From Gravs to Grapes
By: Jeff Cox
Throughout the 20th Century, the rolling hills that lay northwest of the Sonoma County town of Sebastopol, California, achieved a few days of absolute grandeur each April as hundreds of thousands of Gravenstein apple trees burst into full pink and white, fragrant bloom.
The highway that bisected these orchards was officially Route 116, but everyone knew it as the Gravenstein Highway. This apple ripens in mid-August, and for years supplied all of America with the first fresh apples of the season. But the apple industry moved north to Washington and its climate-controlled sheds from which apples with just-picked characteristics emerge year ‘round. By the 1980s, Gravensteins lost their importance.
Don and Marcia Hallberg grew apples on 115 acres of prime land just outside Sebastopol. Classes of local schoolkids trouped through Marcia’s butterfly garden each year in late spring. Local folks stopped by the Hallberg’s apple barn to grab a basket of Gravensteins, but the national apple business was failing fast, and by the late 1990s, Don and Marcia sold their orchard to Brice Jones, the founder of nearby Sonoma-Cutrer winery, and soon, the apple trees were gone.
But the Hallberg property held a secret. It was in the cool Green Valley sub-appellation of the Russian River Valley, and the silty soil was Gold Ridge loam—perfect soil for high quality grapes. Jones, who had spent 30 years growing Chardonnay at Sonoma-Cutrer, figured the Hallberg land had great potential as a site for Pinot Noir.
Jones brought in ace viticulturist Kirk Lokka and soon the land became the Hallberg Vineyard. Remember that name, because Jones was absolutely right. The site produces what I consider to be some of the finest Pinot Noir in the world. And that’s not because these wines are heavy, dense, or overly fruity. It’s because Hallberg fruit produces wines of impeccable finesse.
These are lithe wines, as graceful as a ballerina, as subtle as a poem, as elegant and charming as Audrey Hepburn. In short, they are feminine wines. They’re assertive but not aggressive. And they enhance food, especially if it, too, is handled with restraint.
Pinot Noir this good doesn’t just grow anywhere, so its quality has attracted some of the big names in California Pinot Noir, such as Gary Farrell who bottles vineyard-designated Hallberg under his new Alysian label, and Brice Jones and his talented winemaker Nicolas Cantacuzene who bottle vineyard-designated Hallberg under the Emeritus label. It also has attracted some lesser known names who make wines just as good as the stars, because if you just take care not to fiddle too much with the wines, and let the Hallberg be Hallberg, you’ll get fantastic results.
Ross and Jennifer Halleck of Sebastopol do a fine job, and a label named Joseph Jewell produces vineyard-designated Hallberg that immediately caught my attention for its purity and elegance.
At first I thought that the secret of Hallberg Pinot Noir was in the techniques employed by the winemakers, so I asked to meet with the principals of Joseph Jewell in their facility in Cloverdale, in the far northern part of Sonoma County. They are two earnest young men, Adrian Manspeaker and Micah Wirth, whose middle names are Joseph and Jewell—hence the name on the label. They’ve been making wine together since 2006.
Here’s how they handle the Hallberg fruit. It’s picked at night, so it comes into the winery cold, due to the influence of the frigid Pacific Ocean just a few handfuls of miles away to the west. They de-stem the grapes but ferment whole berries, rather than crushing them. The fruit gets a five-day cold soak before inoculation with Assmannshausen yeast, a popular yeast used for Pinot fermentations. The grapes go through their primary fermentation in seven to 10 days. When the wine approaches dryness, they press it off the skins using a gentle basket press. Then the men inoculate the must with the bacteria that changes harsh malic acid to softer lactic acid (the malolactic fermentation), which takes a month. The new wine then goes into a combination of new and used French oak barrels for 10 months, and the final 50-50 Hallberg blend of clones 777 and Pommard is then bottled unfined and unfiltered. They make about 1,200 cases of Pinot Noir. The current release is the 2010 and the alcohol is a tick above 13 percent.
If you’re familiar with winemaking techniques, you’ll notice that these guys don’t do anything out of the ordinary. It’s straightforward winemaking. They do manage to capture the essence of the Hallberg Vineyard by not over-producing or using a lot of high-tech equipment available to winemakers these days. What they do right is respect the fruit.
In return, that erstwhile apple orchard produces wine as pretty and delicate as apple trees in bloom. It figures.