Profiling Sonoma County Regional Leaders

Wind Gap / Pax Mahle Wines & Flowers Vineyards and Winery
Text and photographs by John Szabo MS

John Szabo, MS

John Szabo, MS

Fruit of a recent visit to Sonoma, here’s some background and portfolio reviews on two wineries adding breadth to Sonoma County’s impressive range of wine styles: Wind Gap Wines and Flowers Vineyards and Winery.

Pax Mahle Wine Cellars & Wind Gap Wines (Imported into Canada by Trialto Wine Group)

Wine buyer-turned-winemaker Pax Mahle was inspired enough by the wines he was sourcing for Dean and DeLuca to launch his own label in 2000, Pax Mahle Wines. A risky initial focus on bold Syrah paid off, and he quickly developed a cult-like following. But seeing other possibilities, inspired in particular by a certain syrah that came in far less ripe than the mean, Mahle began experimenting on the side with cooler sites, earlier harvesting, and non-mainstream grapes, wines for which he eventually created the Wind Gap label in 2006.

Partnered now with serial premium winery investor Charles Banks, Wind Gap is on solid footing. The range includes the fruit of several vineyards “influenced by one wind gap or another”, geological breaks in the coastal hills that allow cold Pacific wind to funnel inland, most famously via the Petaluma wind gap. Wind Gap wines are built on tension and acids, and modest alcohol levels, and have found a loyal niche of followers, particularly within the restaurant industry.

Meanwhile, beyond syrah, the Pax range has grown to cover other Rhône varieties, grown in vineyards from Paso Robles to Mendocino. Both Wind Gap and Pax Mahle wines are made at the same facility in The Barlow, a stylish district within Sebastopol where artisan wine makers, restaurants and artists work side by side. Although the lines are occasionally blurred between the lots destined for each range, usually the densest, boldest, ripest wines (relatively speaking) are reserved for the Pax range. From the entry point ‘Soif’ blend of rare valdiguié and other California oddities, to the single vineyard bottlings, all of these wines are worth seeking out. Contact Trialto for availability; prices are listed in US retail.

Pax Mahle, Wind Gap & Pax Mahle Wines-3987

Pax Mahle, Wind Gap & Pax Mahle Wines

Portfolio Review: Wind Gap

Wind Gap 2013 Gaps’ Crown Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast ($45.00)

From shallow volcanic soils in the foothills of Sonoma Mountain, given partial barrel and stainless steel fermentation. It’s currently subdued aromatically, but the palate is explosive, decidedly salty, with great linearity and drive. Acids are heavily saliva-inducing. Excellent length. This has both the ripeness and richness of California chardonnay, but with much more balance and poise than the mean. Best after 2017. Tasted February 2016. Score 93

Wind Gap 2013 Pinot Gris Windsor Oaks Vineyard, Chalk Hill ($36.00)

Arguably the wine that originally put Wind Gap on the map, this head-turning, alternative style pinot gris is destemmed and crushed by foot, fermented on skins in a concrete egg, and macerated post fermentation for four months. The result is a copper-hued wine with lovely spicy ginger and creamy red berry fruit, and a palate with pitch perfect balance, lightly phenolic to be sure but not tannic, marked acids, and intriguing bee’s wax/propolis finish. Great length and depth. Tasted February 2016. Score 91

Wind Gap 2013 Pinot Noir Sun Chase vineyard, Sonoma Coast ($60.00)

Grown on a sort of plateau in the foothills of Sonoma Mountain, the Sun Chase pinot is foot-crushed, fermented in concrete, and aged in old barriques and puncheons. The 2013 is light with high-toned aromatics, and a deliciously savoury, salty palate, focused on sweet blue fruit. Wood is notably absent from the flavour profile – this is mostly about crunchy fresh fruit and salinity, and highly appealing at that. Tasted February 2016. Score 92

Wind Gap 2013 Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast ($42.00)

The entry price tier in Wind Gap’s line-up of pinot noirs, this is a blend of the Sun chase, Gap’s Crown, Griffin’s Lair, Bootlegger’s, and Spring Hill vineyards, made essentially in the same way as the single vineyard expressions but assembled from the bits left over after the barrel selections are made for the top tier. Although this is perhaps not as distinctive as the single vineyards, in terms of value for money, this can’t be beat in the Wind Gap range. The 2013 offers very pretty aromatics, focused on high-toned/floral, red and black fruit, while the palate is very complete and balanced, with superb length and texture. An excellent pinot noir all around, best after 2018. Tasted February 2016. Score 92

Wind Gap 2013 Sceales Vineyard Grenache, Sonoma County ($36.00)

Made from almost century old vines (planted on St. George rootstock), technically in the Alexander Valley (but labelled as Sonoma County) in a very sandy site north east of Healdsburg. According to winemaker Pax Mahle, this grenache is made “unabashedly according to the Château Rayas playbook”, in reference to the iconic, pure grenache Châteauneuf-du-Pape produced in similarly sandy soils. This wine is pure pleasure, plump and succulent up front, yet surprisingly firmly structured through the long finish, with abundant tannins, though fine grained and dusty. This truly has real old vine intensity and depth, and is some ways from prime enjoyment; try in 2-4 years.  Superb stuff, and the best value in the Wind Gap range overall in my view. Tasted February 2016. Score 94

Sonoma Coast morning-4022

Sonoma Coast morning

Wind Gap 2014 ‘Soif’, Sonoma County ($30.00)

Soif, or “thirst” in French, is Wind Gap’s point of entry, a red blend of mostly the rare valdiguié (50%), but also includes a real hodgepodge of old, alternative varieties, all macerated carbonically in the style of Beaujolais to produce a fresh, crunchy, fruity wine. The rather monolithic Valdiguié shows through in the 2014 with its blocky tannic structure and dark fruit character, but this remains a wine of simple but authentic pleasure, to be served with a light chill. I’d consider this more of a winter “soif” wine. 11.5% alcohol. Tasted February 2016. Score 89

Wind Gap 2013 Syrah Majik Syrah Sonoma Coast ($45.00)

Majik is a north-facing, one-acre vineyard site farmed by the Wind Gap crew, without irrigation on Goldridge soil, planted in 2000. The result in 2013 is a fine and peppery, cold cream, very northern Rhône style syrah, very pretty, exotically spicy, with an Eastern twist. Acids are juicy, and the palate delivers, fresh, crunchy fruit, a rarity in California syrah, really exceptionally delicious. 11.4% alcohol. Tasted February 2016. Score 93

Wind Gap 2013 Nellesen Vineyard Syrah, Sonoma Coast ($40.00)

Nellesen is an east-facing, terraced site on Goldridge soil. In the range of Wind Gap’s 2013 syrahs, this comes across as the most giving, fruity, forward and open, with more apparent wood (although still subtle by all standards), and quite plump and juicy overall, a riper expression than the Majik vineyard. Although it’s perhaps less individual, the appeal is surely all the wider for it. 11.9%. Tasted February 2016. Score 91

Wind Gap 2013 Armagh Syrah, Sonoma Coast ($45.00)

Armagh is the southernmost syrah vineyard in the Wind Gap portfolio, a parcel planted on iron-rich mudstone. The expression is consistently riper, darker and more brooding, and in the case of the 2013, particularly rich in savoury dark fruit character. Tannins are a little tighter and firmer than the mean, and the length is terrific. I find this the most complete syrah in the 2013 range, palpably chewy and well structured, destined to age well into the ’20s I’d suspect. 12.9% alcohol. Tasted February 2016. Score 92

Wind Gap 2013 Syrah, Sonoma Coast ($42.00)

This bottling is the fruit forward blend of Wind Gap’s three single vineyards, which brings the Nellesen vineyard’s giving character to the fore. There’s plenty of dark fruit and some wood spice, while black pepper kicks in on the finish. A fine and tasty, balanced wine, ready to enjoy or hold mid-term. Tasted February 2016. Score 91

Pax Mahle Wines

Pax 2012 Griffin’s Lair Syrah, Sonoma Coast

Mahle favours a more robust, riper expression of syrah under his own label, though within the world context, the range stays comfortably on the right side of balance, just on large-scale framework. Griffin’s Lair is an alluvial toe on top of heavy clay facing right into the Petaluma wind gap, a site that lends itself to bigger, richer wines in any case, and the 2012 is indeed dark, serious, brooding, intense. Gravelly tannins might otherwise come across as coarse and rustic, were it not for the immense concentration and extract, and generous alcohol that soften the impact and fleshes out the palate. This is an imposing wine, but still in bits and pieces – forget this in the cellar another 2-3 years at least to allow the shell of tannins to mesh into the succulent dark fruit core. Tasted February 2016. Score 93

Pax 2012 Griffin’s Castelli-Knights Ranch Syrah, Russian River Valley

Despite this being a north-northeast facing hillside, Castelli-Knights Ranch delivers a riper, creamier, sweeter style of Syrah, billowing with black fruit. It turns a touch hot on the finish thanks to nearly 15% alcohol (14.9% declared) and will appeal to fans of big, concentrated wines to be sure. Tasted February 2016. Score 92

Flowers Vineyard and Winery (Represented in Ontario by Rogers & Co., prices are quoted in USD$ retail)

As part of their adventure into retirement, Joan and Walt Flowers began seeking a property to fulfill a longtime desire to produce wine, and pinot noir in particular. They searched throughout the west coast of the United States for the right place before a chance glance at an advertisement in Wine Spectator magazine led them to the far reaches of the Sonoma Coast in 1989. The property had formerly served as a children’s summer camp, and before that, was known as a meeting place for the first settlers in the area. The spot struck a chord – the rugged the hills, the Pacific breezes, the island in the sky above the fog line – it seemed right. They purchased, and began planting the Camp Meeting Ridge Vineyard in 1991-1992. The first plots were planted in radically high density for California, with 1×1 spacing (10,000 vines per hectare), using pinot noir vine material from Josh Jensen’s Quixotic pinot Calera project, known as the Calera clone, along with chardonnay. A second vineyard was later planted at the end of the 1990s (with the 777 pinot clone) – the Seaview Ridge property, within sight of Camp Meeting Ridge but a solid half-hour’s drive from the main property across the accidented hills of Sonoma, even closer to the Coast.

The Flowers style, as well as the possible spectrum delivered by the genuinely cool, coastal vineyards, led to some ground breaking wines, full of nerve and verve, tension and restraint – radically different from the plusher, softer, inland styles that were then becoming en Vogue.

As the years caught up, Joan and Walt eventually sold their property to Chilean wine entrepreneur Augustín Huneeus (also proprietor of Quintessa in the Napa Valley among other wine properties) in 2008, with a five-year rollover clause to ensure a smooth transition. At around the same time, the young and dynamic Dave Keatly was brought on as winemaker; Keatly is still Director of Winemaking operations today.

Greg Miller and Dave Keatly, Trade and Press Inquiries and Director of Winemaking, respectively-4035

Greg Miller and Dave Keatly, Trade and Press Inquiries and Director of Winemaking

Fears of a corporatization of the Flowers range were soon dispelled, and Keatly, along with estate manager and trade and press liason Greg Miller (with considerable winemaking experience himself), have shepherded the estate through the transition with class and skill, and, if anything, have “returned closer to the expression that the Flowers’ originally intended to produce from the property”, says Keatly. Conversion to biodynamic practices also began in 2009, yet the estate is not certified, “mostly from aversion to the politics of Demeter [the association that accords biodynamic certification]” says Keatly.

The main concession to corporate exigencies has been the expansion of the overall production; about ¾ of wines under the Flowers entry-level range are made mostly from purchased fruit, the majority from the Sonoma Coast AVA, with a splash or two from the Anderson Valley in Mendocino, and Marin County, which according to Keatly, share more characteristics with far Sonoma Coast fruit than pinot or chardonnay from further inland, yet still within the Sonoma Coast AVA.

And the entry range is very solid to be sure. But the real treats from Flowers come from the original plantings in the Camp Meeting Ridge Vineyard. These pinots and chardonnays, crafted with a deft use of wood but mostly focused on the energetic high-wire act inspired by the mighty Pacific, represent the finest aspects of the coastal influences that makes, or breaks, the finest from Sonoma County.

The Flowers Portfolio of Wines

Flowers 2014 Chardonnay Sonoma Coast, Sonoma County ($50.00)

Made from a blend of mostly purchased fruit, predominantly from the far west of Sonoma County (Sonoma Coast) and some declassified estate lots, recently bottled. The 2014 vintage fell during the heart of the drought in northern California, the third consecutive low rain year. Vines started their cycle early, resulting in a long growing season and harvest beginning in early September. “Quality was exceptional,” says Dave Keatly, yielding an “opulent chardonnay, but with great acids”. 20% new wood is used, though a portion is also aged in stainless. I find this fragrant and very attractive, featuring ripe lemon and lemon blossom aromas/flavours. Wood is not a major factor, though beneath the ripe fruit lies a gentle range of baking spice. There’s plenty of mid-palate richness, and length is very good to excellent. A fine follow-up to the (also excellent) 2013, best after 2017.  Tasted January 2016. Score 92

Flowers 2013 Chardonnay Camp Meeting Ridge Sonoma County ($85.00)

The 2013 Camp Meeting Ridge chardonnay is a really fine and complete expression of this exceptional vineyard on the far Sonoma Coast, full flavoured but elegant, with seamless texture and bright acids. I appreciate the finesse and verve, the fresh apple and lemon-citrus fruit. Wood is deftly integrated, and the length excellent. Tasted January 2016. Score 94

Flowers 2012 Chardonnay Camp Meeting Ridge Sonoma Coast ($85.00)

Gently toasty, from high quality wood, with exceptional depth, genuinely concentrated but not merely from ripeness and alcohol – this has real extract. Ripe citrus and green orchard fruit dominate the flavour profile, but it’s still on the reductive side, a couple of years away from prime enjoyment. Great length. Best after 2017. Tasted January 2016. Score 94

Flowers 2012 Moon Select Chardonnay Sonoma County ($90.00)

The top chardonnay bottling from Flowers, this hails from winemaker Dave Keatly’s favourite block (#28 in most vintages, but not systematically), a parcel with particularly, and measurably, high levels of sulphur in the soil, which leads to a flinty, reductive style. “Our highest and finest expression of Camp Meeting Ridge”, says Keatly. One-third new wood is used for ageing. The 2012 is notably flinty and reductive in style, a departure from the rest of the Flowers range, yet in a very fine expression. The texture is lovely and seamless, buoyed by bright acids, and the mid-palate hits a just measure of richness without tipping over into excessive fat. Wood is still apparent, and will need another 2-3 years or so I’d say to fully integrate. It’s a more polarizing style perhaps, but should evolve exceptionally well, and will surely please fans of cooler climate, old world style chardonnay. Tasted January 2016. Score 94


Flowers Vineyard & Winery

Flowers 2013 Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast, Sonoma County ($50.00)

The ‘entry’ range pinot noir from Flowers is made from mostly purchased fruit, though all from the far west Sonoma Coast area with a splash from Anderson Valley and coastal Marin County, and about 20% declassified estate fruit. In any case, relative to the estate pinots, this bottling is darker, conceived for earlier enjoyment with its generous and plush fruit character more in line with the typical west coast pinot style, though still relatively fine and mid-weight, fresh and vibrant. Tannins are very fine-grained, and there’s an attractive savoury element on the palate. Very good to excellent length. 1/4 new wood ageing, 5% whole cluster. 24,000 cases made. Tasted January 2016. Score 91

Flowers 2012 Sea View Ridge Pinot Noir, Sonoma County ($70.00)

The Seaview Ridge property was planted in 1999 with the 777 clone of pinot on a mix of old volcanics and younger sedimentary soils. It’s been steadily improving as the vines have aged, shifting into a more delicate, red fruit-inflected expression, refined and ultimately more complex. The palate on the 2012 is relatively generous and plush thanks to the ripeness that comes from this high elevation site above the fog line, yet remains mid-weight, gentle and delicate. It’s replete with crushed warm strawberries with their leaves, orange peel, and savoury-resinous herbal aromatics, thanks to 10% whole bunches (stems and all) included in the mix. Excellent length. Tasted January 2016. Score 92

Flowers 2012 Camp Meeting Ridge Pinot Noir, Sonoma County ($90.00)

A gorgeous, earthy-savoury, but also high-toned red berry fruit inflected, fully finessed and filigree pinot noir, a excellent expression of the far Sonoma Coast (technically in the Fort Ross-Seaview AVA, although not labelled as such). I love the texture of this wine, elegant, seamless, with ultra-fine-grained tannins, truly silky and refined, and impressively lingering finish. A west Coast pinot noir of uncommon class and elegance. 20% whole cluster. Tasted January 2016. Score 94

Flowers 2012 Camp meeting Ridge Pinot Noir Block 11 Sonoma County ($100.00)

Block 11′ is a north-facing, 1.3 acre block on schist and shale on the home vineyard, planted in 1992 in a high density 1m x 1m block adjacent to the house in the Camp Meeting Ridge Vineyard with the Calera clone of pinot noir, a relative rarity. For my money, this is the finest pinot noir in the Flowers range, and one of the top in the AVA no doubt. The 2012 is a beautiful, high-toned, explosively aromatic, savoury, dusty, earthy, but particularly spicy expression, replete with dark spice, cardamom, forest floor, and wet tree bark, eerily reminiscent of Chambolle-Musigny, to use a vulgar analogy. Tannins are yet firm and dusty, but will surely reach a fine stage of evolution in the next 3-5 years, though this will surely sail into the mid-late ’20s without a stretch. Really exceptional, pure class. 100% whole cluster. Tasted January 2016. Score 95

Flowers 2010 Camp meeting Ridge Pinot Noir Block 11, Sonoma County ($100.00)

This has evolved beautifully, and offers an engaging, very pretty nose, in the classic pinot noir spectrum, from a cooler climate. It’s all red fruit-driven, with pomegranate, cherry and raspberry aromatics leading, in a high-toned, elegant style. The palate is equally exciting, still firm, grippy, but edging towards the texture of raw silk. Terrific complexity and length. Superb stuff; 5 barrels made. Tasted January 2016. Score 94

Sonoma Coast morning-4020

Sonoma Coast morning