• Two Thumbs Way Up
• Big, perfumey aromas of red and black berry fruit, saddle leather, cocoa and dry tea. Flavors of dark chocolate, licorice, tart blackberry, plum and blueberry. Relatively smooth tannins for such a big, young wine. Needs time to open up.
You’ve heard the stories about the scrappy winemaker who made a couple barrels of pinot noir on a shoestring in his or her garage and parlayed that unexpected success into a gilded career.
How quaint. How positively romantic.
But have you heard the story of the young, retired couple who could have bought an existing vineyard and winery on the valley floor, but decided a better idea would be to plant vines on mountain slopes that would give professional skiers vertigo? The tale of their project to chisel a vineyard into the mountains of Sonoma, Calif., goes like this: After they plunk down the money for the abandoned hunting lodge, they buy and customize a bulldozer and other pricey pieces of heavy earth-moving equipment to clear and construct 55-acres of terraces. This merely takes six years of arduous work. Then there’s the oh-so-romantic permitting process, researching the geology of the site and confronting the heartbreak of “black goo” (a vine disease that makes the nursery full of plants they were planning to put in the ground completely useless).
This story reads more like a comedy or, perhaps, the diaries of a madman and a madwoman.
Meet Lynn Hofacket and Casidy Ward, owners of Hidden Ridge Vineyard, who don’t seem particularly crazy. Yet, they were able to parlay gilded careers in the real estate and natural gas businesses into careers in the high-risk, low-reward grape-growing and winemaking business.
“This is not an easy business,” says the understated Ward, during a visit to Atlanta in March. “But you make your own happiness.”
She and her husband never saw themselves in the wine business when they purchased 164 acres perched on the Sonoma side of the Mayacamas Mountains in 1991. They just wanted a place with a view and some space to satisfy their Oklahoman agricultural roots. After exploring the possibilities of sheep, goats, olive trees and hops, a friend pointed out that their land had a lot in common with nearby Pride Mountain Winery and Paloma Vineyards…if they could remove the all those oak and various other trees. And, oh yeah, they would have to figure out how to get vines to cling to the mountainside, which at some points falls away at a 55-degree slope.
The vineyard project described above started in 1995. And while it may sound daunting, it was actually far more difficult than I have space to describe. Their first vintage of cabernet sauvignon, which came in 2003, was released in 2006.
By this point, attentive readers are likely asking themselves: Why? Why plant grapes 1,700 feet above sea level on ground that requires blood, sweat, tears and a whole lot of money to develop?
As with most wine questions, the answer gets down to the grapes. And like their coffee bean brethren, mountain-grown grapes are special. But don’t take my word for it, just ask the professor and chair of Wine Studies at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY, (and my mentor), Steven Kolpan, CWE: “What I like about mountainside vineyards is that the steep incline provides great drainage for the vines and vineyard. Vines planted in soils that are relatively dry will produce fruit that shows no signs of swelling or water logging, where each nutrient is in balance, and the characteristic flavors of the varietal are concentrated. Berries tend to be smaller, so that there is a high skin-to-pulp ratio, which is particularly important for red grapes, as the skins will provide deep and supple tannins during extraction.”
Hidden Ridge vineyards produce just about 1 1/2 tons of non-swollen, balanced, supple-y tannic fruit (mostly cabernet sauvignon) per acre. (FYI: A moderately productive vineyard can easily produce more than five tons of fruit. Harvests in excess of 10 tons an acre are not a stretch from more pedestrian vineyards on the valley floor that get plenty of sunshine.)
So far, the hard work seems like it was worth the effort. The 2006 55 Degree Slope Cabernet Sauvignon is powerful with intense fruit flavors, but with a lot of finessed, nuanced qualities, making it quite approachable now.
And business is looking up, too. Even though early projections by Hofacket and Ward suggested they price their wines above $100 mark, market realities demanded the price tag to be in $45-to-$75 range. This unexpected price change, however, had a silver lining. It allowed them to get on the wine lists at Morton’s Steakhouse in the 28 states Hidden Ridge is distributed. All of the 3,800 cases made in 2006 have been sold.
The news from the mountain top is good. The promising site is living up to its potential. Hofacket and Ward now have a rosy view down the valley and into their future.
Gil Kulers is a certified wine educator with the Society of Wine Educators. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: Wines are rated on a scale ranging up from Thumbs Down, One Thumb Mostly Up, One Thumb Up, Two Thumbs Up, Two Thumbs Way Up and Golden Thumb Award. Prices are suggested retail prices as provided by the winery, one of its agents, a local distributor or retailer.