Owl Ridge Wines, Sonoma, CA: Current Releases

Winemaking is ruining the retirement of a lot of people. It works something like this. A successful, wine loving businessperson, doctor or lawyer works hard for years, saves up a nest egg and decides to retire to beautiful Sonoma or Napa county, and figures that they’ll buy a place with a few grapes on it and, who knows, maybe they’ll make a little wine at home in their garage. A few years later, they’re running a full fledged winery. And usually loving every minute of it. So much for retirement.

John Tracy did one better. Not only did he wake up one day to find himself running a winery, his “retirement project” now includes three wine labels and a custom crush facility where more than thirty other small wineries make their wines, each year. Some people just don’t know when to quit.

Tracy is one of those Silicon Valley entrepreneurs that got out before the market crashed, and thought he might spend some time puttering around in a vineyard. So he found a piece of property in the Russian River Valley that was planted with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and decided to give it a go. After hooking up with the 26-year-old winemaker Joe Otos, who had been working at Ravenswood and a few other small labels around Sonoma County, Tracy founded Willowbrook Cellars, a label under which he continues to produce Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Needing a place to make his wine, but with no real interest in building a public winery and tasting room (and perhaps with a bit of the entrepreneurial spirit, yet again) Tracy founded Owl Ridge Winery Services, a custom crush facility where he could make his Willowbrook wines, as well as lease space to lots of other boutique wine labels like his own.

After a year of working together Tracy purportedly confessed that he loved Cabernet just as much as Pinot Noir, and after searching out a few good vineyard sources in 2002, Owl Ridge Wines was born.

Owl Ridge wines are, like many small labels in California, made from grapes purchased on long-term contract from select growers around the country as well as some “estate” fruit grown by Tracy. The Sweeney Vineyard in the Russian River Valley appellation along with the Owl Ridge Vineyard in Green Valley supply most of the Chardonnay fruit, while the Brigden and the TR Passalacqua vineyards in the Sonoma Valley and Dry Creek Valley respectively provide Cabernet Sauvignon fruit.

All the fruit is hand harvested and goes through various aging programs in 100% French oak, of which only 30 to 40% is new.

Full Disclosure: I received these wines as press samples.


2004 Owl Ridge “Vineyard Select” Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast
Light green-gold in the glass, this wine has a nose of lemon curd and buttered popcorn aromas. In the mouth it has a nice acid balance and a slightly candied aspect with primary flavors of lemon pastry, mineral notes, and a nice grapefruit zing on the finish. 8.5/9 $32 Where to Buy?

2004 Owl Ridge “Sweeny Vineyard” Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast
Light gold in the glass, this wine has a smooth, cool nose of Nivea and buttercream aromas. In the mouth it is polished and lanky, even confident in its flavors which are a nice combination of buttery, lemon, and cream with just a hint of steel. The butteriness, and its associated hints of oak are not overblown in the least, and this restraint makes for a very nice wine, and an example of where I hope California Chardonnay is headed in terms of style. 8.5/9 $28 Where to Buy?

2004 Owl Ridge “Vineyard Select” Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma Coast
Dark garnet in color, this wine has a nose that practically bowls you over with lush fruit aromas — cassis, blueberries, black cherry, and notes of vanilla. In the mouth it offers the juicy black cherry and plummy fruit you might expect after a nose like that, but without much complexity. A light tannic structure gives the wine some grip but it passes mostly uneventfully across the palate and leaves a vegetal note on the finish that slightly disappoints but remains enjoyable nonetheless. 8/8.5. $32. Where to Buy?

2003 Owl Ridge “Brigden Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma County
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine has an intriguing dark nose of wet earth, saddle leather, and cedar. In the mouth it is lean and a bit tight, with primary flavors of cherry and cedar that roll very pleasurably around the tongue mixing with some herbal qualities that seem to be hangars on to the light, dusty tannins that support the wine in a nice finish. 8.5. $38. Where to Buy?

2003 Owl Ridge “TR Passalacqua Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon, Dry Creek Valley
Dark garnet in color, this wine has a comforting nose of pipe tobacco, wet dirt, and forest floor aromas that remind me of an old Scottish forest. In the mouth it is nicely balanced with excellent weight on the palate, a lovely texture, and ripples with primary flavors of espresso, black cherry, and cedar. The tannins are supple and beautifully integrated into the wine. Excellent. 9. $38. Where to Buy?

2002 Owl Ridge “TR Passalacqua Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon, Dry Creek Valley
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a rich nose of earth, plum, tobacco, and aromas of cassis. In the mouth it offers bright, luscious plum flavors that are beautifully balanced, and roll all satin-like around the mouth splashing up notes of tobacco and incense as it heads towards a long finish. Lovely. 9/9.5. $38. Where to Buy?