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Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery: Embracing the Legacy

Some consider Gary Farrell the father of Russian River Valley Pinot Noir because he was one of the first Pinot Noir winemakers to rise to prominence at the start of the Pinot Noir revolution in the region. Farrell, who had majored in political science at Sonoma State University, developed an interest in wine as a student, and decided after college to become a winemaker. He was largely self-taught, but developed added winemaking skills during the mid-1970s working in the cellars of Tom Dehlinger, Robert Stemmler and Davis Bynum. He developed a special friendship with Davis Bynum’s son, Hampton, and was hired as winemaker at Davis Bynum Winery in 1978. Farrell continued as winemaker at Davis Bynum Winery until 2000.

Davis Bynum had built the first winery on Westside Road and produced Pinot Noir from Joe Rochioli, Jr.’s first crop. The 1973 Davis Bynum Winery Rochioli Vineyard Pinot Noir was the first Russian River designated wine, and along with Joesph Swan’s 1973 Pinot Noir, the first vineyard-designated Pinot Noir from what became the Russian River Valley appellation. From 1973 until 1981, Davis Bynum Winery was the only winery to receive Rochioli Vineyard grapes.

Farrell started his own label in 1982, releasing a 50 case blend of Rochioli West Block and Allen Vineyard fruit. The wine sold for $80 a case and much of it was hand-delivered to local retailers and customers. The same year, Farrell made the inaugural Pinot Noir for Rochioli Vineyard and Winery, trading winemaking for grapes for his own inaugural release, and for a few years served as a consultant and assisted in the planning and construction of the Rochioli Winery. This close relationship continues to this day with Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery receiving grapes annually from Rochioli Vineyard on a handshake basis much to the consternation of the current owners.

I enjoyed a number of Farrell’s Pinot Noirs through the early years, but a 1987 Gary Farrell Russian River Valley Pinot Noir made an indelible impression on my wine psyche at a time when my passion for Pinot Noir was in its formative years. I still have the label from this wine.

Farrell’s production of his own label increased to 11,000 cases by 1999 outgrowing the facility at Davis Bynum Winery. Along with financing assistance from noted wine business investor, Bill Hambrecht, a new architecturally stunning winery was built on Westside Road, still the home of Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery.

Farrell was to sell his eponymous label and Westside Road winery to Allied Domecq in 2004. Subsequently it was acquired by Beam Wine Estates and then sold to Ascentia Wine Estates, the current owners. Farrell had difficulty working under corporate ownership, reportedly feeling handcuffed by an inability to remain connected to all phases of winemaking. He left the Gary Farrell Winery in 2006 to return to his roots as a small artisan producer, partnering again with Bill Hambrecht to found a new label, Alysian Wines.

Farrell chose Susan Reed, who had worked with him for four years, to succeed him as winemaker. Reed had her first winemaking exposure at Simi Winery in 1981, working under Zelma Long as a senior laboratory technician. In 1984, she assumed a similar position at Matanzas Creek Winery, and by 1989 had become the winemaker, working alongside cellar master Bill Parker. When Matanzas Creek was sold to Jess Jackson in 2001, she pursued other interests briefly, but was drawn back to winemaking. She sought out a position among the Westside Road winery community and landed a job at Gary Farrell in 2003, rising to Associate Winemaker in July 2004. She became the clear choice of Farrell to carry on his program when he departed. The winery has not missed a step as Reed has successfully maintained the high quality of the wines, adhered faithfully to the “Gary Farrell style,” and continued to embrace Farrell’s legacy of consistent excellence. A video of Susan Reed explaining her winemaking philosophy is available on the website.

I visited Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery recently, enjoying a tour of the well-equipped facility which has a simple but pleasing aesthetic, and sat down with winemaker Susan Reed to taste through the lineup of 2007 Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs and yet to be released 2008 Pinot Noirs. The wines are styled with elegance and balance, and often harvested a little earlier with resulting in moderate alcohols and bright acidity to insure food compatibility. The wines are fruity with soft tannins to allow early drinkability, although some bottlings such as the Starr Ridge Pinot Noir typically require some time in the bottle. All the wines were moderately colored unless otherwise noted.

The Chardonnays all undergo 100% malolactic fermentation in barrel with lees stirring for 7 to 8 months in 33% to 55% new French oak. The Pinot Noirs receive a 5 to 10 day cold soak, are 100% de-stemmed, fermented in 4 to 5 ton fermenters to dryness with Assmanshausen yeast, generally lasting 8 to 14 days, and then usually aged 9 to 12 months in French oak barrels (Francois Freres, Rousseau and Sequin Moreau). The percentage of new oak varies with the vineyard source (Hallberg Vineyard 54%, Rochioli Vineyard 50%, Carneros 44%, and Russian River Valley 30%). The wines are racked carefully once during the barrel aging cycle.

The appellation-designated selections are the winery’s focus and are widely distributed in the marketplace. The vineyard-designated wines are sold primarily to wine club members and through the tasting room. The 2008 appellation selection Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs will be released in September 2010 and the vineyard-designate series at the end of 2010. The wines are all solid and will not disappoint fans of more classically styled wines. The Rochioli Vineyard (some vintages bottled as Rochioli-Allen Vineyards) and Hallberg Pinot Noirs are clearly the class of what is a very stellar lineup.

2008 Gary Farrell Hallberg Vineyard Dijon Clones Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

100% clone 777. · Enticing aromas of plums, black cherries and underbrush. Very tasty core of dark red fruits that are nicely spiced. Still a Lolita and will need time to integrate the oak and shed some tannins, but the potential here is clearly all upside.

2008 Gary Farrell Rochioli Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

This wine makes you sit up and take notice of the legendary pedigree. Lovely dark red fruits, cola and spice wrapped in ripe, firm tannins and set off beautifully by balancing acidity. Not to the level of the 2007 bottling at this stage, but clearly another glass of class.

2008 Gary Farrell Russian River Valley Selection Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

14.2% alc., pH 3.47, 4,332 cases, $42. To be released September 2010. Aged 8 months in 30% new French oak. · Subdued aromas of red cherries, red licorice and oak vanillin. Welcoming richness of juicy dark red fruits with a spark of acidity on the refreshing finish. Good.

2008 Gary Farrell Carneros Selection Carneros Pinot Noir

14.2% alc., pH 3.50, 932 cases, $45. Released in April 2010. Sourced from six blocks of the Ramal Vineyard. Aged in 44% new French oak. · Subdued aromas of exotic dark fruits, herbs and violets. Delicious essence of black cherries with the fruit playing the lead role over earthiness. Soft and smooth in the mouth. Very good.

2007 Gary Farrell Carneros Selection Carneros Chardonnay

14.2% alc., pH 3.41, 780 cases, $36. Released in February 2009. Multiple clones from Ramal Vineyard in Carneros. Aged 7 months in 41% new French oak. · Shy on the nose but with pleasing flavors of poached pears, white peach and subtle oak spice with a steely acidity driving the mineral-toned finish. Good.

2007 Gary Farrell Russian River Selection Russian River Valley Chardonnay

14.2% alc., pH 3.32, 6,677 cases, $36. Released in February 2009. Multiple clones, primarily Russian River Valley fruit with some Carneros and Bien Nacido fruit. Barrel fermented and aged in 33% new French oak. · A clean, demure wine with aromas and flavors of lemon curd, tropical fruits and roasted nuts with a refreshing lift of acidity on the fruity finish. Good.

2007 Gary Farrell Rochioli-Allen Vineyards Russian River Valley Chardonnay

14.2% alc., pH 3.35, 472 cases, $41. Released November 1, 2009. Clone 5, 15, 12 and 8 from Rochioli Vineyard (43%) and clones 15 and 76 from Allen Vineyard (57%). Aged in 55% new French oak. · Needs some time in the glass to release its charms. Lovely scent of lemons, poached apples, and wet rocks leading to a relatively lush mouth feel and flavors of tropical fruits, orange peel, and green apples. A wine with serious intentions. Very good.

2007 Gary Farrell Carneros Selection Carneros Pinot Noir

14.4% alc., pH 3.46, 1,336 cases, $45. Released in April 2009. Sourced from ten blocks of the Ramal Vineyard. · Intensely dark fruited nose which is very enticing. Savory flavors of black cherries and dark berries with a subtle earth and mineral underpinning and mild but noticeable fine-grain tannins. Very typical of Carneros Pinot Noir. Good (+).

2007 Gary Farrell Cresta Ridge Vineyard Russian River Valley Chardonnay

14.3% alc., pH 3.27, 193 cases, $45. Released in June 2009. Cresta Ridge Vineyard is located in Sebastopol within the Green Valley- Russian River Valley appellation. Dijon clones 95 and 76. · Aromas of buttered popcorn, baked apples and oatmeal lead to discreetly rich flavors of lemon curd, bread stick and white stone fruits. Very impressive mineral-laden spine that brightens the finish and welcomes another sip. Very good.

2007 Gary Farrell Russian River Valley Selection Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

14.2% alc., pH 3.49, 12,045 cases, $45. Released in September 2009. Sourced from eight Russian River Valley vineyards as well as Ramal Vineyard in Carneros and Bien Nacido Vineyards in Santa Maria Valley. · The aromas really come at you with bright notes of Bing cherries, raspberries, cola, oak spice and Provencal herbs. Red-fruited and discreetly concentrated with soft tannins and ending in a short but lively cherry-laden finish. Good.

2007 Gary Farrell Hallberg Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

14.2% alc., pH 3.43, 527 cases, $50. Released in November 2009. The 100-acre Hallberg Vineyard is named for previous owners Don and Marcia Hallberg and today is owned by investors headed by Brice Jones (Emeritus) and farmed by one owner, Kirk Lokka. 58% clone 777, 31% clone 667 and 11% Pommard clone. · Deep reddish-purple color in the glass. Aromas of crisp dark fruits, forest floor and woodshed. Intense and thick on the palate with hints of grilled meat, tea and tobacco accenting the luscious black cherry and blackberry core. Remarkable persistence on the finish which features a hint of citrus peel. As different from the Rochioli bottling as night and day, but equally fine.

2007 Gary Farrell Starr Ridge Vineyard Dijon Clones Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

14.1% alc., pH 3.50, 298 cases, $50. Released November 1, 2009. Dijon clones 114, 115 and 777 from the 24-acre Starr Ridge Vineyard located in the hills just east of the Russian River and southwest of the town of Windsor. · Terrific aromatics featuring an intense perfume of dark, red and black cherry and berry fruits. On the palate, the wine lags the showy aromas, offering a shy but similar fruit profile with notes of forest floor, seasoned oak and savory herbs. Needs more time to shed the oak and drying tannins. Good.

2007 Gary Farrell Hallberg Vineyard Dijon Clones Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

14.4% alc., pH 3.44, 303 cases, $60. Released in February 2010. 52% clone 777, 43% clone 667 and 4% Pommard. · Deep, dark reddish-purple color in the glass. Similar aroma profile to the Hallberg bottling with high notes of forest floor and woodshed, but with redder berry scents. More fruit charm and crisper on the palate, less earthy and showing less grilled fruit flavors. Noticeable ripe tannins, but very smooth in the mouth. Very good.

2007 Gary Farrell Rochioli Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

14.2% alc., pH 3.43, 519 cases, $65. Released November 1, 2009. Sourced from a 13-acre block of Rochioli Vineyard that border the Russian River planted in 1995 and taken from cuttings of the original “mother” West Block planted in 1969. Pommard clone. · A stunning wine that hits all the high notes. Enticing and intensely perfumed nose of black cherries, spice and loamy earth. Delicious core of berry and currant flavors with a spectacular cherry-driven aromatic finish that lingers for what seems like a minute. Beautifully composed, with tannins, fruit and acidity singing in harmony along with a velvety mouth feel. Class in the glass.

The stylish tasting room at Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery is open daily from 10:30 to 4:30. There are a number of tour and tasting options. The wines are also sold online at

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