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Varner Wines

I had never had the opportunity to visit this winery although I had admired the wines for several years. Varner is a partnership between twin brothers, Bob and Jim Varner. Their winery has been quietly making a name for itself for its Chardonnays under the Varner Estate label and the secondary label, Foxglove. The Pinot Noirs, released under the Varner and Neely labels, are less well known but worth your interest as well. Because access to the estate vineyard and winery are through the Russian Ridge Open Space Preserve in the Santa Cruz Mountains, the winery cannot have a tasting room or conduct events and thus has largely been hidden from the public eye. Jim Varner was kind to host our small group at the winery which sits among scenic grassland hills in Portola Valley. As we tasted through barrel samples of the 2009 Chardonnays and several finished Pinot Noirs, Jim told us the story behind Varner Wines.

Jim Varner is a graduate of University of California at Davis and began his winemaking career in the Napa Valley. He longed for a cooler climatic region and found the current site of Varner Wines in the Skyline sub-region of the Santa Cruz Mountains (on the map on the previous page, Varner is not depicted but sits just west of Palo Alto, 12 miles east of the Pacific Ocean and 10 miles west of the San Francisco Bay). The property is situated within a large parcel that is owned by Dr. Kirk Neely and his wife Holly. Jim’s brother, Bob, was studying genetics at the University of California at Berkeley when his brother invited him to see the property. He was immediately taken by the site and the two began planting the estate Spring Ridge Vineyard in 1980. They started with Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer planted on their own rootstocks. Over the ensuing years, further blocks were added with cuttings taken from the original vineyard. In 1997, 7 acres of Pinot Noir were planted (clones 115 and 777), and in 2006, the Gewürztraminer was grafted over to Pinot Noir clone 777, effectively resulting in 25-year-old vines. Bob eventually became the winemaker and Jim took over the sales and marketing of Varner Wines.

The Spring Ridge Vineyard is farmed organically with no pesticides other than sulfur to control mildew. Other disease pressure is controlled by canopy management. Several distinct blocks have been identified within the vineyard. For the Chardonnay, there is the Home Block, the Amphitheater Block and the Bee Block. The Varners harvest, vinify and bottle the various Chardonnay blocks separately, but vinification methods are the same. This magnifies the subtle differences between the microclimates and the three wines show distinct differences. The Varners have also produced a Neely “Holly’s Cuvee” Chardonnay that is a blend of the three blocks and is named in honor of Holly Neely. A block-designated Varner Hidden Block Pinot Noir (clone 115) is the signature bottling from the estate. Both a Varner and Neely Pinot Noir are produced from the Picnic Block (clone 777). A Pinot Noir blend, “Holly’s Cuvee,” is also released under the Neely label.

The Varner and Neely Pinot Noirs are crafted in nearly the same manner. Very little (2% to 3%) whole cluster is used, fermentations are indigenous, aging is carried out in 24% to 30% new French oak barrels from several cooperages, and the wines are bottled unfined and unfiltered. All winemaking is by gravity flow with no watering back and no acidification. One interesting note is that all the barrels have taps near the bottom to drain the wine instead of pumping it out through the bung. A special metal contraption made in France allows for tipping of the barrels (see photo). In all my years of travels to wineries, I have never seen oak barrels tapped like this.

2007 Varner Hidden Block Spring Ridge Vineyard Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir

14.6% alc., 400 cases, $39. The current release. · A savory wine marked by attractive aromas of roses and spice with a delicate touch of oak. The dark stone fruit is well presented with fine, dry tannins and perfect balancing acidity. A thoroughly enjoyable wine. Very good.

2005 Neely Holly’s Cuvee Spring Ridge Vineyard Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir

14.2% alc., $39. 55% 115, 45% 777. · More herbal and not as savory as the Varner Pinot Noirs. Cherry fruit dominates with a green and oaky edge. Decent.

2005 Neely Picnic Block Spring Ridge Vineyard Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir

14.2% alc., $39. Clone 777. · Amazing aroma of fresh crushed black cherries. Notably earthy and tannic with an underpinning of charcoal and tar. The fruit is full-bodied and forward with a thick texture. Decent.

2004 Varner Hidden Block Spring Ridge Vineyard Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir

14.2% alc, $39. · A highly nuanced wine showing aromas of ripe fruit, roses, oak, tobacco and earth. With time in the glass, the medium-weighted flavors of dark Pinot fruits blossom with supporting hints of spice, edible flowers and herbs. Drinking perfectly now with supple tannins and an appealing softness and roundness. Very good.

Varner wines are sold primarily through a mailing list, on the website (, and through limited retail distribution. The winery is not open to the public. Don’t forget the Chardonnays, they are in the top echelon of California and walk the line between full-blown buttery Chardonnay styles and more austere stainless steel fermented types of Chardonnays. A second label, Spring Ridge, is an outlet for estate fruit that doesn't make the cut for the Varner label. In 2006, all of the estate Pinot Noir was declassified and the Varners did not produce a Varner Pinot Noir. 100% of the Hidden Block fruit went into the 2006 Spring Ridge Pinot Noir. At $19.99, it is a real bargain. 650-321-4894.

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