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Woodenhead: Real Wines Made with Dinosaur Methodology

My reverence for the wines of Burt Williams and Ed Selyem have led me to pursue many spinoffs started by those who worked at the original Williams Selyem winery, including Brogan Cellars, Cobb Wines, Papapietro Perry and WesMar, all of which have achieved distinction on their own with Pinot Noir. Woodenhead’s Nikolai Stez owes his inspiration to Williams Selyem as well, having worked seventeen harvests as an assistant winemaker to Burt Williams and learned from the master.

Stez grew up in the Russian River Valley and was drawn to wine at an early age. He began making wine while still in college and obtained formal winemaking education through the Horticulture and Viticulture program at Santa Rosa Junior College and classes at University of California Davis extension.

With the sale of Williams Selyem Winery in 1997, Stez moved on and started his own label, Woodenhead. The name, “Woodenhead,” was given to him by an old girlfriend who thought that he was very stubborn (which he is). His current domestic partner, Zina Bower, handles the marketing and business side of Woodenhead while working as business manager at Diamond Creek Vineyards in Napa Valley. The photo below shows Zina and Nikolai at the Pigs & Pinot event in Healdsburg at which their wine, the 2007 Woodenhead Buena Tierra Vineyard Original Planting Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, won the Pinot Cup over fifty other entrants.

Woodenhead Pinot Noir is “Burgundian done in the California style.” Winemaking is by gravity flow, hand punch downs are employed, a gentle basket press is used, and aging is extended in French oak barrels. Stez uses the fermenting containers crafted from stainless steel milk tanks like those originally employed at Williams Selyem. These bins have the perfect configuration for fermenting Pinot Noir. The photo below shows several of the fermenting bins on a pad at the Woodenhead winery.

Stez employs inoculated yeast (Williams Selyem) and malolactic cultures, uses no enzymes, occasional acid adjustments, and very low sulfur levels. The Pinot Noirs are typically aged for 18 months and an additional 6 months in bottle before release. This explains why the wines reviewed below are from the 2009 and 2010 vintages. All wines are unfined and unfiltered.

Through his many years in the Russian River Valley, Stez has acquired a number of winegrower contacts and has been able to source fruit from some outstanding vineyards. When one looks back on the success of Williams Selyem, one key factor that stands out was the quality of vineyards from which the wines were made. You simply cannot make great wine unless you have exceptional grapes. The Woodenhead Pinot Noirs are proof of that tenant.

One of Stez’s notable Russian River Valley vineyard sources is Buena Tierra Vineyard Original Plantings from which the the last vintage, 2010, will be released in the fall of 2013. The vineyard was originally planted in 1978 by Henry Trione and the grapes were initially sold to Korbel. Trione does not know what clone was planted, but the vines are upright growing, pinot droit in type. Currently owned and farmed by Joseph R, Miller, this vineyard is located 1.5 miles southeast of Rochioli Vineyard in the low hills of the Laguna Ridge where the Russian River turns to head west to the Pacific Ocean. The well-drained sandy clay loam soil, cooling morning and evening fog, and bright sunshine during the day is ideal for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The old diseased original vines were pulled out after the 2010 vintage and replaced with Dijon clone 943 to supplement the 115, 667 and Pommard clones that are also planted there.

Stez also sources Pinot Noir from Ritchie Vineyard, specifically 9 rows of Pommard clone planted 30 to 35 years ago known as the Cinder Cone Block adjacent the oldest and most famous Chardonnay vines in this venerable vineyard. Other vineyard sources have included Wiley Vineyard and Morning Dew Ranch in Anderson Valley, and Fruitland Ranch in Humboldt County.

The 2009 Woodenhead Buena Tierra Vineyard Original Planting won Best of Class at this year’s Sonoma County Harvest Fair and the 2010 Woodenhead “Wet Kiss” Russian River Valley Pinot Noir won Double Gold in the 2013 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.

The Woodenhead tasting room, previously voted Best in Sonoma County by readers of the Bohemian newspaper, is located at 5700 River Road in Santa Rosa. It is open Thursday through Monday from 10:30 to 4:30. The winery, located at the end of a winding road high above Westside Road, is not open to the public because of local laws. This is unfortunate, because it is a treasure trove of Williams Selyem memorabilia. Pictured below are a bottle of 1982 Pinot Noir sporting the original name of the Williams Selyem winery, Hacienda Del Rio, and photos of bottles of Hacienda Del Rio Pinot Noir and Zinfandel as well as an extensive collection of Williams Selyem wines adjacent Woodenhead library wines.

Woodenhead wines are sold through the website store at In addition to Pinot Noir, there are several Zinfandels offered as well as magnums of Zinfandel and Pinot Noir. A delightful refreshing white wine, a 2011 Russian River Valley French Colombard, is very unique and highly recommended at $20 (286 cases). Finally, a 2009 Méthode Champenoise Sparkling Wine from the Russian River Valley, also composed of French Colombard grapes, is a superb example of the genre ($46, 212 cases). Wine club members receive a 15% discount and ‘Just In Case’ Club members get a 20% discount on wine purchases. To read Stez’s full disclosure on his winemaking philosophy and his so-called “dinosaur methodology,” visit

2010 Woodenhead Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

13.5% alc., 872 cases, $42. Sourced from three vineyards including Buena Tierra and Ritchie. Five clones. Woodenhead’s go-to-wine for everyday drinking. · This wine is true to its Russian River Valley heritage with aromas and flavors of cherries, baking spices and cola. Soft and easy to drink with supple tannins, this wine works beautifully at the nightly dinner table. Good.

2010 Woodenhead Wet Kiss Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

13.7% alc., 397 cases, $52. First release of this wine comprised of 25% Ritchie Vineyard Martini clone (35 years old), 37.5% Cameron Vineyard Martini clone (30+ years old) and River South Vineyard Swan clone (3 years old). Retailers have avoided this wine because of its name which they consider lacks seriousness but this is a serious wine. It is very popular in the winery tasting room. · Medium reddishpurple color in the glass. Very aromatic featuring hi-tone scents of Bing cherries, baking spice and a hint of vanilla. Moderately light in weight but flavorful offering nicely composed notes of juicy dark cherries and berries with a subtle riff of oakdriven roasted nuts and vanilla, and a finishing thrust of lush cherry reduction sauce. Forward, soft and easy to cozy up to, with bright acidity adding to its refreshing appeal, this wine will have crowd appeal. Good (+).

2010 Woodenhead Ritchie Vineyard Cinder Cone Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

14.0% alc., 124 cases, $65. 30 to 35-year-old Pommard and Martini vines. · Medium reddish-purple hue in the glass. Aromas of cherry liquor, sassafras, spice and a touch of oak. On lighter side, but with impressive flavor and finishing intensity, offering tastes of black cherries, black raspberries and subtle oak. The sappy fruit core hits all the high notes while the balanced tannins keep the fruit in line. I sense this wine will become even more complex with more time in the bottle. Very good.

2010 Woodenhead Mendocino Ridge Pinot Noir

148 cases, $38. Sourced from the Valenti Vineyard. 60% of bud stock came from Morning Dew Ranch including a Rochioli selection with the remaining 40% clone 115. First crop from vines budded over to Pinot Noir from Zinfandel. · Moderately light reddish-purple color in the glass. Unfolds slowly in the glass, offering fragrant notes of dark cherries and berries with a hint of oak and dried rose petals. On the lighter side, but very tasty and highly approachable, with flavors that echo the nose, finishing with a flourish of black raspberry aromatics. The tannins are dry and fine-grain, the acidity brings the fruit to life and the whole package is very smooth and dreamy on the palate. Very good (+).

2010 Woodenhead Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir

14.8% alc., $38. Sourced from David Bruce’s Kent Berry Vineyard. · Moderately dark reddish-purple color in the glass. Very shy upon opening, slowly revealing itself with a slightly roasted fruit profile and notes of earth, briar and old book. Juicy, rustic and rugged with concentrated flavors of blueberry, black plum and dark cherry with lacy oak in the background. Plenty of finishing tannin and a little heat shows up on the finish. Should benefit from more time in bottle. Good.

2009 Woodenhead Wiley Vineyard Anderson Valley Pinot Noir

14.3% alc., 296 cases, $60. Primarily Pommard clone with a little Mt. Eden selection. · Medium reddish-purple color in the glass. This wine is in a class by itself. The knockout nose is alive with flavors of fresh, perfectly ripe berries. Earthy and serious, with discreetly concentrated flavors of dark red and black berries that have a delicious sappiness that really sings. Beautifully balanced with well-honed tannins and a very long and generous finish. Many call this vineyard a California Grand Cru and that title is well earned.

2009 Woodenhead Buena Tierra Original Planting Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

173 cases, sold out (look for retail availability). · Moderately light reddish-purple color in the glass. Charming in every way with alluring aromas of cherries, fresh berry jam and rose petals. Boldly flavored with black cherries and a hint of spice with complimentary cedar-toned oak treatment. The intense mid palate attack and brilliant finish reflect a wine of pedigree. The impeccable balance indicates accomplished winemaking. There is nothing quite like this wine.

2007 Woodenhead Troika North Coast Pinot Noir

14.4% alc., 75 cases, $70. Three of best barrels, one each from Buena Tierra, Wiley and Fruitland vineyards. 100% new French oak barrels. The last version of this wine as two of the vineyard sources are no longer available. Tasted briefly at the winery. · Ripe black fruit profile including blackberry and black currant flavors backed by healthy tannins and underlain with noticeable oak. The fruit core is concentrated and sappy. Decant if you must open now, but this wine will benefit from even more time in bottle. Good.

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