Vail Wine Ink column: Ancien wines: Global pinot and a local winemaker
UNDER THE INFLUENCE
Sean Thackrey “Pleiades XXIII” Old Vine Red Blend — The genius Irish winemaker in Bolinas California has made this heavenly non-vintage blend of grapes from different varieties and vineyards 24 times. Never normal, often inspiring and for sale for less than $25, it may be the most Californian of all California wines.
The Ancien Collection of Haynes Chardonnay 2007-2013
The only thing that could bring me inside on that gorgeous February day was a chance to taste through a seven-year vertical of the Ancien chardonnay that had been grown in the Haynes Vineyard. As we took our seats in the barrel room with owner-winemaker Ken Bernards and his staff, it became clear we were tasting history, not just Bernards’, but the vineyard’s, as well. With each successive vintage, moving from old to new, we could taste the nuance, the subtle changes that were the result of variations in the weather of the given vintage or the oak regimens that were utilized with each bottling. It was an unprecedented opportunity and an educational experience.
“Fernando knows these vines so well that he talks to them like they are friends. You can feel him grieve when one begins to falter,” said Ken Bernards, the owner-winemaker of Ancien Wines in the Coombsville appellation in the southern reaches of Napa Valley.
We were standing in the historic Haynes Vineyard on a toasty warm February morning. Fernando Delgado is a much-loved vineyard manager who, since the early 1970s, has tended the chardonnay and pinot noir grapes in this vineyard. It is a supreme patch of land that was originally planted in 1966 under the tutelage of Louis Martini Louis Sr. In the world of California wines, both the vineyard and Fernando are considered treasures.
“You know it is one thing to come to a wine region, look around and see what is planted and what is working,” Bernards said. “But when Martini was here, there weren’t benchmarks, there weren’t success stories. It was all about finding a place and saying, ‘I think pinot will work here, or I think cabernet will be good there.’”
Bernards told this story as he wrapped a hand around the solid torso of a 50-year-old chardonnay vine planted on St. George stock. It sat in soils that are the residue of an ancient volcano that is also named St. George. The towering peak looms just to the north over Bernards’ shoulder. The soils below, he said, are called “tufa,” which is a layer of compressed volcanic ash. The stones are dense but exceedingly light. The tufa stones drain the topsoils, storing moisture in rich clays underneath. As the St. George vines labor to grow roots deep into the tufa layer, they access moisture during long, dry growing seasons. It is a trait that has made them especially adept during the recent drought years.
Bernards is all about the vineyards. While the phrase “the vineyards make the wine” has become the go-to cliche for a number of winemakers, for Bernards, there is no place more important then the sites where he selects his grapes.
Significantly, and perhaps surprisingly given his location in Coombsville, an appellation known for the production of cabernet sauvignon, Ancien is a Burgundy house, which is to say they specialize exclusively in the production of pinot noir, chardonnay and a little pinot gris. His wines are a reflection of his sensibilities and priorities. Making wines that exhibit balance and an expression of the place where they are grown are goals that he strives to achieve with each bottling.
As we sat in the Ancien Barrel Room tasting Ancien Haynes vineyard wines from the 2007 through 2013 vintages, Bernards told me how he came to be a passionate pinot patriarch. Raised in McMinnville, Oregon, now the heart of the Willamette Valley’s pinot-centric wine country, Bernards came to the Napa Valley in the mid-1980s after studying chemistry at Oregon State. His first job was at Domaine Chandon, the sparkling wine house outside of Yountville that specialized in the production of pinot noir and chardonnay. But it was a visit to Burgundy that sparked the fire that burns today. In 1992, he made his five barrels of pinot noir with fruit sourced from Carneros. He has been on a quest ever since to produce perfection.
Unrestricted by source
Not one to be bound by convention, Bernards has decided that there is a big world out there with some great vineyards. Rather than restricting himself to the vineyards he can see, as some winemakers do, his quest has been to make wines in his Coombsville facility from some of the best grapes he can source, no matter where they come from.
Today, he has contracts for grapes from two of the West Coast’s top pinot producing sites, Kathy Joseph’s Fiddlestix Vineyard in the Ste. Rita Hills appellation of the Santa Barbara Coast, and the much-loved Shea Vineyard in the Willamette Valley, just a dozen or so miles from where he was raised.
This is in keeping for a man who is the first, and likely the only, winemaker to produce true Burgundy, as in made from grapes grown in Burgundy, in California. In a whimsical moment just before the turn of the century, Bernards thought “Why not?”
“I had met a guy in Aspen at the Food & Wine Classic,” he said, “and he was buying some land in Morey-St. Denis. The conversation turned to how neither of us had ever heard of anyone purchasing grapes and shipping them to California and vinifying them here.”
Well, yeah — because it is a crazy idea. But not to Bernards, who made the idea a reality.
“We bought a couple of tons of grapes, put them in boxes with dry ice, drove them to Lyon, shrink-wrapped the packages in a product that would keep them cold but not frozen, and sent them to San Francisco.” Bernards chuckles as he once again, perhaps for the thousandth time, tells the story to a disbeliever.
Only 45 cases of the wine, which he dubbed, appropriately, “Par Avion,” were produced and, according to Bernards, what remains is unique in all the wine world. A testament to a pinotphile who has, in his own words, “an imaginative, if warped mind.”
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and black Lab, Vino. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.