Our second postcard is in. West Coast editor Jeff Morgan brings you the scoop on his recent visit to the Russian River Valley. In the premier postcard, we visited Bordeaux with London bureau chief James Suckling. Postcards is an occasional series of reports from Wine Spectator editors as they journey the world tasting new and exciting wines.
Technically, it's still winter in Northern California, but the magnolia and mimosa trees are already in bloom. The heavy winter rains have filled the ground with water, and it should be an early bud break in the vineyards hugging the hills along the swift-moving Russian River. But the rains have delayed pruning, and vintners are concerned about finishing their winter work before the onset of spring.
That's the talk around tables at Willow Wood Market Cafe in Graton, a wine-country town smack in the middle of Sonoma County's Russian River Valley. It's here, in this charmingly rustic region, that California Pinot Noir and Chardonnay find what might be considered their ultimate New World expression.
In this checkerboard land of vineyards, forests, hills and flowing waters, wine lovers--if they look hard--can find the publicity-shy Steve Kistler, whose Chardonnays are among the most coveted in the nation. A few hundred yards down the street from Kistler is the equally self-effacing Tom Dehlinger, whose Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are often the talk of such faraway towns as San Francisco, Chicago and New York.
Perhaps the most talked about item at Willow Wood Cafe--aside from pruning--is the $9.5 million sale of the Williams Selyem Winery. The region's most celebrated Pinot producer was purchased by New York investor and vintner John Dyson, who owns Millbrook Winery in New York's Hudson River region as well as vineyards in Italy and California's Central Coast. Williams Selyem's proprietary shift has a lot of winemakers wondering just how much their own properties are worth.
The odd thing about Williams Selyem, however, is that founders Burt Williams and Ed Selyem didn't even own the place. Their winery belonged to San Francisco Bay area real estate mogul Howard Allen, who also owns the famous Allen Vineyard on West Side Road. He built the winery on his property for his friends Burt and Ed simply because he liked their wines and knew they needed to get out of the makeshift garage they'd been calling a winery.
So Dyson seems to have purchased a label, some inventory and a good deal of expertise. (Burt plans to stay on as a consultant for two to five years.) But locals wonder how long the New Yorker will be able to buy the same fine grapes Burt and Ed have had access to. Most of Williams Selyem's grape contracts are unwritten, personal agreements with friends.
With Russian River grapes in high demand, it's a seller's market. The laughter circles loudly around the tables at Willow Wood when it's mentioned that Dyson wants to double Williams Selyem's production.
But Dyson may have the last laugh. Stranger things have happened in this sleepy, backwater wine region. More than 30 years ago, Joe Rochioli, who planted Howard Allen's vineyard and farms his own property next door, was selling his grapes to Gallo for $100 a ton. Today, if he deigns to sell them at all, he can receive as much as $3,500 a ton. And Rochioli wines, only a dream in Joe's mind 15 years ago, now command as much respect as those made by Kistler, Dehlinger and Williams Selyem.
Old-timers like Louis Foppiano, 87, and Leno Martinelli, 92, remember when it was actually illegal to make wine commercially in this country. For them, Prohibition is not ancient history. Now their families make wines that can be found on restaurant wine lists throughout the nation. Back in 1930, they never would have believed it.
The Russian River Valley still has that bygone feel about it, sort of like it's stuck in the days before World War II. Its winemakers don't live and work in fancy, chateaulike buildings--the kind you see in Napa Valley, for example. But Russian River homes and wineries are surrounded by some of the most beautiful, pristine country this side of Tuscany. Wines made here today often set the standard for those produced in better-known Napa Valley.
Come join me for a closer look at the past, present and future of the Russian River Valley, one of California's most promising and exciting wine regions, in the March 31 issue of Wine Spectator. Planning a trip to wine country? Then stop in at the Willow Wood Cafe for lunch. If you keep your ears open, you might hear about the next chapter in the story before I do.
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