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Amapola Creek: New Home for a Sonoma Legend
By Gerald D. Boyd
Nov 2, 2010
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People of a certain age remember “Amapola, you pretty little poppy,” the signature lyrics of the hit song by the Jimmy Dorsey orchestra.  “Amapola” soared up the Billboard charts in the 1940s--before Richard Arrowood was born.  But, as a young boy, he does remember how important the dance tune was to his mother and father.  “My father was a musician in a dance band and Amapola was a favorite song with my parents,” recalls Arrowood from the patio of his newest venture, Amapola Creek Winery.

Arrowood, a veteran winemaker who made his chops with Chardonnay and Riesling at Chateau St. Jean and later at the eponymous Arrowood Winery, was pouring his 2006 Amapola Creek Sonoma Valley Cabernet Sauvignon when he paused to explain how he and his wife Alis chose the name for their new winery.  “When I sold Arrowood, only my surname was part of the deal, so I could have named new venture Richard L. Arrowood Winery.  There’s a small creek running through the property and every spring poppies line the banks and amapola is Spanish for poppy and my father used to play the song “Amapola” in the band, so Amapola Creek Winery was a natural choice.”

Not so natural was the twisted road that led Richard Arrowood from St. Jean, to Arrowood to Amapola Creek.  Arrowood had a long noteworthy run at Chateau St. Jean, from 1974 to 1990, where he crafted such noted vineyard designated wines as Robert Young Vineyard Chardonnay.  But St. Jean changed hands, and Arrowood moved down Highway 12 to start Arrowood Winery.  “I left Chateau St. Jean in April 1990 to dedicate myself fulltime to Arrowood Winery and to distance myself from the corporate influences of the Suntory Corporation.”  While still at St. Jean, Arrowood began making wine under his own label, then in 1986 he and wife Alis purchased the Arrowood property, planted vineyards and began construction on a new winery.

The Arrowoods operated Arrowood Winery until they sold to the Robert Mondavi Corporation in 2000.  Arrowood stayed on as Winemaster until his resignation in June 2010.  He says his relationship with the Mondavis was a good one, but when the Mondavi Corporation fell on hard times, Arrowood Winery was first sold to Constellation, then a year later to Legacy Estate Group, a move that pains Arrowood even to today.  “I was fearful that Legacy would retain Arrowood Winery… but in 2005, Legacy Estates filed for bankruptcy and I was given the option to buy Arrowood Winery, but I would also have had to buy a winery in Paso Robles as part of the deal and I didn’t want to run two wineries in different parts of the state,” says Arrowood.   Eventually the bankruptcy court divested the Legacy Estate interest and transferred ownership of Arrowood Winery to Jackson Family Wines. 

When the wheels came off at Arrowood Winery, Richard had already completed 40 vintages, and Alis was hoping he would cut back so they could enjoy more time together at their home in Montana.  “Winemaking is what I do and you can only hunt birds so much, so I started looking for a place to start a small winery that we would own outright and I could make the wines I wanted,“ says Arrowood.  The original plan was to plant a hillside vineyard with Cabernet Sauvignon close to Arrowood Winery and sell the grapes to the Mondavi family.  When that didn’t work out, the Arrowoods found 119 acres of hillside scrub land, the upper part adjacent to the famed Monte Rosso Vineyard, in 2000 and built a home on the upper ridge and a small winery on a narrow table further down the property.  “We broke ground for Amapola Creek Winery in 2006 and completed construction in time for the 2007 harvest,” recalls Arrowood.

Today, Arrowood makes about 2,500 cases of wine from 20 acres of organic certified vineyards, managed by noted Sonoma County viticulturist, Phil Coturri.  Planted mostly to Cabernet Sauvignon, with a few acres of Syrah, Arrowood also purchases Zinfandel grapes from neighboring Monte Rosso Vineyard and he makes a tiny amount of Chardonnay from Russian River Valley fruit.  “The Zinfandel grapes we get from Monte Rosso have more Zin character than any Zinfandel I’ve ever tasted…the flavors are intense black raspberry or huckleberry.  There are a lot of huckleberry bushes near our home in Montana and the Monte Rosso Zinfandel reminds me of the huckleberries we pick there.”  Amapola’s estate vineyards are planted from 350 to 1,000 feet above the valley floor.  “Being above the fog the grapes get more sun and they escape the scorching heat that sometimes hits valley floor vineyards, like the hot days we had during this year’s growing season,” says Arrowood.

As good as higher elevations may be for flavor maturity, the concentration of mountain-grown grapes and the striving for maximum flavor ripeness also means contending with high alcohols.  “We’re trying to get a handle on the problem,” admits Arrowood.  But while agreeing that the quest for flavor ripeness contributes to high alcohols, Arrowood points his finger at the yeasts used in the fermentation process.  “I want physiological ripeness but I wish we had less efficient yeasts.  I don’t do native fermentations (using natural yeast) and it’s not possible to get below 14% alcohol with the yeasts we have today,” he says.  Amapola Creek red wines I tasted for this column range from 14.7% to 16.3% alcohol.

Arrowood has a history with Syrah, going back to Arrowood Winery, but recent poor sales performance for Syrah has him concerned.  “So much so that starting with the 2009 vintage, I will be blending the Syrah with Grenache and eventually will set the blend at 60% Grenache and 40% Syrah.”  Did he have any indication that Syrah would be a sales slacker?  “No, I didn’t see it coming and I have no idea why.  I thought Syrah would be the next Merlot.  But we only make 75-100 cases of Syrah and I’m very happy with the Grenache/Syrah blend.”

Now that Arrowood is the sole owner of his winery, he can make wine his way.  “At Arrowood I was always focusing on what the owner wanted, but eventually I did finish my red wines unfined and unfiltered, a practice I brought with me to Amapola Creek.”  Switching to organic in the vineyard was another matter.  “Phil Cotouri was after me for a long time to go organic and it took me years before I was convinced.  The soils are more alive and the vines struggle more, producing better flavors in the wines.  Over time, I believe organic-grown grapes will produce wines of greater complexity,” Arrowood maintains.

Wood aging at Amapola Creek is a finely balanced approach, with the use of a combination of American oak and French oak.  “There is more forward vanilla from American oak, but it can be a little too intense.  You don’t get that from French oak, so I like the flavor balance I get from using both types of oak,” explains Arrowood.  “French oak doesn’t dominate the wine; I don’t want any one component to dominate the wine.  I’m more interested in nuances than dominance by any one component.”  The Amapola Creek Zinfandel is the only red wine not aged in the combination of French and American oak.

Now approaching the culmination of his winemaking career, and doing his own thing, Richard Arrowood is a contented man.  But is Amapola Creek his last hurrah?  “Well, I would have loved to own Arrowood Winery, but I’m very happy at Amapola Creek.  I want Amapola Creek to be known for exceptional quality and I hope to leave the winery to my children.”