It’s come to this: 66 percent of the wine we drink in this country is made by the 6 largest wine companies. (That would be Gallo, The Wine Group, Constellation … down to Bronco, with its Two-Buck Chuck skill set.) Truth is, most of that wine isn’t horrible. Winemakers today have the technology and know-how to produce pretty passable bottles out of even mediocre grapes grown in marginal regions. What place, then, does a small winery, limiting itself to a few vineyards in an expensive region—and even bottling precious wines from single blocks in those vineyards—have at this table? I had a chance recently to have lunch with Northern California winemaker Davis Bynum, who pioneered single-vineyard wines, and ask: Why bother?
Turns out it’s a question Bynum, now 88, never asked himself. His eponymous—and groundbreaking—winery in Sonoma’s Russian River Valley was a career change for the old newspaperman, a former San Francisco Chronicle reporter. At one point, he tells me, he even applied for the travel editor job at Sunset! Years of home winemaking, though, pulled him into the biz, and in 1973, Bynum says, he “was in the right place at the right time” to make a Pinot Noir from Rochioli Vineyard—the first single-vineyard Pinot in the Russian River Valley. That vineyard to this day turns out some of the most exquisite Pinots and Chardonnays in Northern California.
Considering the wines Bynum went on to make, his memories of his early expertise come off as almost disingenuous: “I didn’t have any idea Pinot could be good until I made one.”
And here’s how he learned marketing: “One of those years, I had two puncheons of the same wine that I bottled at exactly the same time. A few months later, the wine from one of the puncheons was throwing a sediment, and I thought half my bottles were ruined. But my neighbor, Martinelli (there’s another legend), said, ‘Just give the bottles with sediment a special label, and sell them for more!’” (It worked.)
Bynum is pleased as punch that so many other winemakers followed suit (with the single-vineyard plan, not the sediment), especially with transparent Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, where the place has the potential to shine through the wine. “Single-vineyard wines can be more distinctive, more interesting. You’re subject to what the earth gives you that year in that one place.”
And Davis Bynum Wine’s current winemaker, Greg Morthole—sounding more like a kid in an amusement park than a technician at work—spins the challenge as his dream job: “I have 20 different lots of Pinot just from Jane’s Vineyard alone right now. If winemakers were painters, I’d be the one with a lot of colors.”
That’s it, then—wine as art instead of commodity. The proof is in the bottles we drank for lunch that day:
Davis Bynum 2011 River West Vineyard Chardonnay ($25). Bright, bright citrus edged with wet stones and pretty blossoms, with only a hint of oak.
Davis Bynum 2011 Jane’s Vineyard Pinot Noir ($35). Racy cinnamon weaves through delicate layers of loam and sandalwood, with silky red fruit. This one’s complex, but it’s not a diva.
Davis Bynum 2011 Garfield Block, Jane’s Vineyard Pinot Noir. The forest comes through, with cedar, spice, and licorice under rich cherry fruit.
Full disclosure: In 2007, Davis Bynum sold his winery to Rodney Strong Vineyards, an unabashedly big operation. But with the 2011 vintage, the company has returned Davis Bynum Wines to the founder’s single-vineyard vision, so you can look for gorgeous, distinctive expressions of Russian River Valley land in the wines to come.
Check out this tribute video on the 40th anniversary of Davis Bynum’s first single-vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir.