I moved to Sonoma County in 1990, just in time to work the harvest. While it was a wonderful experience and set me up for eventually becoming a wine writer, I realized then that I not cranially engineered for chemistry and mechanics, and that I’m zero fun when it’s cold and wet. Thus, there was no future for me in winemaking.
So after the grapes were crushed/pressed/fermented in 1990, I set out to visit the wineries near my new home in Healdsburg, to taste their wines and try to answer the “five W” questions: Who, what, where, when and why. During that search, I discovered Balverne Vineyards in Windsor, then a sleepy township just south of Healdsburg, yet an important grapegrowing area, situated in the eastern Russian River Valley and Chalk Hill AVAs.
My 1990 Thomas Brothers map led me to Balverne, and while I have no specific recollection of its wines, I remember visiting. A few years later, I looked at an updated Thomas Brothers map and saw that Balverne was no longer located. I gave it little thought.
I’ve since learned that, in the mid-1970s, investors formed a public corporation named Balverne Cellars to acquire the estate. Balverne Cellars improvements included a 50,000-case winery and a large barrel/finished wine warehouse. Balverne became one of the few winery/vineyards to be publicly owned in California, and earned kudos for its 1982 Scheurebe, which was served in the White House during the Reagan administration.
Fast forward to 2013, and I now know that Windsor Oaks Vineyard and Winery -- a property about which I knew little, yet was so close to me -- is the former Balverne estate. Bob Stein purchased the property in 1992, renamed it Windsor Oaks Vineyard and Winery, and has grown 250 acres of grapes for sale to area wineries, with a few tons dedicated to his Windsor Oaks brand.
Over the years, the estate supplied more than 35 wineries with grapes, among them Flowers, Sonoma Cutrer, Merry Edwards, Rockwall Wines, Pali, Wind Gap, Thomas George Estates, Kokomo, Ottimino, Eric Kent, Sojourn and Anthill Farms. While many of these producers continue to purchase Windsor Oaks fruit, Stein and his wife, Renee, have re-launched the Balverne label, using estate-grown grapes for their Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Sangiovese, Pinot Noir and Bordeaux variety wines.
The Windsor Oaks label will be reserved for small-lot wines from the property, sold mostly at the tasting room and to wine club members. The Balverne wines, with a red–tail-hawk label designed by Bob Johnson, will have increased distribution, via tradition three-tier-system channels. This makes them more available to consumers.
Douglas Lumgair is the longtime estate manager, and the Steins recently hired Margaret Davenport, of Clos du Bois fame, as their winemaker. To bring things full circle, Davenport has partnered with Doug Nalle of Nalle Vineyards -- a Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel icon – who made wines for Balverne from 1979 to 1983. A 2012 barrel sample of the Davenport-Nalle Balverne estate proprietary red blend -- yet to be named and a year away from release -- is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec, with sturdy yet supple tannic structure and a generosity of cassis and cherry flavors, and slight oak shading.
The Windsor Oaks/Balverne estate has a diversity of elevations -- 200 feet to 1,000 feet in elevation -- and myriad soils that make it a consummate viticultural property. Volcanic soils and elevations in key mountain vineyard blocks in the Chalk Hill AVA contrast flat to the flat and gently rolling hillsides at lower elevations. Soils range from rich loam, clay, sand, chalk and river gravels, to larger stones, volcanic ash and quartzite.
With its widely varied growing conditions, expert winemaking from Davenport and Nalle, and an ownership committed to quality, Balverne is an everything-that’s-old-is-new-again wonder.