Fall 2006 / Winter 2007
Four to Watch
These vintners are making wines you need to be drinking
by Deborah Grossman
An acclaimed winemaking couple taking over the cult wine of
all cult wines. A vintner whose wines are hard to identify due
to understated labels. A winemaker with an affinity for jazz
and no winery to call home. A winemaking pair connected to the
rock ‘n' roll world. These vintners are making wines that may
be hard to find, but are definitely worth the search.
At age 38, when you become winemaker at Screaming Eagle, arguably
the most well-known cult Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, what's
your next move? If you're Andy Erickson, you daydream about improving
your own label, Favia Wines. But that's a challenge when your
first vintage of Favia Pinot Noir was listed as an Exquisite
Wine at Per Se in New York City and The French Laundry in Yountville,
two Thomas Keller five-star dining establishments.
Erickson and his wife, Annie Favia, his Favia Wines partner
and Screaming Eagle consulting viticulturist, stay grounded about
their success. “There are no shortcuts in the vineyard,” says
Favia. “With Mother Nature, you see, feel, and hear what she
gives you and respond to the environment.”
“My role as winemaker is to taste the grapes and imagine how
the wine will taste in 10 years,” adds Erickson, who gives his
wife high credit for laying out vineyards like bonsai gardens.
“Every vine is minutely nurtured and in balance. Imagine that
at 2,200 vines per acre.”
Erickson and Favia first made wine in 1996 while dating and
launched Favia Wines in 2003. Busy parents of two daughters,
they produce less than 700 cases a year at a local winery, focusing
on Russian River Valley La Josefina Pinot Noir, Bennett Valley
Syrah, and two Napa-based blends of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet
Sauvignon named Cerro Sur and La Magdalena. “We do everything
ourselves,” says Favia. “We keep it fun, manageable, and balanced.”
Favia wines are available at St. Helena Wine Center, Back Room
Wines in Napa, and at select restaurants in Northern and Southern
California, Las Vegas, and New York City.
Fred Scherrer doesn't make it easy to identify his bottles or
his winery. The understated label highlights the varietal rather
than the winery name, and there is no cute logo. Don't expect
signage at this Sebastopol winery either—just look for the metal
building that resembles a horse barn. And make sure you've called
ahead for tastings.
“We pretty much let the wines speak for themselves,” says Scherrer,
who grew up among the vines his grandfather planted in Alexander
Valley in 1912. With 10 years' experience at Dehlinger Winery
in the Russian River Valley, Scherrer started his own winery
in 1998. He views his work not as making wine but as managing
the controlled spoilage of grapes. That may sound simple to some,
but the UC Davis graduate crafts food-friendly wines that age
well. His first bottlings were a Zinfandel and then a Cabernet
from the Scherrer family vineyards. Through personal contacts
with Sonoma growers, he also makes award-winning Pinot Noir and
limited lots of Chardonnay and Syrah.
“Some customers think I'm an ‘all Zinfandel' winemaker, while
others swear I'm ‘all Pinot Noir.' ” he says. “Just call me schizophrenic.
When people ask why I don't just concentrate on Scherrer Vineyard
‘Old and Mature Vines' Zinfandel, I tell them I would get too
Scherrer wines are served at Wine Country restaurants such as
Cyrus in Healdsburg and John Ash & Co. in Santa Rosa. To
purchase Scherrer wines, visit fine wine shops in the area, such
as Back Room Wines.
Branham Estate Wines
Gary Branham likes the rhythm and seasonality of winemaking,
from pruning and irrigating to harvesting and improvising final
blends. Maybe that's why he named the largest of his small-lot
wines Jazz. “This quartet of Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Cabernet
Sauvignon, and Syrah changes every vintage,” he says. “When I
found original art for the logo, I discovered the artist is a
jazz musician—serendipity all around.”
Maybe it's serendipity, or perhaps a keen appreciation of agriculture
that has led Branham to discover outstanding vineyards. In 1989,
before Rockpile became the sexiest new appellation on the block,
Branham purchased 240 acres in the northwest Sonoma hills. Since
1994, handcrafted Branham Rockpile Zinfandel has become known
for its juicy ripeness with a tannic finish.
But the seasoned winemaker, who has worked in Australia, New
Zealand, Santa Clara, and Healdsburg, also likes Napa fruit and
bought the Obsidian Vineyard near the Silverado Trail. Branham
Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is garnering fans in California
and six other states.
Branham would like his own winery. But for now, he says, “I'm
fulfilling my dream of having my own brand. I want people to
try my wines and say, ‘These are good wines at a fair price,
serious but fun to drink.' ”
You can order Branham wines at Press in St. Helena, Brannan's
in Calistoga, Langley's on the Green in Windsor, Dry Creek Kitchen
in Healdsburg, Mosaic in Forestville, Chateau Marmont in L.A.,
and Boa Steakhouse in Santa Monica. Buy the wines at Russian
River Wine Co. and 34 North in Healdsburg, Oakville Grocery,
and JV Wine & Spirits in Napa.
Yes, the name Owl Ridge has special meaning for owner John Tracy.
“My wife and I have collected owl artifacts for many years,”
he says. “Owls are friends of the vineyard, eating rodents who
gnaw vine roots. For our logo, we chose a naturalistic rendering
of a very strong owl.”
But who is John Tracy? He's a successful high-tech entrepreneur
who thought he would retire to Sonoma County but instead bought
a vineyard in the Russian River Valley. In 2001, up-and-coming
winemaker Joe Otos began making award-winning Pinot Noir and
Chardonnay from this vineyard under the Willowbrook Cellars label.
After confessing to Otos that he preferred Cabernet Sauvignon,
Tracy launched Owl Ridge Winery to focus on Sonoma Bordeaux varietals.
Otos selected several unique vineyards, including one on the
Sonoma side of Spring Mountain owned by highly regarded grower
Mick Brigden. Brigden is also well known in the music business,
managing stars like Bob Dylan and Eddie Money. Currently on tour
with Joe Satriani, Brigden stays in synch with his Sonoma roots:
“If Joe Otos asks us to drop 40 percent of the fruit, we do it,”
he says. “There are really only two types of music and wine—good
and bad. And I hear Owl Ridge Brigden Vineyard Cabernet is good.”
Owl Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon is available at Guy Savoy in Paris,
La Folie in San Francisco, and Traverso's in Santa Rosa, as well
as in fine wine stores such as Oakville Grocery and Ludwig's
Fine Wines in San Anselmo.