One of my favorite California winemakers, Theresa Heredia, left Chardonnay and Pinot Noir specialist Freestone Vineyards on the Sonoma Coast in the spring of 2012. It wasn’t her decision.
Heredia, Freestone’s founding winemaker (its first vintage was 2002), was let go by Joseph Phelps Vineyards -- owner of Freestone Vineyards – in what was described by Heredia as a cost-cutting move. At the same time, the company rebranded its “Freestone Vineyards” wines as “Joseph Phelps Freestone Vineyards,” presumably to take advantage of the nearly four-decades-long tradition of winemaking excellence begun by Joe Phelps in 1974 in Napa Valley. The Freestone label change took effect with the 2010 vintage wines.
Initially, I was disappointed to learn of Heredia’s departure from Freestone, and the shift in branding of the wines from the vineyard. I found Heredia’s estate Sonoma Coast, Pastorale Vineyard and Quarter Moon Vineyard bottlings of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir to be exceptional and scintillating; the second-label Fog Dog estate wines offered admirable interest and complexity for their $35 price point.
Yet silver linings abound in this change in personnel.
Heredia was quickly snapped up by Gary Farrell Winery in the Russian River Valley. Founder Gary Farrell’s brand has had several owners since he sold it to Allied Domecq in 2004; his personal winemaking signature of elegance and food-friendliness has remained intact, and Heredia wholeheartedly inherited that legacy; I expect her to maintain the stylistic standards, yet also improve upon the already high-quality Gary Farrell wines.
And Phelps will continue to farm its Freestone Vineyards grapes in the chilly, often foggy Sonoma Coast AVA, just eight miles from the Pacific Ocean. The site has Burgundian variety-loving Goldridge soils and a climate that can produce the style of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir I enjoy most -- crisp, minerally, elegant and detailed. The modern, efficient Freestone winery continues to vinify the wines, and the Joseph Phelps/Freestone Vineyards Guest Center is open seven days a week, in the tiny town of Freestone.
As Freestone’s winemaker, Heredia reported to Director of Winemaking Damian Parker, who is based at the Phelps mothership in Napa Valley (Joseph Phelps winemaker Ashley Hepworth also reports to Parker). Freestone assistant winemaker Justin Ennis, an alum of Williams Selyem, assumed Heredia’s duties and is also overseen by Parker. There is no reason to believe that Freestone winemaking will not continue on its admirable quality path.
No one needs to tell Joseph Phelps Vineyards how to grow grapes and make wine: Its track record and successes are impeccable. And Gary Farrell Winery has done just fine, thank you, even after its founder sold the winery in 2004 to Allied Domecq. Others have owned the Gary Farrell brand since, yet it’s now in the capable hands of the Vincraft Group -- Bill Price, Pete Scott and Walt Klenz, wine industry veterans all – and they recognize that Heredia’s winemaking talent is a fine fit for the Gary Farrell brand.
At Gary Farrell, Heredia replaced Susan Reed as winemaker. It was Reed who maintained Gary Farrell’s personal vision of producing wines that are balanced and finessed. She achieved that throughout the ownership changes, and now that the ball is in Heredia’s court. I expect her to be a slam-dunk.
In January 2012, The San Francisco Chronicle named Heredia a “Winemaker to Watch,” extolling her winemaking virtues, which include harvesting at moderate ripeness levels to reduce high alcohol and preserve varietal character; her preference for fermenting whole clusters for Pinot Noir; and her endorsement of including grape stems in fermentations -- a risky move that can add spice, herbal complexity and dimension to the wine.
Heredia is incorporating these techniques, when appropriate, with the Gary Farrell wines. She has new vineyard sources, which include Rochioli, Rochioli Allen, Hallberg and Westside Farms, and support to push the edges of winemaking protocols.
Theresa Heredia is even more watchful now than she was in 2012.