Prodigal Wines: A Work in Progress
On my drive to the World of Pinot Noir recently, I stopped by the Santa Rita Hills to meet Stephen and
Mary Russell, discuss their new wine label, and sample their wines. The name “Prodigal” comes from
the career path that Stephen Russell has followed. His frank introduction to the wine world came when,
after graduating from U.C. Davis with a degree in enology in 1960, he went to work at Gallo as their
first formally-trained enologist. He quickly discovered that corporate winemaking was not his interest.
He can wax humorously about his experiences at Gallo. He talks about Hearty Burgundy, the well
known red wine composed of Zinfandel, Merlot, and almost anything else that was available at the
time. The challenge was to make Hearty Burgundy taste consistently the same despite the fact that the
types and sources of grapes varied widely with each vintage. Stephen’s claim to fame at Gallo is that
he created a process for carbonization of Ripple!
After a failed attempt to purchase Freemark Abbey, Stephen left the wine industry and returned to
school where he obtained his DVM and PhD degrees. He pursued a successful career in cancer research.
More recently he advises researches about acquiring research grants from various sources.
In 2001, he decided to do something with his lovely wife, Mary, who had followed him about faithfully
through the years. They bought a house and property in the southeast corner of the Sta. Rita Hills
appellation, and Prodigal Wines was born. The “prodigal son” had returned, dedicated to capturing
the essence of Pinot Noir.
The Russells have planted 4 acres to Pinot Noir (Dijon clones 667 and 777, and some vines from
cuttings from Julia’s Vineyard in Cambria) and Pinot Gris (clone 146). The young vineyard, named
Quinta Santa Rosa Vineyard, is managed by Jeffrey Newton and associates (Coastal Vineyard Care).
The first vintage, 2005, was crafted with the assistance of local winemaker, Norm Yost (Flying Goat),
and will be released in the spring of this year.
The three of us sat down at a dining table looking out over the valley and tasted through the 2005
wines and several barrel samples from the recent 2006 harvest.
2005 Prodigal Wines Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir
14.5% alc. 275 cases. This is a blend of grapes
from the estate Quinta Santa Rosa Vineyard and Wädenswil clone 2A from Rio Vista Vineyard. Aging
was in a mixture of new and neutral French oak barrels (made in the USA by World Cooperage of
Missouri) for 12-16 months.
This is a polished wine with delicate cherry, tea, and pepper flavors. Tannins
are reigned in, and it finishes with a tangy acidic edge.
Also tasted were barrel samples of 2006 667 clone in new oak, 2006 667 clone in neutral oak, 2005 667
from Rio Vista Vineyard, and 2006 Fiddlestix Vineyard 115 clone in new oak. The Fiddlestix was really
impressive with gorgeous aromatics and gregarious fruit and spice. Happily, Russell will add this
Fiddlestix wine to the 2006 Appellation blend. Russell is still evaluating sources in the Santa Rita Hills
and his project is a work in progress. I was impressed by his wine knowledge and scientific background
which should hold him in good stead. In addition, Mary is developing a sophisticated wine
palate, and her contributions to blending decisions will be invaluable. The ultimate production goal is
about 500 cases.
50 cases of estate Pinot Gris were produced in an Alsatian style. The wine was held on its lees in neutral
French oak barrels for six months and then in stainless steel for an additional six months, also sur
lies. The yeast autolysates have given it that Alsatian character. The 2005 vintage is very French in
Prodigal Wines will be available directly from the winery after the spring release. Prices and
offerings will be posted on the winery’s web site at www.ProdigalWines.com. Those on the mailing list
will be offered priority to purchase. Tastings are available by appointment by phoning 805-688-0476.