Fall 2007/Winter 2008
Three to Watch
Meet three re-careering vintners who are making wines you need to be drinking
by Deborah Grossman
A former marine biologist and his social-worker wife. An accountant and a lawyer. A soil scientist and a PR exec. These three winemaking couples have given up the corporate ladder climb to watch their vines climb, and never once looked back-luckily for us.
Cloud View Vineyards
Leighton Taylor took the sea route to becoming a vintner in Napa Valley. Instead of studying the habitats of sharks, the former University of Hawaii marine biology professor carefully observes the ecosystem and interplay of beneficial insects and animals on his 30-acre vineyard on Pritchard Hill.
"At a 1,200- to 1,500-foot elevation, we look down into the valley and watch a sea of white clouds while we are in the sun," says Taylor, who grew interested in farming while working on environmental educational programs at the California Academy of Sciences.
Taylor originally sold all his grapes to neighboring Chappelet Winery but now keeps half for his own use (his Cloud View Vintage 2003 Estate Red Wine reflects his fruit's dark, intensely colored flavors). With the mountain vineyard grapes ripening at different times, the Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot is vinified in small lots. "We make 10 wines a year, and bottle one," says Taylor.
His wife, Linda, a social worker who always wanted to be a farmer, studied viticulture and now tends the vineyard full time. Leighton handles marketing and assists consultant Karen Bower Turjanis with winemaking.
Leighton continues to write ocean-based books and finds analogies between both his worlds. "It's all about understanding and managing living systems," he says. "Vineyards and wine are ecosystems. Yeast, a key ingredient in making wine, is a living thing-you don't want to damage its environment with heat or unwelcome bacteria."
The new Bennett Valley AVA in Sonoma County is one cool place, climatically speaking. On chilly winter nights, co-owner and winemaker Brett Raven is all too familiar with the squawk of the frost alarm, propelling him outside to protect the 15-acre vineyard with microjet sprinklers. That's how Raven settled on the name of his vineyard, which produces outstanding Merlot in the shadow of Bennett Peak, southeast of Santa Rosa. "Much of Bennett Valley fruit gets blended with wine labeled Sonoma Coast or Russian River," says Diane Kleinecke, Raven's wife and Frostwatch co-owner. "We were one of the first wineries to put the Bennett Valley appellation on our label."
Frostwatch Merlot displays fully ripe flavors and tannins with enough acid from long vine hang time for elegance and balance. As if responding to those who think Bennett Valley is too cool for Zinfandel, Raven's small estate production shows a restrained, fruity vibrancy.
Raven and his wife met as undergrads at UC Davis.Kleinecke studied plant science, but became an accountant; Raven became a lawyer. When the wine bug hit, the couple purchased undeveloped land in Sonoma County and planted a vineyard. In 2002 they began producing their wines commercially. "The worst day in the vineyard or winery," Raven says, "is better than the best day lawyering."
Herb Lamb Vineyards
With all the buzz around terroir, it's no surprise that a soil scientist would be a successful vintner-even if that wasn't his original ambition. After school, Herb Lamb worked in his native Napa Valley in the agricultural chemical business (he still works in the field). His wife, Jennifer, worked in public relations at several wineries.
In 1987 they purchased property at the foot of Howell Mountain, and in the years since, Herb's expertise with the soil and their careful tending of the vines have led to the production of exceptional cabernet sauvignon grapes. Renowned winemaker Helen Turley made the much-acclaimed Colgin Cellars Herb Lamb Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon from the Lambs' first harvest.
Though they still sell grapes to Colgin, the Lambs began producing their own wines in 1997. Their premium HL brand, using hand-selected grapes from the vineyard, and their E II label are produced at custom crush facilities. "The HL Cabernet has mountain fruit character without hard tannins-it's juicy, yet velvety and dense," says Jennifer. With contract winemakers and purchased grapes, they also produce Sauvignon Blanc.
Like many re-careering winemakers, the Lambs didn't set out to be vintners, but the remarkable lifestyle lured them in.
Where to Find Them
Cloud View Vineyards
Herb Lam Vineards