The town of Healdsburg is in a rather fascinating: it sits as the nexus of three sub-AVA within Sonoma County. Depending on the direction, you could be driving (or better yet, pedaling) your way through Dry Creek, the Russian River, or Alexander Valley.
Before starting this blog and being a Pinot Noir freak, I spent most of my time in the Russian River AVA. Since I (ahem) rolled out The Drunken Cyclist, the majority of my time in the Healdsburg area has been focused on Dry Creek Valley.
On my last trip out, however, I had an appointment with White Oak Vineyard and Winery in Alexander Valley. I have passed the winery, which is located right on Highway 128, across the Russian River and just over the ridge from Healdsburg and Dry Creek, numerous times both in a car and on a bike, but had never stopped in.
I sidled up to the tasting room bar and was introduced to Francesca Huson, the tasting room manager, who has perhaps the perfect combination of warmth and professionalism. She poured me a glass of White Oak Sauvignon Blanc, and she excused herself to go get Bill Parker, White Oak’s winemaker.
2013 White Oak Russian River Valley Sauvignon Blanc: Retail $17. I need to confess that I am not a huge Sauvignon Blanc fan–the wines tend to be either somewhat bland acid bombs or completely over-the-top fruity zingers that are primarily interested in grabbing your attention. This is neither of those (and that is a good thing). Initially some bright peach with lemon zest, which transform a bit into pineapple and pear once past the lips. Great balance throughout, ending in a really lively finish. Very Good to Outstanding. 89-91 Points. Without a doubt, this is a great value, and a wine that I would not hesitate to buy by the case.
Bill came over and, well, it seemed to me that it was probably the last place that he wanted to be: arms crossed, scowl on his face. There is no doubt that he had a ton of work to do, but there was likely more to it. I imagine that he has far to many requests on his time by people like me–a wine blogger with an elevated sense of his own worth, asking him the same questions that the last egocentric writer asked.
Despite his rather stern demeanor, it immediately struck me that Bill must be a story-teller. Why? I am not sure. Maybe it was his firm handshake, or the subtle creases that had to be caused by decades of smiling and laughing, or even the gold earring that, if only slightly larger could adorn the lobe of a pirate right out of central casting. Regardless the reason, Bill was the type of person to whom I like to think I can relate.
I just needed to break through.
So as he poured the White Oak Chardonnay, I asked a few wine geek type questions about fermentations, oak programs, and the like, in order to prove my bona fides; I felt I needed to show that I was not just another schmuck with a keyboard in his parent’s basement.
2013 White Oak Russian River Valley Chardonnay: Retail $24. Bill does both fermentations at the same time (almost all wineries do the primary fermentation of sugar to alcohol first and later the secondary malolactic fermentation, but Bill adds bacteria to start the second fermentation within 24 hours after the first has started). Bill feels this helps to limit the buttery aspect of converting malic acid to lactic acid. The result? Despite going through 100% malolactic fermentation, the wine has almost a Sauternes quality on the nose with honey, apple, and a hint of oak. Toasty and almost sweet on the palate with a creamy finish, this actually reminds me of a Blanc de Blancs champagne. Outstanding. 90-92 Points.
My questions (or perhaps the Chardonnay) seemed to grease the wheels a bit and as I suspected, the stories started to flow.
Bill has been in the wine business for almost as long as I have been alive and he has seen just about everything. After already being in the wine industry since 1974, Bill became the cellar master at Matanzas Creek in 1985, and eventually (almost by default as Bill tells it) the co-winemaker (with Susan Reed) in 1989. He remained in that position for over a decade as he helped make the winery perhaps the preeminent Merlot producer in the country. Shortly after Jess Jackson bought Matanzas Creek in 2000, Bill moved on to be the winemaker at BR Cohn, but then soon left for White Oak in 2004 where he has been ever since.
2012 White Oak Russian River Valley Pinot Noir: Retail $35. On the pour, the wine is light and translucent in the glass–not necessarily typical for most California Pinot. Plenty of earth and anise with a bit of cranberry initially. On the palate, the emphasis is on subtlety, which I prefer. As a result, the wine is reluctant to show much at first, but then the fruit sneaks in leaving to a lasting tart finish. Even though the tannins are light, I think this wine needs some time after which, it will likely be rather special. Right now? Very Good to Outstanding. 88-90 Points.
During the Pinot and on into the Syrah, Bill rattled of tale after tale. Many of them centered on the time when the Jacksons bought Matanzas Creek and how that sale affected both Bill and the wines. He touched on his time at BR Cohn too, but, well even though Bill would likely not mind me recounting them here, they are not really relevant. For me, the real story is Bill himself. Like maybe just a few others in the California wine business, I really hope he writes a book. There are so many stories about the region and the people who are simply not readily accessible. Even though most wineries (including White Oak) have a web page recounting the winery’s history, that is but a watered down, marketing approved version.
The real stories are with people like Bill.
2012 White Oak Napa Valley Syrah: Retail $26. The vineyard for the Syrah is at 1200 feet and Bill describes it as between cool and warm climate, which produces wine with both fruit and complexity. Rose petals and cassis leads to a well-balanced wine with some noticeable tannic grip on the finish. Nice now but needs a steak. Hold onto this for a few years and you will be rewarded. Outstanding. 91-93 Points.
We grabbed the Syrah and headed out back to have lunch with Francesca (Bill called her Frankie) and the winery founder, Bill Myers. Within maybe thirty seconds, it was clear that this Bill (or, when it comes to the story of White Oak, the Bill), is every bit the story-teller that Bill Parker is.
This time, though, instead of spending the few moments we had for lunch taking notes, I did what any good story lover should do: I sat there, kept my mouth shut, and listened.