Fall /Winter 2008
Richard The Third Act
Sonoma wine making legend Richard Arrowood postpones retirement for one last act of grapeness.
By Marty Olmstead
From his 120-acre hillside estate just north of Sonoma, Richard Arrowood has a clear view of the celebrated Monte Rosso grape vines relished by winemakers throughout California and beyond. "I'm so close, I could heave a rock into the vineyard," he says, "but they get upset when I do that." Of course, he would never defile such a vineyard, just as an art connoisseur would never draw a mustache on the Mona Lisa. Arrowood considers himself fortunate to be among the select handful of top-echelon winemakers who have access to Monte Rosso.
If Arrowood sounds slightly humble, maybe it's because he has been making wine for only four decades, while the Monte Rosso vineyard was first planted more than a century ago. Its gnarly old vines cling to a western slope of the Mayacamas Range at elevations between 350 and 1,000 feet. The vineyard's westward orientation and position above the marine layer afford ample sunlight for consistent ripening.
"The terrain here lends itself to mountain fruit," explains Arrowood one summer afternoon at the small winery he and his wife, Alis, opened last March. "The Mayacamas Range has good, red soil, particularly the basaltic material. It gives us what we want. The terroir gives us a fingerprint."
No one is a bigger proponent of mountain-grown grapes (famed wine critic Robert Parker once said, "No Californian coaxes more flavor from a grape than Arrowood"), but it took him a long time to realize his dream of establishing vineyards he could call his own. Arrowood grew up in Sonoma County and began his wine-making career some 40 years ago-call it Act I-at Korbel Champagne Cellars while still earning his undergraduate degree in organic chemistry. After stints with United Vintners and then Sonoma Vineyards with the late Rodney Strong,
Arrowood became the first employee hired by Chateau St. Jean in 1974. He was still making award-winning wines at Chateau St. Jean in Kenwood when he established Arrowood Vineyards just down the road in Glen Ellen in 1986. Alis Arrowood ran the new winery until 1990, when Richard left Chateau St. Jean and began Act II. Eventually, this act would feature quite a bit of drama, with plot twists that stretch credulity, even in the wine business.
When the Mondavi family purchased Arrowood Vineyards & Winery in 2000, Richard Arrowood sensed that the time was right to take a step toward his dream. "The idea was to plant vineyards and sell the fruit to [the winery]," he says. "Alis and I set about building a new home and planting 20 acres of vines." Arrowood, who describes his four years with Mondavi as "the nicest relationship you could have," stayed on as director of winemaking, but found himself in a different situation after Mondavi sold his holdings to Constellation Brands.
Constellation told the Arrowoods they could buy back their winery if they also agreed to buy another of the Constellation properties. "We didn't need a second winery," says Arrowood, in an ironic bit of foreshadowing. Constellation then sold Arrowood to Legacy Estate Group, which brought it to bankruptcy. "Alis and I didn't know what to do. I suggested maybe we should start another winery. She asked, 'Are you out of your mind?' I said, 'It would be a small winery.' She asked, 'How small?' 'I said, 'Really tiny, just 3,000 cases.' "
Open Act III. Alis agreed to postpone her retirement vision of playing golf and fishing at their second home in Montana and instead build a model winery. The barnlike structure is made of metal (to minimize the threat of cork taint) and outfitted with photovoltaic panels to power both the house and the winery. "It's not about trying to be ultragreen," says Arrowood. "It's smart business. Using solar power saves money." Using the same reasoning, Arrowood farms his vineyards without pesticides because he believes organic vines are not only better tasting but also disease-resistant.
Meanwhile, Stage Right, Jackson Family Vineyards was in the process of rescuing Arrowood Vineyards. They asked Richard to stay on as wine master. The hard part, he says, was telling his wife. "Alis said, 'So now we have two wineries instead of just the one?' " he recalls. To Alis's relief, Arrowood was soon able to divest of most of his administrative duties. "There are only so many hours in the day. I want to focus on our organically grown estate wines."
Naming his new winery was the easy part. A seasonal stream flows through their estate, and each spring its banks are covered with California poppies, called amapola in Spanish. So the Arrowoods dubbed their place Amapola Creek Winery and devoted themselves to producing tiny quantities of handcrafted wines. "We want to do artisanal wines. You can't make diamonds by the wheelbarrow; those are called rhinestones." In March, the couple released their first vintage, 400 cases each of organically farmed, estate-grown 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as a 2005 Zinfandel, Viñas Antiguas, sourced from Monte Rosso.
As for retirement, it seems Richard Arrowood-and the rest of us-will just have to wait for Act IV.