Two Hot New Labels To Look For

Jun 27, 2006

On Friday, I did what many folks think I do every day.

I tasted some great new wines and then had lunch with the men behind the wines, Kevin Harvey and Jason Jardine.

Harvey is the owner of two labels, Rhys (pronounced Reese) Vineyards and Alesia. He’s 41 and a venture capitalist who has turned his passion for wine into a career. He lives in the Santa Cruz Mountains appellation.

Jardine is 29 and the winemaker for both lines of wines.

It’s obvious, having tasted all of their wines, that these two know what they’re doing. They have tapped some great vineyards, both in the Santa Cruz Mountains and in Sonoma for their lineup of mostly Pinot Noir and Syrah.

The first commercial releases are coming out this year and you can sign up for their mailing list at rhysvineyards.com.

Rhys Vineyards wines come from four vineyards Harvey owns and planted in the Santa Cruz Mountains. (You can view pictures of them on the winery's Web site.) The Alesia wines are made from purchased grapes.

Harvey experienced his Pinot Noir epiphany from drinking the 1990 and 1991 wines of Williams Selyem, Dehlinger and Gary Farrell. “I always dreamed of owning a vineyard in Russian River or Sonoma Coast because you see the quality of the wines,” Harvey said.

But the more he tasted the wines from Santa Cruz Mountains, particularly the Mount Eden Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, the more he became convinced of that area’s unique soils and climate.

“I was struck by the tertiary character of the Santa Cruz Mountains,” he said. That laid the foundation for his vision for making wine.

In 1995 he planted a vineyard in his backyard and made wine in a garage. Fast-forward to 2004, when the first commercial wines were made.

Harvey brought the bottled wines, which he feels are not ready for release yet, for me to taste at my Napa office. Though I tasted them non-blind, I thought all of them were exciting--exhibiting excellent focus, depth, balance and concentration--and felt they had the potential to score outstanding.

I intend to review them in a formal tasting once they're released this fall. But as a service to readers, I thought I'd post my initial impressions now. There isn’t much wine available, so if you’re interested, now is the time to get in line.

The Rhys wines, all from the 2004 vintage and priced at $50 a bottle, range in production from 25 cases to 80 cases. Among my favorites were the Chardonnay Santa Cruz Mountains, which was almost Chablis-like in its structure, with flinty mineral, lemon curd and hints of rich pear and apple; the intense, vibrant, polished Pinot Noir Santa Cruz Mountains Alpine Road Vineyard, and the tightly structured Pinot Noir San Francisco Bay Family Farm Vineyard, with a mix of rich, loamy, earthy, dried currant flavors.

The Alpine Road vineyard is only eight miles from the Pacific Ocean and is farmed at 1 ton to 1.5 tons per acre. “This site makes BB-sized Pinot grapes,” says Harvey, and it shows in the dense, concentrated wine.

The Family Farm Vineyard site technically falls 200 feet outside the Santa Cruz Mountains appellation boundaries, hence the rarely used San Francisco Bay appellation.

There are also four Sonoma Coast Pinot Noirs under the Alesia label, all from the 2004 vintage, priced at $40 a bottle and ranging in production from 120 to 200 cases.

The Pinot from Sonatera Vineyard, in the Petaluma Gap, is dense and chewy, deeply concentrated, and packed with blueberry and wild berry flavors. Another comes from Kanzler Vineyard and is more elegant than the Kosta Browne rendition from this site (the vines Alesia uses are on Pommard and 116 clones, says Harvey), with intense tannins and a mix of cola-sassafras, wild berry, spice and herb.

The Chileno Valley bottling is the biggest of the Pinots, intense and rich, yet smooth and polished. The Sonoma Coast bottling is a mix from the Kanzler and Chileno Valley sites, offering tart wild berry and blackberry fruit, with a rich herb, earth, sage and dusty berry finish.

Three Alesia Syrahs have also been bottled and are likewise priced at $40, with production at 80 to 240 cases. All are dense and chewy, but otherwise show different characteristics.

The Sonoma Coast 2003 was very tight, but with a rich, concentrated mix of lavender, wild berry, spice and peppery notes. The Sonoma Coast Chileno Valley 2004 showed aromas and flavors of beef stew, beef carpaccio and pepper, mixed in with Syrah berry flavors. The Santa Lucia Highlands Fairview Ranch Vineyard 2004 had intense earthy, pencil lead, cedar and dried berry flavors.

This is a company and two labels worth watching.

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