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Bjørnstad Cellars: It’s About the Vineyard

Greg Bjornstad was raised on a farm in Colorado, earned a degree in viticulture from University of California at Davis, and held vineyard manager posts at Joseph Phelps Vineyards and Newton Vineyards. It was his stint at Flowers Vineyards & Winery on the Sonoma Coast that provided him valuable experience in cool climate viticulture and Pinot Noir and Chardonnay winemaking. As noted on a previous page, Flowers won the prestigious “Artisan Winery of the Year” Wine & Spirits magazine award two years in a row while Bjornstad worked there. In 1999, Bjornstad launched a successful international vineyard management and development consulting business and has assisted winegrowers in Russia, South Africa and Australia as well as several well-known winery clients in the United States.

Partnering with Greg La Follette in Tandem Winery for several years, Bjornstad produced noteworthy Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from multiple Sonoma County vineyards. His own label, Bjørnstad Cellars, was started in 2005, specializing in vineyard-designated Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from prestigious vineyards in the Sonoma Coast, Russian River Valley, Sonoma Mountain and Bennet Valley regions. Bjornstad is pronounced “Byurn-sted,” Norwegian for “bear place,” accounting for the unique bear paw logo for the winery.

Bjornstad has one up on many winemakers in that his training and experience has centered on viticulture. He has worked with the same growers for over 12 years and says, “I believe that human relationships also find their expression through grapes and wines. I believe that each vineyard’s terroir, or sense of place, is defined by the soil and climate but shaped by the steward.” His lineup of vineyard sources reads like a list of California grand cru sites and includes Ritchie Vineyard and Porter-Bass Vineyard for Chardonnay and Hellenthal Vineyard and van der Kamp Vineyard for Pinot Noir.

Winemaking for Pinot Noir begins with careful sorting, then de-stemming of the grapes, followed by a cold soak for up to 10 days. The wines are raised on the lees (sur lies) for at least 8 months in about 50% new French oak. Native yeast fermentations are the goal in most wines.

The Chardonnay pressing regime is dictated by the vintage and condition of the fruit as to choice of whole cluster or de-stemming. Native yeast fermentation is employed except with the Musque clone portions of the Porter-Bass and Ritchie Vineyard Chardonnays. Aging is carried out sur lies in barrel with about 50% new French oak.

This is non-interventional winemaking practiced in its highest form, with Bjornstad looking in on the wines just to insure that there are no surprises and the barrels remain full during aging. Two rackings are employed from barrel and back before bottling to preserve the freshness and character of the wines.

As I tasted through Bjornstad’s current releases of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, I was struck by the silky texture of the wines, particularly in the Pinot Noirs. For Pinot Noir fanciers, one of the wine’s greatest attribute is it’s sensual texture and if you Google “silky texture of Pinot Noir,” you will find about 105,000 results. That is not to say that every Pinot Noir has the mouth feel of silk sheets, but it is a goal that many winemakers strive for. Research has found that a group of naturally occurring substances in grapes called pectins, which are members of the polysaccharide family, are important in producing soft texture in wine. Other polysaccharides are derived from yeasts that are released when the cell walls break down after the yeasts complete fermentation and die. The ways in which polysaccharides influence the textural quality of wine, as well as the contribution of tannins is not well defined. Suffice it to say, Bjornstad has it dialed in.

All the Bjørnstad Cellars wines are stellar and reviewing them is an easy task. Picking which one is better or worse is like splitting hairs.

2007 Bjørnstad Sonoma County Chardonnay

14.2% alc., 221 cases, $25, released May 15, 2010. · Appealing aromas of cooked pear, brown butter, caramel and oak fading some in the glass replaced by green apple notes. Tasty citrus and pear flavors with a hint of honey. Not as rich or striking as the vineyard-designated Chardonnays, but a solid wine with a slightly creamy mouth feel and a bright, clingy finish. A go-to wine for everyday enjoyment. Good.

2007 Bjørnstad Barbed Oak Vineyard Bennett Valley Chardonnay

14.2% alc., 116 cases, $30, released January 15, 2010. This vineyard was planted to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in 2005 on well-drained Spreckles Series soils. The Bennett Valley AVA is a very cool region due to the onshore winds of the Pacific Ocean which enter through the Petaluma Gap. · This is a very charming wine with an alluring perfume of nectarine, banana and butter evolving in the glass to aromas of lemon and brown spice. Delicious on the palate with discreetly rich flavors of buttered toast, malted milk, roasted nuts, lemon, and poached white peaches that persist on the endless lemony finish. Harmonious in every way with the signature Bjornstad creaminess on display. Very good.

2007 Bjønstad Hellenthal Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

14.4% alc., 152 cases, $40, released March 1, 2010. Gard and Lori Hellenthal first planted this vineyard in the true Sonoma Coast in 1980. Bjornstad directed the planting and farming of a newer block developed beginning in 2000 from which Bjornstad is the sole recipient. · A savory aroma profile showing intense plum fruit, forest floor, and a hint of oak. Wellendowed with a hearty core of dark red and black fruits, game and earth. You can almost taste the soil in this wine. Healthy, but ripe tannins, a satiny mouth feel, and impressive persistence on the feral finish. Hellenthal Pinot Noirs can be monolithic and tannic, but this wine shows none of these traits. The best Pinot Noir I have ever had from this vineyard. Still singing the next day from an opened and recorked bottle indicating balance and age ability. A California classic.

2007 Bjønstad Porter-Bass Vineyard Sonoma Coast Chardonnay

14.1% alc., 64 cases, $40, released October 1, 2009. This vineyard dates to 1980 and is farmed organically and biodynamically. Clones are Rued (a Musque selection) and Wente. Soils are gravelly clay loam, a fractured shale that commonly underlies the Goldridge Series. Bjornstad has worked with this vineyard since 1997. · Nuanced aromatic profile of lemon meringue, rock quarry, chalk dust, grass and a hint of oak. Very smooth and creamy in the mouth with flavors of green apple, pastry cream, citrus and a striking minerality. Discreet richness, facile tannins and a tangy finish. The most Chablis-like Chardonnay in the lineup. Very good.

2007 Bjørnstad Ritchie Vineyard Russian River Valley Chardonnay

14.7% alc., 200 cases, $40, released May 1, 2010. This revered vineyard has been farmed by Kent Ritchie since 1972. The soils are in the Goldridge Series and are well drained, sandy loams. The Bjornstad block is planted to an Old Wente field selection that includes a very floral clone known as Musque. Bjornstad has worked with Kent and his fruit since 1997. · Slight haze in the glass (unfiltered). Shy but pleasing aromas of lemon zest, toffee, vanilla and crushed rock, with a whiff of alcohol peaking out. Rich and full-bodied flavors of golden apple and pears with a bright accent of minerality. There is deft use of oak and a striking creaminess to the texture. The biggest Chardonnay in the lineup and the most Caliesque. This wine will find many hedonistic-seeking fans. Very good.

2007 Bjørnstad van der Kamp Vineyard Sonoma Mountain Pinot Noir

14.5%, 128 cases, $40, released October 1, 2009. This cherished vineyard, farmed by the van der Kamp family, has some of the oldest Pinot Noir vines in Sonoma County. · Pinot Noir from this mature vineyard always possesses distinctive and interesting nuances. The aromas are more savory than fruity and feature wild berries, smoky oak and a hint of barnyard. On the palate, darker fruits are underlain with an appealing earthiness and meatiness. The tannins are reigned in and there is a good nip of acidity on the bright finish. My notes say, “Love the texture!” The wine picks up interest and intensity as it opens in the glass over time. Still drank beautifully the next day from an opened and re-corked bottle. You need some of this.

Bjønstad Cellars wines are sold primarily through a mailing list and through the online store at The wines are extremely well priced considering the quality. The website is very informative and easy to navigate. Follow the winery on Facebook ( and Twitter (

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