No more than twenty seconds after exiting my car, I’ve got a glass in my hand. In it is a dense, sticky liquid straight from a rumbling crusher a few feet above my head, with a good number of uninvited floaters: bits of stems, skins, seeds, and perhaps a few dozen fruit flies. There’s also a fair amount of the sugary goop on my hand, which means it’s now on the pen I’m using to take notes. Which means it’s also on my notebook. Which means the pages are getting a little sticky.
But there’s nothing to be done about it now, so I shove my nose in the glass and take a lusty sniff. Freshly-crushed grapes, with a bit of a edge to them. I sip, ignoring the potentially complexing elements of bug protein and stem roughage. Dense fruit, very sweet, but vivacious. It’s a wine in embryonic form, just waiting to be born. And it’s delicious.
Varner is a eponymously-named winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains, run by brothers Jim and Bob. Jim seems to handle the business side of things while Bob works the vines and the cellar equipment, though as with any family winery the actual practice is a little more collaborative than that. In any case, today Jim’s the one leading me around, while Bob grows increasingly spattered and spackled with the sticky residue of an ongoing crush. They’re bringing in chardonnay today, and in-between brief visits to chat, thief some barrel samples, or hand me a glass of fruit flies, Bob’s spending most of his time wheeling a forklift around the small parking lot, hoisting bins overflowing with grapes to an elevated platform, and then scampering up and down a ladder to check on his grapes’ plump befores and slurried afters.
But you wouldn’t know that there was a winery here unless you knew it. Local fiat disallows any hint of a public face, so access is only granted via appointment and the presence of someone with permission to open a forbidding gate. It’s not a matter of wanting to keep people out; Varner’s been given no choice in the matter by the civic worthies of Portola Valley. As a result, whenever the din of winemaking pauses – say for the workers’ lunch break – a peaceful isolation settles over the winery and its forested grounds.
Varner’s vineyards – which their business partner owns (see below) – were planted in stages beginning in the early eighties, and benefit from the Santa Cruz Mountains’ cooling effects, which assists in the preservation of acidity. In the Varners’ case, the stylistic intent came first and the vines came later, on a series of sites above the San Andreas Fault, though a few plots have been replanted as tastes and intents changed (for example, a block of gewürztraminer was supplanted by pinot noir). Two of the higher-elevation vineyards are on their own roots.
In the beginning, Jim & Bob spent a good deal of time selecting clones, including 115 and 777 for their pinot noirs, and a range of what Bob calls “old California clones” for the chardonnays. Subsequent plantings of the latter have been from a massale selection of those vines. And they try to take on “one creative endeavor a year,” which is sometimes a varietal exploration, and other times a speculative modification to technique, just to see what happens.
Experiments aside, Varner works very, very simply. Irrigation was gradually abandoned after the initial five years of vine growth (“our water patterns,” notes Bob, “are like natural deficit irrigation anyway”), and grapes are picked at around three tons per acre in temperatures between 50-60º. Back at the winery, each block of grapes is destemmed by hand, crushed, and pressed all in the same day. Varner’s particular vineyard sites don’t suffer from fog, but frost can be a problem…“though not this year,” notes Bob.
Yeasts and malolactic fermentations are natural rather than inoculated, barrels (a combination of medium-toast Allier and Tronçais, 1/3 new) are getting new wooden bungs for better control over oxygenation, and everything up to and including clarification is accomplished via gravity – no fining or filtration, just racking. Alcohols, which tend to hover around 14 to 14.5% (though 2008 has brought several wines under that threshold), are controlled in the vineyard, rather than with water or more technological means.
The tactile, sun-made-manifest fluid in my glass is chardonnay from the Bee Block, already nearing the end of its journey from grape to barrel, and from this site the Varners look for “peaches up front, lemon curd on the finish, and a sensation of chopped-up apples,” whereas the Amphitheater Block showcases its minerality in a package of less overt lushness. Pinot noir from the Hidden Block tends to show “perfectly ripe black cherry,” while the Picnic Block brings a crisper, yet still “perfectly ripe red apple” element into play. At least, that’s the intent. As we move into tasting, I’ll have the opportunity to judge for myself.
There are three projects here. Two, Varner and Neely, are just different names for the same range of wines; the latter is named after a third investor (who joins us midway through the tasting), though the label nomenclature differs between the two brands. The third is Foxglove, a larger, appealingly-priced label for purchased grapes that emphasize clean varietal character.
Varner 2007 Chardonnay Spring Ridge Home Block (barrel sample) (Santa Cruz Mountains) – Still thick and lush. Peach, apple, lees. Opaque. (9/08)
Varner 2007 Pinot Noir Spring Ridge Home Block (barrel sample) (Santa Cruz Mountains) – From a new François Frères barrel, 115 clone. Still wood-marked. Elegant. Spicy cherry (again, the wood influence). Seems lighter-styled. (9/08)
Varner 2007 Pinot Noir Spring Ridge Home Block (barrel sample) (Santa Cruz Mountains) – From a three year old François Frères barrel, still the 115 clone. Balanced fruit with light tannin. A mix of black and red cherry, strawberry, and perhaps some more exotic berries that I can’t quite put a name to. Very long. Grey soil. A persistent bit of wood influence lingers late on the finish, but it’s very minor in comparison to the new-wood sample of this cuvée. (9/08)
Varner 2008 Pinot Noir Spring Ridge Hidden Block (barrel sample) (Santa Cruz Mountains) – Actually, not even really a wine, as it was pressed just yesterday. Crisp apple with a touch of milk-soaked strawberry. Light. (9/08)
“This is a year to cut back on the oak,” notes Bob, in reference to the 2007s.
Neely 2006 Chardonnay Spring Ridge “Holly’s Cuvée” (Santa Cruz Mountains) – Very restrained. Apple and apricot, but not just the fruit…skins and other plant-parts as well. There’s good acidity and a lot of minerality. Medium-bodied, steady-state, pure, and fabulously balanced, but this needs more time to develop into what it’s becoming. (9/08)
Wine “can be balanced and [still] dull,” notes Bob, who looks for simultaneous “tension and equilibrium” in the end product.
Neely 2005 Pinot Noir Spring Ridge “Holly’s Cuvée” (Santa Cruz Mountains) – A blend of clones 115 and 777. Intense cherry…really more like an explosion thereof…with just a hint of tar. Vivid. Beautiful texture and huge, deep-black minerality. Starts bright and blinding, then turns structured in the middle, and finishes with supple gentility. (9/08)
“Interesting aromatics with lushness on the palate…that’s the goal of California pinot noir,” claims Bob.
Neely 2005 Pinot Noir Spring Ridge Picnic Block (Santa Cruz Mountains) – 777 clones on 5C rootstock in “the poorest soil on the property.” Dark blackberry, blueberry (both with seeds intact), and broodberry. No, that’s not a word, but it applies here. Lush indeed, but very well-balanced, and frankly gorgeous. Is that a little tail of licorice? Long, vivid, and intense. Impressive. (9/08)
Neely 2007 Pinot Noir Spring Ridge Picnic Block (barrel sample) (Santa Cruz Mountains) – Anise. Red fruit with black skins, or so it seems; definitely not the other way around. Beautiful acidity, long, silky, and supple. A fine particulate texture pairs with flawless structure. “We’re looking for an interplay between raspberry and dark red plum skins.” (9/08)
The chardonnays, according to both Jim and Bob, are built for around seven to ten years’ aging, but they’re less sure about an endpoint for the pinots. “Ten, fifteen years?”
Foxglove 2007 Zinfandel (Paso Robles) – 15% petite sirah, 14.6% alcohol. Big boysenberry fruit, with a nicely bitter espresso edge. A little short aromatically, but eminently drinkable. (9/08)
The Varners consider their work an always-interesting combination of art and science. And in fact, science is often paired with the duo’s occasional lapses into old-style California winemaker cant, e.g. their desire for “tannic equilibrium and some synergistic energy.” But both Varners describe their philosophy in an appropriately simple way, insisting that what they do is no more than “really paying attention to natural conditions.” Their wines – pure, complex, unadorned – reflect their sites, but they also exemplify this well-tested hypothesis.
Now if I can just get this chardonnay residue off my fingers…
Disclosures: lunch at Lavanda paid for by Jim Varner, several bottles purchased at a significant discount.