Rhys Tour and Tasting – June 27th, 2009
Paul Galli invited a group of people to his annual “Tour de Rhys” in late June, and I was fortunate enough to be one of the invitees this year. The timing for this year’s tour turned out to be very good for Paul – it was his birthday! On a day when the temperature reached into the upper 90s, the group – including Paul, Wes Barton, Al Osterheld, Jim Hanlon, Stewart Johnson, and Truett Welch – gathered at the Rhys Family Farm Vineyard in the hills of San Mateo County between the towns of Woodside and Portola Valley. We were met there by Rhys Vineyards owner Kevin Harvey and winemaker Jeff Brinkman. I’ve tasted wines from Rhys and from their non-estate label Alesia a number of times, but this was my first visit to their vineyards, scattered throughout the northern Santa Cruz Mountains.
Kevin has worked in the computer software and venture capital fields, and after developing more than a passing interest in Burgundy and California Pinot Noir, in 1995 he planted a small vineyard next to his house, not far from Family Farm Vineyard. Initially he made a small amount of wine in his garage, before deciding to take the plunge and develop a commercial winery. In order to do this, he needed more than his ¼-acre vineyard (now called the Home Vineyard), and around 2000, Kevin started looking for more vineyard sites in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Why the Santa Cruz Mountains? Kevin explained that a big part of his goal in making Rhys wines is to express the vineyard site in each wine – and specifically the soil unique to each vineyard. He found the Santa Cruz Mountains to be an ideal place to do this, as there is great soil diversity in the area – the collision of the Pacific Plate and the North American Plate has created many small pockets of various soil types. All of the Rhys vineyards are located on different rock and soil formations, with the idea of producing distinct wines from each vineyard.
Kevin told us that there is a lot of iron in the soil of his vineyards, and he feels this is a key to the “minerality” that the wines from these vineyards display. Minerality as a character of wine is a controversial notion, which I won’t discuss in detail here – there’s no consistent definition of what it even is, much less where it comes from. But minerality as a component of wine does seem to vary from vineyard site to vineyard site, and Kevin feels that Santa Cruz Mountains Pinots tend to display more minerality (as well as structure and tannin) than other New World Pinots. Being a big Burgundy fan, he appreciates and favors Pinots with structure and tannin. He’s also a fan of whole-cluster fermentation, a technique practiced by such notables as Domaine de la Romanée Conti and Domaine Dujac in Burgundy and Calera Wine Company in California.
Rhys has five estate vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains area, plus one new one in Anderson Valley. Bearwallow Vineyard is in “Deep End” of Anderson Valley near Navarro. Unlike the other Rhys vineyards, there are some vines already on the site, and ’08 will be first Rhys vintage released from the vineyard. There are several new vineyard blocks being developed there as well, and the wines from the new blocks are still four to five years away. In addition, Rhys produces a second label called Alesia, with wines made from non-estate fruit. Alesia wines include Pinot Noir from the Sonoma Coast, and Syrah from Santa Lucia Highlands. Winemaker Jeff Brinkman joined Rhys in 2006, after stints as winemaker for Husch Vineyards in Anderson Valley and Atlas Peak in Napa.
Rhys currently has about 42 total acres of vineyards planted, mostly Pinot Noir, with smaller amounts of Chardonnay and Syrah, plus a tiny new block of Nebbiolo at one site. Unlike many newer California Pinot growers, Rhys uses mostly older California “heritage” selections (such as Swan and Calera) and “suitcase clones” (so-called because of the old practice of bringing vine cuttings into the US hidden in a suitcase) from Burgundy rather than the newer Dijon clones. There are lots of ongoing experiments, and we saw a number of blocks throughout the vineyards where different clones and varieties had been grafted over onto older stock. All of the Rhys vineyards are farmed using organic and biodynamic practices. Kevin and Jeff noted to us that because of the combination of site and clonal selections and farming practices, they are able to get their fruit ripe at relatively low brix, leading to lower-alcohol wines – those that we tasted ranged from 12.2 to 14.1 alcohol.
After Kevin and Jeff had given our group a brief background of Rhys Vineyards, we reluctantly walked out from the shady grove of trees and into the blazing afternoon sun to take a look at the first of four vineyards we would see that afternoon, Family Farm.
Family Farm Vineyard is the only estate vineyard that Rhys does not own – the land, which had once been a Christmas tree farm, is leased from Stanford University. Both this vineyard and Home Vineyard are outside of the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA, due to their lower elevation, at around 400 feet. Now in their 9th leaf, about 6¼ acres of Pinot Noir vines are planted at Family Farm. The site has a gentle slope with a northeast aspect, while the soil is alluvial sandy clay loam. It has the least dense vine spacing of all the Rhys vineyards, planted with 6x6 spacing. Kevin noted that Family Farm and Home vineyards have highest diurnal variation of any of their sites, with temperature swings of up to 50 degrees.
Various suitcase clones have been grafted over recently to replace earlier 777 clone plantings. In addition to these, there are about two acres of Dehlinger Swan selection, plus some Pommard and 115 as well. Kevin has been testing out cordon vs. cane pruning at Family Farm, but he said that it now seems clear that the cane-pruned vines are yielding better fruit. He showed us a cluster that seemed typical of many we saw at this site, showing the effects of “millerandage” (also known as “hens and chicks”), where the berries develop unevenly after fruit set and are different sizes within the cluster.
We did not visit the nearby Home Vineyard, but Kevin told us a little about it. Home has a “Selection Massale” style of planting, with mixed clones and selections that are all harvested together, rather than the more typical California practice of harvesting and fermenting each one separately. The Pinot vines there include Swan, Pommard, Wädenswil, 115, 777, plus a number of suitcase clones. Kevin believes that picking everything at once, with the different clones at different stages of ripeness rather than being more uniform, produces more interesting wine, and it’s a practice that is widely employed for the Rhys wines.
Only ¼ acre was planted originally at Home, with 6x5 vine spacing, but another 1¼ or so has recently gone in, with denser vine spacing, and all planted to suitcase clones. The first wines from the new blocks will be produced in 2009 or 2010. Home Vineyard is only a short distance from Family Farm, but as it’s on the opposite side of the San Andreas fault line, the soils there are different. The soil at Home is decomposed sandstone below the topsoil.
After our tour of Family Farm Vineyard, we got into our cars and followed Kevin up the winding road to Skyline Boulevard, on the crest of the mountains, then south for about 6-7 miles before heading to the western slope along Alpine Road. After a few more miles, we arrived at Alpine Vineyard. Planted in 2001, there are 13½ acres of vineyard on the property, divided into ½-acre blocks. Two of the blocks, Alpine Hillside and Swan Terrace, have been distinctive enough for their own separate bottlings. Most of the vineyard is roughly south-facing, while a few areas – the Chardonnay block and Swan Terrace – are east-facing. Vines are planted on 6x4 spacing. Only eight miles from the coast, and at about 1,400’ elevation, this is a very different site than Family Farm (and on that hot day, thankfully it was cooler as well). Planted on very rocky and steep hillsides, with slopes of up to 40%, I thought this was the most dramatic and beautiful of the Rhys vineyards.
Kevin picked up a vineyard rock and passed it around for us to check out. He told us that much of Alpine has soft and relatively young shale rocks, only three million years old, and that these are easily broken up and pulverized into the soil. He also said that their vineyard practices are moving toward dry farming, explaining to us that biodynamic viticulture tends to require less water for the vines.
Evidence of shatter in some clusters
Sixteen clones and selections of Pinot are planted at Alpine, including Swan, Calera, La Tâche, 113, Pommard, and other interplanted suitcase selections. The Chardonnay is mostly Wente clone, and Jeff and Kevin told us that the Chardonnay wine from this site has particular difficulty going through malolactic fermentation, but they have not been able to figure out why that’s the case. The vines at Alpine looked good, though not as robust as the ones we saw at Family Farm, and Kevin said they typically need to hedge the vines at Alpine only once during the growing season. The grape cluster development was well behind in comparison to Family Farm, and there was much more shatter apparent at Alpine (shatter occurs when tiny unpollinated individual grapes fall off the cluster after flowering, often due to the flower cap not popping off). Jeff noted that shatter has not been unusual at this site.
Our next stop was at Horseshoe Ranch, only a few hundred yards from Alpine. Just across the road, and at a slightly higher elevation, the 17½ acres of vineyard were first planted in 2004. Another steep hillside site, Kevin told us that the soil here is quite different from Alpine. Once again passing around a vineyard rock, we could feel how much lighter and less dense it was compared with the rock from Alpine. From the older Monterey Formation, the Horseshoe shale is also much harder and does not pulverize easily, so there were many more rocks apparent in the vineyard.
There are thirteen Pinot Noir clones and selections planted here, along with four Syrah clones and two Chardonnay clones. A recent addition is a small block of Michet clone Nebbiolo. The upper block, where we were all standing, is mostly Pinot, along with a little Syrah and Nebbiolo, while we could see far down the steep slope to the blocks of Chardonnay. Some of the vines in these lower blocks had originally been Syrah, but those have been grafted over to Chardonnay. Kevin told us that they will be planting a new small block with very tight 3x2 spacing, a massale-style planting of own-rooted Pinot.
In comparison to the nearby Alpine Vineyard, the vines at Horseshoe showed lower vigor, and many were scrawnier and less leafy. Like Alpine, the clusters showed lots of shatter. Kevin and Jeff noted that in 2007, they were able to produce only four barrels of wine out of ten acres of Pinot they harvested at Horseshoe (well under ½ ton per acre), and that the fruit barely got to 21 brix. Kevin feels that this site produces the wines with the most mineral character of the Rhys vineyards.
Hopping back into our cars, we headed back to Skyline Boulevard, then continued farther south for a few miles to Skyline Vineyard. Just a couple of miles southwest of Montebello Ridge, this is the highest of the Rhys vineyards, at about 2,300’ elevation, and Kevin told us that they get some snow there nearly every winter. The vineyard was first planted in 2004, with the first crop coming in ’07. A much more compact site, it includes only a few acres of Pinot Noir and Syrah. Kevin said that the soil here is part of the San Lorenzo formation and contains a lot of mudstone, along with sandstone, shale, and limestone – very diverse soil types at this location. He noted that the soil here is particularly high in iron content, and is especially thin and rocky.
Skyline includes just over an acre of Swan and Calera Pinot selections, planted on 3x3 spacing, along with one acre with especially dense 3x2 massale planting. Because of the tight spacing and the slope, this must all be hand-farmed. Chave and Alban Côte Rôtie selections of Syrah on 4x3 vine spacing are also planted in the vineyard, in addition to twelve clones of Pinot Noir. The vines we saw in the 3x2 Pinot block at Skyline are noticeably smaller than the vines at the other vineyard sites, due to the thin soil and the competition from the dense planting.
One last diversion before we tasted some wines – we couldn’t resist asking Kevin and Jeff for a look at the new wine caves at Skyline, which could see from the top of the vineyard. The caves are still under construction, and are very extensive. They’ll be used for the entire winery operation, not just for barrel-aging, so they will include spaces for the crushpad, fermentation tanks, etc. Kevin told us that they are currently making the wine at a facility in San Carlos. He also mentioned that it took years to obtain all the necessary permits to put in the winery.
After our look at the new caves, we went into the château-style house that was already on the Skyline property when Kevin found it. Walking up the narrow curving steps in the round stair tower, we came to the open kitchen (which looked much more California than French château in style!), where Jeff had prepared twelve bottles of Rhys and Alesia wines for us to taste. He had opened (but not decanted) all the wines about six hours before the tasting to give them some air. As we tasted, Kevin and Jeff discussed the winemaking process they use.
The object of the winemaking is to remain consistent throughout the different vineyards, allowing for the distinctions in the various bottlings to be from the vineyards rather than the winemaking. The fruit is hand-sorted, and placed into one-ton stainless steel fermentation tanks. Rhys is buying some one-ton oak upright fermenters to experiment with in upcoming vintages. All of the estate Pinot Noir is fermented with 100% whole clusters. The fruit undergoes a cold soak of anywhere from 5 to 14 days, chilled in the tanks with glycol jackets. All the Rhys wines have no added yeast or malolactic cultures, and no added nutrients. Punchdowns during fermentation are done by foot, and wines are pressed as soon as they’ve completed fermentation – there’s no extended maceration. All the new barrels are four-year air-dried François Freres, again to keep consistency throughout the winemaking process. Kevin and Jeff told us that they pre-order their stave wood to ensure they know exactly what they’ll be getting. It was remarkable how much less intrusive their oak is on the wines than most typical François Freres barrels, which are known for imparting fairly aggressive oak character. The Rhys wines are not fined or filtered before bottling.
We tasted mostly wines from the 2007 vintage – a key vintage for Rhys as it’s the first one that includes Pinots from all five of their Santa Cruz Mountains estate vineyards. However, ’07 also had much lower yields for them than in ’06, so the quantities produced are much smaller. Jeff noted that the ’07 vintage produced more structured wines than the previous year. We tasted a 2006 Alpine Vineyard Pinot to compare it to the ’07, and the difference was very noticeable – Jeff noted that was probably a factor of both the vintage variation and of the additional year in bottle for the ’06. The Chardonnay and most of the ’07 Pinots will be released this fall, with other wines to be released next year.
'07 Rhys Chardonnay, Alpine Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains: The Alpine Chardonnay has about 30-40% new oak, and naturally stops short of going entirely through malolactic fermentation. Jeff noted that the winemaking for the Chard does not include any batonnage or racking – the wine just rests on the lees until it’s ready to bottle. The color is a light gold, and the aromas are primarily lemon/citrus, along with a noticeable wet stone/mineral component. More in the background are nutmeg and other spice notes, plus a touch of vanilla/oak – very nice aromatics on this wine. There’s slightly oily viscosity on the palate along with brisk acidity, and leading to a long finish. It’s tasty now, but this wine deserves at least a few years of bottle age to really show what it’s got.
'07 Alesia Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast: This is made from declassified fruit from Falstaff Road and Chileno Valley vineyards, and has about 60% whole cluster fermentation, with aging in abut 50% new oak (typical percentages for the Alesia Pinots). Medium ruby color, this has very pretty floral aromas along with strawberry and cranberry. Still showing a moderately stemmy character at this stage, this also has spice and white pepper notes. A lively mouthfeel combines with fairly mild tannins to make this quite drinkable right off the bat, though certainly capable of aging as well. A nice “entry-level” Pinot for Alesia/Rhys, though not as complex as the vineyard designates.
'07 Alesia Pinot Noir, Green Valley: Medium ruby color, this has more subdued aromatics than the Sonoma Coast bottling. Bing cherry, rhubarb, and some spice notes are most apparent, and this doesn’t have as strong a stem character on the nose. On the palate, this is a somewhat bigger wine than the Sonoma Coast, with more structure. It seems to have all the components to be a fine Pinot, but it’s rather closed and tight at the moment, still waiting for its time to shine.
'07 Alesia Pinot Noir, Falstaff Road Vineyard, Sonoma Coast: Falstaff Road Vineyard is located in the Freestone area of the Sonoma Coast AVA. Slightly darker color than the other two Alesia Pinots, this opens with spicy/stemmy black cherry on the nose. The fruit shows a bit riper character than the first two Pinots, and there are mineral and clove/spice undertones. The mouthfeel is both more dense and more structured, with some youthful tannins on the finish. This is not as tight as the Green Valley bottling right now, but as with the other Alesia Pinots, it ought to become much more interesting with bottle age.
'07 Rhys Pinot Noir, Family Farm Vineyard, San Mateo County: The Rhys Pinots are typically 100% whole cluster fermentation, and range from 40-75% new oak. Medium-dark ruby in color, the aromas of this wine go from red fruits to stemmy/spicy to smoky to earthy – a lot going on here! Overall, this has an earthier character than the three Alesia Pinots, and there are savory and mushroomy notes that become more apparent in the flavors. Medium-bodied and a fairly smooth on the palate, this has a long and tasty finish.
'07 Rhys Pinot Noir, Home Vineyard, San Mateo County: The Home Vineyard Pinot has a tiny production, just one barrel! A two-year old barrel was used for this. A similar color to the Family Farm bottling, beautifully bright aromatics of fresh flowers, earth, spice, and deep cherry/raspberry fruit. This has a silkier texture in the mouth than the Family Farm, along with more structure and tannin on the finish. The juicy acidity makes the finish go on and on, a terrific young Pinot.
'07 Rhys Pinot Noir, Skyline Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains: The ’07 is the first commercial crop from Skyline Vineyard. Both this wine and the Horseshoe Ranch have about 50% new oak, along with the 100% whole cluster common to all the Rhys Pinots. A bit darker in color than the past two wines, this has a very clear savory streak running through the spicy cherry aromas. Other notable components include black pepper, an iron/mineral quality, some stemmy notes, and a bit of vanilla/oak. This was not as big in the mouth or as tannic as the Home Vineyard. I found that his wine changed more in the glass than any of the other Rhys Pinots, and I got more strawberry than cherry fruit with some aeration.
'07 Rhys Pinot Noir, Horseshoe Ranch, Santa Cruz Mountains: A shade deeper color, maybe the darkest-colored of the ’07 Pinots. This opens with some floral and subtle red fruit notes, but the fruit hides behind the earth and mineral side of this wine more than the first few Rhys Pinots. It shares some of the same pepper and stem/spice elements that seem to be in all these wines to different degrees. Quite structured, with loads of acidity, it finishes with grippy, chalky tannins. This wine is tightly-wound right now and really needs some time to open up.
'07 Rhys Pinot Noir, Alpine Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains: The Alpine Pinot has 67% new oak. This has medium-dark ruby color, displaying a stronger floral character with black cherry and raspberry on the nose. A more noticeable stem quality comes through, along with cinnamon and other spice. Not as earthy as the Horseshoe, the fruit shows through more brightly here. Very nice, lively texture on the palate, this is fairly big and structured, with some firm young tannins, but not as aggressive as the Horseshoe.
'06 Rhys Pinot Noir, Alpine Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains: Kevin and Jeff opened the ’06 Alpine to give us an idea of how their Pinots can change even after only one additional year in bottle. Similar color to the ’07, the aromas include black cherry, strawberry, and rhubarb, along with a bit of earth. The fruit seems a bit riper than in the ’07. The stemmy character, so noticeable on the ’07, is much less noticeable here, while other aromas of pepper and spices come forward, along with a savory element and just a hint of black olive. The mouthfeel is silkier than the ’07, and the finish has some interesting tangy notes along with smoother tannins.
'06 Alesia Syrah, Fairview Ranch, Santa Lucia Highlands: Dark color, this has complex aromatics of dark berry fruit, black pepper, dried herbs, smoked meat, and just a touch of grapefruit/citrus that’s a hallmark of Syrah from this area. The lively acidity keeps it from becoming too dense on the palate, and it finishes with firm but not aggressive tannins, quite nice.
'07 Rhys Syrah, Skyline Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains: This was bottled only about ten days before our tasting, and used no whole cluster fermentation, with only 20% new oak. Very dark color, this shows blackberry and lots of black pepper on the nose, along with a mineral character. Not surprisingly, this is still quite primary (and possibly a bit bottle-shocked) and will probably reveal more in time. Medium-bodied, there’s good acidity in the mouth and big, chalky tannins on the finish.
Overall, this was a most impressive group of wines. If I had to choose a favorite among the Pinot Noirs, I’d say the ’07 Home Vineyard held an edge over the ’07 Alpine. It’s possible that the greater age of the vines at Home Vineyard may play a part in the greater complexity I got from that wine. I preferred the Fairview Syrah to the Skyline, and the Chardonnay was also excellent. The whole cluster character in the Pinots certainly seems to lend some interest to them, with few of these young wines showing an overly “stemmy” quality – and as shown with the ’07 vs. ’06 Alpine Pinot comparison, much of the stemmy element of the wine can change character after just one year in bottle. Stems are known for adding a spicy component to wines after a few years in bottle, though Jeff mentioned that he feels the Swan selection Pinot shows a more floral character with whole cluster fermentation.
These are very well-made and unusually distinctive wines. Kevin has poured a lot of time, money, and energy into the Rhys project, and it’s clearly paying off in the quality of the wines. He’s spared no expenses in carrying out his vision. The wines being produced now are very fine indeed, and as the vines mature and the vineyard and winemaking practices are dialed in, it’s not hard to foresee Rhys producing consistently excellent wines in the coming years. Thanks to Paul for organizing this tour, and to Kevin and Jeff for leading it and for hosting us.