Logic, a Little Luck, and Changing Tastes
Alder Springs Vineyard
Twenty years ago, Stuart Bewley purchased a steep 6000 acre parcel in a remote area of Mendocino County near Laytonville. At the time, he could not have known that soon California wine would be entering a decade of what some wine writers are now calling “big wine” and that the cool-climate vineyard he was about to plant might not be exactly suited to that style. He was thinking about other things. His purchase of Alder Springs was the culmination of an exhaustive search for a site that matched conditions at the best vineyards in the world. Stuart spent three years taking classes, reading journals, consulting with experts, and traveling to top vineyards in France, Italy, California, and South America to find what great vineyards had in common and what allowed them to produce superb wine.
You might have guessed that Stuart Bewley had a fortune to devote to the project. In 1985, he and co-founder Mike Crete sold California Cooler for $200 million dollars, having started the company just four years earlier. Stuart was 31 at the time of the sale. As he told Morgan Twain-Peterson of Bedrock Wine Company, “To get out of bed in the morning, I need something exciting.” Perhaps not surprising, Stuart settled on developing a great vineyard. He grew up in the Lodi wine region with parents who had a wine cellar in the house. Although his father became a dentist, both parents were from farming families.
Since 1993, Stuart has planted 142 acres of vines, and so many different grape varieties that he would need to read from a list, and not only different grape varieties, but also multitudes of clones of each variety, planted on many different rootstocks. “It’s daunting. I think I need a 12-step program or something.” The winemakers, who buy his grapes, are a new generation of stars, making some of the most sought after wines in California. Patz & Hall, Rhys Vineyards, Arnot-Roberts, Kesner, Agharta, Bedrock Cellars, Copain Wines, among others, are names that testify to the quality of the vineyard.
The components of great vineyards, Stuart discovered, were first the climate itself that would determine which grape varieties could prosper at a specific site. For instance, Cabernet Sauvignon requires a warmer climate, Pinot Noir a cooler one. Next, soil chemistry is important. “If you want to be bored to death,” he says, “go into soil chemistry. Just know that Chateau Petrus isn’t an accident. Cheval Blanc or Pichon Lalande are not accidents. They have this great soil, a great balance between calcium, potassium, and magnesium, all those things in ideal amounts.” Drainage is important,” he explains. You can’t have roots standing in water when it rains. The roots have to be able to breathe.”
Stuart says that he got lucky with the Alder Springs property because in addition to the climate, soil, and drainage that he was seeking, he also found several other very positive influences on the site. Light was one of them. In the summertime from 5:30 in the morning to as late as 9 o’clock at night, the vines are bathed in light, which provides what growers call “physiological” maturity. “Grapes ripen in two different ways on two different tracks,” he explains. Heat creates sugar or “brix” in the fruit. But light has an important function.
“When we talk to our winery customers and to our own winemaker, we’re always talking about the physiological ripeness characteristic, talking about the color of the seeds, the color that comes out of the skins when we rub them between our fingers. We talk about the pulp and whether it separates from the seed. We even eat the seeds, crunch them up in our mouths. If they taste nutty, like grape nuts or have a chestnut character, that’s a great sign of physiological ripeness.” Stuart points out that because the vines are exposed to so much light, he gets physiological ripeness way ahead of other vineyards. Even though the vineyard is a relatively cool one, they can harvest totally mature grapes at lower sugar levels, which determine the alcohol content in the wine.
Finally, the vineyard is without fog, which can have a positive cooling effect but can also create mildew and botrytis rot in the fruit. Growers cope with the moisture by pulling leaves from the canopy so that air circulates and dries the fruit bunches, but pulling leaves can expose the fruit to sunburn. “Fog creates all kinds of problems for grape growers. They probably have one to two tough years out of three whereas we have no fog per se. We might get just a day or two, but we have very dry air and don’t pull leaves at all.”
Over the twenty years that Stuart has been farming Alder Springs, he has learned a lot. “It’s taken the French hundreds of years to understand their sites. I think that we’re learning something new in every block in every year,” he says. For instance, he has learned that his cool-climate site does not adequately ripen Cabernet, so he has pulled most of it out.
But the more important revelation has occurred with a certain fortunate change of taste among younger California winemakers, who have turned away from block-buster wines toward those with lower alcohol and more aromatics. After the year 2000, winemakers began to request riper fruit so that they could make richer, higher-alcohol wines that wine critics were applauding and consumers embracing. Stuart says that he took the vineyard in that direction because that was what his customers wanted. The Behrens & Hitchcock wine, Homage to Ed Olivera was made from Alder Springs fruit and was highly praised by wine critic Robert Parker. “Behrens & Hitchcock wines had a very ripe style. We were hanging fruit out there into November, and it was very challenging for us to achieve the ripeness that they were looking for.
“I think we were pushing against the vineyard early on,” Stuart says. We were receiving a great response from the critics. Robert Parker and Jim Laube gave us great scores. But I don’t think that’s where the best wines were in this vineyard. …One of the questions I had was that I just wasn’t finding the aromatics in these wines that I was hoping for. I’m thinking, where’s the nose in these wines? When you pick your grapes so ripe, you loose a huge amount of the aromatics. As we’ve gone the other way toward a less ripe style to a cooler-climate style, I think we’ve gotten a great deal more terroir. And we’ve gotten much better aromatics and much better minerality in the wines.”
The defining experience that allowed Stuart to understand his vineyard’s capacity for excellence occurred in 2007 when Wells Guthrie of Copain Wines came to Alder Springs to purchase Syrah. At the time, Wells was making very ripe wines along with everyone else, Stuart recalls. Wells was consulting with other winemakers, who were buying fruit from Alder Springs, and he complained that his own Syrah tasted like theirs. He did not want that to happen this time. “We picked for him at a very special site. It was our highest altitude block with some really special characteristics.” But Stuart says that what made the biggest difference was that Wells picked at 23.4 brix, which in 2007 was a shockingly low sugar level. “This was right in the midst of the super ripe period. At the same time, we had guys picking other blocks of Syrah at 27, 28, and 29 brix.”
With everyone picking grapes at high sugar levels, Stuart worried that Wells Guthrie would not like the wines that he was about to make. “Typically we go to visit our winemakers in February after their wines have completed malolactic fermentation, and we barrel-taste with them. It’s kind of the report card. You feel like a high school kid, standing in front of his teacher. And I thought, man, I’m going to get it handed to me. Wells had kept every lot separate. He had different clones and different rootstocks all separated. He had a glass over each decanter, and when he lifted the glass over the first decanter, I could smell the wine from six feet away. Oh my god, he had found the secret. Those wines were absolutely marvelous. And right there, I knew that was our site. We’d been hiding our site behind all this over-ripeness. Ever since that particular tasting, we’ve been pushing more and more to a cool climate style.
“Part of it was that when we gave up that style, it was starting to give us up at the same time.” The years 2010 and 2011 were cool years that prevented the vineyard from ripening grapes to the point that certain winemakers preferred. “Clients, who were looking for super ripe fruit were complaining that the site was not hot enough for them. And they were right. So we started seeking out winemakers, younger and hipper ones, who were moving away from the Robert Parker and Jim Laube style.” Stuart mentions Pax Mahle, Wells Guthrie, and Arnot Roberts, among others, who have flipped their styles from big to more aromatic wines and are well-known and appreciated for their efforts.
At about the same time, Stuart had some fruit available and decided to make it into wine under his own Alder Springs label. He now makes just 1,200 cases and is committed to continuing. More people need to make that wine, he thinks, so that others can taste it. “If everybody else is making big wine, people will never know that this other wine exists. We decided that we’re going to make wines that are more terroir driven and cooler-climate oriented to show what this site is capable of. It just so happened that some of our other winemakers started tending in this direction too. It’s been great.”
Like California Cooler, Alder Springs seems to be in the right place at the right time. But Alder Springs will endure.
California Wines of the Month
Alder Springs Vineyards 2009 Syrah
Winemaker Byron Kosuge’s Notes
Although lighter in comparison to the 2007, this Syrah still boasts ripe exuberant fruit flavors typical of Alder Springs Vineyard. The wine has complex aromas of mint, mocha, and a touch of smoke. On the palate, it shows flavors of pepper, smoked meat, and traces of herbal Moxie cola. The presence of fruit and pepper in this wine make it an ideal match for barbecued meats, peppered steaks, and roast pork (alcohol 14.4%, cases produced 227).
Anna Maria’s Notes
This beautiful 100% Syrah, made from vines cultivated at an elevation of 2,066 feet, is purple in color as it should be since deep color is typical of the grape variety. But its fruit flavors are fresh, the acid apparent, and the tannin texture smooth yet noticeable. In other words, the 2009 Syrah is balanced, the highest compliment that anyone can pay to a wine. At 14.4% alcohol, the wine is not exactly on a diet. Nevertheless, it has striking aromas that transfer to the palate. For maximum aroma and flavor, decant the wine and serve at cool room temperature, about 68 degrees.
Alder Springs Vineyards 2011 Row Five Marsanne
Winemaker Byron Kosuge’s Notes
Elegant, chick, and subtle, the Row Five Marsanne/Vigonier blend doesn’t have to be the loudest voice in the room to leave a lasting impression. Like a true white Rhone, the blend releases intriguing elements of citrus flower, almond, kiwi fruit, and bees wax. The mixtures of floral and savory components also make it unusually well-suited to red pepper based sauces or lemon/lime based citrus dishes. The wine will delight those who prefer dry white wines with sophisticated aromas (alcohol 13.6%). Serve chilled.
Anna Maria’s Notes
The Marsanne 2011 white Rhone blend is 69% Marsanne and 31% Viognier, the Marsanne contributing the body and Viognier the perfume. Serve chilled with white bean spreads, seafood salads, prosciutto and melon, and grilled white fish. In the late afternoon, you can also sip this blend on the deck before dinner with seasonal fruit and fresh cheese.
Alder Springs Vineyards 2009 13 Tasks
Winemaker Byron Kosuge’s Notes
This wine is thoughtfully crafted to create a quaffable yet refined wine. Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot contribute to a dry and leaner wine than its 2007 predecessor. The 2009 13 Tasks offers complex, expressive layers of floral aromas intermingled with black tea, vanilla, and pepper. On the palate, the wine has a smooth and weightless texture with notes of black cherry, currant, acai, and fresh tobacco. Medium bodied and dry, the wine would match perfectly with pork, turkey, or ground lamb dishes that contain some fat content. Due to its lean texture, the wine would be a perfect pairing with tomato based dishes or light cream sauces (alcohol 14.6%, cases produced 335).
Anna Maria’s Notes
Made from fruit harvested at an elevation of 2,100 feet, this 13 Tasks is a blend of 44% Merlot, 37% Cabernet Sauvignon, 13% Cabernet Franc, and 6% Petite Verdot. The wine is deliciously fruity at 14.6% alcohol without being heavy. More versatile than most Cabernet, the 13 Tasks can be paired with dishes from a hardy pasta with tomato and garlic sauce to grilled beef. Serve at cool room temperature about 68 degrees.
Alder Springs Vineyard 2011 Row Five Red Cuvee
Winemaker Byron Kosuge’s Notes
If you like to take the road less traveled, you can always rely on the Row Five Red. A blend of Syrah, Petite Sirah, and Malbec, this wine is perfect for the adventurer who can adapt to any situation. We craft this unique blend to be very drinkable yet interesting. Showing berry fruits up front, the Row Five Red opens with dramatic aromas and finishes with earthiness and spice. Relentlessly smooth, the wine has proved to be appropriate for any occasion. Going to a barbeque? Row Five Red! To a friend’s house but not sure what’s for dinner? Row Five Red! Going on a long trip to a land unknown? Row Five Red! The Row Five Red should be the first item in your essential travel bag (alcohol 13.5%).
Anna Maria’s Notes
Inky color but again like the 13 Tasks, the flavors of the Row Five Red Cuvee are buoyant and lively, coming in at just 13.5% alcohol. A blend of 50% Petite Sirah, 36% Syrah, and 14% Malbec, the wine is a traditional California coupling of Petite Sirah and Syrah, but the addition of Malbec makes it a maverick. Like Petite Sirah, Malbec is highly pigmented and in this blend, adds not just color but also a certain softness. Serve at cool room temperature, no more than 68 degrees.
Menu of the Month
Menu for a Starry Night
A platter of red and yellow bell peppers, braised in olive oil with red onions,
garlic, and fresh basil, served with fresh baguettes
Pork chops braised in olive oil, white wine, garlic and rosemary,
served with oven roasted potatoes
Organic baby arugula with finely sliced fennel,
dressed with lemon-olive oil vinaigrette
Pistachio ice cream with a dollop of freshly whipped cream
Recipe of the Month
Braised Red and Yellow Bell Peppers
My favorite season, summer is drawing to a close. No more bright sun, no more crickets chirping in the evening, no more open windows and voices in the street, no more sneaking regular three-day weekends. The magazines that come to my house are touting fall themes. Worst of all, Christmas catalogues are arriving in the mail. With this menu, we can keep our attention focused on the present and immerse ourselves in what remains of summertime. I’ve chosen a big platter of brilliant red and yellow bell peppers, which are considered a summer crop but, at least in Northern California, don’t ripen till the end of summer and early fall when prices for this delicious vegetable finally become reasonable. Enjoy!
6 fleshy tomatoes like Roma or Early Girl, sliced into quarters
6 red and yellow bell peppers, seeded and sliced lengthwise into strips
1 red onion, sliced into strips
3 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
A large handful of fresh basil leaves, coarsely slivered
Salt to taste
Pour the olive oil into a skillet over medium heat and add peppers, onion and salt. Add a bit of water if they begin to burn. When the vegetables begin to soften after about ten minutes, add tomatoes and garlic. Continue to cook for another ten minutes or more until all vegetables are soft but not mushy and tomatoes have relinquished some of their juices into a sauce. Add basil, stir, and turn off heat. Wait several minutes before serving until basil has softened and integrated with the cooked vegetables.