When it comes to Napa Cabernet, there’s been a fair share of foreign investment driving the category, from the blockbuster 1979 Opus One partnership between Bordeaux's Philippe de Rothschild and Napa's Robert Mondavi to more recent acquisitions such as Cathiard Family Estate (formerly Flora Springs) and Shafer. When it comes to California Pinot Noir, however, outside investment has been less prominent—with one notable exception.
In 2000, when Domaine de la Romanée-Conti’s Aubert de Villaine announced he was taking part in a personal joint venture with California grapegrower Larry Hyde (the de Villaine and Hyde families are related by marriage), plenty of ears pricked up.
Now, just over 20 years later, Hyde de Villaine is quietly settling in. There have been a few winemaker changes along the way: Jean-Laurent Vacheron gave way to Stéphane Vivier, who then gave way to Guillaume Boudet in 2013. Boudet, 33, is a Bordeaux native whose grandfather was a barrelmaker. He worked a harvest at Château Haut-Brion, studied with the late, great Denis Dubourdieu, and then found his way to the Russian River Valley before connecting with HdV.
Boudet works side by side with the estate’s general manager, James Eyer, 41. The St. Helena, Calif.–raised Eyer caught the wine bug after finishing college, so he turned around and went back to get an MBA so he could focus on the business side of the wine industry. The pair gives the project a hands-on, French-American one-two punch in line with its founders.
Boudet and Eyer have a laid-back feel that belies their serious side. They see making Pinot Noir in California as a pretty open book. When I ask where they think the current bar is, Eyer replies, “I think the bar has plenty of room to move. There’s good stuff out there, but with so many differences in soil, exposure, temperature and vine material, it’s very difficult to pin down what California Pinot is right now.”
Terroir always plays a leading role in determining the bar. For HdV, that terroir is the Hyde Vineyard. Marked by a tiny sign along Highway 121 that connects Napa to Sonoma, the vineyard is just a few miles north of the cold-water influence of San Pablo Bay. On the Napa Valley side of Carneros, the long, gently rolling piece of land is planted mostly to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
Original plantings of 1979 Wente clone Chardonnay and 1986 Calera clone Pinot Noir are still going strong, along with newer plantings. The site features shallow topsoil over an underlying, water-retaining clay pan that serves as a buttress against drought, and prevailing cool breezes ensure long, even ripening. Hyde Vineyard has established a track record for high-quality fruit; among the leading producers that source fruit from the vineyard and use the Hyde Vineyard designation on their labels are Ramey, Kistler, Kongsgaard, Aubert and Patz & Hall.
Even with the family connection giving HdV an inside track on the fruit source, it took time for the founders to settle on exactly how to approach it. The first vintage of Pinot Noir bottled by HdV was the 2012 Ysabel, though that was made from grapes sourced from Van der Kamp Vineyards on Sonoma Mountain and the bottling was eventually discontinued.
In 2013, HdV started using Hyde Vineyard fruit for its Ygnacia bottling, still made today using a single dedicated parcel (no other wineries get fruit from it) which was replanted in 2010. The block features a massale selection (vines propagated from genetic material already in the vineyard) of five clones, with all of them planted on the same rootstock for consistency.
“With the clay pan below, it really forces the vines to push their roots in search for water and nutrients,” says Boudet. “And having a consistent rootstock gives us a control while the massale selection gives us different fruit characteristics to play with.”
A codified French aesthetic definitely exists here. For example, Eyer and Boudet both emphasize that they want old vines, still an uncommon practice in California, where vineyards are routinely replanted on a 20- to 25-year cycle.
“Aubert puts so much emphasis on vine age,” says Eyer. “You can’t replace old vines. We want to get to 50, 60 years old with the vines, and Chris [Hyde, Larry’s son] understands that and takes that approach with the farming.”
There’s also no green harvesting (dropping clusters around veraison to help concentrate the remaining fruit). “We actually feel that dilutes the energy of the fruit,” says Boudet. “We’re trying to farm so that all the fruit we bring in goes into the wine. There shouldn’t need to be a quality cut made in the winery.”
But there’s also a California-style willingness to adapt, experiment and adjust along the way. Fermentation takes place primarily in open-top wooden vats, but some stainless steel can be used as well. And there are varying levels of whole-cluster fermentation being employed too.
“The wooden vats give that deep, wood character while the stainless steel accentuates the fresh, floral side. On stems, that changes vintage to vintage. If we feel they’re needed for freshness or structure to balance what the vintage gave us, we use them. We’re always trying to adjust. We go by taste, not by the numbers, when deciding the pick date," says Boudet. "It’s the three ‘Vs’ for us: varietal, vineyard, vintage.”
During vinification there’s just a short cold soak, since extracting color isn’t an issue, and then a longer, slower, cooler ferment with minimal movement—just light pump-overs and perhaps a punch-down here and there. From there the wine is moved to barrel for its malolactic with élevage then lasting 18 months in 15 to 20 percent new oak that is just lightly toasted. The wines are bottled unfined and unfiltered.
Demonstrating the results of their efforts, Eyer and Boudet pour the 2014 HdV Pinot Noir Carneros Ygnacia Hyde Vineyard. It’s juicy yet also tightly coiled, with a very griotte character, sleek mineral thread and vibrant, focused feel.
The 2015 HdV Pinot Noir Carneros Ygnacia Hyde Vineyard is a contrast, with a bigger, even juicier feel, plum and cherry pie notes mixed with the griotte hint and a burst of spice and floral accents through the very expressive finish.
The current release 2018 Pinot Noir Carneros Ygnacia Hyde Vineyard combines the best of both of the older bottlings, with a youthfully plump core of griotte and plum notes, a racy mineral underpinning and a lovely array of savory and spice details that flow through the finish. Expressive now, it should still unfurl well over the next decade, and is an impressive step forward for the project.
As Eyer notes, the bar for California Pinot Noir indeed has room to move. The progress at HdV indicates this winery is pushing it up.