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A visit to an old-new winery in Carneros

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I’m in Carneros today, visiting one of Jackson Family Wines’ newest estates, Carneros Hills, on the site the former Buena Vista vineyard and production facility on Ramal Road, on the Sonoma County side of that sprawling appellation, just over the Napa line.

Well do I remember the acclaim and hope that greeted Carneros’s emergence as an appellation on the wine scene. Los Carneros (the proper name) wasn’t declared an American Viticultural Area until relatively late, 1987,* by which time its neighbors—Napa Valley, Sonoma Valley, even little Suisun Valley and Solano County Green Valley—already were AVAs. Why it took Carneros so long, I don’t know; perhaps it was because it crossed county lines, which was something the TTB hadn’t encountered before. It’s not as if Carneros was a new place to grow grapes: the Carneros Quality Alliance says wine grapes were first planted there in the late 1830s, and by the 1870s, the first winery had been built.

With the formal creation of the Carneros AVA, the wine media went nutso over its prospects. This was just about the time I became a professional wine writer (although I’d been studying the wine industry and closely following developments in California for a decade prior to that). If I can sum up the general impressions conveyed by the then-famous writers, especially those in the San Francisco Bay Area, it was: At last! America’s (or California’s) “Burgundy” has been discovered! Finally Pinot Noir is being grown in the proper place, and vinified into wine by the proper winemakers! Now we’re going to see some world-class Pinot Noir! (Good Chardonnay, too, but it’s curious that Chardonnay has never “starred” in a California region or, to put it more bluntly, no region in California ever rose to fame on Chardonnay alone, the way Chablis, for instance, or Puligny-Montrachet did, in France.)

The excitement continued through, I’d say, the mid-1990s, but gradually subsided. Other Pinot Noir areas eclipsed Carneros: Russian River Valley (1983), Santa Lucia Highlands (1992), the western part of the Santa Ynez Valley now called Santa Rita Hills (2001), the Santa Maria Valley (1981), Anderson Valley (1983). It’s also curious that, while several of these preceded Carneros in the date of getting appellated, it was Carneros that generated the most excitement among the critical community at that time—at least, in my memory. The reason for that may well have been that wine writing in California in the 1980s and early 1990s was dominated by Bay Area and Northern California critics (it still is, although less so), who naturally would be expected to pay more attention, in those pre-Internet days, to their own back yard than to something far away.

By the early 2000s Carneros had lost much of its luster among that community. The reasons were varied, and had as much to do with law and social custom as with wine quality. One factor that led to the diminution of Carneros’s reputation was that the region, while a large one, simply lacked a critical mass of small, boutique wineries, the result of zoning regulations whose practical impact was that only large, well-heeled wine companies could afford to buy in. (The situation in, say, Santa Rita Hills and Anderson Valley was the exact opposite.) We can argue over whether a large wine company has the will to craft small, artisan wines, or not; but what is unarguable is that the critical community loves small, artisanal wineries, and is prepared to give them more of a break (if you will) than it is to large wine companies—an inequality of treatment that isn’t fair; but it is what it is.

I myself, during my years as a wine critic, had no problem with Carneros. I gave lots of its Pinot Noirs high scores: Etude was one of my perennial faves, as were MacRostie, Donum, Saintsbury’s single-vineyard bottlings, Kazmer & Blaise (the small project from Michael Terrien), Hartford, Signorello and the occasional Acacia. As for Buena Vista, it fared well, but wasn’t exceptional: some scores of 90, 91 and 92 points, but nothing more dramatic. Why that was, is hard to say. The wines seemed unable to push their way through excellence to brilliance. It’s always hard for a critic to discern why this is with a winery; the temptation to yield to simplistic explanations should be avoided. But wine writers hate to say they don’t know everything.

The Buena Vista winery and brand themselves have, of course, undergone vast changes in modern times. Once California’s oldest winery (1857), it went through several ownership switches; I’ve lost track of all the corporate parent companies, although I certainly remember Beam’s overlordship, when the great winemaker (and my friend) Nick Goldschmidt oversaw its production (along with that of Clos du Bois, Atlas Peak, William Hill, Gary Farrell and others). In 2011, Jean-Charles Boisset bought the brand name and the original stone winery, in Sonoma Valley. The next year, Jackson Family Wines purchased the Ramal Road vineyard and production facility, and announced the formation of a new brand, Carneros Hills.

Which is why I’m here today. The company has high aspirations for the estate. It ought to be able to rise to levels unattained in its prior history; the terroir is just fine, and the Jackson family has sunk a small fortune into winery improvements. We’ll have to wait and see how it all turns out.

* I relied upon Wine Institute data for this 1987 date. According to the TTB’s website, the date of approval for Carneros was 1983.

  1. Eugenia Keegan says:

    Greetings Steve! Thanks for correcting the date of appellation. The visibility for the area that you mention may have been due in part to the CQA. They were very active in the market place with a lot of events with sizzle (a Carneros blended Pinot from all producers, the launch of the appellation and CQA in museums rather than the usual venues, etc.). They evolved into more of a technical group with less outward marketing over the 90’s but were certainly one of the early appellation groups with lots of great/devoted winemakers/managers. E

  2. Thanks Eugenia. I remember CQA. They always seemed a little scattered to me.

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