Most people aren’t aware that I grew up, at least partially, in Sonoma County. My parents split up pretty early on, and I moved with my mother to Colorado. But starting at the age of five, I would come out to visit my dad during the summer in the little town of Bodega, and spend my time chasing around the sheep ranch where he still lives.
As a kid I knew Sonoma County was wine country. Mostly because whenever my dad’s parents would come visit during the summer, we’d all pack into Grandpa’s car, and trundle off to Rodney Strong or Kendall Jackson where the adults would go tasting, and I would scamper around on the grass with a frisbee, in the shade of “the big castle,” which is what all those wineries seemed like to me.
Wine country was someplace, however, that we would drive to. Bodega didn’t sport any vines, nor did Freestone, the town a couple miles up the road where my best friend, named Field, lived. Quite often during the summer, I’d get dropped off at his house and we’d go tromping through the creek beds, and spend time hanging out with his dad, Serge, a very talented artist who welded bronze sculptures and made knives and other things that adolescent boys found fairly cool. Serge’s house and workshop and little pasture of sheep and goats sat at the corner of Bodega Highway and the Bohemian Highway, right next to the place where Serge’s wife Katie worked, a wool and wool products company called Pastorale.
A lot has changed in twenty-five years in and around Freestone. The hills, once brown and oak covered, have seen the gradual creep of vineyards, and the town is now the gateway to the southern part of the Sonoma Coast American Viticultural Area. Serge and Katie have moved to Oregon, their home replaced by a green field of grass, and the parking lot for the latest project from the family of Joseph Phelps called, appropriately, Freestone Vineyards. Phelps took over the old Pastorale building and turned it into a tasting room, and set about creating a whole line of wines focused on the cool-climate Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays from this part of Sonoma County.
I must admit to a bit of nostalgia when sipping Freestone wines, as well as the self conscious awareness of the growing distance between me and my childhood. But mostly, I’m impressed at how serious and high quality the wines are across the portfolio.
Joseph Phelps, of course, is the well known vintner who has been making highly rated wines in Napa since the early 1970s. Phelps got into the wine business after his construction company was hired to build the Souverain Winery in Napa and he fell in love with the area. He bought an old cattle ranch, planted vines, and started making wine in 1974. His Insignia Bordeaux blend has become one of America’s most celebrated wines.
Quite interestingly, Phelps has also been a relatively quiet pioneer of first organic, and then biodynamic viticulture in California, starting in the 1980s.
In the late 1990’s Phelps and his son Bill bought about 100 acres of land in the Sonoma Coast appellation in and around Freestone with the hopes of building a Sonoma County winery. The label’s first vintage was 2005, and the winery was completed in 2007, and it’s hard to judge the efforts as anything other than an unqualified success at this point. I’ve tasted through the lineup of wines and they are excellent, from the entry level Fogdog wines, to the single-vineyard bottlings.
Winemaking at Freestone is done by the young Theresa Heredia and equally young assistant winemaker Justin Ennis. Heredia was hired right out of UC Davis in 2002 to be an enologist for Phelps, and Ennis spent nine years at Williams Selyem as “cellarmaster.” The two get a helping hand from Burgundy winemaker and consultant Pascal Marchand.
This wine, despite being labeled Sonoma Coast, is actually a blend of fruit from the winery’s biodynamically farmed estate vineyards in Freestone, Dutton Ranch vineyards, and the Bacigalupi vineyard in the warmer part of the Sonoma Coast appellation. I don’t know a lot about the winemaking regime for this wine, though I do know it was aged for 15 months in French oak, of which about 60% was new.
I’ve been taking a closer look at the state of California Chardonnay these days, and it’s not pretty, but to the extent that this wine represents what the future may hold, there is hope yet.
Full disclosure: I received this wine as a press sample.
Light gold in the glass, this wine has a nose of bright lemon and slightly piney aromas. In the mouth the wine is wonderfully bright and juicy with bright lemon, toasted sourdough, and a tangy piney quality that I typically find only in finer white Burgundies, in particular, in Meursault. This flavor and the overall seamlessness and balance of the wine make it a remarkable surprise, not to mention wonderfully tasty. Recommended. 14% alcohol.
The nice acidity of this wine will make it a great pairing with many foods. I’d be tempted to try it with some sort of seafood pasta or quiche.
Overall Score: around 9
How Much?: $45
This wine is available for purchase on the Internet.