One of the things that I love about Sonoma County and its wines are the little nooks and crannies that seem to exist, more so, I think, than in its more famous neighbor to the east. While there are small bits of Napa Valley that play host to little vineyards, most of the real estate, at least the vineyard covered real estate, is well known. In Sonoma County and its appellations on the other hand, there exists much more of a patchwork of wine growing, with little hidden vineyards here and there, and new ones sprouting up all the time, as landowners either sell off bits of their land, or as they convert old farmland to vineyard property.
The land in Sonoma County where Ross and Jennifer Halleck settled over 15 years ago, like much land in the area, was originally orchard land. When Ross decided that instead of commuting up to wine country several days per week to service winery clients of his marketing and branding business, that it would be better to live in wine country, he and and his wife also wanted to buy a piece of property that they could eventually turn into a vineyard. Ross Halleck, it seems, was a man with a plan.
Ross saw in the move to wine country, and the possibility of cashing out on a house purchased at the right time in Menlo Park, an opportunity to satisfy two passions in his life: a love of Pinot Noir, and the desire to see his three sons get through college. The answer to both, in the Halleck's minds, might lay in the small, 5 acre farm they were able to buy in the midst of surrounding orchards, overgrown hillsides, and hidden stands of old growth Redwoods.
Moving from city living to country living wasn't easy, but eventually, once everything settled down, Ross began the work to transform a corner of the farm into a vineyard. "The first thing I had to do was to make sure I wasn't smoking something," says Ross. "At the time, there was nothing but orchards in this neck of the woods. No one had yet had the idea that this would make good vineyard land." Ross explained that to his surprise, there were a whole host of resources and infrastructure available immediately to help him when he finally "raised my hand and mentioned that I wanted to grow grapes." Students and faculty from UC Davis came out to test the soil, other winegrowers and vineyard management firms had information to offer, and in the end, everyone said that there was no reason grapes couldn't be grown there. So in 1992, the old stumps of the orchard came out, and in 1993 Pinot Noir vines went in. "5 years later," says Halleck, "we were surrounded by vineyards."
The fact that Ross makes no bones about the fact that starting a winery was as much an economic decision as it was a decision of passion is surprisingly unusual. Even though nearly all winemakers are in business to make money, even those who have made their fortunes elsewhere and are using their leisure time and personal wealth to make it possible, very few winemakers actually talk about it openly. Ross has plenty of passion for Pinot Noir, don't get me wrong, but it's really refreshing to hear him talk frankly about what it meant to him and his family. "Listen," he says, "I've got three sons and they're all going to need to go to college someday. I don't know much about the stock market, and I've proven that painfully to myself in the past, so I thought it might be better to invest my money in something where I could more concretely affect the return. I also thought it would be nice if that investment might be more tangible to my kids and my family, and even better, that they might literally help the investment grow."
Twelve years later, the plan seems to be working, with one small hitch. Originally, Ross and Jennifer thought they would just grow really great grapes and sell them to other people to make premium wines. But almost as soon as the vineyards went in, they knew they wanted to give the whole business a try themselves. Halleck Vineyards now produces wine from that land, as well as from contracts with other vineyards in the neighborhood and surrounding areas. In a strike of luck or fate, or both, the Hallecks found themselves to be living down the street from the La Follette family, and Greg La Follette (well known winemaker formerly of Flowers, and now Tandem and DeLoach) has become a friend and a collaborator, helping Ross and Jennifer make many of their initial vintages. The Hallecks now have enough experience that they're making the wine on their own.
Halleck vineyards makes several wines in small production lots from select vineyards sites. Total production is around 1000 cases, and is unlikely to grow beyond 2000 according to Ross: "We want to make premium quality wines, in small quantities, that we'd want to drink ourselves."
2004 Halleck Vineyards "Piner Creek Ranch" Sauvignon Blanc, Russian River Valley
A light gold with hints of green in the glass, this wine has an extremely aromatic nose of grassy notes cut through with bright citrus and mineral aromas. In the mouth it is smooth and bright, with moderate acidity and clean flavors of lemon, grapefruit, and notes of other tropical fruits as it finishes. Score:8.5/9. Cost: $28.
2004 Halleck Vineyards "Piner Creek Ranch" Dry Gewurztraminer, Russian River Valley
A light straw color with highlights of bright gold, this wine has the most perfumed nose I've ever smelled on a California Gewurztraminer: melon spices, pepper, golden delicious apples and more abound. In the mouth it is crisp and zingy with unripe apple and pear flavors supported by a nice minerality that carries the wine through a strong, and lengthy finish. Though not quite with the complexity of some European examples of this varietal, it is likely the best dry Gewurztraminer I've had from California. Score:9. Cost: $30.
2003 Halleck Vineyards "Estate" Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine has a nose of cranberry and soft red fruit with a slight hint of caramel. In the mouth it has a nice soft tartness and good mouthfeel with primary flavors of raspberry and redcurrant with hints of cinnamon in the moderate finish. Score:9. Cost: $58.
2004 Halleck Vineyards "Three Sons" Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley
Medium garnet in color, this wine has a classic cool climate nose of pomegranate and cranberry with very light mellow tones of herbs and wisps floral aromas. In the mouth it has nearly perfect balance with excellent acidity and light, sweet tannins supporting flavors of cranberry, plum, and redcurrant through to a lovely finish. Score:9.5. Cost: $38.
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