I recently had the opportunity to spend a day at Garden Creek Vineyards with Karin and Justin Warnelius-Miller under crystalline blue skies, as they prepared for their annual members-only harvest gathering.
This mountain property, lined with more than 30 acres of Robert Young chardonnay and Opus “Clone Seven” cabernet sauvignon clones, is Eden. Justin’s father bought two hundred acres here in 1960, fleeing southern California for paradise. His father ran cattle and eventually planted grapes in 1969 as he saw others doing the same, but this was a hard life with struggles. Ten years in his vines were diagnosed with phylloxera, the first such outbreak in California. Others were quick to place blame, but the problem was traced to East Coast nurseries, and UC-Davis’s modern rootstock program was born of this near-disaster. Soon after, he helped found the Alexander Valley AVA.
Justin took over harvest at age 19 after a ranch foreman left, and the only-child has been doing so since. He has lived here for 40 years.
Karin’s story is broader. Her family emigrated from Sweden to the Geyserville area in 1974. Securing green-card paperwork was a challenge. In their quest for citizenship, Justin’s mother (who was Swedish herself) requested a Swedish ranch hand, asking the Swedish government for assistance. Karin’s father accepted this position, and they began a life here, accumulating 20 acres of their own vines planted to old Italian field blends and making wine under the Warnelius label.
Her parents divorced in the late ’80s, and she moved to San Francisco to work the wine trade. Later she had a choice to move back to Sweden for work or return to Sonoma. She chose Sonoma and soon met the adult Justin. The two fell in love, and today they have two children, Elsa and Leif, and almost two decades of wine growing and production to their merit.
Today, they grow those chardonnay and cabernet clones to their exact flavor specifications for the Garden Creek Chardonnay and Tesserae Bordeaux blend. Karin emphatically proclaims: “We grow flavors.” To achieve this, they literally taste each and every vine for their pick of the fruit before the rest is sold to others. I likened this to “pixelating” their flavor, though the process is a bit broader with up to 11 lots being vinted for the final blends.
The vineyard is a jewel, with subtle hillsides and a flowing swale. Breezes channel warm and cool air in and out at the right time of they day, creating subtle microclimates. Seven different soils birthed of volcanic, metamorphic seabeds and sedimentary sandstone provide chalk, shale and red alluvium, which bring uncommon acidity, texture and flavor to the wines.
The couple practice a kind of forward-thinking sustainability that is ahead of the pack. Where many are falling in line with the broad (and somewhat divisive) new Sonoma County sustainability certification program, Garden Creek is using their land and operations as a true laboratory. They are comparing numbers from year to year on everything from carbon sequestration in the soil to labor costs.
While Karin believes the greater effort of the county should be applauded for “going in the right direction,” Justin adds that “To market sustainability you need metrics, something to base from and compare to. When costs rise, you should be able to show increased revenues for that cost.”
As for the wine itself, Justin relates that overall the use of inputs are low in fine wine. The grapes need to struggle, compared to bulk wine that is cropped at 8-10 tons per acre and requires constant fertilizing. And this is the beauty of (in his words) “the stable market” of fine wine in the ultra-premium market, which requires less inputs, less fert/chem and more value for the winegrower.
The gorgeous cabernet grapes I walked amongst will hang on the vine until around Nov. 3, basking in constant golden sun, with winds gracing them every afternoon. They reset each evening under cool mountain air. When harvest comes, night picks of individual clones will be undertaken by their own crew, who all live as permanent residents on the ranch. This concept of the “same hands” adds an extra level of care year in and year out.
Though Justin honors the importance of numbers, his and Karin’s intimacy with these grapes allows them to taste and easily make the decision when to pick based simply on their flavors. Their wines do not go to market in the typical two to four years. Rather, they are held back an extra two. Currently, the 2012 Tesserae is a golden-brown, texture-like-sun, blue-fruited affair, that evolves as you savor. The 2008 is red-ruby, layered with brown-sugar-maple, white spice and Christmas pine.
“We hold these wines back, as you should be doing,” notes Karin.
At approximately $100 per bottle, they cost a fraction of a typical ultra-premium wine from neighboring Napa. The ego here in Alexander Valley is in check.
Adding to the buzz, they employ Justin’s paragliding buddy, Kurt Niznik, as a winemaking consultant. Niznik is known for his associations with TIm Mondavi’s Continuum, a recent recipient of 100 “Parker Points” for their 2015. Also, the couple recently acquired a 160-acre, high-elevation pinot noir vineyard above Philo in the Anderson Valley. They planted eight acres in 2016 with plans to add 30 next spring, reviving the Warnelius brand-name. They also plan to sell more fruit to up-and-coming new-school local producers.
All of this bodes well for the new outlook of the Alexander Valley, which is gaining more exposure, especially as Silver Oak has built a lavish new tasting room on their nearby vineyard.
Cheers! Remember: Wine reveals truth.
Drew Stofflet lives in Carbondale. Correspond with him at firstname.lastname@example.org