As with many human endeavors, reward follows risk. Sometimes the risk is riding your bike off the roof of a house and into the pool to gain YouTube infamy. Other times, it is making a multi-million dollar gamble by planting a vineyard where Mother Nature suggests you should not. In either scenario, you look talented or brilliant only if things work out just right.
Take Elizabeth Grant-Douglas, for instance. She and her cohorts at La Crema Winery thought it would be a great idea to tramp up to Anderson Valley in California’s Mendocino County to plant pinot noir grapes along the Navaro River. In addition to being steep and rocky, the slender valley acts as a funnel for the Pacific Ocean’s fog and fury. If not for the subtle buffer of redwood trees, even the heartiest vines would fail in the face of ocean winds.
“In some of the best winemaking locations you don’t get ripe grapes every year,” said Grant-Douglas during her visit to Atlanta in February. “It is riskier and more expensive; but if your goal is to make the best possible wines, it’s what you do.”
Fortunately for Grant-Douglas, who took over winemaking responsibilities for La Crema a little over a year ago, it is not her money at stake in the 58-acre Maggie Hawk Vineyard, where she gets most of her pinot noir grapes. The vision and bankroll comes from Barbara Banke, owner of Jackson Family Wines. The vineyard was planted in the early 2000s and is starting to show some rewards for all the risks—expected and unexpected—of farming in extreme conditions (I say unexpected because Grant-Douglas had to toss the 2008 vintage due to forest fires that tainted the grapes with smoke).
Sitting in the wine room at the Paces 88 Restaurant, I asked Grant-Douglas why not find a warmer, flatter, hospitable location to grow grapes.
“It is really important for the acid levels of the grapes to find cooler areas. This is especially true for pinot noir,” Grant-Douglas said as we tasted through her latest offerings. She also explained that when grape vines are forced to struggle for their dear life, they produce intense fruit with “impactful flavors and aromas.”
Clearly, Grant-Douglas loves making wine in Mendocino, which she calls “the most beautiful place on earth.” And, having learned to make wines on the shores of Canada’s Lake Ontario, she’s unmoved by the challenging weather conditions. “[Niagra winemakers] have a much less benevolent version of Mother Nature,” she said.
Unfortunately, finding a bottle of La Crema Pinot Noir from Mendocino may be just as hard as making it. Although the search and expense ($50) are worth it, merely 500 cases were made and only 90 bottles came into Georgia.
Fortunately, Grant-Douglas makes wines for La Crema in other tricky locations, like the Sonoma Coast, Russian River Valley, Los Carneros and Monterey. These are much easier to find and can be just as rewarding. I was partial to the 2010 Russian River pinot noir with its clean red and dark berry flavors and nuanced spice, earth and mineral qualities.
As former NFL quarterback and philosopher Jim McMahon once said: “Risk taking is inherently failure-prone. Otherwise, it would be called ‘sure-thing taking.’” Enjoying a wine that makes you go “Wow!” is never a sure thing, but risk takers like Grant-Douglas keep trying.
Gil Kulers is a certified wine educator and a consultant for a metro-Atlanta wine shop. 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.
— Gil Kulers, AJC Drink blog