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Hugh Chapelle's Quest for Excellence at Quivira
By Linda Murphy
Sep 10, 2013
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When I first became aware of Hugh Chappelle, he was the winemaker at Flowers Vineyard and Winery on the far-west Sonoma Coast.  His pristine, focused Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs kept with the Flowers tradition, produced from cold-climate vineyards and highly sought after.

A few years later, in 2005 or so, I had dinner with Chappelle, who had moved on to Lynmar Estate in the Russian River Valley, where, again, he made elegant Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines.  During our conversation, I mentioned his artful hand with Burgundian grape varieties.  Chappelle responded, with a hint of pride:  “But my first head winemaker job was in the Sierra Foothills.”

That means a very warm climate during the growing season (not cool, as in the Sonoma Cost and Russian River Valley AVAs).  High elevation (not near an ocean or a fog-channeling river).  Heat-craving Zinfandel, Barbera and Rhone varieties thrive, not Burgundian grapes.  Foothills wines are intense and sometimes rambunctious, when compared to western Sonoma County’s finessed, nuanced bottlings.  Wines from these dichotomies are equal in adoration, yet vastly different in style.  It’s like when we dine out; some nights we crave steak or barbecue, others we want duck breast or risotto with shaved truffles.

So when Chappelle joined Quivira Vineyards & Winery in Sonoma County’s Mediterranean-climate Dry Creek Valley in 2010, I wasn’t entirely surprised.  After all, he’d worked eight years as winemaker at Madrona Vineyards in El Dorado County and had a deep understanding of and admiration for Zinfandel and Rhône variety grapes.  Despite his success at Flowers and Lynmar -- and I was a big fan of the wines he produced for them -- Chappelle returned to his mothership, as it were, yet with a Burgundian winemaking state of mind. 

Quivira is located northwest of Healdsburg, in a valley that traps the growing-season heat that is so vital to farming high-quality Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc and Rhone grapes such as Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre and Viognier.  While Dry Creek Valley is not physically far from Flowers and Lynmar, it’s a world away in terroir, and thus the varieties grown.  At Quivira, Chappelle is blending his warm- and cool-climate experiences so that his wines deliver the bold varietal character and lusciousness that is signature to Zinfandel and Rhône varieties, yet are polished and precise, with balance far more important than bombast.  

Holly and Henry Wendt founded Quivira in 1987.  They and their winemaker, Grady Wann, developed a reputation for producing textbook Dry Creek Valley Sauvignon Blancs (citrusy and slightly grassy/herbal) and Zinfandels (spicy and brambly, with wild raspberry fruit).  Pete and Terri Kight purchased the estate in 2006, and embraced the Wendts’ devotion to sustainable farming and land stewardship.

Two of Quivira’s three estate vineyards, Wine Creek Ranch and Anderson Ranch, are Demeter-certified Biodynamic and organic.  The third, Goat Trek Vineyard, purchased in 2007, is being transitioned to organic and Biodynamic.

A solar electric system supplies 100 percent of the winery’s energy needs.  Wine Creek, which runs through the estate, has been restored to accommodate the spawning of Coho salmon and steelhead trout (a Henry Wendt passion).  Organically farmed produce gardens ring the winery, and heirloom-breed chickens lay eggs and also create nutrient-rich manure that is composted into the vineyards.  Ruby, found as a piglet stuck in a Quivira fence, has become the (now rather large) winery mascot. 

A rustically gorgeous property, Quivira is a wonderful place for visitors to learn about sustainable, organic and Biodynamic farming as they taste the wines.  They’re welcome to roam the gardens, pluck sweet cherry tomatoes from the vine, visit Ruby and the chickens, and see the prep tower, where Biodynamic sprays are prepared for application to the vines, in place of synthetic chemical sprays.

This is all well and good -- admirable, in fact -- yet a winery is eventually judged by the quality of its wines, and having tasted Quivira’s over a 20-year period, my opinion is that they have never been better.  Is it Chappelle?  (His predecessor, Steven Canter, did a fine job before relocating to Oregon).  The impacts of Biodynamic and organic farming methods?  Well-funded ownership?  (Pete Kite made his nut in the tech and financial industries).  Abnormally cool recent vintages (2010 and 2011) that switched on the speed governor on ripeness?  The acquisition of Goat Trek Vineyard, which at 1,300 feet above sea level, benefits from refreshing ocean breezes and gives Chappelle another spice for his rack?

It’s likely all of the above.  And from the outside looking in, Chappelle appears happy and energized, not missing all too much the malolactic fermentation of Chardonnay or the punching down of Pinot Noir.

“One of the reasons I came here was to make Sauvignon Blanc and Grenache,” he explained.  “Grenache is the Pinot Noir of the Mediterranean; it’s a bit rustic and not as velvety as Pinot Noir, but it’s as aromatic as Pinot Noir.  It’s also as fragile as Pinot Noir.”  Translation:  He knows how to work with it.

The Quivira 2011 Wine Creek Ranch Dry Creek Valley Grenache ($26) is youthful and exuberant, with ripe strawberry and red cherry notes and with very refreshing, almost tart acidity.  It’s common to see alcohol levels in the 15 percent range with California Grenache -- sugars soar before the seeds and skins get ripe -- yet this Quivira bottling is just 14.1 percent, and doesn’t skimp on fruit or richness.

Chappelle ages a large portion of the Grenache in 900-gallon oak foudres; they allow less oxygen to get to the wine, in contrast to smaller barrels, thus preserving the floral aromatics of the variety and not overwhelming them with toasty oak. 

I tasted two Zinfandels with Chappelle -- the 2011 Dry Creek Valley ($20) and 2010 Quest Dry Creek Valley ($38).  The former is a juicy, smooth blend of estate and purchased grapes, and has lots of classic Zin character in a moderate 14.1 percent alcohol package.  Quest, as Chappelle describes it, “is a Zin-lover’s Zin; think steakhouse.” Big and bold, it’s also fresh-tasting and beautifully balanced -- very fruity but not jammy.

Elusive ($28) is Quivira’s version of the famous Aussie GSM blends -- Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre.  But in the 2010 vintage, MGS is more appropriate, as Mourvedre comprises 53 percent of Quest.  It’s solidly structured and concentrated in cassis and black cherry fruit, with a pleasing earthy, savory character. 
Because Sauvignon Blanc was one of Chappelle’s attractions to Quivira, I was eager to taste his 2012 Fig Tree Vineyard bottling ($18), named for a 135-year-old fig tree that grows on the estate.  It’s a wine I’ve had many times over the years -- always tasty -- yet I found more palate weight and dimension in this 2012.  It’s all at once fragrant, grassy, tropical, grapefruity and zesty; 15 percent of the wine was aged in oak barrels, some fitted with acacia wood heads, which added texture and mouthfeel.

Chappelle is enthusiastic about a new wine, the 2012 Viognier-Sauvignon Blanc ($30).  “It’s our first wine on the white Rhône journey,” he said, and a Roussanne-Viognier blend is on the way.  New plantings of Picpoul and Grenache Blanc, among others, are in the works.

The Viognier-Sauvignon Blanc has a floral nose and lean, pithy white grapefruit and lemon tartness.  It was so very young when I tasted it, that I’m uncertain of its future just yet, particularly at this price.  Yet it’s certainly a wine to watch, as is Quivira’s delving into other white Rhone variety grapes.

With Quivira’s Biodynamic certification mandating that it use only approved, natural inputs in the vineyard and winery, Chappelle is at a seeming disadvantage to fellow winemakers unbound by limitations on use of chemicals and additives.  “It’s a great challenge to keep sulfites low and use only certified additives for the estate-grown wines,” he said.

But he is obviously up to the task.  He employs wild-yeast fermentations for the Biodynamically grown grapes, which must be vinified on the estate to maintain Demeter certification.  For the wines produced from purchased grapes – the Dry Creek Valley Sauvignon Blanc and Zinfandel wines, for example -- they’re made at a nearby custom-crush facility, so as not to jeopardize the certification of the Quivira winery.

Quivira will do whatever it takes, Chappelle said, to produce wines that show their provenance and a more polished side of Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel, Grenache and other Mediterranean grapes.  Cheers to that.