them that they could get a UC Davis enology student to come
work the harvest since school didn't begin until well into
The roster of "kids" who worked for the Mcreas is impressive...Jed
Steele who now owns Steele winery was a Stony Hill staffer. So was Ric
Forman who has Forman winery. Hank Wetzel, whose family owns Alexander
Valley Vineyards worked at Stony Hill. So did chocolate-meister John
Scharffenberger and John Konsgaard (he's a famous winemaker who produces
over-the-top, high-octane wines. His Grandpa owned a rock quarry in Napa
and his dad was a Superior Court Judge for the county of Napa)!
But the fellow who worked the vineyards after a stint at Sterling (in its
early days) was Mike Chelini. He's still the winemaker and has more
than 30-something vintages under his belt.
Stony Hill still makes wine using their old, classic recipe. They've
not changed to be more fashionable and make wines for today's Chardonnay
drinker. The juice comes from estate-grown grapes. It's
fermented in old, rather neutral French oak barrels and they do not allow
the wine to undergo a malolactic fermentation. In fact, they filter
the wine to be sure it's stable and doesn't undergo a secondary
The idea at Stony Hill is to make Chardonnay that tastes like it came from
the Stony Hill vineyard. And these wines, typically below 14% alcohol,
manage to age beautifully. In an era when the world demands
"instant gratification" and when so many people are so terribly
self-centered, it's nice to have a taste of wine from a time when the world
was a much simpler place.
This sort of wine will not please the legions of Kendall-Jackson fans or
those who find Rombauer's wine to be the height of sophistication. And
the wine, while it's perfectly nice in its youth, seems to blossom
handsomely with a bit of a very scare commodity: patience.
The 2007 vintage is in stock presently. Yes, it's got some bottle
age. This is a wine which tastes
"stony" as in Stony Hill. There's a flinty, minerally tone
to the wine along with the apple/pear notes of the Chardonnay. As I
write this, I've read an article by some "experts" who claim that
the notion of terroir and tasting the soil or vineyard is a bunch of
bunk. Maybe those people ought to try a glass of this Stony Hill
wine...it might make them change their tune.
Currently in stock: 2007 STONY HILL Napa CHARDONNAY $35.99
2013 "Estate" Chardonnay $25.99
The Talley family
story begins after World War II when Oliver Talley took up life as a
farmer. He planted various crops of vegetables in the Arroyo Grande
area, south of San Luis Obispo and not far from Pismo
Beach. His son Don noticed people planting grapevines to
the north and south and he lobbied for planting some vineyards on the Talley
In 1982 Don planted some vines, including Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc,
Riesling, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. In 1986 they made their
first vintage of Talley Chardonnay with total production tallying 450
We here at Weimax were early fans and we recall when young Brian Talley
stopped by the shop to show us his wine. We snapped up enough cases to
fill a floor stack and we have had the wine there almost ever
Brian poked around the shop in the early years and would pick up a bottle of
some French white Burgundy, wanting to see what it was people were willing
to pay a premium price for.
The wine continues to be quite good and well-liked by our
The 2013 "Estate" is a wonderful example of Talley
Chardonnay. The fruit comes from their Rincon vineyard with a bit of
fruit from the slightly younger Rosemary's vineyard along with a small
percentage from their Monte Sereno Vineyard. This vintage saw
a rather small crop and Talley whole-cluster pressed the juice out of the
grapes. The juice is then fermented in oak. This used to have
some Burgundian yeast for the fermentation. These days, though, they
use solely indigenous yeast.
Fifteen percent new oak was
employed, giving the wine a nice vanillin, toasty note. Full
malolactic gives the creamy texture to the palate. Rich, without being
heavy, the new Talley is very fine. And it's dry. No sugar, so
if you're a big fan of Rombauer's Chardonnay, you'll probably not find this
to be to your taste.
Very drinkable now!
TESTAROSSA Central Coast Chardonnays --
name of this winery has nothing to do with Italian automobiles, but for
the red hair of co-owner Rob Jensen. The Jensens purchased the old
Novitiate Winery in Los Gatos near San Jose. I'm certain the old
Jesuits would be stunned to taste the wines being made by the Testarossa
crew! Here these old guys made very standard table wines and
some mildly-interesting fortified wines (Black Muscat,
Here's an old ad the Brothers used to promote their wines:
"Nothing Less Than A Miracle Could Create A Finer Wine."
These guys needed divine intervention to make wines of exceptional
Nothing in stock presently...
Mullen planted some vines in 1960 and a few years later he was vinifying
small lots of Cabernet and Chardonnay from vineyards in and around
Woodside, just a few miles south of our wine shop.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Bob's wines had a cult following and
were amongst the most sought-after in California. These days people
seem surprised to learn there are vineyards in Woodside, but at one point
in time there were more acres of vines there than in Napa.
And some of the most impressive Cabernets came from the old La Questa
Vineyard, planted by Emmett H. Rixford in the 1880s. Rixford was a
San Francisco lawyer who enjoyed French Bordeaux. He even traveled
to France to visit Chateau Margaux and it's there he took vine cuttings to
plant in Woodside. By the early 1900s his Cabernet was winning
awards and in 1915 his wine took a gold medal at the Panama Pacific
Exposition in San Francisco.
Rixford's wine cost around 60-cents a bottle and that was considered a
high-priced wine in those days. (You could, we're told, buy a gallon
of table wine for about 25-Cents.)
Of course, over the years the town of Woodside has grown and
there are more houses there today than ever before. But many have, instead
of a front lawn, a small vineyard. And Woodside Vineyards does
purchase the grapes from many of these suburban "farmers."
Bob Mullen sold a controlling interest of the winery to Louis Giurlani. I
remember the Giurlani name from ages ago...Giurlani Brothers, if I recall
correctly. They had some sort of distribution company. And the
Giurlani name was important in the local business of olive oil.
Giurlani moved the winery operations to Menlo Park and the
facility is in a warehouse area just south of Marsh Road. He's got some
kind of car museum along the lines of Burlingame's Candy Store which shows
vintage autos and vintage wines.
We tasted a really good Chardonnay from Santa Cruz Mountain fruit. It's
mildly creamy, with nice pear-like fruit and vanillin note from the oak.
It's dry, medium bodied and thoroughly delicious.
Other Distinctive Chardonnays
CAKEBREAD CELLARS 2014 Napa Valley Chardonnay List Price $47 SALE
Cakebread was a photographer and was working on shooting pictures for a book
about American wineries being written, sort of, by a Los Angeles attorney
who was a wine fancier.
The photos of Nathan Chroman's "Treasury of American Wines" was a
delightful book and we still have a copy in our tasting room here at Weimax.
Chroman actually had sent out questionnaires to his favorite vintners
asking them for background information for the book. Jack Cakebread
then visited these wineries around the country and took pictures.
Along the way, he and Mrs. Cakebread saw a cool little ranch in Rutherford
owned by the Sturdivant Family. They made an offer and next thing they
knew, they were living in the Napa Valley and were soon to embark on a wine
adventure of major proportions.
They vinified a few barrels of Chardonnay in 1973 and released these in
The winery has been joined by Cakebread's son, Dennis and Bruce.
From such a small start they today own 1100 acres of land, with more than half
of it planted to vineyards. We're told they make 75,000 cases of wine
annually which suggests their vineyard yields are rather low. We wonder if
these statistics are accurate.
Most of the grapes for their Chardonnay come from the Carneros region.
They ferment perhaps 4% in stainless steel tanks and the rest goes into French
oak for its fermentation. Maybe one quarter of the wine undergoes a
malolactic fermentation and they employ some lees-stirring while the wine
remains in oak. It is typically a bit over 14% alcohol and the wine is
weighty and a bit warm on the palate.
This is one of those brands that has a measure of cachet amongst a segment of
the local wine-drinking community. Prices have been a bit high, in our
view, given what you can buy from other California wineries (not to mention
wines from Europe, New Zealand and Australia).
But this has been one key to the success of the Cakebread brand. It's a
label which is often appreciated more for its branding than for the wine in the
bottle. So we'd say the wine marketing team at Cakebread does a pretty
FAR NIENTE WINERY 2012 Napa Valley Chardonnay reg. $65 SALE
$54.99 (Magnums in stock now, too...$99.99)
Far Niente Winery was established back in the 1880s and is located just south of Oakville
in the shadows of the Mayacamas Mountains. It's ironic that the wines cost so many
dollars when the place has been owned by someone named Nickel. Mr.
Nickel, by the way, died in 2003, after an illness.
His family members did not see eye to eye and the winery was sold to the GI
Partners investment group which owned, at the time of the sale, Duckhorn
Vineyards and its various wineries and brands. Shortly after GI bought
Far Niente, they sold Duckhorn to another investment group, so the game of
musical chairs continues in the Napa Valley.
But happily the founding management crew at Far Niente, who also have
ownership shares in the company are still in place and doing a good job, we
We used to say "Far Niente" is Italian for "expensive Napa Valley wines" and the
marketing philosophy here is "why pay less?" But while the
wines were, in our view, weak for so many years, we are delighted to say the
quality has improved and today they make a pretty good
The fruit comes from Coombsville, a somewhat below-the-radar site in
southeast Napa. It's a cool climate region and it's less windy than
Carneros. Further, the soils are deeper.
It seemed to us that the Far Niente Chardonnay began its increase in quality
around the 2006 vintage and they've been improving ever since.
Far Niente barrel ferments its Chardonnay and leaves the wine on the spent
yeast for about 10 months. A bit more than half the barrels are brand
new and the rest have been used just for one wine. We like the use of
oak in the wine, as it's certainly present and easy to detect, but it's not
overwhelmingly woody. They don't allow a malolactic fermentation and
the wine retains a mildly appley fruit character with a touch of a toasty
note, likely from both the time in barrel and the time on the spent yeast.
There are some notes in the 2014 which we find in mild French White Burgundy
wines...and they have not chased the current fashion of brands such as
Caymus and Rombauer by making wines which have residual sugar. Bravo
2013 Central Coast Chardonnay
The Varner Brothers had been vineyard specialists when we first met them, as
they worked for Dr. Thomas Fogarty in Woodside/Portola Valley.
The next chapter, they had a little importing venture and we purchased some
terrific French wines. In fact, we still buy wine from some of their
'discoveries' from their now defunct Park Wine Company.
The American dollar was on the downturn and they didn't view the French wine
business as viable, so they shut the doors and concentrated on making their
Varner labeled wines.
They then launched another label called Foxglove. It's a line of
modestly-priced bottlings, including Cabernet, Zinfandel and a rather
You can compare the 2013 Chardonnay to a good wine from Macon. Maybe
it's not quite on par with some top bottlings of Pouilly-Fuissť, but it's
every bit as good as most "Macon Villages" wines. And the
price is attractive, as well.
It features a mildly pear-like fruit quality with a hint of citrus.
Oak is very faint. The wine is dry and a good value.
Case discounts, too, so it's $13.50 or $12.75 by the dozen.
Talbott family has been making Chardonnay and Pinot Noir since the early
The family was well-known for luxury neck-ties, a business started by Robb
Talbott's father. Mom sewed the ties and Dad sold them in the town of
In the Carmel Valley they have a vineyard called "Diamond T" and
in the Santa Lucia Highlands of Monterey, you'll find their Sleepy Hollow
I can tell you the early vintages were marvelous and stylish...amongst the
best in California.
Then in the late 1990s, perhaps, or early 2000s we found the style of
Talbott's Chardonnays to be remarkably variable.
Some vintages suddenly had lost the oak character associated with the early
Talbott Chardonnays. Some years the wine seemed to be fruity and a bit
sweet. Vintage to vintage, the wine was, frankly, inconsistent.
We had not had a Talbott Chardonnay in the shop in several years. Over
that time, they'd introduced a few other labels, Logan and Kali-Hart...these
are wines which are more "commercial" in style and which are aimed
at competing with Kendall Jackson or Clos du Blah.
I included the 2011 Talbott "Sleepy Hollow" bottling in a
blind-tasting of Chardonnays in November of 2012. We had a trio of
French Burgundies and 5 California wines. The Talbott was the surprise
winner of the tasting and its style was a bit surprising, too.
It was not the oaky or toasty wine of the early days. Nor was it the
sweet, fruity style of a few years ago.
Instead we found a wine which actually smells and tastes of Chardonnay
"fruit." The Chardonnay grape often produces wine of little
personality and so typically the hand of the winemaker helps produce a style
of wine appreciated by those who enjoy Chardonnay. Sometimes this
entails dominating the wine with an oak quality. Other times it means
a secondary fermentation takes center stage. Sometimes the wine spends
months on the yeast sediment and is vigorously stirred to give a toasty
element to the wine.
Well, the 2012 Talbott is PURE Chardonnay! Think of the fragrances and
flavors of a Granny Smith apple but without the sugar...that's the 2012
Talbott. We didn't find much oak here, though it was supposedly
matured in French barrels, 30% being new.
The winery was purchased by E&J Gallo, so when the last bottles have
been sold here, this brand will no longer be offered in the shop. It
will be available solely by special order.
Currently in stock: 2012 TALBOTT "Sleepy Hollow"
Z-D WINES 2014 California Chardonnay list $37 SALE $31.99
We have fond memories of visiting the Zepponi and DeLeuze family winery on
Burndale Road in Sonoma back when this was a "garage" operation.
We were early supporters of this little enterprise, having purchased cloudy
Gewurztraminer and wildly exotic Pinot Noir. They also made Riesling
back in those early days.
operated by the De Leuze family, Gino Zepponi having died in an auto
accident in the mid-1980s. Norm DeLeuze passed away in 2007, so both
pioneers are gone, but they certainly live on in memory and spirit.
They left a very distinctive
"recipe" for their Chardonnay, blending fruit from the Central Coast with North
Then the juice goes into small American oak barrels for its
fermentation. Most producers, these days, ferment Chardonnay either in
stainless steel or concrete and skip the oak or they conduct the
fermentation in somewhat toasty French oak barrels which often contributes a
vanillin quality to the wine.
American oak can make quite an impression on the wine and ZD's ends up being
quite distinctive and unique. They cool the cellar to retard the
fermentation. While many wineries will ferment their Chardonnays over
the course or a couple of weeks, ZD's takes as long as a couple of
months. We think this helps capture the some of the exotic fruit notes
in their wine. Add to the recipe the American oak and you'll likely
detect the pineapple-like fruit quality of ZD Chardonnay.
They take precautions to not have a secondary, malolactic
fermentation. And once the primary fermentation is complete, they rack
the wine off the spent yeast to not pick up any leesy or smoky notes.
They then begin the task of blending and assembling this Chardonnay Jig-Saw
Puzzle. This continues through the spring and into summer.
Around July and August they bottle the wine and the new vintage hits the
The 2014 is the current offering.
This vintage shows the typical ZD "spice" from its exposure to
American oak barrels. If you've not tasted ZD Chardonnay in a while (or
ever), maybe now is the time to take the plunge?