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Eat & Drink » Wine

The Grapevine: The Big One-Five-Oh


Stop by the tasting room at the Buena Vista Carneros winery in Sonoma this month, and you’ll walk out with a souvenir. Yes, September is California Wine Month. But that’s not all the folks at Buena Vista Carneros are celebrating. Founded in 1857 as California’s first premium winery, Buena Vista Carneros winery is also toasting its 150th anniversary. Quick, name three other American businesses that have been around for 150 years. Not easy. So visitors to the Buena Vista Carneros tasting room this month receive the gift of a commemorative wineglass honoring the milestone anniversary.

Recognizing the grape-growing potential of the Sonoma Valley region a century and a half ago, the wine industry pioneer and Hungarian-born Agoston Haraszthy de Mokcsa—known also as Count Haraszthy—was honored earlier this year by being included in the inaugural class of wine-industry founders and inducted into the Vintner’s Hall of Fame in St. Helena. Later this year, the Buena Vista Carneros winery also will receive a congressional resolution commemorating its place in the history of California winemaking.

Of course, with longevity often goes hardship. And Buena Vista Carneros has certainly had its ups and downs through the years. The San Francisco Great Quake destroyed the winery’s subterranean cellars in 1906. A decade later, Prohibition began. Yet, by the end of the century, Buena Vista Carneros was producing as many as 375,000 cases of wine per year—none particularly exceptional or even above-average.

But much has changed since Jeff Stewart—formerly a winemaker at La Crema—joined Buena Vista Carneros in 2003 and began a painstaking replanting of its 800-acre Ramal Vineyard, which, by the way, is the largest in the Carneros appellation. Carefully accessing the terroir of Buena Vista’s estate vineyard, Stewart has refocused the winery on producing cool-climate varietals that are best suited to the region: Chardonnay, Syrah, Pinot Noir, and Merlot. He’s also reduced annual wine production down from 375,000 cases to 55,000. Says Stewart, “It’s not about finding better ways to make more wine—it’s about finding more ways to make better wine.”

Recently, I took a couple of Buena Vista’s new 2005 releases out for a spin: Ramal Vineyard Pinot Noir ($37) and Carneros Chardonnay ($25). The grapes for both wines were harvested at night by hand “to preserve fruit character,” says Stewart. The Chardonnay grapes were fermented in barrels and aged sur lie before undergoing 100 percent malolactic fermentation in French oak. The Pinot Noir was fermented in Buena Vista’s brand new five- and seven-ton open-top fermenters and then aged in French oak for eight months.

These are very respectable wines and great examples of the good things going on in Carneros these days. The Buena Vista Carneros Chardonnay ’05 is a classic Carneros Chard: apple and Asian-pear flavors with a zing of lemon citrus down the middle. Typically creamy vanilla notes lead to a soft, lengthy finish. Stewart suggests pairing his Chardonnay with brie-stuffed zucchini blossoms, which I don’t suspect would suck too much.

The year 2005 was good in Carneros for Pinot Noir, and the Ramal Vineyard ’05 is a fine example. It’s slightly earthy, with notes of plum and raspberry, smooth tannins and a silky body. I had mine with an Italian veal stew, and it totally rocked.