Last week Tom Stutz, La Rochelle winemaker, and I ventured up north to Sonoma County to find out for ourselves how the season was progressing.

Our first stop was the furthest north and the newest: Saralee’s Vineyard, home of our sole Pinot Meunier fruit. The Pinot Meunier project started out as a way for us to add something a little different to our lineup of Reserve Room wines, and we have been very pleasantly surprised to see how well the wines have also done in restaurants and with the press. Our first two vintages came from the Four Sisters Vineyard in the Sonoma Coast appellation. In 2011, the fruit was no longer available so we were able to source from Saralee’s, a gorgeous Russian River Valley (RRV) appellated vineyard. As you can see from the photo to the left, veraison has begun in this block. The grapes start to darken and soften…6-8 weeks after the start of veraison, the fruit should be ready to harvest.

The next leg of the trip took us to the Green Valley sub-appellation of RRV and

Freestone Hill Vyd.

the Dutton-Morelli Lane Vineyard from which we get a couple of tons of amazing Chardonnay. Entering this vineyard, situated 765 feet above sea level, and which has a house on the northern end, is like going to a speakeasy. You have to go through an old barn outbuilding jammed full of weathered picking boxes, bolting doors back in place as you go. We  emerged from this dark warren into the absolute perfect sunlight of a July vineyard day. The Hyde Selection of an old Wente clone of Chardonnay had not begun to get that waxy opacity that signals the start of the ripening race. It shouldn’t be long though.

Dutton-Morelli Chardonnay

A few miles from Morelli Lane is the Freestone Hill Vineyard, one of our Grand Cru Collection Pinot Noir sites. We get Dijon 115 Pinot from a 1.5 acre block at the toe of the hill where this vineyard is planted. Tom likes this location as it is the warmest part of a cold-weather site. Yields here looked to be relatively significantly greater than last year.

El Coro – La Cruz Vyd.

After a quick lunch at my favorite place in Sonoma County – The Underwood Bar & Bistro – it was on to the Sonoma Coast appellation, Petaluma, the La Cruz Vineyard. This site is the estate vineyard of Keller Estate Winery and has been a fruit source for us since the 2007 vintage. We had gotten a number of different clones in the past but are now getting only Dijon 828. This site is spectacularly situated above the Petaluma River on the east side. Planted on very light, well-draining soil, the Pinot from here has been wonderful. This block of the vineyard, owned by the Keller family who made their fortune supplying the interior material for Ford cars in Mexico, is called the El Coro block; it is named for this statuary chorus pictured to the right.

Pinot at Donum Estate

Our final stop was in Carneros at the southern tip of Sonoma at Donum Estate Vineyard. Another Grand Cru Collection site, this 200-acre vineyard is managed by Anne Moller-Racke, President of the Donum Estate brand. We are the only other winery to whom she sells fruit. Originally part of the Buena Vista plantings, we have been getting fruit from this glorious vineyard since 2009. Our first offering from the site is now available to purchase on-line.

Overall, the season is progressing beautifully (knock on wood). The weather has been moderate with very few heat spikes, the yields look to be about average to slightly above average (and significantly bigger than last year), and all of our vineyard partners are, again, showing their passion and skill for grape growing.

We’ll give an update when we get back to the sites in about a month.

The Grand Cru Collection

April 22, 2012

Based upon historical geography alone, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the perfect partners. They’ve occupied the same general stretch of land in the northern part of France for centuries. For decades in California, it was Cabernet that most wineries offered as the counterweight to Chardonnay, and here, those two grapes will grow together suitably.

I would argue – though – that it is in the really cool climates (Regions I and II) that Chardonnay is elevated from a drinkable (often sweet, nearly ubiquitous) white wine to an ethereal, transparent, magical vehicle of acid and electricity. If those adjectives don’t sound appetizing, you’ve been drinking the wrong Chardonnay.

The 2010 vintage saw La Rochelle contracting for fruit from three of the most highly regarded Chardonnay vineyards in California: Rosella’s Vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands; Ferrington Vineyard in Anderson Valley and Dutton-Morelli Lane Vineyard in Green Valley of Russian River Valley. And one Pinot Noir from a (the?) world-class site in the Carneos appellation: Donum Estate vineyard.  Our intent, with the “Grand Cru Collection” is to make small lots of significantly great Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from significantly great sites farmed by significantly great farmers.

Late Afternoon in Rosella's Vineyard - 2011

Like Pinot Noir, Chardonnay comes in many clonal forms. As with Pinot too, it is the there there that should reveal the truth of the wine. Providing, of course, a winemaker confident enough in his own ability (in this case, to know when NOT to do too much), the whereness  of a great grape like Chardonnay will provide much of the winemaking guidance.

Above all, a wine should be balanced. There should be a sense of momentum through the mouth too. Balance is about fruit and acid and wood and tannin working in harmony (not necessarily of equal measure) to create a sense of beauty and inevitability. While balance might be understood as the Apollonian father, Momentum is about Dionysus; it is what puts the sex in sex-appeal

We know that wine is a living thing. What should be explicit in this, but is often unacknowledged, is that living = energy = purpose. If only in the microcosm of one’s mouth, there should be an energy inherent in the wine (its Momentum) and a purposefulness as it moves from lip to gullet (its Balance). The best of wines tell a complete story. But they are not easy stories. They sometimes take a lifetime of re-telling before the point is finally won and the magic revealed.


Over the last half-dozen years, Rosella’s Vineyard has become one of the indisputable stars of the Santa Lucia Highlands appellation. Located approximately midway in the appellation, this vineyard is planted to a variety of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay clones. Owned and farmed by Gary Franscioni, Rosella’s provides fruit for some of the best producers of these burgundian varieties. We bought a couple of tons in 2010 of  the Dijon 76 clone for this Grand Cru Collection Chardonnay.

Nearly 240 miles north of the Santa Lucia Highlands is the town of Boonville in the Anderson Valley appellation. There on the east side of the main road through this stretch of Mendocino County is the Ferrington Vineyard. Planted to several clones of Chardonnay, including the Robert Young clone (the fruit we took in 2010) this south-facing vineyard has provided grapes for some of the great marks in California wine.

Creating the western-most angle of our Grand Cru Collection triangle is the Dutton-Morelli Lane Vineyard where we harvest the Hyde Selection of Chardonnay. Located in the Green Valley of Russian River Valley, Morelli Lane in home to both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. And as often happens when a vineyard owner is in love with a particular variety even though it wouldn’t seem suited to the area, old vine Zinfandel. Managed by the renowned Russian River Valley growers, the Dutton family, this vineyard was planted in 1995 (they reinvigorated the 1.5 Zinfandel block that was originally planted in 1935).

The Donum Estate Vineyard was once part of the iconic Buena Vista vineyard planting in the southern-most part of Sonoma County: the Los Carneros appellation. Anne Moller-Racke, the President and Vineyard Manager of the eponymous brand has been growing Pinot Noir for nearly than 30 years. Her team is dedicated to growing world-class fruit, and her invitation to source fruit from her site (we are the only other winery to have this honor) was an affirmation of all the work we have put into making great wines from this fickle grape. Since our first vintage in 2009, we have been getting fruit that comes from a mix of burgundian clones that is called the Donum Selection. This wine has a richness and elegance and depth that elevate it above an already stellar lineup of Pinot Noirs that Tom Stutz has shepherded to magnificence. There is a transcendence to this wine’s seriousness…to its self-possession and layers of flavor. This is a wine that will take years to tell its story…but I am sure the story will be filled with swordplay and love; dragons and timeless devotion.


With these wines, as with all of our Grand Cru Collection offerings, Tom Stutz has marshaled experience and fruit sources and vision  to create wines of balance and momentum and magic. Made in extremely small volumes, the Grand Cru Collection continues La Rochelle’s growth toward iconic status. As with all of our wines, the Grand Cru Collection wines are after greatness.