Casual wine drinkers rarely get past the broad strokes. They love a rich Napa Cab, say, or a silky Sonoma Pinot. More avid fans tend to drill down: They’re partial to the firm tannins in the reds from Napa’s mountain AVAs, or the lean and earthy Pinots from far-west Sonoma. Few of us, even the wine geeks, can describe the signature traits of wines from individual vineyards. But for many top vintners, a wine that expresses the nuances of a single piece of ground—the soils, the aspects, the weather patterns—is the most interesting of all. And their life work is to elevate those nuances, to let them shine in a completely unique wine. And do it all over again in the vineyard next door, and the one across the county, all in the same year.
For Napa Valley’s Tor Kenward, the love affair with single-vineyard wines runs long and deep. “When I first traveled to Napa in the ’70s, my favorite Cabernet, hands down, was Joe Heitz’s Martha’s Vineyard. And in my first trips as a vintner to Burgundy and Bordeaux in the ’80s, it was Domaine de la Romanée-Conti first, and second, Pétrus,” both wines of very specific place. Over the course of almost three decades, Kenward parlayed his interest into a rich program of single-vineyard Cabernets and Chardonnays at Beringer Vineyards. (Even Beringer fans couldn’t keep up with its wonderful profusion of Chardonnays.)
Today, Kenward coaxes exquisite beauty from his favorite sites for his own TOR Wines. And after all these years, he’s clear about the risks and the rewards: “Making a great single-vineyard wine is a winemaker’s ultimate challenge. There is no room for error. Blending wines from multiple sites gives us more leniency and tools to play with. Nailing a vineyard-designated wine takes all your attention. Focus is everything. It is the greater challenge, but for me offers the greater rewards when we do nail it.”
And for consumers willing to pay attention, the contrasts across bottles like Kenward’s are immensely rewarding. The TOR 2017 Cabernet from Tierra Roja Vineyard (Oakville; $155) is powerful and complex, with brooding layers of tobacco and savory herbs under ripe blackberry and dark plum fruit. The TOR 2017 Cab from Melanson Vineyard (on Pritchard Hill, although that’s not an AVA; $225) offers dense, dark fruit and firm but elegant tannins; licorice, interesting herb and spice notes, and black pepper fill in under dark plum, berry, and cassis. And the TOR 2017 Cabernet from Cimarossa Vineyard (Howell Mountain; $155) is a highly structured mountain wine, from small clusters of tiny berries; a savory minerality is the foundation under dark fruit and spice. Together, the trio makes a great study of the structure and quality of tannins alone. (One note: The TOR 2017s have already been allocated, but it’s possible to join the mailing list on the winery’s website, to be in line for future vintages.)
Although we’re just scratching the surface, here are six more producers whose skill across varied vineyards yields fascinating comparisons, to say nothing of delicious bottles. And just as fun as side-by-side vineyard tastings from a single winemaker is flipping the grid and tasting wines made by several winemakers from one vineyard (as we’ve done with a handful of bottles here). All this is arguably the territory of wine geeks. But put two or more of these bottles on the table for your next dinner party—and as many glasses in front of each guest—and you’ll never serve just one wine at a time again. The urge to pick up the differences fuels keen conversation. And the connection to places it’s possible to make through wine absolutely pop in the process.
Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery
Under winemaker Theresa Heredia, Gary Farrell’s single-vineyard Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs are focused, elegant, and expressive of great Russian River Valley sites. Heredia, in fact, believes the Russian River Valley is absolutely capable of putting up wines against any in the world. “The key is cool breezes and fog from the nearby Pacific Ocean blanket,” she says. And Heredia has continued with, and expanded on, great vineyard sources accessed through handshake deals by founder Gary Farrell himself.
The Gary Farrell 2017 Chardonnay from the famed Olivet Lane Vineyard ($45), planted in 1975 and known for cool temperatures, regular fog, and well-drained soils, delivers oyster-shell minerality and warm spice under sweet apple, a gamut of citrus, and white nectarine with a cool-weather balance of savory notes and vivid textural tension. The 2017 Chard from the Rochioli Vineyard ($65) is perfumed with jasmine, Asian spice, and pear, with apple flavors morphing to peach and creamy citrus on the palate, finishing with wet-stone minerality.
In Oregon’s Willamette Valley, Lavinea launched in 2014 entirely around the concept of vineyard-designate wines. Vintner Greg Ralston and winemaker Isabelle Meunier (who has worked under legends like Dominique Lafon) believe that “ultimately, a region’s stature rests on its best sites, and the Willamette Valley has many, many wonderful sites that deserve recognition. We’ve wanted to push that discussion forward.” And what makes a great single-vineyard wine? “Transparency to place and time,” says Ralston, “from a site that has something unique to communicate.”
And in the Willamette Valley—a young region “slightly on the edge of the possible” for grape growing—the two have found compelling sites and minimized their thumbprint, as they say. The Lavinea 2017 Tualatin Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley; $65) offers lovely aromatics of red berries mixed with savory hints of loam, showing old-vine complexity, with bushels of raspberry and cherry edged in florals. The 2017 Elton Vineyard Pinot (Eola–Amity Hills; $75) is more savory, with aromas of black tea, toasted Asian spice and forest floor leading to dark cherry flavors and silky, mouth-filling textures. The 2017 Temperance Hill Vineyard Pinot (also Eola–Amity Hills; $75) offers the richest fruit of all—ripe, spiced black raspberry balanced with forest and savory herb notes.
Ramey Wine Cellars
David Ramey, proprietor of his namesake Sonoma winery, which produces a plethora of vineyard-designate wines across varieties, is quick to point out that not all vineyards are worth singling out. “Some make very nice wine,” he says, “but not top tier. It’s usually a question of yield, and also vine age. Typically, our single-vineyard sites have great exposure, drainage, low-vigor rootstock and a special clone or field selection, like old Wente [for Chardonnay], with mature vines.”
Three of Ramey’s great Chardonnay sites include Rochioli Vineyard, Hyde Vineyard and Ritchie Vineyard. The Ramey 2016 Chardonnay from Rochioli ($65), at a full percentage point higher in alcohol than the Gary Farrell, above, is richer but displays the same aromatic white blossom and spiced apple notes. The palate is powerful and vibrant, yet elegant, with generous tree fruit and honeyed citrus. The 2016 Chard from Hyde Vineyard ($65) adds savory minerality to its floral and toasted spice aromas, and touches of pineapple and ginger to its juicy apple and creamy citrus flavors. And the 2016 Ritchie Vineyard Chardonnay ($65) echoes the rich but elegant style, with pretty honeysuckle aromas and pleasant salinity leading to a broadly textured palate that leads with citrus.
Asked when he feels like a single-vineyard wine has succeeded, Ramey doesn’t waste words: “When it sells out!” Then, more thoughtfully, “and when our customers share with us how much they appreciate our wines.” He splits thoughts similarly on what’s compelling about a great single-vineyard wine. “You know it when you taste it!” And, more specifically, “It has greater palate presence, length, balance, harmony—and sheer deliciousness. Great wines make you pay attention.”
The Hilt Estate
In the southwest corner of Santa Barbara County’s Santa Rita Hills AVA, winemaker Matt Dees, of the Hilt, a Pinot Noir and Chardonnay house with an impressive new winery, has been learning the distinctions of the estate’s two foundation vineyards for more than a decade now. Owner Stan Kroenke (who more famously also owns Napa Valley’s Screaming Eagle, as well as Jonata, farther east in Santa Barbara wine country) leased Radian and Bentrock Vineyards more than a decade ago, and in 2014 bought the huge ranch they’re part of outright. But Dees was skeptical about jumping to create single-vineyard wines, even though the vineyards in question were vastly different. “We wanted to take the time to figure out what’s worth vineyard-designating here,” he says. “We started with general style—to learn the region—then narrowed to the characteristics of the estate. And now we’re honing in on microplots.”
With the 2017s, according to Dees, they achieved “serious specificity and deliciousness” that prompted him to bottle vineyard-designated wines from the estate for the first time. The Hilt’s 2017 Radian Pinot Noir (Sta. Rita Hills; $75) reflects the vineyard’s high elevation, sunny but exposed to cold wind that creates small, thick-skinned berries. Rocky, well-draining soils with outcroppings of diatomaceous earth retain heat, to achieve ripeness in the face of the wind. The wine is earthy and concentrated, with somewhat austere tannins. The 2017 Bentrock Vineyard Pinot (Sta. Rita Hills; $75) is a study in contrasts. Although situated in sight of Radian, Bentrock is slightly lower, with long, rolling hills compared to the steep ridges of its neighbor, and soils are made up largely of clay and shale. The gentler conditions create a long, cool growing season in which sugars accumulate while acidity is retained, so the wine is bright with pretty red fruit and supple tannins. Two very different wines that argue eloquently that it would have been a shame to blend away such “specificity and deliciousness,” in the words of Dees.
Three Sticks Wines
Launched in 2002, Three Sticks was virtually founded on the strengths of individual, iconic Sonoma vineyards—including Durell and Gap’s Crown—which proprietor Bill Price had purchased. While Price has ownership interests in other top brands (like Kistler and Gary Farrell, above), his Three Sticks wines are in particularly good hands under Pinot Noir legend Bob Cabral, who shaped the cult-favorite wines for many years at Williams Selyem.
Three of Cabral’s single-vineyard Pinots show the range of place-derived character possible with minimalist winemaking. The Three Sticks 2017 from Durell Vineyard (Sonoma Coast; $70) in southwest Sonoma County, where cooling breezes funnel in from both bay and ocean, gives off forest notes, hints of savory loam, and warm spice aromas; the flavors that follow—red berry, cherry, and pomegranate—are intense but delivered with silky textures. The 2017 from Gap’s Crown Vineyard (Sonoma Coast; $70), one of their coldest sites, in the Petaluma wind gap, has darker blueberry and black raspberry fruit, concentration, and fairly powerful tannins that all suggest cellaring. And finally, the 2017 Pinot from Walala Vineyard (Sonoma Coast; $70), at 1,600 feet just a few miles from the Pacific Ocean, harbors savory exotic spices and a loamy quality under dark cherry and berry fruit; this one is both lush and powerful.
At his winemaking home base in the heart of the Sonoma’s Russian River Valley, Dan Goldfield probably makes a wider range of vineyard-designated wines (which he calls “DV” wines) than any other vintner. “I believe we make 10,” he says, when asked how many Pinot Noirs in particular. And they range from across western Sonoma, south into Marin County, and north into Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley. “It’s a beautiful, intricate and tremendously varying part of the world in terms of climate, soil details and topography. I’ve made wine around here for 34 years and have slowly grown in attachment to a handful of specific spots.” Through his winemaking, Goldfield revels in the diversity of that land. “If each of our DV wines isn’t idiosyncratic and different from the others, then it should not have been bottled separately,” he says.
And to the last bottle of Pinot Noir, vast character variation plays out. The Dutton-Goldfield 2017 Dutton Ranch–Freestone Hill Vineyard Pinot (Russian River Valley; $72) shows the dense, savory side from a marginally cool, foggy site; loam and tea leaf aromas lurk under raspberry, rhubarb, and cherry wrapped in significant tannins. His 2017 Fox Den Vineyard Pinot (Green Valley of Russian River Valley; $62) contrasts with beautiful cherry blossom aromas with hints of spice and green tea followed by sweet, mouth-watering cherry and strawberry flavors and elegant textures. The 2017 Dutton Ranch–Emerald Ridge Vineyard Pinot (also Green Valley of Russian River Valley; $68) takes a middle road, with firm but elegant tannins delivering lush, bright cherry, raspberry and blueberry fruit layered with spice and forest notes.
Together with their peers, “they tell a story of our neighborhood in all its physical and human complexity,” says Goldfield. “When I drink great DV wines from others, it piques my interest about the land, farming and vision of the winemakers from that place. When I drink one of my own DVs, on top of all the aforementioned factors, I think of the details, challenges and pleasures of crafting that wine from its specific vintage—and what was happening in my life that year. The wines encapsulate my own history.” And, of course, “there’s the pure hedonism of drinking special wine.”