When I first met Pete and Steve I knew right away that they were people I would enjoy working with and more than that they were people I would want to call friends. I am proud to say that all these years later this has most certainly been the case. Our families have enjoyed many a wonderful meal together and there are more to come.
Our first vintage working together was 2010 and this happened to be the year I had a harvest baby, so as things would go I was in the vineyard with a 2 day old baby making the final picking decision. Pete and Steve often tell this story and they say they knew then that I was serious about making good wine. To hear them say this makes me very proud because it is so important to me that they know how much I respect them and their vineyards. Working with them is a joy. They never take shortcuts and always smile. The Johnson family could not be more down-to-earth and invested in the quality of their grapes.
The Johnsons are fifth generation grape growers and are true stewards of the land in all that they do. They are the kind of people I am truly proud to work with. If I were to sum them up in one word it would be: Integrity.
The Hawkeye Ranch Vineyard site is naturally stunning yet unpretentious. Redwood Valley is very far north for a California appellation. Hawkeye Ranch sits at 722 feet elevation and is located in the upper reaches of the Russian River drainage in Mendocino County. The soil type is Pinole Gravelly Loam, which provides excellent drainage and promotes low vigor. This vineyard has warm daytime temperatures and cool evenings giving a large diurnal temperature shift often of 50 degrees; providing excellent fruit maturation while maintaining balance. Hawkeye Ranch is farmed organically and Fish Friendly Farming Certified.
These heritage vines were planted in the 1970’s. The vines are the Martini clone, a clone selected by Louis Martini, and now quite rare because most of the older vines have been replanted. The vineyard is in a wonderfully harmonious place where crop load and vine vigor are naturally balanced, allowing for an organic farming style that promotes slow, steady fruit maturation. From such fruit emerge wonderfully delicate, yet highly textured full bodied wines. This is the vineyard block used for both the Onward Hawkeye Ranch Pinot Noir and the Onward Hawkeye Ranch Rosé of Pinot Noir.
The vineyard block is dry farmed and Certified Organic (CCOF). The vines are an 80 year old heritage clonal selection that are head trained. They have an amazing presence and are like trees. I literally stand under the fruiting canopy on many of these glorious vines. The rootstock is St. George, which is excellent for dry-farmed vines when planted in deep soils such as these. Old vines have a lower yield than younger vines. This is especially true for Carignane which can overproduce when young, but here the vines produce a self controlled yield. This is one of the key elements that allows the fruit to be balanced and beaming with flavor at lower sugars. This allows me to harvest earlier and retain the lovely natural acidity, vibrant red fruits and floral notes. This Carignane is showcased both individually in the Onward Hawkeye Ranch Carignane and as a blend in the Farmstrong Field Red and Farmstrong Field Rosé.
Knox vineyard sits across the street from Hawkeye Ranch and has been farmed by the Johnson Family for 28 years now. The vines are over 65 years old and they are head trained and dry farmed. This vineyard is an old Redwood Valley heritage clonal selection of Zinfandel on St. George rootstock. It is a majestic vineyard surrounded by redwood and oak trees, a classic California heritage site.
Knox vineyard is an example of some very important history in California’s wine legacy and these vines are one of several examples of old vine Zinfandel that are threatened since many feel they don’t lend themselves to achieving high sugar and ripeness levels. Yet this is precisely what sparked my interest in revisiting Zinfandel as a winemaker. Here I could make a wine that represented this site and vine age. I picked early for Zinfandel in contrast to the typical California style, to highlight how these vines produce wonderfully balanced fruit at lower ripeness. This Zinfandel is showcased both individually in the Onward Knox Vineyard Zinfandel and as a blend in the Farmstrong Field Red and Farmstrong Field Rosé.
Cerise Vineyard was the vineyard that started it all. The first Onward Wine was the 2009 Cerise Vineyard Pinot Noir. This all originated from my friendship with Anthony Filiberti. Anthony and I became friends early on when I had decided to go back to school to become a winemaker. Years later I started searching for the perfect Pinot Noir site when contemplating starting my own wine company. I called Anthony to talk Pinot since he was a fellow Pinot lover and had his own wine brand. He invited me to come look at the Cerise Vineyard site where he was living and working. My husband and the kids and I drove up and walked the vine rows of Cerise with Anthony, and well…the rest is history.
Simply put, Cerise is stunning and a perfect vineyard site for cool-climate Pinot Noir. This combined with the fact that Anthony was managing the vineyard meant there was no looking back. I had complete trust in Anthony and his understanding of what I was looking for in a Pinot Noir site. This was so important, especially in the beginning. Now I can show new growers my wines and they understand what I am about as a winemaker, but back then it was a dream, a concept, an excited conversation. I worked with Anthony for 7 years. His last vintage at Cerise was 2015, and while he is missed, the vineyard is in wonderful hands under its new ownership with Kosta Browne and I am looking forward many great vintages to come.
This steep hillside vineyard’s elevation ranges from 650-1000 feet. The rocky and moderately low-nutrient soils limit yield and overall vigor, which results in both small berries and clusters. The location is close to the ocean and has a strong marine influence present throughout most of the summer. This provides a morning fog layer and afternoon coastal breezes that moderate the summer heat. While daytime highs may be 85F, this is only sustained for a few hours and will quickly drop by 25 degrees or so in the afternoon, with nighttime temperatures coming to rest between 45-50F. Cerise Vineyards is sustainably farmed, using both Organic and Biodynamic principles. The attention to detail in the vineyard is remarkable. Everything they do is meticulous and this, combined with the unique terroir, yields fruit quality that is exceptional. This is the vineyard site for the Onward Cerise Vineyard Pinot Noir. On occasion a small amount of Cerise Vineyard Rosé of Pinot Noir is made.
I feel very lucky to have had the good fortune to meet Roger King in 2012. Roger is such an advocate for Suisun Valley AVA that you can’t have a conversation with him without wanting to know more about what is coming from the vineyards in this region. Yes, he is a grower from Suisun Valley, so it makes sense that growing grapes in Suisun Valley is personal, but it is more than that, he truly believes in the region and wants the entire valley’s potential to be realized. He is a true ambassador for Suisun Valley and it is in many ways thanks to him that I have become such a lover of this region which now makes up a large part of the Onward and Farmstrong portfolio.
He is a no frills kind of guy. If you want it sugar coated don’t ask Roger…but if you want the straight goods then you can rest assured you can have an honest conversation with Roger. And talk about loyalty, he is so supportive it moves me. We have a relationship that I feel is rare these days. He truly looks at our relationship as a partnership, not just as he is the grower and I am the producer, but a real partnership where we are working together with one end goal and that goal is making the best wines we can, both in the vineyard and in the cellar.
Roger is an amazing grower and a strong leader in advocating for sustainable practices in Suisun Valley. This vineyard is dry farmed and he is a firm believer in the art of paying attention in the vineyard, so that if any problems arise they can be treated locally (on a vine by vine basis) not just systemically treating an entire vineyard.
Roger has a long term lease on this vineyard site which was planted in 1997 on 110R rootstock. Ledgewood vineyard sits above part of the old channel of Suisun Creek. This is the reason the site can be dry farmed. It has dampness underneath to support productive growth and the health of the vines throughout their ripening. Vines are planted in a low density configuration, which is important for dry farming. Elevation is about 75 feet. Soils are well drained sandy loam, but kept moist by the old creek bed below.
The Grenache Blanc clone is from Château de Beaucastel budwood and was grafted onto King’s established dry farmed Syrah vineyard. This site is ideal. It allows the Grenache Blanc to fully mature at lower ripeness, thus developing complex aromatics and soft tannins while retaining vibrancy. The Grenache Blanc is showcased in the Farmstrong Field White blend with the Verdelho and Albarino from Babcock Vineyard.
This area of Suisun Valley has been recognized to be highly suited to Rhone varietals. There is abundant marine air at night from San Pablo Bay and early morning light on the fruit. This Syrah clone is from the Durell Vineyard in Sonoma. The flavors are intense and the tannins are lush and complex. The complexity of this Syrah gives a firm foundation to the Farmstrong Field Red blend whilst maintaining a softness. This is also showcased on its own as a single-vineyard Onward Ledgewood Syrah.
I met Brian and Rob Capp after tasting the Malvasia Bianca grapes in their family vineyard right before our first harvest together in 2013. I was told about the Malvasia by Roger King after we had been working together for a few years and he had learned I had a keen interest in the unusual and off the beaten path. So, this being said, by the time I met the Capps I was already so in love with their vineyard and I was really excited and hoping to work together. I think they got a kick out of me, since I was all giddy about their grapes, and they were so very down to earth I knew working with them would be a good fit. They are always on a tractor or hauling grapes when I see them in the vineyard and smiling ear to ear, just happy doing what they do which I find so very refreshing.
Brian and Rob are fourth generation grape growers. I asked them to tell me a bit about their history and they explained that it started with their great grandfather Giuseppe Caporicci who changed his name to Joe Capp when he came to the United States. They have been farming their entire lives, their earliest memories involve the family business.
Capp Inn Ranch vineyard was planted in 1995 by the Capp family. It was previously planted to prune, peach and apricot trees, but had been left uncared for before the Capp family took over the land and planted it to vines. The vineyard sits at 180 ft elevation. The soil is Brentwood Series which is clay loam, which drains well, yet retains moisture keeping it available to the vines. The daytime temperatures are moderate, enough to ripen both Malvasia and Verdelho. Then the cool evening breeze arrives and drops the temperature, thus cooling the vines and retaining vibrancy in the fruit.
The Malvasia Bianca at Capp Inn is simply delicious. For me it was love at first taste. I popped the first berry in my mouth in 2013 and I was so excited; truly jumping up and down and doing a little dance. This excitement has only grown stronger as I have expanded the Onward program to have three expressions of Malvasia: Capp Inn Ranch Malvasia Bianca (Tank Fermented/Tank Aged), Malvasia Bianca Petillant Naturel (bubbles!) and Skin Fermented Malvasia BIanca.
I pick the Malvasia on the earlier side when the floral and fruity notes are beginning to express themselves, but the lemongrass and melon rind is still present and the vibrant acidity is shining through. I have been so impressed by the diversity of this Malvasia Bianca, which is why I make the three different Onward Malvasia selections, all from this one block picked on the same day. This allows me to showcase the vineyard site and the breadth of this variety.
I first met Dan Gonsalves in 2012 and I knew on our first meeting that he was one of a kind. His family has been growing grapes in the Oakley area for over 100 years and he knows these vineyards like one knows their own back yard. Dan reminded me of many of the sea captain types that were friends of my dad’s when I was little…the way they were so in touch with the ocean that they knew how to handle themselves in any type of weather. It was not something that they studied, it was like second nature to them. Dan is like this, he does not overthink it, he just knows grapes like the back of his hand. Also, like those sea captains, Dan has stories. Great stories of the old days, of the wineries that his family worked with many years ago and of how things have changed. Yet these vineyards under his care maintain a consistency that comes from his noninvasive style. Dan is not about chasing trends but rather about honoring the land and his family’s heritage.
Casa Roja is an historic field blended block that I have absolutely fallen head over heals in love with. I work with the entire vineyard. This is one of the oldest vineyards in the area. It was planted in the late 1800’s, and while it is over 90 percent Carignane it also has some Mourvèdre and Malvasia Nero interplanted in the block! A classic old-world style showing up in California, this site is like walking on a beach as it sits on 100 percent sandy soils, giving rise to smaller, hardy bush vines. The vines are trained so the fruit is shaded from the wind and sun and the result is an intensity of flavors that opens to black fruits with a soft lushness due to the maturity of the tannins and the intensity of the site. Casa Roja sits at 20 feet elevation, just inland from the San Francisco and Suisun bays at the entrance to the Sacramento Delta. The maritime influence is remarkable and a wonderful contrast from the warm daytime temperatures, giving rise to a 60 degree diurnal shift that allows for early ripening while maintaining vibrancy. This Carignane is showcased both individually in the Onward Casa Roja Vineyard Carignane and as a blend in the Farmstrong Field Red.
Howard Babcock is a farmer in the truest of forms, he works hard and is proud of the grapes he grows and so am I. Howard is a fourth generation grape grower in Suisun Valley and his son has followed in his footsteps and has taken the family grape growing history to the next generation by earning a Viticulture and Enology degree. Howard’s grape delivery truck says it all, its an old flatbed, not fancy, but you can tell it runs steady and gets the job done. Some might say he is not chatty, but I would have to differ, he is always happy to talk when I see him and has a big smile when I tell him how absolutely in love with his Albariño I am.
Babcock vineyard sits adjacent to the Ledgewood Vineyard site and the Onward blocks are also dry farmed. Both properties utilize the underground creek system flowing beneath them. This vineyard is ideal for aromatic whites because of the marine influence and evening wind that cause a large diurnal temperature shift. The result is incredible acid retention in the Albariño along with that maritime influence so important in classic Albariño sites. The site also provides enough daytime sunshine to ripen the Verdelho to express its tropical and stone fruit side while maintaining vibrancy and focus. The Verdelho and Albariño are showcased in the Farmstrong Field White blend with the Grenache Blanc from Ledgewood Vineyard.