Gary Farrell is one of the pioneers of Pinot Noir in Sonoma’s Russian River Valley, along with Joe Rochioli, his son Tom Rochioli, Tom Dehlinger, and Burt Williams, with his partner, Ed Selyem. Gary Farrell began as winemaker at Davis Bynum Winery in 1978, and opened his eponymous winery in 1982, while continuing as winemaker at Davis Bynum. These are the guys, the prime movers, who made the Russian River Valley (RRV) region synonymous with outstanding Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in California back in the 1980s. Interestingly, most of these wineries and vineyards are located in the same area, adjacent to Westside Road, south of the town of Healdsburg.
Gary Farrell sold his winery in 2004 to Allied Domecq; Constellation Brands then acquired Gary Farrell Winery in 2007. Shortly after, the winery was purchased by Ascentia Wine Estates (now defunct). The Vincraft Group bought the winery from Ascentia in April, 2011. It is no secret that Gary Farrell wines slipped a bit in quality during these turbulent years. Vincraft hired a new team, including a dynamic new winemaker, Theresa Heredia, who came aboard in May, 2012.
I first met Theresa in New York in 2007, when she was introduced as winemaker at Freestone, a Joseph Phelps’ winery in the RRV, and I was so impressed with her and Freestone’s wines that I visited Freestone Winery in 2008. Heredia actually started at Joseph Phelps in 2002, when she was put in charge of developing Freestone Vineyard.
Heredia made excellent Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs for five years at Freestone (recently re-named Joseph Phelps-Sonoma).
Theresa Heredia’s background is impressive. She started her wine career in California as harvest enologist at Saintsbury in Carneros and has worked in Burgundy at Domaine de Montille. Heredia had been a Ph.D. candidate in chemistry, and pondered the idea of going into a teaching career in chemistry, but her interest in winemaking won out--fortunately for us wine drinkers.
I must confess that I winced when Theresa told me last year that she was now the winemaker at Gary Farrell. I hadn’t realized how improved the wines would become--the current 2012 wines are Theresa’s first vintage at Gary Farrell.
Heredia uses a traditional Burgundian approach, quite different from most California winemakers. She uses a quantity of whole cluster grapes in some red wine fermentations, including the stems, which she believes adds complexity to the wines. Heredia adds cultured yeasts when necessary, but prefers to use native yeasts. She added, “If my Chardonnay takes a year to finish fermenting, so be it.” Heredia adds as little sulfur dioxide as possible.
Most importantly, for me, is that Heredia resists the idea of having her Pinot Noirs becoming ripe and overly fruity; she likes a “little touch of green” in her Pinot Noirs. Can you imagine a California winemaker making such a heretical statement? To achieve her goals, she prefers vineyards, often fog-shrouded, where grapes have to struggle to become ripe. The Russian River Valley climate helps achieve these goals with its cool ocean breezes and extremely cool evening temperatures. Theresa’s aim is to produce “low-alcohol wines (ideally between 12.5 and 13.5 percent alcohol) that are complex, austere, and expressive of the site.”
Theresa Heredia was in New York in June, along with Gary Farrell’s general manager, Nancy Bailey, and I took this opportunity to meet with them and taste the 2012 Gary Farrell wines--three Chardonnays and four Pinot Noirs. Heredia believes that 2012 was a great vintage in the Russian River Valley.
I am generally not a big fan of California Chardonnays, but I did like Theresa Heredia’s Chardonnays at Freestone, and I think her Gary Farrell Chardonnays are even better, and on the same level in quality to her Pinot Noirs! Following are my impressions of the wines:
2012 Gary Farrell, Russian River Selection Chardonnay ($35): This is the winery’s largest-production Chardonnay (6,902 cases); it is made with grapes from eight RRV vineyards, including Rochioli, Allen, and Olivet Lane Vineyards. It is very dry, light to- medium-bodied, fresh and lovely with notes of lime, quite lean in structure, with lively acidity. It has very good concentration, is vibrant and alive. Very impressive. 91
2012 Gary Farrell Rochioli-Allen Vineyard Chardonnay ($50): The Rochioli and Allen Vineyards are arguably the most-renowned in the RRV for their quality. Some of Rochioli’s oldest vines span three generations of the Rochioli family. This Chardonnay (317 cases produced) is more full-bodied, more intense, and richer than Farrell’s Russian River Selection. It is crisp, with lots of acidity, and has very good length. I prefer it to many high-end Napa Valley Chardonnays that are twice its price. 94
2012 Gary Farrell Durell Vineyard (Sonoma Valley) Chardonnay ($55): This is the only Gary Farrell Chardonnay or Pinot Noir in this tasting not made from grapes in the RRV. Durell Vineyard became very renowned for its exquisite Chardonnays that Kistler Vineyards has produced from this site. The Farrell Durell Vineyard is an amazing Chardonnay (only 153 cases produced); it’s full-bodied, very dry and rich, with lots of depth and a creamy texture. It is quite monumental, with a long, earthy finish. Durell Vineyard Chardonnays have a reputation for lasting for decades; I’m sure this wine will be very long-lived. To Theresa’s mild surprise, I personally preferred the Farrell Rochioli-Allen style, which was leaner, but the Durell Chardonnay is technically the superior wine. 95
2012 Gary Farrell Russian River Selection Pinot Noir ($45): This is the largest-production wine at Gary Farrell (9,206 cases); it is made with grapes from nine RRV vineyards, including Rochioli, with some vineyards located in the very cool Green Valley (a sub-division of RRV). The Russian River Selection is an extremely impressive Pinot Noir, much better, in my opinion, than some of Gary Farrell’s renowned competitors’ larger-production Pinots. It is a stylish, elegant wine with distinct aromas and flavors of strawberries; another taster suggested cherry jam. It has lively acidity, with soft tannins, and can be enjoyed now, and over the next few years. 91
2012 Gary Farrell Rochioli Vineyard Pinot Noir ($70): Farrell’s 2012 Rochioli Vineyard Pinot Noir (323 cases made) is one of the best young Pinot Noirs that I have ever tasted from California. It was the wine of the tasting for me. I suspect Rochioli Vineyards’ old vines are at work here; it has high acidity, is very concentrated, with bright berry fruit. It is fresh and delicious, and is singing right now, but I know it will also have a long future. 96
2012 Gary Farrell Halberg Vineyard Pinot Noir ($55): I believe that the two Halberg Vineyard Pinot Noirs in this tasting were served after the winery’s Rochioli Vineyard Pinot because they are more full-bodied, richer wines with lots of fruit, broader rather than linear, as was the Rochioli. Halberg Vineyard Pinot Noir (1198 cases produced) is very savory in flavor, suggesting various spices, with good concentration and palate length. 93
2012 Gary Farrell Halberg Vineyard Pinot Noir, Dijon Clone 777, Oak Tank Fermented, 17 % Whole Cluster ($65): Theresa Heredia uses a small part of the Halberg Vineyard to make a different Pinot Noir, using only one clone (777), with some whole cluster grapes in the fermentation. Only 120 cases were produced. The wine is broad with a dark color, has a rich texture and lots of tannin, with black cherry aromas and flavors. I think it needs two or more years to really open. It should be quite impressive with a little bit of aging. 94
Gary Farrell makes a few other small-production Pinot Noirs, not shown at this tasting, including one from Bien Nacido Vineyards in the famed Santa Maria Valley (northern Santa Barbara County). The best place to find Gary Farrell’s smaller production wines would be online, at the winery. The good news is that Gary Farrell wines are back, better than they have been in quite a while, thanks to the new team at the winery, headed by winemaker Theresa Heredia.