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Prodigal Wines: Fifty Years in the Making

Stephen Russell was an early graduate of the University of California at Davis, leaving with a degree in enology in 1960 to become E.&J. Gallo’s first formally trained enologist. He quickly discovered that corporate winemaking did not interest him, but before departing he left behind a legacy. Stephen’s claim to fame at E.&J. Gallo was his creation of a process for carbonization of Ripple!

After a failed attempt to purchase the Freemark Abbey Winery, Stephen left the wine industry for good and returned to school where he obtained his DVM and PhD degrees. He pursued a very successful career in cancer research and more recently advised researchers about proper paths to acquiring research grants.

In 2001, Stephen decided to do something that involved his lovely spouse, Mary, who had faithfully stood by his side through the years. Together they bought a house and land in the southeastern corner of the Sta. Rita Hills appellation, and Prodigal Wines was launched. The “prodigal” son had returned, dedicated to capturing the essence of Pinot Noir. Stephen likes to use the tag line, “A Wine Fifty Years in the Making.”

The Russells have planted an estate vineyard consisting of four acres of Pinot Noir (Dijon clones 115, 667 and 777). The first vintage was harvested in 2005. The vineyard is named Quinta Santa Rosa and is managed by Jeff Newton of Coastal Vineyard Care. Stephen used consultants for his first vintages, but beginning with the 2007 wines, he has become the sole winemaker. The wines are crafted in a new shared facility on Santa Rosa Road in the Santa Rita Hills. I like his style, which is all about precision, restraint and elegance. Some may wish for more fruit intensity (these wines are not fruit bombs), but I prefer the delicate approach which produces more nuanced wines. All the wines have supple tannins so they are very approachable now. The 2007 wines were released April 1, 2010.

2007 Prodigal Fiddlestix Vineyard Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir

14.1% alc., 50 cases, $35. Clones 115, 667. Aged in 33% new French oak, bottled unfined and unfiltered. · Subdued aromas of dark berry fruits with hints of Provencal herbs and forest floor. Juicy and bright on the attack with substantial fruit intensity and noticeable fine-grain tannins. This wine has bold flavors but retains an appealing elegance. Could use another year or two in the cellar to fully integrate the tannins. Fine the next day from a previously opened and re-corked bottle. Very good.

2007 Prodigal Sta. Rita Hills Appellation Cuvée Pinot Noir

14.1% alc., $35. Sourced from four vineyards: 28% Quinta Santa Rosa, 45% Fiddlestix, 15% Rancho la Viña, and 12% Rio Vista. · Delicately fruited nose with a hint of spice and smoky oak. Soft, redder fruits on the palate with notes of pomegranate and lemon cola and a citrus lift on the lively finish. A fine daily drinker. Decent.

2007 Prodigal 2 Vineyards 2A Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir

14.1% alc., 50 cases, $45. Sourced from Rancho la Viña Vineyard at the western end of the AVA (67%) and Rio Vista Vineyard at the eastern end of the AVA (33%). 100% clone 2A (Wädenswil). · Deeper, darker red fruits featured. This wine has more bulk and mystery than the estate bottling. Moderately rich cherry and berry core set off by subtle oak spice, finishing with an appealing acidic tang. Soft tannins and thoroughly harmonious. Still drank beautifully the next day from a previously opened and re-corked bottle. Very good.

2007 Prodigal Quinta Santa Rosa Vineyard Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir

14.1% alc., 92 cases, $55. · The nose on this beauty is what entices me about Pinot Noir sporting vivid red fruits, nicely spiced with supporting oak. A delicate wine, but packed with flavor featuring a pleasing melange of red Pinot fruits, wrapped in enough suede tannins to bring the fruit into focus. The wine possesses both an admirable finesse and remarkable persistence on the aromatic finish and picks up interest and intensity with time in the glass. Worth the fifty year wait.

2005 Prodigal Quinta Santa Rosa Vineyard Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir

14.5% alc.. Inaugural vintage from this estate vineyard. The wine was crafted with winemaker Norm Yost (Flying Goat). · Darkly colored. Hi-tone fruity nose featuring black cherries and dark red berry jam. Very ripe fruit flavors with a slight roasted quality. Tasty and flashy berry and currant flavors with the slightest hint of oak. Smoothly textured with balancing acidity and a dry finish. The wine has aged nicely. This wine is crafted in a bigger, riper, more fruit-forward style than the 2007 vintage Pinot Noirs that were produced by Stephen Russell. Good.

Prodigal wines may be tasted by appointment at the winery (805-688-0476) and are conducted by either Stephen, Mary or the new assistant winemaker, Stephen Villa. The tasting usually last 1-2 hours and includes barrel tasting. The wines are also sold through a mailing list and online at Look for the Russells at the upcoming Santa Barbara Vintner’s Festival on April 17 in Lompoc.

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