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The California Dream
By Robert Whitley
Oct 11, 2007
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Stop me if you've heard this one.

Successful businessman buys a piece of land in the California wine country. After a few years he decides to plant grapes. By and by a winery is born. The daughter, with a business degree from a prestigious Ivy League school, is charged with running the enterprise. She hires a top-gun winemaker and, after a few prosaic accolades from admiring critics, the smiling family dances into the sunset in gentrified bliss.
I thought so.

The storyline is nearly as old as the redwoods that surround Rebecca Green Birdsall's remote vineyard in the Deep End district of Mendocino County's Anderson Valley. It is the California dream. You either live it, or admire/envy those who do.

Yet owning a vineyard and producing wine -- wine that will bring you fame and fortune, make you proud to call yourself a vintner -- is no walk in the park, as it were. There is the matter of grape selection; the daily challenge of farming; finding someone to make the wine. And a winery needs a name.

'All of the good names were taken,' Birdsall says with a laugh. The family thought long and hard before settling on Black Kite, a slimmed down version of the Black Shouldered Kite (a hawk in layman's terms) that is indigenous to the Anderson Valley. When I first heard the name my immediate reaction was 'critter wine.'

Critter wines were hardly the goal, however, when Rebecca's father, Donald Green, elected to plant a 12-acre Pinot Noir plot on his Anderson Valley property. Paul Ardzrooni, one of Mendocino's most respected viticulturists, was the first hire. In 1999 he began to plant Pinot in three distinct blocks on a north-facing hillside.

Birdsall launched her quest for a winemaker in 2004, eventually setting her sights on Jeff Gaffner, well regarded for the wines he made for his own family winery, Saxon Brown.

'I was extremely skeptical when Rebecca first called,' Gaffner remembers. 'She really undersold the vineyard. But she was so committed and so sincere that I agreed to at least take a look at the vineyard. I didn't expect much.'

In reality, the soft-spoken Gaffner was just too polite to tell an earnest young woman, in pursuit of a dream, to go take a hike. The vineyard visit was a major concession for the busy winemaker; it would mean at least a two-hour drive each way from his home in the town of Sonoma.

'It is remote,' he says. 'You remember the movie Deliverance? Then you have some idea.'

Of course, if the Black Kite vineyard had lived down to Gaffner's expectations, he wouldn't have taken the job, but it didn't and he did. The rest is pure magic.

'I was impressed immediately,' Gaffner remembers. 'The vineyard was well laid-out. The vines were healthy. There were three distinct terroirs.'

Gaffner could hardly wait. The long drive? What drive?

He made four different Black Kite Pinot Noirs from the 2005 vintage, his first, a production totaling fewer than 500 cases. Though distribution is non-existent (the Black Kite wines are sold winery direct and through a handful of restaurants and small retailers in California) the '05 vintage has sold through.

The four wines are named for the three separate vineyard blocks - Redwood's Edge, Stony Terrace and River Turn - and a blend of all three called Kite's Rest. A couple of the block-specific Pinots (River Turn and Kite's Rest) from the '06 vintage will be released soon and can be purchased from the winery (www.blackkitecellars.com).

'Jeff came up with the idea of naming the blocks after the characteristics of the land,' Birdsall says. 'It was also his idea to make the wines separately, although we really do like the blend of the three blocks.'

I had the opportunity to taste all four of the wines from '05 and the two wines from '06 that are about to be released. The 2005 Black Kite Pinot Noirs were universally impressive for their voluptuous mouthfeel and sweet tannins. All four were beautifully balanced, expressive and highly nuanced, with savory elements, red fruits and a layer of minerality.

Redwood's Edge, at the top of the hill, is shaded from the afternoon sun and produces floral aromatics and high-toned red-fruit flavors; Stony Terrace, planted in rocky soils as the name suggests, delivers intense minerality on the nose, a savory character, darker fruits and a whiff of violet; River Turn shows the firmest tannins, is less aromatic than the other two, and unfolds on the palate with a layer of minerals on the front end and sweet dark fruits at the back.

The blend is a remarkable wine, too, with richness and depth, smooth tannins and a hint of savory woodsmoke in the nose. None of the four were on the heavy side, or sweet on the finish, though that is the current fad among some California Pinot producers.

The 2006 River Turn ($48) and the 2006 Kite's Rest (a steal at $38) are different beasts. These wines are tighter and leaner in their youth, with exceptional minerality and underlying power that bodes well for the future. In my mind they are even better than the exceptional '05 Pinots from Black Kite and would be excellent candidates for laying down in the cellar.

Of course, that supposes you could even get your hands on a few bottles. And that, too, is a story you've heard a thousand times before.

Contact Robert at rwhitley@winereviewonline.com.