After a week of unusually strong wind storms in the San Francisco Bay Area, just about every leaf on every vine has been blow away leaving the vineyard with barren canes. For a wine country photographer, such as myself, it means an end to capturing the splendor of Fall colors. Consequently, this transition in the season is a good time to explore wineries that don’t own a vineyard and make their wines from grapes that are resourced from grape growers.
Have you ever been to a winery without a vineyard?
There are a lot of grape growers and that own vineyards but don’t make wine as they are solely in the business of selling grapes to wineries. There are also wineries that don’t own vineyards and are solely in the business of making wine. Some wineries that don’t own vineyards establish long-term contracts with grape growers in order to establish a close relationship with the source of their grapes and have a consistent control over the selection and quality of the grapes. I have also met a number of vineyard owners who are currently selling all their grapes to other wineries but as soon as their vines have matured and they have established enough financial capital they plan to invest in building a winery with a barrel room, a tasting room and so forth.
The venue of wineries that don’t own a vineyard and solely rely on resourced fruit can be in unusual places due the modern ability to transport grapes over long stances. They may reside in small towns, inner cities, business parks, or even shopping malls and generally they are categorized as “urban wineries.”
So, for the next month or so I plan to visit a number of urban wineries beginning with Eric Ross Winery in the small town of Glen Ellen which is in the middle of one of the most well known wine producing regions in California - Sonoma County.
Eric Ross began his career as a photographer with the San Francisco Chronicle (which once had an excellent Wine section in their paper!) and while shooting the vineyards and wineries he had the opportunity to meet growers and vintners and get an inside look into the winery country lifestyle, and an understanding of the special qualities of specific vineyards and their geo-graphic location.
(THAT is the exact same reason why I love traveling to wine countries in California – it is only by seeing the land and meeting the people that you can truly come to understand the artist behind the art of winemaking!)
Eric Ross then went on to running a home wine making group and completing Enology courses through UC Davis and studying Viticulture at Santa Rosa City College and started his own winery in the heart of quaint little town of Glen Ellen California. Although Eric’s winery is adjacent to two of the most well known wine region in California he doesn’t restrict himself to just local grapes or the most common varietals – Cab, Merlot or Chardonnay. Rather he sources grapes from the Mendocino, the Russian River, the Dry Creek Valley and even as far away as Lodi from which he produces a number of Rhone varietals, Rhone blends, Old Vine Zin, Tempranillo and the seldom seen white wine – Albariño.
THAT is why I chose to begin my tour of urban wineries at Eric Ross Winery, to try something different… and I didn’t leave disappointed!
While visiting the little tasting room I sampled the following wines:
The first wine I sampled was the 2010 Marsanne-Roussanne – Russian River Valley. Rhone white wine blends usually have some Viognier in them or sometimes you can find these varietals as a “stand alone” wine. But rarely do you find these two blended without Viognier. So this was a great opportunity to taste a unique blend. The grapes are sourced from Saralee’s Vineyard from which Eric also sources his Pinot Noir. On the nose I picked up apricots, cantaloupe, and just a touch of marzipan. Crips and clean with bright acidity a really nice wine for $28 a bottle. My only complaint is that (like SO many wineries) it was served WAY too cold and so I had to warm in in my hands before it could be truly appreciated.
My second white wine sample is an extremely rare varietal in California, the 2010 Albariño. The grapes are sourced from the Bokisch Vineyards in Lodi. It is widely grown in Spain (especially in Rias Baixas) and in Portugal this grape is known as Alvarinho. This is a very aromatic wine so if you like Viognier, Gewürztraminer or Riesling you love this wine. On the nose I picked up white flowers, apples, lime, peaches, and marzipan. A really nice wine that needed to be added to my collection, so for $25 I brought a bottle home.
My first red wine was the 2010 Pinot Noir from the Russian River Valley, where I spent the fourth of July Weekend in search of great Pinots. Like the Marsanne-Roussanne blend this wine is also from Saralee’s Vineyard. This wine is the perfect expression of what the Russian River can provide with layers of black cherries, raspberries, plums, cinnamon and just a hint of cedar or cigar box on the end. If my cellar wasn’t already full of Pinot from last Summer’s travels I would have brought one home as the price tag of $45 a bottle is just about right for this quality of wine.
My second red wine was Eric’s “winemaker’s blend” the 2010 “Struttin’ Red!” a unique blend of 65% Tempranillo, 29% Old Vine Zinfandel, 6% Petit Sirah. An earthy and jammy wine with a very expressive nose of black berries, pipe tobacco, cigar box, and black olives. A nice wine for $32 a bottle.
My third red wine was my favorite, the 2010 Tempranillo. The grapes are sourced Bokisch Vineyard in Lodi. On the nose I picked up fresh blackberries, mocha, crispy bacon, and blueberries on the back end which made me think this wine was somewhat Malbec-like. Great Tempranillos are hard to find in California so e I brought one home for $38.
My fourth red wine was the 2009 Gout de la Vigne (Taste The Vineyard”), a Syrah co-fermented with 10% Viognier. (check out the video of Eric making this wine at: http://www.frequency.com/video/fermenting-2009/3053006 ) The grapes are sourced from Alder Springs Vineyard in Mendocino. This is my style of Syrah, which reflects a profile cool climate which provides more fresh fruit, floral components and herbs than many versions I have tasted in hotter regions such as the central valley. This wine exudes blueberries, violets, anise and just a touch of pepper and bacon on the back end. A really nice wine for $45 a bottle.
My fifth red wine was the 2009 Old Vine Zinfandel - Dry Creek Valley. The grapes are sourced from three different blocks of 90 year-old vines. Although the alcohol is at 14.8% this wine is really well balanced and it is actually under many others on the market which I’ve seen at 16%+. On the nose I picked up dates, dusty wild blackberries, a touch of molasses and just a hint of a campfire on the back end. Well structured with good backbone, the tannins are noticeable but kept in check. This wine demands a piece of meat to be truly appreciated. A nice wine but there are many like it in the $20-25 range so the $38 price tag is a bit steep.
My final wine was the 2009 Old Vine Zin Port. Honestly, I prefer traditional port made from Portuguese grapes (Tinta Barroca, Tinta Cão, Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo), Toriga Francesa and Torga Nacional) as they tend to have more complexity and development from the initial sip through the mid palate transition and finish. Zin "ports" tend to be delicious but also simple and sweet and this one is no different. On the nose I picked up blackberry jam and dried plums and on the palate it reminds me of boysenberry syrup without the syrupy texture. It is rich, silky smooth and hedonistic and would go well with a slice of cheese cake, but it is a bit pricy at $48 a bottle.
For more information or to visit:
Eric Ross Winery
14300 Arnold Drive
Glen Ellen, CA, 95442Phone: 1-707-939-8525