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.
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." It would typically retail at $20 a 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 note
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 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 new Chardonnay has been released. 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 $19.99 Sold
2011 The Cutrer Vineyard SALE $29.99
2010 Les Pierres (list $41) SALE $37.99
2003 Les Pierres in magnum (list $80) SALE
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, 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 more!
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!
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. 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
- TALLEY VINEYARDS
- 2011 "Estate" Chardonnay $25.99
- The Talley family produces
wonderful bell peppers and some pretty awesome Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Happily,
they keep everything separate, so you won't find a green pepper flavor in their
Chardonnay! Located in the Arroyo Grande appellation, north of Santa Barbara, this
is a fine producer of creamy, buttery Chardonnays.
The 2011 "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. 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, a portion of the lot being
fermented with the indigenous yeasts and the major segment fermented with a
special Burgundian yeast strain. Thirty 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. Very drinkable now!
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...
2012 Napa Valley CHARDONNAY Sale $18.99
Jonathan and Susan Pey came to the winemaking side of the business from
different perspectives. He worked for some big wine companies, such
as the national importer, Kobrand. Susan worked as a buyer for a
small restaurant group.
Both have long been exposed to the world's best wines and Jon spent a fair
amount of time in France, as well.
Now they cultivate a bit of Pinot Noir and Riesling in their cool climate
vineyards in Marin County and they make a handful of other interesting
With experience rooted in Old World wines, you'll notice their various
bottlings lean towards classically-styled offerings, rather than being
made with today's wine critic in mind.
As a result, you won't find the wines from this couple to be fruit bombs,
nor do they "push the envelope," nor do their offerings have
"gobs of fruit."
The Chardonnay, modestly called "Textbook," is a wine coming
from a couple of sites in the Napa Valley. Most of the juice comes
from the Carneros region, with 20% being from the Yountville
Some of the juice is fermented in stainless steel to preserve the appley, somewhat
stony, minerally notes, while some goes into French oak for its
They say they've tried to create layers of flavors and complexity by
incorporating a number of different winemaking techniques...some of the
wine spends time on the spent yeast, which is then stirred. Some of
the wine underwent a malolactic fermentation...
Well, we find the resulting wine to be quite good and well-priced.
It displays a pear-like character with a faint Granny Smith apple tangy
quality. The oak is lurking in the background, adding just the right
amount of wood spice to the wine. It's dry, off course and
pleasantly snappy without being shrill or aggressive.
Other Distinctive Chardonnays
- ACACIA WINERY
2012 Carneros Chardonnay Special Sale
-It's $20+ at the winery-
- The Acacia Winery was founded by some crazy guys who had been
associated with Freemark Abbey way back in the Dark Ages of the late 1970s. Today
the winery is owned by the big drinks company, Diageo, and it still features Chardonnay and Pinot
Noir from the Carneros region.
The wine seemed to withstand several vintages of corporate ownership and
they maintained the quality and house style.
They apparently make a bunch of single vineyard wines and small lots to sell
at the cellar door...perhaps the attention to these wines has meant less
attention is paid to the flagship bottling?
We still carry this as a few customers are still attracted to the
- CAKEBREAD CELLARS
2011 Napa Valley Chardonnay List Price $47 SALE
- Jack & Dolores Cakebread started back in 1973 with a
small vineyard and winery located on the St. Helena Highway across from Robert Mondavi's
Things have grown, Cakebread today producing about 65,000 cases of
The wines, to be perfectly blunt, are priced ambitiously and we think
they're expensive for what they are. But they've attracted a market
which is willing to pay the price. We stock them because many people
view the Cakebread label as the height of sophistication.
- They obtain Chardonnay from a couple of
sites in the Napa Valley, combining the character of cool climate wine with
that of warmer region Chardonnay. These two pieces of the puzzle fit
together nicely. Woodsy and a bit high in alcohol, a popular
combination for many wine consumers these days...
They're also known for Cabernet, Sauvignon Blanc,
Zinfandel and Merlot.
- FAR NIENTE WINERY
2010 Napa Valley Chardonnay reg. $56 SALE
$49.99 (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 two years or so ago, after an illness.
"Far Niente" is
Italian for "expensive Napa Valley wines" and the
marketing philosophy here is "why pay less?" And this works
brilliantly for the Far Niente brand as we routinely see people buying this
wine as a show of sophistication. It's also a demonstration of
Though our comments may be viewed as a bit derisive, we must say the 2010 vintage is remarkably good and without question, our
favorite Far Niente Chardonnay of all time.
We are unsure as to whether the change in character, which began with the
2006, was a
conscious decision or whether it was serendipitous. But we applaud the
The wine is mildly smoky, showing some stony, minerally notes. I found
it to be a bit leesy and along the lines of some good French white Burgundy
wines. It has not undergone a malolactic fermentation, though.
Nice oak...toasted hazelnuts...dry and it's not a heavy or alcoholic
- 2012 Mendocino County "Unoaked" Chardonnay
probably heard the name Fetzer in association with the wine business.
We heard of that family back in 1970, or so, when they'd started a little
winemaking enterprise in Mendocino County. Back in those days, Napa,
Sonoma and Mendocino were all viewed as fairly equal in terms of wine
quality. Mondavi was an upstart little winery in Napa, Sonoma had not
yet seen the likes of Jordan, Dehlinger or Williams-Selyem, but it did have
Joe Swan. Mendocino's new upstart was this Fetzer winery.
Well, the Fetzer family was a large one and their wine business grew to a
substantial size before they cashed out, sending a number of Fetzers off on
their own, independent wine quest.
Jim Fetzer and his wife Patty have a 600 acre property in Mendocino, with
half of it planted to vineyards. They had the idea of making a little
bit of wine and so they started this little enterprise with the 2001
vintage. Fetzer had the good sense to hire a top winemaker and so Dave
Ramey was enlisted to set them on the right course.
All the vineyards are farmed organically. This has been a signature of
the Fetzer clan way back into the 1980s. They were farming responsibly
well ahead of the crowd and doing so not for marketing reasons but simply
because it is the right thing to do.
With the 2012 vintage, Saracina offers a nice, non-wooded Chardonnay.
Production is modest, with something like 880 cases being
The wine has a nice pear-like fragrance, partly the Chardonnay fruit shining
brightly and partly a drop of Viognier being blended in which gives a nice
perfume. For those tired of tons of oak, toast, yeasty notes and
butter or cream, you might consider this wine.
The Saracina name, by the way, comes from a place visited by Mr. & Mrs.
Fetzer on their honeymoon in Tuscany...so now you know!
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 2011 Talbott is PURE Chardonnay! Think of the fragrances and
flavors of a Granny Smith apple but without the sugar...that's the 2011
Talbott. We didn't find much oak here, though it was supposedly
matured in French barrels, 30% being new.
- Currently in stock: 2011 TALBOTT "Sleepy Hollow"
2011 California Chardonnay list $33 SALE
- We have fond memories of visiting the Zepponi and DeLeuze family winery on
Burndale Road in Napa 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 live on in memory and spirit.
They left a very distinctive
"recipe" for their Chardonnay, blending fruit from the Central Coast with North
Coast grapes. American oak. No malolactic fermentation. The
resulting wine has a spicy, somewhat pineapple-like character, lovely for grilled seafood
The 2011 is the current offering.
This vintage shows the typical ZD "spice" from its exposure to
American oak barrels. It's a bit less of a tropical "fruit
punch" at this stage (in its early days) than some of the previous
vintages. Nice and dry, too.