I recently had a chance to visit Napa for 2013 harvest as a guest of Treasury Wine Estates, owners of Penfolds, Beringer, Stag’s Leap, Chateau St. Jean and Etude, among many others, and had a chance to spend a morning with Etude winemaker, Jon Priest. Usually early October is a busy and rather stressful time for winemakers of the region. Working overtime to bring in the annual grape harvest, picking fruit at the optimal time for perfect ripeness balancing Brix (sugars) and acid, a winemaker is usually a bit preoccupied in October.
This year, however, Napa harvest started un-traditionally early, in late August and early September for many vintners. This was especially so in Carneros in the southern part of the valley where cool weather Alsatian style Pinot Gris, crisp Burgundian style Chardonnay and fresh, fruit filled Pinot Noir are grown on the sustainably farmed Etude estate vineyard, Grace Benoist.
By early October their fruit was fully harvested and settling comfortably into its fermentation process, allowing a relaxed Jon Priest, who believes wine in made in the vineyard and not the winery, time to take a leisurely horseback ride through Etude’s expansive vineyards on a cool October morning.
I had a chance to accompany him on a mare named Bonnie and hear a bit more of his story and how he came to be the winemaker for this lush, expressive Pinot Noir, much of which is made from Heirloom clones reestablished by Etude founder Tony Soter, now owner of Soter Vineyards in Willamette.
Soter first bottled his Napa Valley Pinot Noir under the Etude label in 1980, early in his career as a consulting winemaker for some of the best Cabs in Napa, like for Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Chappellet, Spottswoode, Viader, Shafer and Araujo. But Soter always loved Pinot Noir and found it to be the best variety to conduct the study of great winemaking, as it is so finicky and difficult. In 2001 he sold the brand to Beringer to start his incredible Oregon winery, but stayed on as consultant for a number of years, helping establish the Etude estate vineyard in Carneros and recruiting Jon Priest to move to Napa and take his place as Etude’s head winemaker.
2013 marks the 26th vintage for Priest, an avid equestrian in addition to being a lover of great Pinot Noir, who had worked extensively with the varietal in vineyards throughout California. He began his career in the 1980’s in Paso Robles with Wild Horse. After 12 years crafting over 30 different wines, many Pinot, he moved on to Adelaida Cellars in San Louis Obispo and then Taz Vineyards in Santa Barbara. The Washington State native was recruited by Soter to join Etude in early 2005, shortly after the winery harvested their first completely estate fruit Pinot Noir vintage for the winery. Priest speaks of Soter much as the Laurie Hook, head winemaker for Beringer, speaks of Ed Sbragia, iconic winemaker of Beringer for so many years. Priest has a respect for Soter and his hand off philosophy, believing great winemaking must start in the vineyard with great soil, slope, sun and temperatures, with the ideal varieties and clones planted to meet their greatest potential. The winemaker and work done in the winery simply ensure that the steps taken in the vineyard are respected, ensuring the best wine possible is made.
And Etude and its vineyard manager Franci Ashton have incredible ground to work with. The 1500 acre Grace Benoist Vineyard contains 15 different vineyard blocks, each about 8 acres total, shifting from one to another without much rhyme or reason except that the soils underfoot continue to change from clay to volcanic red soils to well draining rocky soils. With each shift a different clone of Pinot Noir, of which they have 20 planted in the vineyard of which about 10 are low-yielding Heirloom varieties, or a completely different variety from Syrah to Malbec to Merlot, may be planted, each densely planted to ensure low yields and high concentration in the fruit. Additionally, with this philosophy of great wine being made in the vineyard, they maintain their goal to be good stewards of the land, with as light of a footprint as they can manage. As evident on our ride when we saw deer and wild turkey roaming freely at the fence-line of the vines, with wildlife given safe passageways through the vineyards. Native flora and naturally occurring wetlands have been protected, and creeks are being restored.
The result – expressive, distinct, site specific wines filled with character and personality. The Alsatian clone Etude Pinot Gris is completely stainless steel fermented in small 75 gallon stainless steel barrels, without touching oak or seeing any malolactic fermentation, creating a fresh, crisp and lively wine with bright minerality and balanced acidity. Unlike an often overly fruity Italian Pinot Grigio the Alsatian style Pinot Gris brings in layers of stone fruit, flint and a touch of floral notes, accentuated with great texture that makes this easy drinking wine as ideal for sipping on a warm night on the patio as it is for pairing with your favorite roast chicken or fish dish.
As with all the Etude wines, acidity is as important as the sugars, so creating a wine with bright acidity that will age well and pair perfectly with food is key. The Etude Carneros Chardonnay achieves this goal. Fresh, elegant, balanced and inviting the partially stainless steel fermented/partially neutral French oak fermented juice is aged 10 months on the lees to give the wine a nice roundness and balance with ripe fruit filled notes of golden delicious apple, apricot, lemon and honeydew melon.
The Carneros Estate Pinot Noir makes up the largest production of Etude wine. A light and fresh Pinot with balanced acidity and tannin, making it an easy drinking yet still refined Pinot Noir, approachable the day it is released or after aging for a while in bottle. Filled with ripe black cherry, red and black berry and spice notes the wine is created from fruit grown throughout the entire vineyard, up to 60 different plots on the estate, creating the winery signature Pinot
The heirloom vines in Etudes vineyards were never certified or “cleaned up” per say, so no one really knows which clones of Pinot the Etude vines are, but according to Priest and others at the winery the heirloom vines have the best story, perhaps smuggled into the country in a suitcase from Burgundy, eventually to be made into the quintessential wine for Etude, their Heirloom Pinot Noir. Low yielding vines with history and pedigree produce intense, concentrated wines with depth. Though the origin of the vines is unknown, the resulting wines are distinctly Carneros, with layers of red licorice, ripe cherry and Asian spice. Balanced and elegant, almost with a delicate finesse the silky texture of the wine stays on the palate from first sip to last, making a wine to be savored and enjoyed.
The wines are priced $26 for the Pinot Gris, $36 for the Chardonnay, $45 for the Carneros Pinot Noir and $90 for the Heirloom. The wines are available for purchase via the winery website or are available at various Spec’s locations throughout Dallas. Either Pinot Noir wines would be a special pairing for your Thanksgiving meal, and for white wine only drinkers on Thanksgiving the weight and texture of the Chardonnay will pair nicely with your roasted bird, pleasing any holiday palate.