Monday, August 6, 2012

Chalk Hill Estate – A Premier Winery in Healdsburg, California

After visiting Soda Rock Winery last weekend I drove south on the narrow winding road through the hills and gullies to a very remote winery - Chalk Hill Estate. It is located in the hilly terrain due east of Windsor, nestled within the far corner of the Russian River Valley. After turning right at a eucalyptus grove on Chalk Hill Road, I passed through a large iron gate and onto the Chalk Hill estate vineyards and winery. I then begin a long climb up into the hills where the Estate is secluded from the view of any other wineries. Ascending into the hills I passed by a few vineyards and then took another turn to the right where I came upon the hospitality center and winery. Perched on top of a hill, the tasting room patio over looks a natural amphitheater carved into the hills with more vineyards and an equestrian center on the other side of the valley. 

Chalk Hill Estate was founded in 1972 by famed San Francisco attorney Fred Furth who discovered the land when he was flying over it in his private plane. In 2010 it was then sold to William P. Foley II who established the Foley Family Wines with the purchase on Lincourt Vineyards (1996) in Santa Ynez. Since then he has acquired other wineries and vineyards such as Firestone Vineyard (2007) in Santa Barbara, Three Rivers Winery in Walla Walla Washington, Sebastiani Vineyard and Winery (2009) in Sonoma, Merus Wines in the Napa Valley, and Kuleto Estate in St. Helena.

The 1,236-acre Chalk Hill Estate is planted with 60 different small vineyards that cover about 350 acres. The vineyards feature 13 soil different types ranging from ancient alluvial deposits to young volcanic soils strewn with rocks and boulders. A distinctive layer of volcanic ash lies under much of the topsoil, inspiring the name “Chalk Hill.” The terrain is intricate and varied and features a range of microclimates and exposures that require well-reasoned, site-specific vineyard management.

In addition to 350 acres under vineyard cultivation, Furth maintains his private residence and gardens, the winery, a hospitality center, a culinary garden, a world-class equestrian pavilion and stables, sports fields, fishing and swimming ponds, guest houses, and a native park.

Chalk Hill Estate produces 70,000 cases annually which includes Chardonnay. Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Carménère, Syrah, Semillon and Estate blends.

In addition to the great scenery, Chalk Hill offers a number of special tours and tastings including the Estate Culinary Tour.

While visiting I sampled the following wines:

The first pour was the 2010 North Slope Pinot Gris. This wine is very fruit forward with aromas of apples and tropical fruits. On the palate it is medium (+) bodied and seemingly creamy and round yet it maintains good acidity. I had recently tasted a number of Pinot Gris in the Willamette Valley in Oregon where plantings are wide spread. The contrast between this California Pinot Gris and the Oregonians couldn’t be clearer. The Oregonians are crisper and have a much more distinct mineral quality whereas this one was very fruity and weighty. Also, all the ones I tasted in Oregon were under $20 but this one sells for $30! I prefer not only the style and quality of the Oregonians but the price as well. You can read my review of King Estate’s Pinot Gris on Oregon Wine Tasting Adventures.

My second sample was the 2009 Estate Sauvignon Blanc. Most California Sauv Blancs tend to be either towards the citrus/grapefruit side with high acidity or, if they from warmer regions, they are tropical and have notes of stone fruits. This one is made in the California Fume Blanc style (made popular by Robert Mondavi) as it is slightly tropical, with stone fruits, nectarines, peaches, mango, melon, fresh lemon, and canned pear aromas. I tend to prefer very crisp Sauv Blancs with a citrus/grapefruit profile and I have a dozen or so from different wineries in my cellar. However, I liked this one as an alternative and picked one up to serve side by side with another to demonstrate the range of styles. So, I liked this wine but I paid too much for it at $33 a bottle.

The third wine was the 2010 Estate Chardonnay. On the nose I picked up golden delicious apples, crème soda, marshmallows, vanilla and on the palate it has a prolonged nutty finish. In the mouth this wine is very big and rich, full bodied and yet well balanced being neither overly oaky nor too buttery. It is a fabulous Chardonnay but a bit pricy at $48 a bottle. 

After tasting the first three white wines I took a tour of the estate and we drove up into the hills. I was absolutely stunned by the natural beauty of the land as well as the expansive hillside vineyards. The highest point of the estate provides spectacular vistas of the Russian River Valley to the west and the Mayacamas Mountains to the east. We then returned to the tasting room where I sampled the following red wines:

My first red was the 2008 Estate Red, a Bordeaux blend with just a small kiss from the Rhone which consists of 47% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Petite Verdot, 28% Malbec, 15% Merlot, 2% Carmenere and 2% Syrah. This wine is HUGE! Visually it is intense ruby red in color that stains the glass as it is swirled. On the nose it displays vibrant and pronounced aromas of black (currants, blackberries) and red fruits, and cherry pie. On the palate it is up front and fruit forward, very fresh, well rounded, full bodied with refined tannins, very focused and concentrated, but it then diminishes in the mid-palate and the finish. It is a bit of a fruit bomb that does not have a lot of staying power and it is a big hit to the wallet at $70 a bottle.

The second red was a major step up, the 2007 Clara’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine is a Bordeaux blend of 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, 21% Petite Verdot, and 20% Malbec. On the nose it displays cherries, currants, a hint of mint and on the palate it is very soft but has a sudden a zing of spice as the fruit dissipates in the mid palate transition. It is full bodied, has medium acidity, medium tannins and a prolonged fruit finish and pleasing return. It is a really nice wine but another bank buster at $85 a bottle.

The final wine was the 2008 Estate Syrah. This wine is gigantic; visually it is very dark and inky purple. On the nose it exudes aromas of intense blackberries with a floral component, on the palate it is very rich, full bodied with medium tannins and acidity that delivers black fruits with a zingy spice followed by a hint of beef jerky and new leather. The alcohol is 15.5%, which is a bit high, and yet the wine is well balanced with no heat on the finish. A really nice wine but it has to be one of the most expensive Syrahs I’ve ever come across in California at $60 a bottle.

To see more pictures, check out Erik Wait’s Wine Country Photography at:

To visit or for more information:

Chalk Hill Estate Vineyards and Winery
10300 Chalk Hill Road
Healdsburg, CA 95448
Phone: 1-707-657-4837

Friday, August 3, 2012

Soda Rock Winery – The “Alamo” of Healdsburg, California

I have been to the Alexander Valley three times, once in the summer of 2011 and twice this year. One of the wineries I visited liked my video of their estate on YouTube and requested that I make a video for them (without the “California Wine Tasting Adventures” into.) so I made five videos with alternative music sound tracks and hand delivered them on a DVD.[1] While there I visited two of their neighbors; Soda Rock Winery and Chalk Hill Estate.

Soda Rock is steeped in history and the face of it looks a bit like the Alamo and it is the original site of the Alexander Valley general store and post office. It was once the central hub of activity for the valley and historic records indicate that the first bonded winery on the property dates back in 1880.

The property was purchased by Ken and Diane Wilson in 2000. After years of neglect, this local landmark had fallen into serious disrepair. Recognizing the property’s historic value and appreciating the architecture of the stone buildings and water tower, Ken launched Soda Rock’s long-term restoration plan.

The same care and attention to detail found in the Soda Rock restoration project is evident at the Wilsons’ other winery properties as well - deLorimier, Jaxon Keys, Matrix, Mazzocco, Pezzi King and their namesake Wilson Winery. Their affinity for Sonoma County is reflected their vineyards practices - a commitment to the stewardship and sustainable farming throughout Dry Creek, Alexander and Russian River Valleys.

Diane Wilson and Antoine Favero are the winemakers at Wilson, deLorimier, Matrix and Soda Rock and her husband Ken manages the vineyards and wineries. Together they farm over 500 acres of vineyard land in Sonoma County’s most renowned appellations that stem from the mountains, hillsides and benchland of Alexander and Dry Creek Valleys to the fog influenced vines of the Russian River Valley and the Sonoma Coast. 

While visiting I sampled the following wines:

The first two wines I tasted were both Sauvignon Blancs but from different appellations that they had very distinctive differences. The first was the 2009 Sauvignon Blanc - Mendocino County. This wine displays aromas of grapefruit, lemon zest, orange peel and a distinctive minerality. On the palate it has crisp acidity, is light bodied with a lingering citrus finish. This wine sells for $19 a bottle. 

The second wine was the 2010 Sauvignon Blanc - Alexander Valley. This wine is more tropical with hints of mango, peaches, melon, canned pears and lemon meringue.  On the palate it is rounder and medium bodied and it also has a lingering finish. This wine sells for $22 a bottle.

Sauvignon Blanc has been my go to “summer wine” this year and I prefer them on the crisper citrus side, so I brought a bottle of the Mendocino County home.

The third wine was the 2009 Chardonnay Reserve - Alexander Valley. This wine is midway between the crisper stainless steel style and the full bodied oaky MLF California Chards. It has notes of apples, pears, Crème brûlée, butter, vanilla, and oak but it isn’t “over the top.” A nice Chardonnay if you like this style and it is at a fair price for $36 a bottle.

The first red wine was the 2009 Zinfandel – Wentworth. A well balanced Zin that isn’t overbearing with any particular aromas or flavors dominating the others. On the nose I picked up raspberries, blackberries, a hint of dried black fruits, followed by subtle aromas of cherries, spice, and vanilla. On the palate it is soft and spicy with very ripe blackberries and a hint of pepper on the finish. This wine sells for $29 a bottle.

I then tasted the 2009 Zinfandel - Rockpile Reserve. On the nose it displays red fruits, namely raspberries and plums, followed by an earthy minerality, oak and spice. On the palate the wine is focused and concentrated, the tannins are supple and well balanced, it is full bodied with sufficient acidity to provide excellent structure and backbone. A really nice wine but $60 is far more than I have ever paid for a Zinfandel.

One of the most surprising wines was the 2006 Meeks Merlot – Alexander Valley. The Meeks Merlot is named for Tom Meeks, winery/property owners from 1904-1925. This is a Cabernet lover’s Merlot, it is BIG with loads of cherries, red currants, chocolate and pie crust. On the palate it has firm tannins that grip the teeth and gums, good acidity and a long (medium +) finish. This wine is reasonably priced at $28 a bottle.

The seventh wine I tasted was the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon – “The General.” This is a powerful wine, dark purple color to the rim. On the nose it has vibrant aromas of cassis, blackberries, and a hint of dark chocolate. On the palate this wine is voluptuous with a mouth full of black currants, ripe black cherries and plums. It is somewhat tannic, very firm and it has a medium length finish. A nice wine but a bit steep at $50 a bottle.

The eighth pour was the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon – “Five Star General.” This wine demands your attention. On the nose it is concentrated and intense with layers of cigar box, blackberries and black currants, black licorice, mint and a lingering stony minerality on the finish. If I was going to buy a BIG Cab from Soda Rock I’d spend the extra $15 and buy this one for $65.

The final wine was the 2007 Cabernet Franc - Sonoma County. On the nose I picked up raspberries, blackberries, hints of cherry, vanilla, oak and a touch of spice. What I particularly appreciated was that it has NO green notes that I frequently find in Cab Francs. On the palate it has a silky texture and a mélange of wild fruits followed by a touch black pepper and spice. If you like Cab Francs, this is a nice one for $32 a bottle and I brought one home.

To see more pictures of Soda Rock Winery, check out Erik Wait’s Wine Country Photography at:

To visit or for more information:

Soda Rock Winery
8015 Highway 128
Healdsburg, CA 95448
Phone: 1-707-433-3303

[1] “I work for wine!” Other wineries interested in having a custom video created please contact me at: