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Fall 2006 / Winter 2007

Four to Watch

These vintners are making wines you need to be drinking

by Deborah Grossman

An acclaimed winemaking couple taking over the cult wine of all cult wines. A vintner whose wines are hard to identify due to understated labels. A winemaker with an affinity for jazz and no winery to call home. A winemaking pair connected to the rock ‘n' roll world. These vintners are making wines that may be hard to find, but are definitely worth the search.

Favia Wines

At age 38, when you become winemaker at Screaming Eagle, arguably the most well-known cult Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, what's your next move? If you're Andy Erickson, you daydream about improving your own label, Favia Wines. But that's a challenge when your first vintage of Favia Pinot Noir was listed as an Exquisite Wine at Per Se in New York City and The French Laundry in Yountville, two Thomas Keller five-star dining establishments.

Erickson and his wife, Annie Favia, his Favia Wines partner and Screaming Eagle consulting viticulturist, stay grounded about their success. “There are no shortcuts in the vineyard,” says Favia. “With Mother Nature, you see, feel, and hear what she gives you and respond to the environment.”

“My role as winemaker is to taste the grapes and imagine how the wine will taste in 10 years,” adds Erickson, who gives his wife high credit for laying out vineyards like bonsai gardens. “Every vine is minutely nurtured and in balance. Imagine that at 2,200 vines per acre.”

Erickson and Favia first made wine in 1996 while dating and launched Favia Wines in 2003. Busy parents of two daughters, they produce less than 700 cases a year at a local winery, focusing on Russian River Valley La Josefina Pinot Noir, Bennett Valley Syrah, and two Napa-based blends of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon named Cerro Sur and La Magdalena. “We do everything ourselves,” says Favia. “We keep it fun, manageable, and balanced.”

Favia wines are available at St. Helena Wine Center, Back Room Wines in Napa, and at select restaurants in Northern and Southern California, Las Vegas, and New York City.

Scherrer Winery

Fred Scherrer doesn't make it easy to identify his bottles or his winery. The understated label highlights the varietal rather than the winery name, and there is no cute logo. Don't expect signage at this Sebastopol winery either—just look for the metal building that resembles a horse barn. And make sure you've called ahead for tastings.

“We pretty much let the wines speak for themselves,” says Scherrer, who grew up among the vines his grandfather planted in Alexander Valley in 1912. With 10 years' experience at Dehlinger Winery in the Russian River Valley, Scherrer started his own winery in 1998. He views his work not as making wine but as managing the controlled spoilage of grapes. That may sound simple to some, but the UC Davis graduate crafts food-friendly wines that age well. His first bottlings were a Zinfandel and then a Cabernet from the Scherrer family vineyards. Through personal contacts with Sonoma growers, he also makes award-winning Pinot Noir and limited lots of Chardonnay and Syrah.

“Some customers think I'm an ‘all Zinfandel' winemaker, while others swear I'm ‘all Pinot Noir.' ” he says. “Just call me schizophrenic. When people ask why I don't just concentrate on Scherrer Vineyard ‘Old and Mature Vines' Zinfandel, I tell them I would get too bored.”

Scherrer wines are served at Wine Country restaurants such as Cyrus in Healdsburg and John Ash & Co. in Santa Rosa. To purchase Scherrer wines, visit fine wine shops in the area, such as Back Room Wines.

Branham Estate Wines

Gary Branham likes the rhythm and seasonality of winemaking, from pruning and irrigating to harvesting and improvising final blends. Maybe that's why he named the largest of his small-lot wines Jazz. “This quartet of Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah changes every vintage,” he says. “When I found original art for the logo, I discovered the artist is a jazz musician—serendipity all around.”

Maybe it's serendipity, or perhaps a keen appreciation of agriculture that has led Branham to discover outstanding vineyards. In 1989, before Rockpile became the sexiest new appellation on the block, Branham purchased 240 acres in the northwest Sonoma hills. Since 1994, handcrafted Branham Rockpile Zinfandel has become known for its juicy ripeness with a tannic finish.

But the seasoned winemaker, who has worked in Australia, New Zealand, Santa Clara, and Healdsburg, also likes Napa fruit and bought the Obsidian Vineyard near the Silverado Trail. Branham Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is garnering fans in California and six other states.

Branham would like his own winery. But for now, he says, “I'm fulfilling my dream of having my own brand. I want people to try my wines and say, ‘These are good wines at a fair price, serious but fun to drink.' ”

You can order Branham wines at Press in St. Helena, Brannan's in Calistoga, Langley's on the Green in Windsor, Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg, Mosaic in Forestville, Chateau Marmont in L.A., and Boa Steakhouse in Santa Monica. Buy the wines at Russian River Wine Co. and 34 North in Healdsburg, Oakville Grocery, and JV Wine & Spirits in Napa.

Owl Ridge

Yes, the name Owl Ridge has special meaning for owner John Tracy. “My wife and I have collected owl artifacts for many years,” he says. “Owls are friends of the vineyard, eating rodents who gnaw vine roots. For our logo, we chose a naturalistic rendering of a very strong owl.”

But who is John Tracy? He's a successful high-tech entrepreneur who thought he would retire to Sonoma County but instead bought a vineyard in the Russian River Valley. In 2001, up-and-coming winemaker Joe Otos began making award-winning Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from this vineyard under the Willowbrook Cellars label.

After confessing to Otos that he preferred Cabernet Sauvignon, Tracy launched Owl Ridge Winery to focus on Sonoma Bordeaux varietals. Otos selected several unique vineyards, including one on the Sonoma side of Spring Mountain owned by highly regarded grower Mick Brigden. Brigden is also well known in the music business, managing stars like Bob Dylan and Eddie Money. Currently on tour with Joe Satriani, Brigden stays in synch with his Sonoma roots: “If Joe Otos asks us to drop 40 percent of the fruit, we do it,” he says. “There are really only two types of music and wine—good and bad. And I hear Owl Ridge Brigden Vineyard Cabernet is good.”

Owl Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon is available at Guy Savoy in Paris, La Folie in San Francisco, and Traverso's in Santa Rosa, as well as in fine wine stores such as Oakville Grocery and Ludwig's Fine Wines in San Anselmo.

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