Like a steady stock in a volatile market, Gary Farrell Winery has maintained the quality of its brand over the course of 30-plus years. However, the buzz around the brand name became dormant. With new leadership firmly in place, a rising star on the team, and a refreshed vision for the future . . . is a resurgence on the horizon?
“What didn’t stay steady over 30 years is people’s perception of Gary Farrell. Not a lot of noise was happening to promote the brand, and a lot of wineries were rising up at that time, so the brand went to sleep. And I’m here waking it back up.” says Nancy Bailey over the course of two hours we spend at the winery on a blistering hot day in the middle of harvest season. Nancy is the General Manager, a position to which she was appointed in late 2011, having worked there in 2005-2006 alongside winemaker Gary Farrell. Founded in 1982, Mr. Farrell sold the winery in 2004 but stayed on as winemaker until 2006 and has had no official relation with the winery since. Until present, ownership has exchanged hands between various corporate entities multiple times. The winery is now owned by The Vincraft Group, a wine investment company, and Nancy is here to steady the ship. No mere corporate middleperson, the vision in place for the future of Gary Farrell Winery is largely driven by her. She is a leader with a mission, and this time it’s personal.
The 2013 vintage Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs we taste at the winery, perched high above the Russian River Valley, are all uniformly superb. We shouldn’t be surprised, but then again, we are. True, Gary Farrell wines have been highly regarded by the wine press from the winery’s inception, but, surely, after 30 years one comes to regard the brand with the excitement of, say, a new Microsoft Windows operating system or a Firestone tire—we know it’s good, but we take quality for granted. What’s shocking then, is how fresh and vibrant and exciting and relevant the current batch of wines are. There is a new energy at work, a new synergy coming in tune together.
Take, for example, the only two wines in the Gary Farrell portfolio that are widely distributed—the Russian River Selection Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Like the aforementioned reference to Windows, these two wines are such staples of the market they would seem the perfect excuse for the winery to rest on their laurels and simply cash in on their sacred cash cows. Not so. Both wines being a blend of all prize vineyards they work with—15 different vineyards go into the Chardonnay, 21 go into the Pinot Noir—these are no secondary wines to their vineyard-designated, limited wine offerings. More so, they carry forward Gary Farrell’s original vision of wanting to create ambassador wines to represent the Russian River Valley. These are both wonderfully distinctive and complex wines, so full of character with an unmistakable sense of place.
Dig deeper into the wine portfolio, and there is a real feeling of discovery—as well as unpredictability, of not knowing what’s going to come next. It’s the very element missing from Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Each single vineyard wine possesses a vivid personality of its own. The Chardonnays: Bacigalupi—richness, intensity, energy; Olivet Lane—laser focus, flintiness and white pepper; Rochioli-Allen—sexy aromatics, creaminess; Durell—muscularity, unctuousness, dripping with flavor. The Pinots: Rochioli—gorgeous perfume, clarity and focus, deep expressiveness; Hallberg—moody, dark, brambly fruit; Bien Nacido—suave, spicy and racy; Gap’s Crown—bold, savory, deep and cerebral. And none captures the revitalized, adventurous spirit of the new Gary Farrell more than the very limited, one-time-only black label bottles in the “Inspiration” series. These are experiments that follow the whimsy of winemaker and team in any given vintage and not to be repeated any following vintage. According to GM Nancy Bailey, these are wines “not ‘better than’ but different enough, interesting enough, special enough to stand for whatever they stand for.”
How do you revitalize a brand that’s been around for more than 30 years? Redefine who you are as a winery. And how do you do that? Allowing for experimentation—and allowing for the possible lows of failure or highs of success in the process—is one way. Keeping the crew steady but bringing in new energy is another. Employee loyalty is something Gary Farrell has long enjoyed; it has been an organic residual effect of the corporate culture. And, throughout all the corporate volleying over the years, the winery has only had three winemakers—but processes have been allowed to change to reflect shifting priorities. And “relationships, relationships, relationships.” Nancy credits most of the winery’s continued reputation to the building of new relationships and to the fruition of the prized relationships they maintain with the vineyard owners and growers with whom they work. “We’ve had the opportunity to buy fruit from the iconic vineyards in the Russian River Valley because of the length of these relationships and partnerships.We’ve been working with them for a long time; they know what we stand for, and it’s our name and their name on the bottle—we work together,” says Nancy.
Sometimes a gamechanger boils down to one corporate decision. For example, when the New York Philharmonic decided to hire a young Leonard Bernstein in the late 1950s as their musical director, that changed everything for the venerable orchestra. Or, when Jerry Reinsdorf and Jerry Krause drafted, as the #3 pick of the 1984 NBA draft, a shooting guard named Michael Jordan. We won’t get ahead of ourselves and call it an even comparison, but time will tell if GM Nancy Bailey’s decision to bring on Theresa Heredia as winemaker, as of 2012, amounts to the same kind of gamechanging decision for the enterprise.
Though on her 15th vintage as a winemaker and coming from a place of prestige such as Joseph Phelps’ Freestone Vineyards, Ms. Heredia might seem on paper a surprise choice to head the winemaking program at Gary Farrell. She was a PhD candidate in chemistry while at UC Davis, and making wine, according to Nancy, was “something she didn’t know she could do.” However, kismet eventually dealt its hand and Heredia came to realize that everything she knew in chemistry applied to viticulture and oenology, and that wine is the ultimate blending of science and art. That epiphany led her to working for wineries in Napa Valley, a harvest in Burgundy and eventually to Phelps’ Freestone in the Sonoma Coast, as well as being called a “Winemaker to Watch” by the San Francisco Chronicle in early 2012.
NANCY BAILEY: One of the reasons I hired Theresa is because she loves wines of [the Gary Farrell] style. These are the wines she wants to make. We have a well-established house style, but how we get there is entirely up to her. I told her coming in that I wanted more complexity in the wines, more differentiation between the single vineyards than we’ve had to date. We have these spectacular vineyards—we should showcase them. And how you do that doesn’t matter to me. There’s no comparing to older vintages and saying ‘this is what you have to hit.’
Heredia is given substantial artistic freedom as winemaker—in the industry, usually a privilege only granted to a superstar (like Melka or Phinney).
NB: When we brought Theresa on board it was very important to me to deconstruct what we were doing, why we were doing it—to ask questions, consider other possibilities. Because there’s no such thing as only one right way. And while we respect the spirit of Gary Farrell, I think that technology and winemaking techniques have developed since his departure, and I wanted to make sure that we weren’t missing something because we were trying to be a museum. I want Theresa to have the freedom to express her art through these wines. There’s no formula.
Judging by the proof that’s in the bottle, the appetite for risk-taking and having an openness towards the process of how to achieve the final result are values in the new Gary Farrell mission that are reaping immense dividends. There is, after all, such a thing as holding onto the past for too long. The wine business is no less volatile than any other profit-driven business, and keeping an eye on the future is imperative for survival. With the current batch of exciting wines, the statement of purpose is clear: the Gary Farrell Winery is turning the page on its past and moving strongly ahead, sure-footed and confident, and with great enthusiasm and passion, into the future.
JEWEL BOX OF VINEYARDS
Very few wineries have the access to such an expanse of iconic Russian River Valley vineyards from which to buy fruit as Gary Farrell does. It’s worth noting that Sonoma County has more soil types than all of Western Europe. This makes for an incredibly rich variety of vineyards throughout the valley to which any winery would sell their soul in order to buy fruit. Nancy Bailey casually mentions meeting with the legendary grower and namesake vineyard owner Joe Rochioli “just the other day” and quotes him saying, “I have 23 wineries waiting for this fruit, and they know they’re never going to get it.”
Nancy characterizes the underlying mindset of wine producers in the area, particularly in contrast to that of its more upscale neighbor:
NANCY BAILEY: There’s a hunger for exploring the path untrodden, and I think Sonoma County represents that in spades. It’s not the one giant lane with giant tour buses and giant limos. It’s these little mom & pops, small producers, and a variety of varietals. There’s a lot of people here looking for something new . . . The variety of terroir within close proximity couldn’t be more different in Sonoma—everything that is happening to vineyards next door to each other is head-spinning.
If you put together all the names of vineyards that grace the wine labels in the Gary Farrell line, it’s a veritable jewel box of iconic names. It’s an artist’s color palette that demands the highest levels of creative inspiration and discipline.
NB: Winemakers who are worth their salt want to get their hands on special vineyards and see what they can do. It’s a little bit like giving a paint box to a certain winemaker and saying, ‘Here’s a color blue that you’ve never had before. See what you can do with it.’ And every single one of those winemakers is going to make something quite different. You hope to taste the underlying vineyard influence in it, or see that original blue but deconstructed and reinterpreted—and hopefully there’s something for everybody, different interpretations to suit different palates.
Nancy goes on to describe the nature of the relationships the winery has with their growers.
NB: We have two people who are dedicated to the vineyard relationships, and they walk the vineyards starting in early spring, they’re talking to the growers about pruning decisions, they’re working with them all the way through harvest, and [winemaker] Theresa’s out there too. Gary [Farrell] always had a very hands-on relationship with the vineyards, and that has always continued. He is a very detail-oriented individual, and I don’t mean that lightly, so there is always a deep level of attention to detail, every facet.
After 30-plus years in operation, Nancy makes clear that the Gary Farrell Winery’s view on their vineyard relationships is one of a fortunate partnership, not some top-down hierarchy.
NB: We’re so lucky. We’re spoiled. It’s not luck. It’s being a good partner. It’s tending these relationships over all these years. It’s a very close-knit community with our growers. Every year we have a dinner in November with our growers. They’re all friends, they all talk to one another. It’s truly a pleasure and honor to have these partnerships, to work with all of these incredible icons and gatekeepers and to have an opportunity for them to give us their fruit and trust us, that we’re going to do the right thing by them, through good years and the not-so-good years.
By the end of our meeting together, it’s plain to see that Nancy, as the winery’s General Manager, is personally and emotionally invested in the continued evolution of Gary Farrell Winery.
NB: I have been on the inside and outside, and then back on the inside. The thing that made me want to come back here was the people. We have people who have been here for a very long time. Everybody here is mission-driven. They have drunk the Kool-Aid. And they see the future . . . With the great people we have, with every vintage, it’s one step further up. It’s an exciting time to be here. It’s exciting to see the venerable, old brand starting to be refreshed and recognized again. Nothing ever happened to it, people just stopped talking about it.
When rock critic Jon Landau first witnessed a young, largely unknown and commercially unsuccessful Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in concert at the Harvard Square Theater in 1974, he famously declared, “I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.” If wine history could be rewound like a recording on the DVR, it would be reasonable to make the same proclamation about Gary Farrell, who was making wine from Burgundian grape varietals in the 70s in the Russian River Valley long before the area was recognized as an AVA and as one of the premier regions of California. But that’s way in the past now, and the torch has been passed on and is in the hands of two women, Nancy Bailey and Theresa Heredia, who are passionate and driven caretakers of that original vision and taking it to new, exciting and unprecedented levels.
So, with that in mind, it’s now 2016 and we will declare: we have seen Russian River Valley wine’s future, and its name is still Gary Farrell.
WINE REVIEWSGARY FARRELL WINERY Russian River Valley, California, USA Owned by: The Vincraft Group General Manager: Nancy Bailey Winemaker: Theresa Heredia www.garyfarrellwinery.com
The Gary Farrell house style is very beautiful, fresh fruit; great acid backbone; structure; and elegance—tipping the hat towards Burgundy but making classic Russian River Valley wine.
Nancy Bailey, Gary Farrell Winery’s General Manager, elaborates on their Chardonnay house style: “There’s two choices: you’re either going fresh fruit or you’re going tropical. We want the zesty flavors and acid. In our minds, the wines are more balanced this way. And then, you bring some of the creaminess and richness through bâtonnage—putting the wines in barrel with a good bit of stuffing so that there’s materials to develop those complexities, and doing a lot of stirring. You can’t back off from tropical—you can add acid, but it’s not naturally-occurring, necessarily. It’s not the style that Gary Farrell set forth.”
Russian River Selection Chardonnay
$35 | 5,860 cases made | 93 pts
It takes three weeks of blind tasting each lot in the barrel, and deciding where the fruit of 15 vineyards goes, to make this blend. 2013 provided ideal conditions for optimally ripened fruit, setting the stage for a quintessential Russian River Valley white wine with great body and balance, fresh acidity, vibrant complexity and a delectable flavor mix, like a shuffle on the Spotify playlist, of apple, Asian pear, brioche, vanilla, persimmon and ginger—all held together with lemony persistence. A go-to Chardonnay if there ever was one, beautiful and melodious like Ella Fitzgerald singing the Great American Songbook.
Westside Farms Chardonnay
$50 | 740 cases made | 94 pts
When you’ve got the Gary Farrell winemaking team working with grapes from a grower like David Ramey, that’s a 1-2 punch that’s simply irresistible. There’s no point getting geeky or intellectual about the wine, it’s just pure joy. This is oenology’s version of comfort food. The nose is offered a resplendent array of Meyer lemon, tropical fruit and orchard fruit, coconut and warm apple pie. The palate is richly served by the wine’s buttery texture and, most notably, an awesome mouthfeel that’s so pleasurable. This is ebullient wine, juicy and flavorful and crowd-pleasing. What’s the sommelier’s term for absolutely freaking delicious? Right, there isn’t one.
Bacigalupi Vineyard Chardonnay
$50 | 350 cases made | 94 pts
The Bacigalupi vineyard lays claim to possessing one of the very first plantings of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vines in the Russian River Valley. Adding further to its historical significance, the Chateau Montelena Chardonnay that rocked the world when it beat out its French rivals in the 1976 Judgment of Paris was made primarily of Bacigalupi grapes. The Gary Farrell interpretation of Bacigalupi (you have to say the name like an Italian-American character from The Godfather or My Cousin Vinny) is modernity in the glass. Intense, rich, round, and full of energy, the uplifting wine boasts flavors of white peach, apricot, almond butter and crème brûlée, finishing with a strong burst of lemon zest on the finish. If the 1976 winner belongs in the Metropolitan Museum, then this one belongs in the Museum of Modern Art.
Olivet Lane Vineyard Chardonnay
$45 | 980 cases made | 92 pts
From gnarly, widely spaced vines originally planted in 1973 comes a buttery-textured but laser-focused, penetrating, flinty, crisp and clean Chablis-like Chardonnay that makes an impression with its power juxtaposed with elegance. The winery focuses on distributing a small allocation to top retailers and white tablecloth restaurants, and that makes perfect sense. There’s romance in the wine, not young love but one in bloom and maturing. The nectarine, lemongrass, baking spice and white peppery aromas longingly waft from the glass . . .
Rochioli-Allen Vineyards Chardonnay
$55 | 470 cases made | 93 pts
“Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me.” So goes the famous line Dustin Hoffman utters in the movie classic The Graduate as he contemplates moving past his pubescence into adulthood as a more mature Anne Bancroft exposes some bare leg as her come-hither. So does this wine seduce you with its sexy aromatics of white flowers, lemon-lime, butterscotch and vanilla. On the palate, the texture is textbook creamy Russian River Valley. There’s forthright and bold oak and sumptuous flavors of ripe stone fruit, French pastries, pie crust and other sweet nothings. Gary Farrell only produces this wine in the very best years, so, unlike Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin, don’t hesitate.
Rochioli-Allen Vineyards “Inspiration Series” – Oak Puncheon Fermented Chardonnay
$60 | 100 cases made | 98 pts
An extraordinarily beautiful wine, caught somewhere between the past and the future: classically styled in its quiet majesty but endowed with monolithic structure, finesse, deep complexity and lusciousness; exquisitely balanced between creamy texture and zesty acidity; and highly contemporary—and uniquely California—in its vivacity, stylishness, persistence and purity. Truly the product of the winemaker’s art, this is Chardonnay that possesses the calm beauty of Monet’s impressionist pastels but also the linearity and vibrancy of Mondrian’s modernist lines and primary colors. It’s only appropriate that something of such rare artistry should be produced only in rare batches. There’s very little of this wine to go around. Precious art, indeed.
Durell Vineyard Chardonnay
$55 | 360 cases made | 97 pts
Dripping unctuously with flavor, this is a wow wine subtle only in its modesty. Nancy Bailey describes the small grape clusters and tiny, pinky-size berries of the vineyard as a “hand grenade.” Yes, the wine explodes with lavish flavors of ripe peach, lemon curd and orange marmalade and finishes on a note of Granny Smith apples covered in honey. All of this would be as over-the-top and hedonistic as King Herod’s palace if not for the solid, muscular structure that holds it all together. This is the wine in the Gary Farrell line that most clearly represents a break from the past—the most forward-looking Chardonnay of the bunch. Founding winemaker Gary Farrell believed in stepping out of the way, taking all the variables and making them constant, and letting the vineyard speak. Today’s winemaker, Theresa Heredia, believes in “accenting” the vineyard and puts her individual stamp early in the process, dialing in to each vineyard block and tailoring the juice pressing programs for these blocks. Stunningly modern in its excess, this is a Chardonnay for our times.
2013 PINOT NOIRS
Nancy Bailey, Gary Farrell Winery’s General Manager, elaborates on their Pinot Noir house style: “In Pinot Noir, [winemaker] Theresa likes to go for savory. Our style spectrum is riper and fuller, where the active component is great structure. We want to create great food pairing opportunities; these are not wimpy wines and they have a lot going on—they can stand up to big meals. The acidity in these Pinot Noirs allows them to complement food rather than smother.”
Russian River Selection Pinot Noir
$45 | 11,260 cases made | 92 pts
Ripe strawberries, raspberries and violets greet the nose. An attractive, light and round sweetness flows through like a river, grounded by notes of earth and baking spices. Sometimes there is fog, and sometimes a quiet, still and cool darkness. There is light and sun as well, and the warmth it brings. Vibrant and alive, this is Russian River Valley red wine in all of its complexity and splendor. 21 vineyards’ grapes go into this bottle. Savory and fruit forward, this distinctive blend captures all of the colors of the spectrum that exist in the reaches, far and wide, of the valley that surrounds the life force that is the Ashokawna, otherwise known as the Russian River.
Rochioli-Allen Vineyards Pinot Noir
$70 | 410 cases made | 92-93 pts
A most Burgundian Pinot—made from Pommard clones and possessing the traits of a classic Pommard. A gorgeous ruby color sets up the scene for bright cherry and rose. There’s black tea undercurrent/coriander and red pepper on the surface, with dusty but refined tannins shaped by prominent notes of limestone, iron and earth. Acidity is refreshing and focused while mouthfeel is silky and light-bodied, the wine gaining substantial power as it finishes. So many elements need to come together—there’s alchemy that will take place—so give this plenty of time in the cellar, about 10 years like you would a true Burgundy. It’s very attractive now, but, as if defying the laws of nature, it will only get prettier with age.
Bacigalupi Vineyard Pinot Noir
$60 | 580 cases made | 91 pts
From the newer Frost Ranch vineyard owned and planted by Helen and Charles Bacigalupi in the early 90s, this is the most youthful Pinot of the Gary Farrell bunch. Reminiscent of a “joven” Ribera Del Duero (young Tempranillo), there is a notable tangy quality to the robust red berry flavors and an overall nervy energy. This is youth that is brash, cocky, persistent, thin-skinned and volatile—and fascinating and irresistibly engaging because of this. Think Justin Bieber. Okay, don’t think Justin Bieber. At 14.2% ABV, the alcoholic kick is quite strong—there’s even a hint of bourbon whiskey on the nose. Just don’t expect age to soften the wine’s character. When this wine gets old, it’s going to be like Keith Richards.
Rochioli Vineyard Pinot Noir
$70 | 540 cases made | 96 pts
The aromatics on this wine are out of this world. Rose petals and bright red fruit entrance the olfactory senses like a Harry Potter spell. While full-bodied, velvety and dense, the wine is all about clarity, transparency and focus. Fruit forward, super expressive and quaffable like a great Corton from Burgundy’s Côte de Beaune, there is a fantastical quality to the whole affair, like entering a different world. That place, of course, is the near-mythical 162-acre Rochioli vineyard, purchased in 1938 by Joe Rochioli Sr. and still run in the family today by Joe Rochioli Jr. This is one of those places responsible for putting Russian River Pinot Noir on the map, long before anyone knew great Pinots could be made in the Russian River Valley and, surely, long before anyone was watching Sideways. It’s fair to say you don’t really know Pinot until you know Rochioli Pinot. And this Gary Farrell interpretation is a necessary stop in your magical journey.
Hallberg Vineyard Pinot Noir
$55 | 1,290 cases made | 95 pts
If film noir was Pinot Noir, it would be the Hallberg. Dark and moody and fog drenched like Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and Double Indemnity rolled into one, there’s no escaping the shadowy dealings and raw sensuality of the genre. The area where the Hallberg vineyard sits is characterized by its strong marine influence, where the thick fog is land-locked and slowly burns off within the cool atmosphere. This kind of terroir brings fruit of deep, dark color, earthiness and silky tannins. In the wine are rustic notes of wild mushrooms, bay leaves, cardamom and cedar. The finish is very lengthy and languid, almost fatalistic like every ending to a hardboiled detective story or one in a doomed love story like The Postman Always Rings Twice.
Gap’s Crown Vineyard Pinot Noir
$70 | 490 cases made | 93 pts
Foggy Pinot in the Sonoma Coast style. Varying from 300 to 800 feet above sea level, steep hillsides, rocky soils, strong coastal winds—the prestigious Gap’s Crown vineyard brings about a cerebral wine of great depth and concentration. Two clones are used: 828, with larger berries and thicker skin, contributes red fruit notes and structure; 667, with smaller clusters and berries, provides this wine’s fleshiness and boldness. There’s alluring touches of pomegranate, cranberry, blueberry, violets, clove and cinnamon, adding to the layers of complexity. Winemaker Theresa Heredia is in her element here, who came to Gary Farrell, starting with the 2012 vintage, from Joseph Phelps’ Freestone Vineyards, where her Sonoma Coast Pinot was another tremendously fleshy and bold juggernaut. This is Heredia’s first Gap’s Crown vintage, and it will be one of the most interesting wines to watch in the entire lineup.
Gap’s Crown Vineyard “Inspiration Series” – Clone 667, Three Barrel Selection Pinot Noir
$75 | 70 cases made | 96 pts
At 14.5% ABV, this is as high alcohol as Gary Farrell Winery goes, and it’s a knockout. This is precious and rare fruit treated accordingly with love and respect. Three barrels stood out of the 667 Pinot clone used in the 2013 Gap’s Crown (see above) and, with this isolated selection of juice, we get an already intense Pinot Noir that is amped up in richness, concentration and body. To borrow from This is Spinal Tap, this is Pinot Noir at volume 11, dude. Never overpowering or one-note, however, as the wine has exquisite balance, harmony and control while managing to express fifty shades of red. Oh yes, this is sexy stuff, and who knows what pleasures are to be discovered in the Red Room. There’s salacious notes of boysenberry, black cherry, dark chocolate, lavender and exotic spice. But don’t forget, elegance and refinement is a big part of sex appeal, and this pretty boy is decked out like a billionaire who’s about to take over the night. Astonishingly beautiful and exuberantly lavish wine.
Bien Nacido Vineyard Pinot Noir
$65 | 500 cases made | 92 pts
There was a time when Nancy Bailey considered removing this Pinot from the Gary Farrell portfolio, but that would have been a mistake. The vineyard being located in Santa Barbara County, it is something entirely different than the rest of their Russian River and California North Coast focused red wines. It is, however, an outlier to satisfy the Malcolm Gladwell in all of us. Suave and racy, the particular Q Block of the Bien Nacido Vineyard from which the Pommard-clone fruit is sourced is known for its exotic spice qualities. The wine itself has a tangy, angular, snappy attitude to its texture—it’s got swag. All of this is backed up by a fulsome harvest of exotic fruit flavors, redolent of those fruits found in Asia and Latin America. Persistent and unshy, the wine has no shame and makes no apologies.