Yes, visiting Northern Sonoma’s Wine Road is all about sampling and buying wine, but it’s also is about the people who live and work in the American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) of Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Russian River Valley and several other smaller ones. It’s about those who grow, harvest, crush and bottle the grapes, and who make the crucial decisions that transform ripe fruit into liquid magic.
Meet Oded Shakked, a multi-lingual, Israeli surfer-turned-winemaker whose cavernous warehouse/barrel-storage facility in Healdsburg is embellished with colorful longboards. Shakked established Longboard Vineyards in 1998, after working for other wineries.
“This is my 37th harvest – the 24th for Longboard Vineyards,” says Shakked, who served in the Israeli army and discovered wine while on furlough on the European coast. “Some of the best wines are where the best waves are.”
Winemaking is both art and science, believes Shakked, who has three degrees from the University of California, Davis, in various aspects of viticulture and winemaking, but “no one can teach you the artistic part.”
Longboard produces 5,000 cases a year, and some customers have been loyal fans for 18 years, possibly because of the Longboard vibe.
“We like Sonoma so much,” he says. “We make wines from prime fruit but we don’t like outstretched pinkies (when we drink it).”
The casual theme continues at West Wines, where the Swedish-flag blue, 1932 Ford flatbed truck parked in the driveway is an immediate conversation starter. Originally a milk truck at a Petaluma dairy, West Wines co-owner Bengt Akerlind spent two years restoring it. Today it hauls the ceremonial first load of grapes at harvest.
Akerlind and wife Katarina Bonde found their way from Sweden to Northern Sonoma via Seattle, where they worked in the IT sector. They bought the 60-acre vineyard as a vacation home, and in 2002, decided to produce their own brand.
“We had a love for wine and were knowledgeable consumers,” says Bonde says, but didn’t totally appreciate what it took to produce that wine.
Bonde earned a winemaking degree at UC Davis and discovered that “grapes have more complex DNA than humans,” she says. “I have a passion for cabernet sauvignon grapes. A lot of people harvest cab too early and the wines are too tannic. My husband couldn’t believe I wanted to take us through six years before we had a cash flow.”
West Wines’ moment in the worldwide spotlight came in December 2010 in Stockholm at the annual Nobel Banquet for the Nobel Prize laureates. The affair is attended by the Swedish royal family and 1,300 guests. West Wines’ 2005 West Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve was chosen, by a blind tasting, to be served with the main course.
In contrast to these relative newbies is Alexander Valley Vineyards on the property of historic homesteader Cyrus Alexander. Harry Wetzel Jr. bought the land sight-unseen in 1962, and three generations later, Harry Wetzel IV escorts us around the bucolic property: a historic adobe and homes; colorful, unpretentious gardens; towering redwoods; aged oak trees; a relaxed tasting room; 13,000-gallon to 16,000-gallon, stainless steel aging tanks; and a 25,000-square-foot wine cave that is being expanded.
As we walk, Wetzel IV explains the winemaking process; introduces us to his father “Hank” (Wetzel III), who says he’s retired but grows a ton of produce and makes olive oil to sell at local markets; then takes us through the cool, dimly-lit wine cave and shares some family lore.
During his college years, Wetzel IV and his roommates shared “a couple of bottles of wine,” then played hide-and-seek in the cave. “(It’s) a unique experience with the lights off because with no light, your eyes never adjust to the dark, so we played based only on sound. One of my roommates, now a college professor, walked into a barrel and cut his forehead. I always joke that he can’t explain that scar to his students.”
There also are stories about real survival.
At one point during the October 2109 Kincade Fire, the family thought it had lost everything. Fortunately, it was only a few buildings, but the grape crop was another matter.
“…we had 200 tons left to pick,” Wetzel IV explains. “Power was out for 13 days and we didn’t have a generator large enough to power all of the equipment. We purchased one and got it running about the eighth 8th day. We brought in a few tons, but quickly realized that between the smoke and the fact that the fruit was now overripe, we wouldn’t be able to make a finished wine that would be acceptable.”
It was a $600,000 loss, he added, and “insurance doesn’t cover much. It just keeps you from losing your shirt.”
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