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Pfendler – On the Roof of Petaluma

September 8, 2011 Fifty-Two Weeks 1 Comment

Two months earlier it seemed like a good idea. Now, it was our honeymoon.

When I agreed to visit a winery for a future story in the middle of this once in a lifetime event, I thought it a rather cleaver scheme. “She won’t mind going, she has fun at these things too,” I reasoned with myself as I emailed our confirmation. I had even scheduled the appointment for mid-afternoon so we wouldn’t be needlessly rushed early in the day. I was, I thought, a rather considerate guy, and after all, it would probably be romantic, a cute story we would one day tell our children or our Beagle at least.

As the clock closed in on departure time and we reluctantly started to get ready, I began to rethink the brilliance of my plan. After we both agreed that we “shouldn’t stay overly long (it was our honeymoon after all),” we left our cozy vineyard cottage and fireplace in Kenwood, just off of Highway 12 and headed east.

It was a crisp and beautiful January day as we headed the back way into Petaluma.

This was new wine territory for us both. While I had spent time at Landmark Vineyards the previous spring with my friend Jordan, we had not ventured any further up the valley. It was beautiful here and as we hurried past vineyards carpeted with clover surrounding the thousands of dormant vines and with mountains thick in Pine Trees all around us, I couldn’t help but think just how much I love winter in California.

We drove past the small towns that dot Highway 12 along the Sonoma Valley, tracing the western edge of Los Carneros. Turning aside to Highway 116, we crossed over from Carneros into the formidable Sonoma Coast AVA. The land was different here and the views opened to the horizon, revealing grass covered hills that danced in the afternoon breeze.

Off of Old Adobe Road, we made a right turn and followed the pitted and rough path that lead up Sonoma Mountain. And we climbed, into the unknown.

It was mid afternoon; the sun was shining bright in the winter sky as we came across Kimblery Pfendler and John Raytek walking in a small vineyard outside her parent’s home.

Kimberly, Owner of Pfendler Vineyards, is kindhearted and gentle in nature. A graci

ous host, she has a gift of putting one at ease in her presence, as if you were but an old acquaintance. There is a timeless quality to her grace that is not easily forgotten. She is a passionate devotee to the ideals that her late husband Peter Pfendler founded the vineyard on, namely, to respect the land and do well through one’s work. These are lessons she passes on to their young son Nicholas, an adorable blond haired boy.

Before relocating to Petaluma with Peter, Kimberly spent a decade in Los Angeles, attending UCLA’s film program and then working as a Creative Executive in both film and television for MGM and Warner Brothers. In addition to the Sonoma Mountain ranch where she and her son live, she owns a larger ranch a few hours north. But the transition from Hollywood executive to Northern California rancher wasn’t an entirely foreign journey. Originally from Minnesota, she spent time on farms and in rural areas while growing up. “It was like returning to my childhood, it was familiar,” she says of the move to Petaluma. It is a place she loves.

John Raytek, who became Pfendler’s Winemaker at the start of the 2010 harvest, is something of an overachiever, in the kindest sense of the word. He is one of those guys that does a little bit of everything and he does them annoyingly well (unlike myself, who only does a few things, except I do them exceptionally poorly).

Originally from State College Pennsylvania, John grew-up around food and wine. His Father was a Chef and his family spent considerable time traveling the world. John eventually followed these roots into his professional life. He spent ten years as a Sommelier, worked as a Buyer for national chain restaurants, spent time in Australia, for two years worked weekends at the famed Chez Panisse, helped plant and launch Rhys Vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains before moving on to Copain.

As if this were not enough, John has his own label, Ceritas with his wife Pheobe (sourced from Pheobe’s family vineyard) and a new project with Glenn Alexander (Bacchus Vineyard, Sanglier) called Cartha, which sources much of its fruit from the four mico-vineyards at Pfendler (1). Oh yeah, he is also a photographer, skier (says he is pretty good), surfer (says he is not so good), and a dog lover. When we met him, he had just returned from a trip to Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia.

In short, he is one of those guys, the kind you would love to hate, that is, if he wasn’t so damn charming.

In more than one way, we chose to come to Pfendler out of curiosity. While I was familiar with the name Petaluma and the general area, I knew nothing of the wines produced here, and I knew nothing of Pfendler other than a few statements on a website.

I am not alone.

“I think the reason it hasn’t become better known,” Kimberly explains when I ask why more people don’t know their area (the Petaluma Gap), “is because there’s not a lot of wineries here, there’s not a lot of producers. They’re farmers, so they’re selling their fruit to some really spectacular brands, but it just hasn’t really gotten out there yet.”

With producers like Kosta Brown buying fruit in the area, Kimberly thinks it is only a matter of time before more people take note of their unique fog and wind influenced corner in the Sonoma Coast.

Pfendler is no show vineyard. Founded by Kimberly’s late husband Peter Pfendler, who moved to Petaluma after selling a s

uccessful private aviation company in the late 80’s, the majority of the 1,000-acre ranch is left to the 100 or so cattle that call it home and to open wild space. The 19-acres of vines that Peter started planting in 1992 produce about 600 cases of wine a year for the Pfendler label. “It’s a classic old California ranch,” John says of the property, “not a lot of the glitz and glam you see in Napa.”

Keeping parts of the ranch open for nature has remained a priority for Kimberly, who wants to teach her son to respect and care for the earth. In so doing, she continues the legacy of Peter, who dedicated considerable energy and resources to land and wildlife conservation.

The result is a beautiful property and a unique set of vineyards unlike any I have stepped foot in before.

After brief walks in two of the four vineyards, we drove to the top of the property and the highest vineyard, Helgren. T

here, at the top of her ranch, under an ancient twisted Oak Tree and surrounded by an ever shifting sea of emerging winter grasses, Kimberly and John told us their story, and what Pfendler means to them.

The two met when John visited the property in search of fruit for his own projects. They quickly realized the potential for a partnership, John helping Kimberly with the farming and winemaking at Pfendler, while at the same time providing him with an outstanding source of fruit for his own labels.

The partnership, less than six months old when we visited them, had already resulted in more involvement for Kimberly.

“This year has been the most involved I have been in the winemaking process,” she explained. “There has been a transition from Greg (Bjornstad) to John, but what I love about our project is how involved I get to be. I’m right there. Even if I say, ‘no, but you do it,’ he says, ‘nope. This is your wine, your coming!’ and he makes me do it.”

“She doesn’t kick too hard,” John says with a laugh.

It was also a vintage of change for the wines, as some of the younger vineyards (some were grafted from Cabernet to Pinot Noir a few years back) had finally matured enough to be brought into final blends.

“This is the first year we have had all four vineyards [in the wine], it’s a full expression,” Kimberly says of the 2010 vintage. “We tasted through all the barrels then and I took some from Helgren, some from Pullis, some from Penngrove, and some from Pfendler and blended them all. This is ultimately where we wanted to be.”

John is looking to bring a little bit more restraint to the wines of Pfe

ndler. While not over the top by any means, the 08’ and 09’ Pinot Noir came in around the mid 14’s, while John was expecting the 2010 to come in at 13.4% or 13.5%.

“We are trying to find lower alcohol expressions of these sites,” John tells us, adding that it is not an arbitrary number he is seeking. “We are looking for a balance. I don’t think we are striving for a particular style or anything, other than the purest expression we can find in these vineyards. We are focused on using the resources that are there including clone material and soil types to bring about the best possible wine from the land.” In this regard, each vineyard adds a different component and complexity, “another piece of the puzzle,” as John says.

After tasting through two current vintages of Chardonnay at Helgren, which we loved, we loaded our things back into Kimberly’s SUV and headed a few hundred feet down the Mountain to her home. There, on her back patio with a breathtaking view of the valley and the Petaluma Gap beyond, we tasted through the last three vintages of Pfendler Pinot Noir and snacked on local cheese and meats. As we enjoyed the three wines (08’ and 09’ from bottle and an unfinished 10’ from a barrel sample), I asked John if the potential for what he could do here was exciting for him.

“When I came here last year to buy fruit, I tasted with Kimberly and the wines were really exciting. That’s one of the things that got me going. I could tell there was great potential here. Like anything, it’s always a foreign place in the beginning and then you get to know it, you start to spend a lot of time up here and you start to feel it. You could feel the good energy and you could feel the vineyards were going to make great wine. 2010 is my first crack. Hopefully it’s not the best wine I make from here.”

And, after a pause, he added, “I am super excited by what we are up to.”

It is alarming how accustomed to the noise of man we have all become. So persistent are these non-organic sounds that it is j

arring to our senses when they are not present. Even when we seek out the perceived solitude of nature, when we make an effort to be surrounded in wilderness, often if you are quiet, it is there; human pollution, in both physical and audible form. The distant rumble of a concealed freeway, the hum of the single engine aircraft, the roar of the jet.

When it is not present, there is a sense of loss, as if something is missing, the way we feel when a neighbor cuts down a long standing tree. We sense its void before our brain can process its disappearance as a physically open space. In such a way, the lack of human noise leaves an audible void, a gap in our mental awareness that can take a moment to process.

I have treasures in the form of audio recordings from vineyard trips all over California. Hours and days of recordings. Some, in the noisy environments of tasting rooms or production facilities, often accompanied by actual musical soundtracks drifting in over speakers. But some conversations have only nature’s soundtrack to accompany them. For Pfendler, it was such a soundtrack, almost entirely void of any man-made noise other than our conversation and an occasional passing car on a road below. As we sat under the Oak Tree at Helgren, the sounds of Kimberly’s cattle would on occasion cut through the calm. As I listened longer, the call of frogs were present too, gently singing from their hidden locations.

The clink of a glass. The rustle of the wind. The art and beauty of conversation. A rare delight.

So why this dissertation on sound, what does this have to do with wine, with Pfendler? Well, everything.

Wine, is not about arbitrary numbers and scores, nor is it about trends and social status. No, it is so much more, it is a way of life. If properly done, it is an expression of immense effort and love. It is a representation of a period of time and a place as influenced by a few people who shepherd it a long.

I like wine because it tastes good. I love wine because of the people and places it represents. In this way, we I love Pfendler not just because the wines were great, but because these were genuine people, in a wild and untamed place, doing something worthwhile. (2)

So here, with a glass in hand,  as the sun slowly sank behind the Petaluma Gap on an unusually fog-free evening, with kind, interesting, and gracious hosts, with a view more beautiful than words and with a new wife, we sat, enjoying the moment and soaking up all that is Pfendler. And it was wonderful, a romantic a story to tell our kids, or our Beagle at least.

(1)   T H E   V I N E Y A R D S

Penngrove is the lowest vineyard which is located near Gap’s Crown Vineyard and is predominately adobe clay soils.

Pullis, about 1,000 feet up the side of Sonoma Mountain, is the vineyard Kimberly’s parent’s (last name Pullis) home over-looks. The vineyard runs down from the bottom of the house on a gentle slope and is very exposed to sun and wind.

Pfendler, was originally planted to Cabernet, and although it is higher up than Pullis by several hundred feet, it has soil types similar to Penngrove. Unlike Pullis, Pfendler sits in somewhat of a valley that provides some protection from the winds. (Pommard Pinot Noir and Hyde Chardonnay)

Sitting considerably higher than the other vineyards is Helgren, at 2,000 – 2,200 feet. The altitude means that the vineyard is often above the fog line when the others are not and is therefore exposed to more heat. The vines are also planted on a considerable slope. (Swan and Calera clones)

(2) To be very clear, Pfendler makes outstanding wine. I drew a lot of comparison between Pfendler and Sea Smoke in the Sta. Rita Hills, two of the most dramatic Pinot Noir Vineyards I have visited. Going out on a limb, I would say that Pfendler, with its truly breathtaking location, and with its current team, can and will make some of the best Pinot Noir in California and the New World. It is one of the finest sites I have ever visited, a true diamond in the rough.

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