Tales From: Nalle Winery, Dry Creek Valley

IMG_2860I pulled into the winery, parked near the above ground cave, and followed the tasting room signs to the rear of the structure. I waited for a bit as the tasting room staff was busy–the table was a few people deep. I was at Nalle Winery where I was to meet with Doug Nalle, long time winemaker and owner of the Dry Creek institution.

There was a man in the horseshoe pit wrestling with a one of the winery dogs, and I figured he must be Doug, but I hesitated to interject. I have been writing this blog for nearly three years and I have had numerous winery appointments, but the first time I go to a new place I always feel awkward. I am not entirely sure why that is, but I guess it is a similar to a first date: I have no idea what to expect and I am worried that I am going to come off as some sort of dork. No doubt Doug had encountered scores of wine writers and bloggers over his 40 years in the wine business and I was worried that he would see our meeting as just another in a long line of self-important hacks looking for a free tasting and some fodder for their blogs.

The “Above Ground Cave” is covered with over a foot of soil and rosemary plants, which create a natural insulation, requiring no cooling of the building.

We sat down and I immediately liked Doug for several reasons: First, he has countless stories about wine, baseball, parenting–you name it. Second, getting Doug to “open up” is effortless–he practically interviews himself (often taking over both sides of the conversation). But perhaps the main reason I felt a bit of a bond with Doug was that we seem to share a low tolerance for BS, which he says he encounters far too often in the wine world.

We started with a couple vintages of his Chardonnay, and as he poured the first he explained a bit about the wine, saying that the aim was to make it in a French style with reserved fruit and just a hint of oak. He also stated that they were stopping the Chardonnay program this year, despite the fact that he has been happy with the wine. The reason? “No one wants that style of wine today, at least not here, and I am not going to budge an inch–if they don’t want it (in this style), we won’t make it.”

A bit of a tragedy, in my opinion, since I thought the wines were wonderful:

Head pruned Zinfandel vines dominate Henderlong Vineyard, which has been in Lee Nalle's family since 1927.

Head pruned Zinfandel vines dominate Henderlong Vineyard, which has been in Lee Nalle’s family since 1927.

2010 Nalle Reserve Chardonnay: Retail $48. Pineapple and citrus on the nose and balanced on the palate with a lingering finish. Full malolactic fermentation. Very Good. 88-90 Points.

2011 Nalle Chardonnay: Retail $48. The ’11 was more tart and instantly reminded me of  a Premier (or Grand) Cru Chablis with lemon curd and a hint of oak. Outstanding. 91-93 Points.

By this point in the conversation, I realized that I never should have been worried about what Doug Nalle was thinking since he never hesitated to let me know. His opinions were often followed by either “Don’t quote me on that” or “You’re not recording this, right?” but this self-awareness (albeit after the fact) rarely seemed to slow him down as we touched on countless topics: alcohol levels, farming methods, wine critics, consumer taste, and the direction of wine making.

He prefers a minimalist approach to grape growing and winemaking, which results in lower alcohol levels and a more restrained style–an approach that not all winemakers in California (and particularly in Dry Creek Valley) take.

This approach is clearly evident in his Pinot:

2012 Nalle Hopkins Ranch Pinot Noir Russian River Valley: Retail $45. Like the Chardonnay, Nalle sources his Pinot fruit from the Russian River. Good cherry flavors and tartness. Restrained and elegant. Very Good to Outstanding. 88-90 Points.

Doug “retired” five years ago, but he’s still somewhat involved. He says he is at the winery 2-3 days during the week but his son Andrew is now the winemaker (and has an incredible palate according to Doug–much better than his own). Doug seems thrilled to have Andrew managing the day-to-day operations, not only because he knows his son is a very talented winemaker (every time he mentioned his son, his face would glow with pride), but also as a result, Doug “manages to play a lot of golf”.

Our last few wines were Zins–what Doug says first put him “on the map”:

2012 Nalle Vinum Clarum: Retail $28. 90% Zinfandel, 5% Petite Sirah, 5% Carignane. A lighter style Zin with a Bordeaux name, that has a wonderful nose of red berries. Light on the palate, this is likely best served slightly chilled on the patio with some grilled meat and veggies. Very Good. 87-89 Points.

IMG_28392012 Nalle Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel: Retail $40. 82% Zinfandel, 9% Petite Sirah, 9% Carignane. This is the type of Zin that is right in my wheelhouse: restrained fruit, tongue tickling acidity and a finish that endures well into the next sip. Outstanding. 90-92 Points.

Upon tasting the 2012, I mentioned that I thought this wine could age for quite some time and after hearing me state my preference for Zins with a bit of age on them, Doug asked Andrew to go grab an older bottle from the library, and the winemaker returned with this:

2007 Nalle Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel: Retail ??? This was wonderful–great red berry and violet nose, but understandably a bit tight initially. Once it opened up some, it was a show-stopper: fruit, acidity, and tannins in near perfect harmony. A wonderful wine. 93-95 Points.

After the tasting, as I drove away, I tried to come up with a word to describe Doug Nalle. Others might refer to him as a “radical” or an “iconoclast” for his views on grape growing and wine making that seem to go against popular trends. But in the end, I think “passionate” fits best–for all of his proclamations come out of a sincere desire to make wine the “right” way, to never compromise, and to use his vast experience as a guide. As he put it: “Four decades in the wine business has to be worth something.”

Doug Nalle

Doug Nalle


About the drunken cyclist

I have been an occasional cycling tour guide in Europe for the past 20 years, visiting most of the wine regions of France. Through this "job" I developed a love for wine and the stories that often accompany the pulling of a cork. I live in Houston with my lovely wife and two wonderful sons.
This entry was posted in Chardonnay, Dry Creek Valley, Pinot Noir, Wine, Zinfandel. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Tales From: Nalle Winery, Dry Creek Valley

  1. Nice interview or really a conversation. Sounds like quite a character, I like him after reading this and want to try his wine.


  2. lulu says:

    His openness may have had something to do with your ability to chat about a subject you obviously enjoy.


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