Located in one of the coolest appellations of the Napa region (in more ways than one!), Heron Lake Vineyard and Winery planted its first vineyards in 1980 and began producing wines under the Olivia Brion label in 2003.
Winemaker David Malaffey sat down with us recently to discuss his role at Heron Lake as a steward of the vineyard in Wild Horse Valley.
The story of Olivia Brion: Fact or fiction? Describe how the Olivia Brion label ties in with your wines. Could you supply a few winemaker adjectives?
David: Well, if you're talking about the real Olivia Brion, the dog depicted on the wine label, then yes, she is fact. She chases turkeys in our vineyard.
The gal on the bicycle, well, she's "legend". She’s an amalgam of women who lived in history woven into one. She's a compilation of all the attributes in women I love and a composite of women she might have known or should have known. We've been historically accurate. But with her paramours with real people, we've expanded the fable here. I'm a "fabulist". That's a 19th-century word for someone like Mark Twain.
We take our winemaking seriously, but not ourselves. Once in a while, the wine business needs a poke in the ribs. Playful, sensual and adventuresome are the words I'd use to describe Olivia Brion and the wine.
Your "green story" involves a big commitment to sustainability. Can you comment on what you have underway in the vineyards?
David: As I'm working the land in my lifetime, I like to think that I'm leaving it intact. We leave wildlife corridors open, and our property is a major flightway for birds, so we end up sharing the fruit with the turkeys who get right through our netting. We use a propane cannon to scare them off, and of course, our dog.
Our guiding principle is gentle handling. We use gravity flow design to process the grapes, solar power for electricity where necessary, and no insecticides. Using native stones from the vineyard and recycled wood, we constructed an outbuilding to store bottled case goods on site instead of storing it offsite in a commercial warehouse. It is thoroughly insulated and needs no refrigeration; just a simple fan is used to create the ideal wine storage temperature.
Tell us about another of your guiding principles: "Think local."
David: We sell mainly to local restaurants and wine shops. We can because we're small, about 1,000 cases/year. I like it at this scale because I can be a generalist.
You are the co-inventor and developer of an "ozone for sanitation" system that's now used by over 700 wineries to save water and avoid harsh chemicals. Can you talk about wine and technological innovation as it relates to the environment?
David: I'm a big believer in less intervention in winemaking. However, I'm not afraid of technological advances. I just want to use them wisely.
Winegrower John Newmeyer checks the Chardonnay's fermentation.
Ozone for sanitation is a practical alternative to steam or chemical cleaning. Ozone is a form of oxygen that uses three atoms instead of two (as in O2.) An electrical current can break apart two of the atoms and briefly join three of them together. The third is held loosely, and if it has the opportunity to react, it will.
The third atom will destroy bacteria, and what you have left over is O2. It's clean and green. No chemicals needed, and it won't change the flavor of the barrel when you clean it. This use of ozone has many applications in cleaning water and other food products.
On a lighter note, what's your favorite pairing with Pinot Noir?
David: That's easy. If they were going to shoot me in the morning and I was having my last meal, it would be our '07 Olivia Brion Pinot Noir with Copper River Salmon from Alaska, grilled outdoors using the dried pruning canes as wood. The canes impart even heat and a beautiful smoked flavor.
Second choice: the same Pinot Noir with wild pig sausage. We had an invasion of wild pigs back a few years and needed the help of a trapper. We created sausage from those pigs that ate my Pinot Noir grapes!
We recently spoke with Shahin Shahabi (vintner) and Jon Alexander-Hills (winemaker) at their Stonehedge Winery tasting room in downtown Napa.
Winetasting.com works with Stonehedge to craft custom blends for several exclusive private label wines, including San Valencia 2005 Reserve Malbec and Mira Luna 2007 Chardonnay. We also carry Stonehedge's Clone 7 and Clone 470 Monterey County Syrahs.
I understand that you are of Iranian descent. How did you become interested in California wines?
Shahin: My family migrated to the U.S. in 1978 during the revolution that ousted the Shah of Iran. I was going to school then and went back to France in the summers hoping to go back to Iran. It was there in France that I learned about wine. In 1984, after graduating from college, I came back to the U.S. and began work importing French wines to the U.S.
I very much enjoy being in a business related to nature. I began work on the Stonehedge label in 1990, and we produced the first vintage in 1992 of Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley. That is where I learned more, and my passion for wine at the production level grew.
Jon Alexander-Hills is a friend and wine consultant with two Masters degrees from U.C. Davis, who joined us in the past year.
Stonehedge Winery Tasting Room
What is your favorite varietal of wine to make?
Jon: The one I just bottled. [Laughs.] I work on 15-18 different varietals. There was a period of about 20 years when I didn't work on Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Noir. I'm very opinionated, so it was nice during that time to just sit back and enjoy those wines without analyzing every detail.
Tell me about your two premium Syrahs from Monterey: Clone 7 and Clone 470.
Jon: A friend of mine is a Monterey County wine grower. He was testing several different Syrah clones in a controlled experiment on one large lot. He planted one row of each clone and made seven different wines from these grapes. In the end, he chose the best clones, 7 and 470, ripped out the others and planted 100 acres of those Syrah clones.
You currently rent winery space. Is your goal long-term to own a vineyard, or is yours a conscious strategy to continue this way?
Shahin: We'd like to grow, but we want to be cautious given the economy. The only constant in this business is change. We're focused on producing quality wines and keeping our prices low.
Our wines are every bit as good as the $50 Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. We just don't charge for the winery and the tasting room!
The industry term for what we do is "custom crush". Many wineries do it this way. They purchase grapes and take them to a facility for processing per their instructions. Think of it like a caterer who goes to the hotel with the food for a function. With the facility doing everything down to barrel aging, we can have lower overhead and pass the savings on to our customers.
Our wines are every bit as good as the $50 Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. We just don't charge for the winery and the tasting room! The building doesn't go into the bottle. The wine goes into the bottle.
Watch a recent appearance by Jon Alexander-Hills on ABC Channel 7's View from the Bay:
Guy Davis is the founder and winemaker at Davis Family Vineyards. Davis caught the "wine bug" in the early 1980's, and after 15 years working in the wine industry, he crushed his first vintage under the family label in 1997.
Guy Davis in the vineyards
While working through college, you caught the wine bug tasting fine French wines with a Parisian restaurant owner after hours. What's kept you in the wine business?
Guy Davis: What turns me on most is seeing everything come full circle. I start my day walking down the hill to the vineyard. Then I might work in the winery tasting samples. That evening I could be wearing a sport coat pouring at an event with incredible food.
It's amazing to think it all started on a January morning pruning vines and ended with a delightful evening with people enjoying my wine. I'm one-third organic farmer, one-third artisan, one-third salesman. I stay the size I am, as a family farm, for that very reason. It's three businesses interwoven, and I love every facet of it.
As a "custodian of the soil", what is your biggest challenge in the vineyard?
Being organic or "earth friendly" alone is super challenging. There's no way to cut corners the way we do it ... everything matters.
Guy: My biggest challenge is getting it all done. I don't want to let go of any one part of the business. Being organic or "earth friendly" alone is super challenging. There's no way to cut corners the way we do it ... using gravity flow instead of pumps, not spraying the weeds ... everything matters. It's the compilation of 1,000 small things.
What is your favorite varietal? My guess would be Zinfandel, because it is the first vintage ever made under Davis Family Vineyards in 1997.
Guy: Actually, I don't have just one favorite varietal. We grow Pinot Noir in a cooler spot, Syrah in warmer areas, Old Vine Zinfandel and Chardonnay too, each in a different place to match microclimates. None of them are farmed identically. They're like my children. You can't say which one you love the most.
The Davis Family (from left): Cooper, Guy, Judy, Luke, Rebecca and Cole
Once they're in the winery, they're all very different too. Syrah likes interaction. It actually expands and has more personality with handling. With Pinot Noir, every time you touch it, it loses something. It's more delicate. My favorite part is actually not having one favorite and making a range of wines.
What is the most memorable wine you ever tasted?
Guy: The most memorable wines I've tasted have been at the winery with a person who had a thought about what that wine was going to be – someone who knew something about the sense of place. It's the connection with someone passionate and inspired that makes me remember the wine.
If you were to give up winemaking, what other career or hobby would you pursue?
Guy: [Laughs] I just hope I die doing just what I'm doing, right where I'm doing it!
We sat down with Ravenswood winemaker on Wednesday, October 27th with Joel Peterson to talk about life and his love of Zin.
How did you discover wine?
In 1951, my parents drank a great bottle of 1945 French wine, turning them into wine drinkers. My father started a wine club and allowed me to become engaged in the process of wine tasting. When my father died in 1971, I began to reevaluate my life. I figured I could probably make wines with a background in bio-chemistry and micro-biology. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work with Joe Swan, who was just in the process of developing his winery. Working with Joe, alongside Andre Tchelistcheff, it became obvious to me that this was kind of our “forgotten heritage” and that it had the potential to make super wine. In 1976, I jumped in with both feet.
What makes Ravenswood Zinfandel so special?
We don’t use a lot of technology. We hone very closely to traditions and don’t let our size change the quality of our wines. Our wines are quite simply made and unusual for a winery of our size. We are also still very committed to this notion of “wine from place,” resulting in very focused wine. For example, the Amador County Zinfandel has a distinctive Sierra Foothills quality which we refer to as a ‘Dr Pepper” taste with vanilla and black cherry qualities. Because it is dry farmed, crop levels are low so the resulting wine is one of great intensity.
What is the biggest barrier to selling Zinfandel?
Wow. One of the early barriers is that White Zinfandel had become so ubiquitous, and when given a red Zinfandel, people wondered why it was red. We have overcome that now but the biggest hurdle is finishing that process in convincing people that Zinfandel is as good as ever. Cabernet has this status that it draws from Bordeaux, but with Zinfandel, we’re on our own.
Do you have any superstitions when it comes to making wine?
If you were a wine, which varietal would describe your personality best and why?
I could be a Zinfandel but more likely to be a heritage field blend because there is more complexity, more balance, and you get intensity yet graciousness at the same time. In the United States, we are all a little Heinz 57 in that respect.
Get the 2007 Ravenswood Zinfandel here for just $18 per bottle.