Saturday, June 9, 2012

Field Stone Winery – The Home of Old Vine Petite Sirah in Alexander Valley


After I visited Lancaster Estate I headed down the road to Field Stone Winery, the home of old vine Petite Sirah. The Field Stone Winery and vineyard estate is located just 7 miles from Healdsburg and 14 miles from Calistoga on Highway 128, which links northern Sonoma County to the Napa Valley.

118+ Year Old Peite Sirah Vines

The site of Field Stone Winery was originally founded by Wallace Johnson who was a graduate from Cal Tech and a mechanical engineer who manufactured many of his own inventions. He also served as the Mayor of Berkeley, California. During his term of service he utilized the “cut and cover” technique to build the Bart system in the city of Berkeley.
In the 1960’s Wallace purchased the site which at the time was just an old back roads farm with an old white farmhouse in the middle of an overgrown 10 acre Petite Sirah vineyard adjacent to a dilapidated redwood barn. After purchasing the property Wallace’s first goal was to revive its vineyard. In 1964 and 1965 Wallace hand-harvested and sold the Petite Sirah grapes to Lee Stewart, the vineyard consultant and vintner of the original Souverain Winery on the Howell Mountain slopes of Napa Valley (now Burgess Cellars). Both Stewart and Wallace were pleased with the results, which motivated him to further develop the vineyard property beyond the remnant of the Prohibition restricted 10 acres.

Wallace then the restored the old redwood barn and century-old farmhouse which was the home and farm office of the first Italian family that planted the vineyard and barn in 1894. During the vineyard planting Wallace hired a carpenter to raise the historical “Ghost Winery” barn.
Wallace also designed and built the winery which is a unique stone structure that is embedded into the hillside. The technical concept of the winery is an old one and you’ll see it in many like in older historic pre-Prohibition California wineries. Rather than using extreme stress to press grapes, the winery is designed to utilize gravity flow to gently press (not “crush”) the grapes. Once the grapes are harvested they can be taken immediately to the winery to be pressed via their own weight utilizing the force of gravity and then drained into a cold, underground stainless steel fermenter. In contrast, when modern high-end winemaking equipment (including pumps) are used, while they do a very good job of treating the grape berries gently, winemakers still need to carefully monitor the process to ensure that the berries are being broken open without crushing the seeds and that only an acceptable level of MOG (Matter Other than Grapes) is making it through to the fermentation tanks. Another advantage of the design is that being a stone facility imbedded into the hillside and mostly underground it is like a wine cave. Therefore winery has a naturally cool environment so it does not require energy an extraneous amount of energy to keep the wine at desired temperatures.

When Wallace suddenly died from a stroke in 1979 at 66 years old, the winery then became the property of the Reverend Dr. John Staten, a Presbyterian minister, and his wife Katrina Staten - the daughter of Wallace Johnson. The Rev. Dr. John Staten received his B.A. in history and philosophy from Stanford University in 1960, and then attended Princeton Theology Seminary to study ancient biblical languages and literature. Following the receipt of his master’s degree from Princeton, he entered the University of Chicago in 1964 to study for his Ph.D in Theology. His book entitled Conscience and the Reality of God, was published by Mouton de Gruyter in Berlin. Upon inheriting the winery, John then added “winemaker” to his list of titles, becoming one of the few theologian-vintners in the wine business.

After tasting and being pleased with the 1977-80 vintages of Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Sirah with these Bordeaux and Rhône varietals, John then planted a new Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard using budwood from three renowned Napa plantings (BV1, the source for Beaulieu Vineyard’s George de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet, the May Family Vineyard, the source of Joe Heitz’s acclaimed “Martha’s Vineyard” Cabernet, and the Old Niebaum vineyard block, the source of the early Niebaum estate Cabernets). This 41 year old vineyard and its heritage clones are the source for the winery’s award-winning Staten Family Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.Subsequently, in the 1990’s three Merlot clones were planted in the red rocky soil alongside the Petite Sirah vineyard. In addition Syrah and Viognier were planted at the recommendation of André Tchelistcheff. The Merlot vineyard was then named, in his honor, the “Tchelistcheff Vineyard.” In the late 1990’s, John and his son Ben Staten, who serves as the winery’s vineyard manager, added Sangiovese Grosso (Brunello di Montalcino clone), to their estate vineyard.

The tasting room has an extensive portfolio and while visiting I sampled the following wines:

My first wine was the 2010 Vineyard Select Gewürztraminer – Russian River - Floodgate Vineyard. The wine is very floral on the nose and dry on the palate, very soft and creamy but with refreshing acidity and a medium length finish. This wine sells for $19 a bottle.

My second white wine was the 2010 Vineyard Select Sauvignon Blanc – Alexander Valley – Redwood Ranch. Somewhat muted on the nose, on the palate it has notes of lemon-lime and a hint of herbs. Otherwise it is somewhat “blah” and boring, lacking any refreshing qualities that one should expect from this varietal. This is surprising considering that their neighbors (Lancaster and White Oak) both produce phenomenal Sauvignon Blancs. This wine sells for $20 a bottle.

The third white wine sample was the 2010 “Staten Family Family Reserve” Viognier – Alexander Valley – Estate Bottled. I am a BIG fan of Viognier, but not of this one. It has mild floral aromas on the nose but on the palate it only has some mild stone fruit and it lacks vibrancy.  It also seemed to be served a bit too warm which may have been contributing factor to its less than stellar appeal. This wine sells for $25 a bottle.

The fourth white wine pour was 2009 Vineyard Select Chardonnay – Russian River – Hopkins River Ranch. On the nose I picked up BUTTER, butterscotch, caramel, and dried peaches. On the palate it is well balanced, not overly oaked and has notes of hazelnut on the finish. A definite improvement over the previous wines but at $25 a bottle there are many like it in the $10-$15 range.

My next pour was the 2011 Vineyard Select Rosé of Petite Sirah – Alexander Valley – Heritage Rock. This wine is made from their 118+ year old vines. This wine is bright pink and on the nose it has aromas of cranberries, watermelon and a hint of spice. On the palate it tastes of dark black fruits as well as pomegranate and it has good acidity and a lengthy finish. I have a collection of Rosés made from Grenache, Syrah, Zinfandel, Cab/Merlot and Pinot Noir. This was my first made from Petite Sirah and I took one home to add to my collection for $20.

As I said, Field Stone has a very long profile of wines so keep in mind that I am spitting into a cup and drinking water along the way…

My first red wine was the 2009 Sangiovese – Alexander Valley. On the nose I picked up dark cherries, dust, cinnamon stick and dried plums. On the palate the nose is carried through. However, Sangiovese is normally a very acidic wine yet this one seemed rather flat. This wine sells for $25 a bottle.

My second red wine sample was the 2008 Vineyard Select Merlot – Alexander Valley – Andre’s Block. This wine displays dark cherries, baker’s chocolate, toasted oak and pie crust on the nose. On the palate is full bodied with supple tannins but like several other of their wines, it lacks vibrancy and freshness and is kind of just “there.” This wine sells for $25 a bottle.

The third red wine pour was the 2010 Vineyard Select Syrah – Alexander Valley – Marion’s Block. This wine is really dark and inky displaying blackberries, cherries, plums, dried fruits and herbs. On the palate it is really dry and has tannins that will make your teeth stick to your gums which should mellow out in a year or two. A remarkable improvement over the previous wine, it sells for $25 a bottle.

My fourth red wine sample was the 2008 Vineyard Select Cabernet Sauvignon – Alexander Valley – Wally’s Block. This is a big earthy, dusty wine with black fruits (currant, blackberry) and dark chocolate on the nose and palate. On the palate it is surprisingly soft with a medium length finish, so it may be at the “drink me now” stage and not intended for ageing. This wine sells $30 a bottle.

The fifth red wine pour was the 2008 “Staten Family Family Reserve” Cabernet Sauvignon – Alexander Valley – Estate Bottled. Similar in fruit character to the previous cab with additional notes of black licorice and oak. On the palate it has really good tannin structure and acidity. In fact the tannins have a lot of grip so this wine should age well. This wine sells for $40 a bottle.

My sixth red wine sample was the 2008 “Staten Family Family Reserve” Petite Sirah – Alexander Valley – Estate Bottled. The grapes from this wine come from their 118+ year old vines. This wine is dark, inky and stains the glass when swirled. On the nose it has intense blackberries, plums, dark cherries and black licorice. On the palate it has refined tannins that have a bit of grip on the gums and really good acidity. I’d say this is their best wine in the line-up and is fairly priced at $35 a bottle.

My final sample in the line-up was the 2008 “Staten Family Family Reserve” Petite Sirah Vintage Port– Alexander Valley – Estate Bottled.  This wine is also made from their 118+ year old vines. This wine displays blackberries, dark chocolate and has surprisingly good acid and tannin structure. It is deliciously SWEET but not syrupy and has a lot of heat on the finish. An enjoyable Port-like wine but a bit steep at $50 a bottle.

To visit or for more information:

Field Stone Winery
10075 Highway 128
Healdsburg, CA 95448
Phone: 1-707-433-7266; 1-800-54-GRAPE (1-800-544-7273)

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