Arnot-Roberts is a young winery managed by two childhood friends, Duncan Arnot-Meyers and Nathan Lee Roberts, who in some way are typical of the new turn being made in California, where people set up wineries not based on mainstream assumptions regarding wine styles and what sells well and easily, but set up their business with their sight on the wines they like, not wines that could please easily to the general public.
They started making wine together in 2002, they're mostly into a négociant structure, they don't own vineyards but contract and lease parcels from different growers instead. they started with little money, not big financial support, using their own savings, slowly growing and adding more parcels to their portfolio as years passed by. The first couple of years they made their wines under the roof of a larger winery which spared the expenses on financing a facility and kept them focused on the wines. Then they moved their operations in a small town nearby, Forestville, sharing a facility from 2008 to 2010 before ended up moving here in Healdsburg in 2011 where both of them live with their family. They both have young children and with this warehouse on main street in Healdsburg they could work closer from home.
For once, finding the winery was not arduous, it is located in a small business development along Healdsburg Avenue, in other words main street, just a few hundred meters from downtown. We had time to look around and I was surprised at how Healdsburg had changed in only 7 years, the city grew a lot it seems to me, lots more fancy shops and also land-devouring suburban sprawl compared with the time B. and I dropped there in 2006. Lots of people from elsewhere want to live in this part of California and it fuels a construction boom that worries the city planners who notice that Healdsburg is becoming too visitor-oriented and want to keep growth in control (but isn't it too late?).
Duncan for his part grew up in the midst of passionated wine people, his father's good friend was Bernard Portet of the Clos du Val winery which was known in the 1970s' and 1980s' as making elegant wines; Duncan grew up near the vineyards and played around the winery. His father even made one cask of wine at home for his own consumption, a couple of years in a row, and he learnt to be familiar with winemaking this way. California wine in the 1970s' was very different from the wine made by most wineries today, they say. Asked if it had to do with a non-irrigated farming, for example at Du val, they say that indeed some of its vineyards in Stags Leap for example were dry farmed, but generally in California at the time the irrigation technique was different than today, it was more overhead irrigation, the growers leaving more canopy, which made irrigation less necessary because of the coverage and shade on the ground. That's what they're trying to get back now, more canopy and shade. Anyway there's so much sun and heat in California, they say, that growers have plenty of time to ripen the fruit, and speeding the process by taking off leaves and rushing the process is certainly not a good idea. Some people are realizing now that you can do a little less with the canopy and get good results on the wine.
In addition to the vertical press pictured above, they also use a bladder press for the whites (can be guessed on the picture above). They use the basket press for the Syrah, Pinot Noir, Trousseau, Gamay and Cabernet Sauvignon. The biggest batch of wine that they make is a rosé made from Touriga Nacional and a little bit of Tinta Cao, which they make through a direct press after destemming. And for this rosé they use a much larger press that they borrow from a friend. They prefer to get a rosé with a light color, and this with natural means. They source the grapes from the Clear Lake area one hour north from here, Duncan says that the Touriga has a very savory edge, there's some fruit and also herb notes like sage.
Of course we tasted this wine during the visit, but Nathan and Duncan were also kind enough to give me a full bottle of it, which we kept in the styrofoam icebox in the back of the car and drank several days later in a quiet campsground in the Sierra foothills. I don't know how people can be wary of clear-looking reds but when I see this color I get excited and salivate just at the thought, and the drinking experience was so nice and lively... Duncan laughs when I tell him that I've read that many vintners in California now look for available trousseau. He says that this wine is so light with a good acidity and freshness that it goes very well with food, you can have it with a wide range of different foods, and also people in California begin to be tired after these 20 years of big, powerful wines and look for lighter wines. This trousseau makes 12,5 ° in alcohol. There's a margin of error allowed on the labels but Nathan says that they're pretty accurate at Arnot-Roberts. This sells for 22 $ tax included.
__ Arnot-Roberts Zinfandel 2012, not for sale, just for friends. From a puncheon. This is made from very old vines of Zinfandel (1915 or almost a century old), planted on their onwn roots (ungrafted) on the sandy/decomposed-granite terroir of Lodi. They make 3 barrels of this. Fermented whole clustered. Bottled this august. The funny story about this cuvée is that they went to France last year and visited Sélosse in Champagne, and Anselme Sélosse asked them if they made Zinfandel, they said no, and he said it's too bad I love Zinfandel and I'd trade a barrel of Zinfandel against a barrel of Champagne, and back in California they had the opportunity to work on this interesting parcel, so now they might send Sélosse a barrel of it and just wait...
Surprisingly, I learn that there are only two plantings of gamay in the whole of California, and there's only one other winery making gamay wine, it's Edmunds St. John -- Edit : there's also Martian Vineyard in Santa Barbara. Why there's not more gamay can be debated, Nathan says that one of the reasons is money, growers and wineries tend to plant varieties that sell well and gamay yields less returns than pinot noir or cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay. Nathan says that it's a very exciting time to make wine in California because people are beginning to open up to more restrained wines, to more obscure grape varieties, and even if this push is still marginal, it allows them to be involved and make the wines they love, thanks to a few growers who are daring to go in this new direction. What helps them is that in the Sierra foothills people know that they can't compete with the Napa valley or Sonoma on cabernet sauvignon or pinot noir, so they position themselves on varieties that are been snubbed by these mainstream wine regions.
This Gamay was vinified with a partial carbonic for about one week, one part being whole-clustered, keeping the fruit cold, putting CO2 on top of sealed tank, then pigeage. The other part which has begun to ferment is then blended with the maceration and works like a pied de cuve, accelerating the fermentation. They're still learning on carbonic maceration, but they experimented it a few years on the syrah too. In the mouth the gamay are quite forward here, they say that it's the style of this vintage, to be more tannic.
We switch to bottles now as we sit in ther garden for a nice picnic with charcuterie abnd cheese.
_ Arnot-Roberts Chardonnay 2011 (bottle), Trout Gulch vineyards (Aptos area). Planted in 1980 on AxR#1 rootstock, very good original type of rootstock, not like now where people want to match with the location. Organic, and on sandy soil from the ocean bed. Very light, aerial wine, alive, with a saline touch. 12,2 ° in alcohol. 125 cases. 30 $. 225 cases. 2011 was a cool year, this was picked ocrober 27 at 12,2 potential. Fermented in stainless steel then neutral barrels, no batonnage. Malolactic went 60 % then just stopped because the ph is just 3. For the SO2 they added some before bottling but not before, not when the fruit comes in. If the fruit is clean, even if it comes from far away, they don't add sulfur. They driive themselves the grapes like early in the morning, they don't use refigerated trucks, if it's picked cold it's fine, it's not a problem. This wine is easy drinking, not heavy at all. Thety say it's mostly about their philosophy and taste, that's the type of wines they like to drink also.
__ Arnot-Roberts Trousseau 2012. Again. Superb color, peppery notes. Nice light tannins, so easy to drink and swallow. Delicious.
__ Arnot-Roberts Ribolla Gialla 2012 (bottle) vinified with direct press and steel fermentation (no amphorea). They make every year this wine and the amphorea was just a first trial when they received the clay container. Bottled a month ago.
The conversation turns to the winemakers who influenced them and whom they admire, and they say that Thierry Allemand in Cornas, they love the wines of Pierre Overnoy and Marcel Lapierre too. Also Puffeney, Stéphane Tissot in Jura and Julien Saunier in the Beaujolais, they say Saunier is fantastic, he's a fairly recent winemaker, his 1st vintage being maybe 2006. I need to taste his wines.
__ Arnot-Roberts Trousseau 2012, again. Lunchsinger vineyard, clear Lake. Super color, peppery nose. Nice light tannins, so easy to swallow. Delightful drink. Spicy. They say this Luchsinger family they buy the grapes from are a typical New World story : they came from Switzerland 100 years ago to settle in Chile to make cheese and then one of the sons moved from Chile to California and began growing trousseau in clearlake in order to make port-style wine.... Very versatile wine, they say, you can drink that with lots of things. They make this wine since 2009.
They hopes more producers will grow this, and Copain winery is already making some now, they took the cuttings from this Luchsinger vineyard to plant a large surface. Nathan says that actually it's a great variety for California because it's very tolerant of heat. Nathan was in the Jura 5 days before this visit. He goes there regularly and in another trip he had Pierre Overnoy and Puffeney taste the trousseau and liked it, aknowledging that Trousseau stands better heat than poulsard.
__ Arnot-Roberts Syrah 2008, Clary ranch, Sonoma Coast (Petaluma Wind Gap). Cool vintage for this region, picked november 18th, 11,5 % alcohol (!). Syrah is indeed rare in this area. Very aromattic, small red fruits, Nathan feels like capers here too. Excellent, such a balance. Very, very, very nice wine, gets swallowed so easily. They've been giving bottles of this wine to Thierry Allemand, Eric Texier, Marcel Juge, Jean Paul Jamet to show them what can taste a syrah from California... This wine was really for them a way to have people understand their philosophy. It can be sometimes polarizing because the reactions around here can be from hate to love about this syrah. They like the purity of the expression of the variety here. The color is more like bright ruby instead of the usual dark syrah found in the region. Lovely wine.
__ Arnot-Roberts Pinot Noir 2012, Santa Cruz Mountains, Peter Martin Ray vineyards. 100 whole-clustered. Just pigeage, like for the trousseau and syrah. Wild yeast, no sulfur during vinification, only after malolactic. And they use very low volumes, like 1,5 gram. And the wine is only released next october so some of it will go away. 7 barrels made of this.
One of the oldest plantings of pinot, replanted in 1979, unirrigated head-trained vines, very unusual way to prune pinot noir but Santa Cruz is sort of an isolated region and that's the way they used to do for years. The vine is attached to a stick, it's very unique to see a pinot noir planted like this. Elevation 1600 feet or 450 meters, it's on the original Mount Eden estate, an old producer in California in the 1970s'. Martin Ray was the first to make a single varietal wine, with label already in the 1940s' and 1950s' with "Pinot Noir" on the label, when the other producers had fancy names like Claret or Burgundy for example. He's famous for that. In the 1970s' they sold most of the surface and only retained a small part of the surface, and they're lucky enough to buy Pinot Noir from them. The farming is old style, there has never been modernization and it's very rustic. They sell the bottle 55 $.
__ Arnot-Roberts Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 Clajeux vineyard, Chalk Hill, Sonoma County Work since 2003 with it. Very classic cabernet qualities for Duncan, herbal qualities. Bottled sept 2012. the owners are Canadian, this is organicly farmed. Very influenced by the Russian River valley weather and the area is quite cool for Cabernet Sauvignon, it has higher natural acidity and freshness. Picking : end of september, alcohol : 13 %. They retain 30 % of Whole clusters in the fermentation, similarly to the other wines, adding the 70 % of destemmed grapes on top in the fermenter, after which the fermentation starts slowly like 3 weeks in total. 22 months in barrels, 30 % new (2 on a total of 5). 13 % is quite low for the region. Aromas on the herbal range, thyme, lavender maybe. Some spices. Intense mouth but balanced. They experienced that their cabernet is aging very well and even needs lots of years before been appreciated fully, you have to wait for the conversion of certain aromas, says Nathan. The Cab sauvignon costs 85 $.
__ Domaine Tempier La Vigne 2007, a luxury, we're having a Domaine Tempier table wine by Kermit Lynch, they got it from Anthony, Kermit's son. Ripe but dry and crisp. 100 % Marsanne
This area is the oldest wine region here, this is the original home site of Agoston Harazsthy, the Hungarian who brought Zinfandel to California, and this area has been under vines since the early 1800s'. This parcel was planted before 1954. The soil is volcanic ash with ryolite, a stone with high porosity. The parcel is dry farmed and the vines are quite old for California.
The interesting thing with this vineyard is that they have to balance the picking-time decision, because on this same parcel you have the riesling that ripes quickly and the sylvaner which for some reason is slow, so they have to make a choice. Plus, they take decisions depending of the vintage, so it's always a challenge but they like that. Duncan spots a wild carrot while we walk between the rows. There's been two wires added to support the vines, it's new. Nathan says that what he likes in Sonoma is that it's not monoculture like in many French wine regions for example, it's diverse with lots of woods, olive trees and Coast Live Oak, a type of oak that looks like the Chêne Vert in Provence, with small leaves. It looks pretty much built when you're around Sonoma but on Google Earth you can see that there are vast expanses of wilderness with patches of vineyards here and there. He says that typically a farmer or owner will own 25 acres and plant, say, 5 acres, so the region remains authentic and diverse.
They make wines from about 20 vineyards in different regions, Santa Cruz, Sonoma Coast, Clear Lake, Mendocino county and Napa valley, 4 vineyards per region, roughly. They decide themselves when to pick, which is very important, using the picking team of each grower.
In general there's lots of life in the vineyard, with grass, flowers and insects. Duncan says that California is transitioning in that direction and you see more and more organic farming here. Asked about the difficulty to source organic grapes he says that 10 years ago it was difficult but now more people are switching to organic, like for example two of the growers they have been buying the grapes from since the beginning, they changed their farming management in the recent years and now grow organic. On the irrigation issue it's more mitigated, they have several vineyards which are dry farmed, then they have others vineyards with irrigation systems in place but not used, the tubes are like an insurance for the grower for certain years. There's another vineyard where the grower uses irrigation and they're working on the issue to get the farmer get rid of it for their grapes, first because it's possible to do it, through a slow process. They can cut back the use progressively until the vines don't need the water anymore. Plowing and spading becomes more common, sometimes every other row.
San Francisco Chronicle article about Arnot-Roberts
NY Times' Eric Asimov article on Arnot-Roberts