It's a cool, cloudy afternoon in Napa. I am heading up to Anderson Valley by way of Boonville, for a quick overnight in the Boonville Hotel and to talk further to the winemaker at Domaine Anderson, Jerry Murray. This extraordinary drive takes you about 2 hours northwest of Napa Valley. Once beyond Sonoma County, the traffic thins out and the drive becomes relaxing. The clouds overhead have taken on this velvety formation reminiscent of a softly hued surreal painting. The sheets of moisture overhead are threatening to spill, but are held back by the ocean breeze. This close to the water, the ocean can shift the flow and formation of the clouds on a whim. The intensity of the roads is more pronounced the closer you get to the valley, Spectacular views line the hillsides and the car takes to the curves like Mario Andretti is at the helm. These roads bank magnificently and I'm in heaven. Because of my schedule I do not have time to stop, but I smile to myself as I turn each corner and discover yet another decadent eyeful of beauty.
The drive goes by quickly and I am soon at the front desk of the Boonville Hotel. The downtown of Boonville is as big as 6 doublewides with charming shops and a couple of decent restaurants. The people are friendly and the front desk has my room ready to go. It's a low key place, not what I would call a luxury hotel, but comfortable, tasteful and with many appointments beyond what standard luxury includes. The room is a decent size, I have a private porch with incredible sunset views. Just beyond the tree line is a babbling brook. Truly a feast for the eyes. Inside, divine teas, blankets for those who choose to brave the chill of the eve and little reading nooks. Quite delightful.
I drop off my bags and head out to Domaine Anderson. It's pretty close to the hotel, just under 5 miles on the 128 Highway. Arriving at the property, I see the winery is currently quiet, with the exception of some light construction work it is nearing the final touches. The facade is a deep brown, providing contrast against the hillside and reminiscent of an earlier point in time. I'm truly looking forward to this conversation. Understanding how a company determines what grapes to plant, how they are going to make an impact on the market and the drive that comes from the winemaker is truly fascinating. It's the why behind what ends up in your glass. The brilliance is often one of eloquent simplicity and ideals and that makes the wine so incredibly delightful and complex.
I've walked the property but can only hear the buzzing saw finishing the final work on the tasting room. I walk in the door and ask the whereabouts of the winemaker, Jerry Murray. It's dead quiet as the worker takes me around and I jokingly ask if he might be out talking to the vines. As if on cue the winemaker appears. We take a short walk out to the hill at the beginning of the vineyard. Looking at the hillside Murray describes the grapes and some of the brief history of Domaine Anderson. We're standing in front of the Chardonnay & Pinot Noir grapes, planted in the back of the Anderson Valley tasting room & winery for Domaine Anderson. The location is a stunning enclave of some of the 2008 & 2009 Pinot Noir vines they planted. The vineyard is farmed biodynamically. For reference, bio means life and dynamic means force. This aspect of a winery is intriguing, the goal being to create a circle of life within it's own environment. One that provides a wealth of nutrients back to the land and seeks to create an intrinsically complementary source for the surrounding players in nature's sphere.
As part of the dynamic, up about 50 yards from us there are sheep on the slope of the vineyard nibbling at the wildflowers and weeds providing an incredibly rich fertilizer for the vines. They are oblivious to the spectacular nectar provided by the vines and dutifully engaged in consuming the ground cover. This partnership is key to saving money as well as providing more nutrients for the grapes. The sheep clear weeds, saving fuel and manpower in the process. In the winter the sheep graze the property until just after bud break. The vineyards are surrounded by a large sheep ranch owned by Sam Prader who provides the living resources each year. The partnership is one of convenience and mutual benefit.
From Chef to Winemaker
It is fascinating to learn of an individual's journey into the wine space. The twists and turns one takes to find their place & dedication in a career is intriguing. Murray's journey to winemaker is compelling because he initially began his career as an academic. Knowing in his heart there was something more fulfilling for him he took a position cooking in Arizona. He quickly worked his way up to Chef. As the restaurant grew and his skills excelled they began marketing wine dinners. Murray found while he was preparing the dishes to pair with the wines, he was fascinated by the process and particularly the wine. He learned over time, that most of the great wines were made someplace else and wanderlust set in. This time taking him to Portland to cook. The closer he got to the source the more he was interested in the wine. In his mind the most compelling part of the food industry was not what was happening in his restaurant but in the region closest to him, that of Willamette Valley and the Dundee Hills AVA. Realizing this was a dangerous situation he was in he called up one of his favorite wineries, Erath Vineyards and asked for a job. They put him out in the vineyard and he began to learn the intricacies of farming.
He worked in the fields for three years hopping hemispheres from Australia to Europe. A profound moment in this experience occurred in Germany where he learned that the less space between the winemaker and the vineyards is truly where the magic is in making great wine. From there it was a matter of being able to put this realization into practice.
Back from Europe, he returned to Willamette Valley and secured a position with a struggling winery where he was able to make the wine and manage the vineyards. It was a huge undertaking, but with his experience, focus and desire to create great wine he knew he could make a difference.
The first task was to embrace those doing the most critical work, his vineyard crew. He knew getting them to stop focusing on grapes, and focus on wine and the winemaking process would be the key to returning this vineyard back into a prospering one.
"There is no boundary between the farm and the wine. What happens in the fields directly impacts what occurs in the bottle."
The farm had an abundance of tomatoes this season so he had the field team disburse the tomatoes through the fields. The perception was one of wastefulness. Murray knew this part of the process and them tasting the difference in the following year would be the momentum he needed to make an impact on how his team operated the vineyard. It was with great hesitation they used perfectly good tomatoes in the fields to enrich the land. Murray taught the team the contribution the roots and their role in the process, how they drew in the nutrients of the land, the imperfect balance of food and nutrients to aid them in working harder. The role of the leaves to get light, the aspect of photosynthesis and how that contributes.
"You can see the difference in the fruit grown meticulously and fruit grown as a commodity. It's seemingly stupid to go through a vineyard and throw tomatoes on the ground because you have too many. We do that because we're not growing grapes, we're growing wine."
This process made a huge impact. Not being able to change a course that was already in play, the first vintage under his watch was horrible. Through patient perseverance and working incredibly close with his field team they were able to turn it around. In just a few short years the wine garnered 92 points. This winery didn't have the resources to explore the wines Jerry was interested in pursuing, but it gave him unprecedented experience in winemaking and he knew he had to take his game to new heights.
He saw an article in the trades about famed French Champagne producer, Louis Roederer wanting to make the best Pinot Noir in the valley and knew this was his opportunity. It's like the seas parted and the opportunity to realize his dream came true. Four interviews later he uprooted his family from Oregon and moved to Anderson Valley to create an inaugural vintage for Domaine Anderson.
"What makes a parcel distinct is how it relates to the sun. The sun being light and heat."
Unlike most who leave the region, he misses the rain of Oregon and there are those distinct differences in harvest. Far more dramatic in California because of the intense heat compared to Willamette. In California during heat spikes, fruit can be picked. But when it rains it can't. If you have 102 days on the vine and six days of rain you are treading seriously dangerous waters. He prefers 105 days on the vine.
"When I think about wine flavor-wise I think about the sun not the terroir because the land is not that different."
We're standing by the barrels in the Domaine Anderson barrel room. Each of the barrels is French Oak with staves left out in the stave yard for 24 months. The tannins in the oak then are expelled during the rains and the microbes begin to metabolize aspects of the wood. Murray uses medium or proprietary toasts, however no toasted heads (barrel tops). Barrels can vary greatly in taste so balance has to continually be sought to hit the mark for a great tasting wine. The wood from these barrels comes from Burgundy, but from one end of the Burgundian forest is very different.
"We're interested in the wines speaking in their native tongue".
Murray radiates when he talks about the Roederer brands and their goal: quality focused first. Roederer currently has three US brands: Louis Roederer, Scharffenberger (known for it's sparkling) and Domaine Anderson. Champagne Louis Roederer is a real estate company who happens to buy vineyards. I ask how the French are doing with California wines. Jerry responds, "I think they are proud of the sparkling wines. With Domaine Anderson there were doubts this project could happen, but look where we are today. They don't have doubts about top quality production in still wines. They're not trying to make Burgundy. They're not trying to make European Pinot Noir."
Murray arrived in Anderson Valley as a student of Pinot Noir to the vineyards Domaine Anderson planted in 2008 & 2009. Now he is creating some really fantastic vintages. The first to be released are:
2012 Estate Chardonnay, Blissfully aromatic, the white floral notes, bright meyer lemon nuances and smooth vanilla make way for a touch of oak. Creamy, delicious and eye opening.
2012 Estate Pinot Noir It's dark cherry and plum are a welcome greeting. The spice finish and earthy nuances make this a remarkable palate pleaser.
The 2013's promise to be even better. Prepare to imbibe!
When asked about pairings, Murray explains unapologetically he's broken rules. "When someone opens a fantastic Bordeaux are you going to turn it down simply because they're serving it with fish? No. I try to make wine that goes with food but doesn't need it. Sometimes the best pairing is the porch." He then recalls a pairing that didn't work and smiles. Some wine & food just isn't meant to be together. But rules? Bah.
For Domain Anderson's Chardonnay and Pinot Noir the cloud cover of Anderson Valley tends to protect against that making the climate more temperate. The Pinot Noir in Anderson Valley is known for floral notes, primarily lavender. The cool night time temperatures help retain acidity. When I ask about the land or terroir, he quotes Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon the Executive Vice-President of Production for all the Roederer properties, " Climate comes first. Then genetics. Finally, the soil.". He then describes the moderate climate of Anderson Valley, "The north west facing valley opens up to the Pacific Ocean, every afternoon cool air moves in. Think of the clouds as viscous... They're liquid.
As if on cue the rain unleashes over Domaine Anderson and reluctantly I say my goodbyes and thank you's to head out to enjoy banking the curves of the Mario Andretti drive out of the valley and home to Napa.