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Landmark Vineyards – The Third Flag That Flies

June 9, 2010 Fifty-Two Weeks 5 Comments

1776: The Founding Fathers sign the declaration of independence. 1805: Lewis and Clark “discover” the Pacific Ocean. 1838: John Deere invents the steel plow. 1865: The Civil War ends. 1914: Henry Ford revolutionizes automobile production. 1929: The stock market collapses. May 22nd, 2010: Mike Colhoun, Owner of Landmark Vineyards meets me, Wayne Kelterer.

While each of the above events had massive implications for American culture, none were as earth shattering as Mike Colhoun having the opportunity to meet me. I am the Barbara Walters of wine interviewers. The Ernest Hemingway of wine writing. When people say, “it is a pleasure to meet you,” I usually say, “yes! you are right. It IS a pleasure to meet me.”
But seriously folks, Mike Colhoun is an awesome guy and the winery he owns in Sonoma County is well respected and much praised. For years, Landmark has made top notch Chardonnay that has regularly been included in Wine Spectator’s top 100 wines of the year. Last year, they landed at #19, but this time with a Syrah. They use sustainable practices. They source fruit from some of the hottest California vineyards (the Paris Hilton “hot” not the Al Gore “hot”). Plus, they have a bocce ball court. They really are Kings amongst men!

An American flag flies at the front of Landmark Winery, followed by the flag of California. However, it is the third flag that flies that stands out as unique. A John Deere flag proudly waves in the Kenwood breeze. “John Deere?” you ask yourself in a high pitched voice, your face wrinkling in confusion. “But this is a winery!” And that it is my observant friend…but there is more too it than that.

Were I a lawyer, pacing in front of the jury box, thumbs in my out-stretch suspenders, I would say: “Merriam-Webster defines the word landmark as “an event or development that marks a turning point.” I would then pause, look at the jurors intently, and repeat slowly as I rock back and forth from heel to toe, heel to toe, “a development that marks a turning point!” The jury would nod slightly in agreement, some would make brief notes. Meanwhile, the opposing lawyers sweat and furrow their brows in worry. The defendant would lay his head in his hands. In the audience, family and friends would hug each other in grief at the inevitable outcome. I would have been an awesome lawyer!

There is a point to this mental digression: Landmark, has a fitting name. The third flag that flies does so because of Damaris Deere Ford. Damaris who relocated Landmark to its current location is the great-great-granddaughter of John Deere, whose steel plow marked a turning point in farming. It was a landmark moment in American history.

I spent an unseasonably cool afternoon at the winery with Damaris’ business partner and son Mike Colhoun and Landmark’s Hospitality Manager, Nick Benz. Nick showed us the property and estate vineyard, which is planted primarily with Grenache. He showed us a funny picture I promised I wouldn’t talk about, and a hall I promised I wouldn’t talk about either. We barrel-sampled our way through a number of wines before we sat down in the secret room I promised not to talk about. You see what I did there? I created interest. Now you want to go to Landmark to see said secret room for yourself, and you should! Smart aren’t I? You’re welcome Landmark, for the flood of people who will no doubt stream to the tasting room. “Where is this room Wayne couldn’t talk about?!?” they will demand. You will smile and say, “have a glass of wine my friend.”

OK, so actually it turns out I can talk about “the room”, but Landmark can’t, at least not publicly. Mysterious right? What is “the room”, it is their “hall of Presidents.” You see, for over a decade Landmark wines have been served yearly at the White House. While the White House does not allow Landmark to use this for marketing purposes, they are allowed to display the Presidential menus. The framed menus are displayed along a stairway leading to a room with a panoramic view of virtually the entire property. Here we sat and discussed why Mike moved from the East Coast to make wine, despite what his friends thought.

What did you think about having a Rhone varietal on the Wine Spectator top 100 list instead of your trademark Chardonnay?

“We were actually delighted, because it was the first red wine we ever had receive recognition like that. The Overlook has been a top 100 wine about ten times in the last fifteen years. We were really delighted to get the recognition for a red.”

So why so much Grenache in the estate vineyard?

“We went over to the Southern Rhone…the winemakers went a lot longer than I did. They spent about two weeks visiting and tasting wine with Beacastel and some of the best producers over there. In the end, they modeled this vineyard after what they were doing in the Southern Rhone.”

The Grenache will be used to make a Southern Rhone style blend made available to Landmark’s “friends of the vineyards.” Under the program, an individual can sponsor a row within the vineyard. They then get to name the row and receive an allotment of the Rhone style blend with their chosen name on it. Similar to what some custom crush facilities offer, but for a fraction of the cost, Mike sees it as a way to engage his customers in the Landmark experience. “They want to be a part of the educational process, the wine making process,” he explains. “You have to keep reinventing yourself in the wine industry,” he says with a smile.

Wine wasn’t Mike’s original career choice. His mother Damaris (my girlfriend is also named Damaris, so they scored points on the front), was an investor in the original Landmark that was located in nearby Winsor. Urban sprawl forced the closure of the original location, but when the other investors took their money and moved on Damaris wanted to continue in a new location. After purchasing the new property in Kenwood, she approached her son with a proposition. “She asked me, ‘would you like to help me with this wine thing?’ I looked at her and said, ‘Mom, I like to drink it [but] you can’t be serious!’ That was my initial reaction, my mom has flipped out. Well I am here today,” he says with a laugh.

His friends thought he was nuts, “you are going to do what?!” they said. Mike had a successful career as a commercial real-estate agent in Greenwich, Connecticut. But, after a few business trips to Sonoma and liking what he saw, Mike and his wife Mary made the move. And his friends? “Now they all show up looking for tours just like you!” Mikes laughs.

What does “sustainable” mean here at Landmark?

“What it means is, that this vineyard will be certified organic in three years. We’ve got owl boxes in the vineyard and blue bird boxes in the vineyard. We are trying to create this atmosphere where the owls eat the gophers and the blue birds eat the bugs.” They use cover crops to enrich the soil and a team of sheep to control weeds. “We don’t tell the tractor people that though,” he laughs “we don’t want them to know we are using sheep to replace tractors!”

Do you have a favorite aspect of wine making?

“To get everybody on the same page and understanding what the “whole” is about. Really, what we are about is making great wines that enhance the joy of people’s lives…We are all in this boat together to create this product that sings.”

Who has inspired you in California wine?

“Who do I emulate?” He asked with a chuckle.

Well I wouldn’t say that, you emulate to be Landmark.

“I had that question from a sales person in Texas, ’who are you emulating?’ I said, ‘I’m really not.’ We are trying to carve out our own identity and our own brand. Do I love a lot of wine? Yeah I do. I’m not drinking my own wine every day, I can tell you that. I have a lot of Châteauneuf-du-Pape in my own cellar, I have a lot of Chardonnay, a lot of Pinot in my wine cellar and everything else. If you asked me what kind of wine I liked? I love Tablas Creek, I love Kessler Chardonnay, I lover Ramey Chardonnay. So, there are a lot of wines I may emulate in terms of style. In terms of an inspiration, in many ways my mother would be one of my biggest inspirations. She is a very energetic eighty-three year old that still likes to ski, down hill! She is as mentally sharp as a tack and knows how to think big picture.”

Stop by Landmark some weekend, play some bocce ball, sit by the pond, or go on a horse carriage ride through the vineyard. If you do, order the Steel Plow Syrah and think about everything John Deere did for you.

Landmark Vineyards
101 Adobe Canyon Rd.
Kenwood, CA 95452

Tel: 707-833-0053
Fax: 707-833-1164

Tasting Room Hours:
Daily 10 AM to 4:30 PM

Because I fried my hard drive last week, the pictures above are courtesy of Landmark Vineyards. Pictured is Mike and Mary Colhoun.

Currently there are "5 comments" on this Article:

  1. MRM Wines says:

    I always love hearing what the winemakers are drinking! Thanks for the honesty.

    BTW, the pictures are great….we’ll have to plan a visit out there!

  2. gaen says:

    it was very interesting to read.
    I want to quote your post in my blog. It can?
    And you et an account on Twitter?

  3. I’m adding your blog’s rss feed so that I can see your new posts. Keep up the good work!

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