What do Hyde Vineyards, Stephane Vivier, and DRC Have in Common?
We are in Los Carneros on the Napa side, the only wine appellation that is shared by both Napa and Sonoma. The temperature is cooler. It is the southern most AVA in the Napa Valley which means it's closest to the San Pablo Bay. You see fog. Your hair moves, if long like mine, in your face. I love this AVA. I love cool climate wines. It makes a difference to walk on its soil. It changes everything when you speak to the wine maker, when you hear his voice, understand where he comes from, feel what he believes in. We are at Hyde Vineyards on Carneros Highway and I must say, this has been one of my most memorable visits ever.
Vineyards, or Hyde de Villaine, or Larry Hyde and Sons, until I recently moved to Napa, even though it is co-owned by one of the co-directors of Domaine de la Romanee-Conti: Aubert de Villaine. Larry Hyde's cousin Pamela is married to Aubert de Villaine of which the two, Larry and Pamela, also have another property and label in the Bouzeron AOC of France called A & P de Villaine. It's a little confusing but this is how it gets when there are great wine families involved. I'm not sure I would have grasped it all had it not been for their winemaker at HdV, Stephane Vivier (Stephane also has his own label of exquisite wines -- Vivier), who took no short-cuts touring Massi and I through almost each vine it seemed explaining how Hyde Vineyards grows the grapes for a healthy amount of very famous wineries in Napa/Sonoma and that HdV (Hyde de Villaine) purchases their grapes from Hyde Vineyards. Larry Hyde keeps some of the grapes for the label he has with him and his sons. About 10% of the grapes at Hyde Vineyards goes to HdV. Some notable wineries that also purchase their grapes: Patz & Hall, Kongsgaard, Kistler, Paul Hobbs, Selene Wines, DuMol, Robert Mondavi, Joseph Phelps, Staglin, Arietta, Beaulieu Vineyards, Duckhorn, Buccella, Mumm, Ramey, Schramsberg, and Spottswoode.
"In Burgundy," Stephane Vivier says, "you have to drive to Pomerol for Merlot." On Hyde property, he continued, "in one step you're from Chardonnay to Merlot. . . We have a lot of cool weather. It keeps the freshness -- opulent but fresh. The Napa river is a mile and a half away. A lot of wind. Pick early, a lot of minerality. We basically dry farm. There is minimal irrigation."
The Hyde property in Carneros was bought in 1979. HdV's first vintage was 2000. 2009 was the first vintage for both Larry Hyde and Sons and Stephane Vivier, however, Stephane sources the grapes for his wines from another property in Sonoma and one in the Willamette, Oregon. Vivier is Pinot Noir focused.
"The main difference is the philosophy and the heart," Stephane says in his thick French accent which sometimes is hard to hear exactly, "you have to adapt yourself to the grapes, not vice-versa. People here want white or black. I try to integrate everything, walking the vineyards everyday -- gives me input. The painting will full up with time. What you want to do, where you want to go -- trying to understand your site "
Under his Vivier label, Stephane makes two Pinot Noir appellation wines in Sonoma coast: Gap's Crown and Sun Chase ( two single vineyards in the Petaluma Gap), and one Pinot Noir from Willamette appellation wines in Sonoma coast: Gap's Crown and Sun Chase ( two single vineyards in the Petaluma Gap), and one Pinot Noir from Willamette Valley, Oregon. His rose, which I describe as dangerously good, is a rose of Pinot Noir as well. Lastly he makes a dessert wine in homage to his grandmother, in the style of a Pineau des Charentes. It is fortified with very high-end brandy. With his Vivier label, Stephane seeks to bridge his upbringing in Burgundy with the energy of a young California Vineyard. The style of each Pinot is indeed unique, the one from Willamette being the furthest apart from the other two Pinots in Sonoma -- "Naturally," Vivier describes the Willamette terroir, "you get earthiness, mushroom. . . I focus on the fruit. I use only whole berries. Everything is de-stemmed. Grapes are picked cold in the morning and a refrigerated truck drives 18-24 hrs. A little bit of juice I use for the rose." The Willamette sees 12 months of used oak. The Gap's Crown Pinot Noir from Sonoma sees 18 months of 5% new oak; and the Sun Chase Pinot Noir from Sonoma sees 18 months of all 1 yr old oak. In Gap's Crown 25% is de-stemmed. "It tends to be fruitier," Vivier says. "Sun Chase is all de-stemmed. There is more minerality." Of course we had to ask the French man from Burgundy to compare his Pinots to those from France. "The Willamette -- probably a Beaune Rouge, Beaune Greve -- something with high acidity; Gap's Crown -- Chambertin, bigger; Sun Chase -- Musigny, fruitier and feminie."
On another day after the tour at Hyde Vineyards, Massi and I went to the HdV winery in the town of Napa for a bottle tasting that turned into the most amazing barrel sampling I have ever experienced. What I love about Stephane is that he takes you on a tour through the vineyards, the tasting and the winery through his eyes and emotions . . .the way he does it, the way he digests it . . .not in a way he thinks will be right for you. He invites you into his world effortlessly. The whole experience is difficult for me to regurgitate coherently, but perhaps that is because it will forever be with within me, and to be honest, it's not really something I wanted to share . . . . I would love to keep secret the fact that we were able to taste HdV's first vintage of Pinot Noir, and the amazing 2012 vintage at that as well, from barrel -- and it shocked me. I never conceived a Pinot Noir, that was not grown on Burgundy soil, to have the potential to be so good. "It was like a cream," as my husband would say. We also tasted a few different Chardonnay barrels from the 2012 vintage and this as well had me almost out of my shoes. Both wines were wines of poetry and love -- and after that experience I will stop giving California wine the Burgundy/French cold shoulder.
One thing that I am realizing day after day here is that the grapes are of high quality . . . the terroir has an identity . . . it''s the philosophy behind the winemaker and the owner which affect the direction of its expression so much out here. California wine country is a land raised by the business man, not birthed by the farmer. You don't necessarily trail behind tractors on side roads but instead get passed by Bentleys. Not to say that there aren't farmers out here working the vines. It is not so black and white. Philosophy may ultimately have to bend to the terroir of a vineyard site as Stephane touched upon, but it is still the backbone of every wine in my opinion and it can be tasted -- maybe this is the umami in wine.