Chris Thorpe Shines in Carneros

Adastra Aims for the Stars

Dr. Chris Thorpe isn’t the first person to make the Napa pilgrimage in hopes of becoming a winemaker, but he’s joined the ranks of those who have met with success. He and his wife (also a physician) they bought a horse ranch in the early 1990s, and started to pursue The Dream.

Chris Thorpe (L) with winemaker Edwin Richards

“We started from scratch,” says Thorpe about the 33-acre horse ranch they acquired in the Carneros region. It had been a vineyard before Prohibition, but the vines were ripped out and the property was converted to pasture as a result of America’s disastrous Great Experiment. Today, the prized land is once again producing high quality wines.

“Our production is fairly small,” Thorpe notes, as he counts off the varietals he produces under the expert supervision of well-known wine consultant Pam Starr:  about 50 cases of Merlot (I sampled the 2009 Proximus Merlot…excellent), Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Syrah. The wines are sold directly to the winery’s 600 club members, and others who are fortunate enough to get in on the action.

In our conversation, it became clear that the Thorpes are serious about the quality of their product. “We prune down to one cluster per shoot,” he says. “That gives us a yield of around 2-3 tons per acre.” That’s why they make only about 1,500 cases a year. And why the wines are so good.

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Top Oregon Pinots? Right Here!

The Ponzis — Making Wine Happen

Considering the fact that the winegrowing regions of the world are major tourist attractions, it seems kind of strange that any area would not want to officially encourage it.  Well, you haven’t been to Oregon.

Until people like David Lett and Dick and Nancy Ponzi pioneered the growing of Pinot Noir in the state, the lawmakers in Salem considered agricultural land to be just that, and commercial property to be a whole ‘nother thing. Back in the 1970s the twain never met, zoningwise, and nobody could build a winery or tasting room in their vineyard.

Fortunately, the Ponzis, among a few other courageous souls, lobbied the legislature to revise the laws, and establish strict labeling requirements to protect product quality and consumer confidence. It took a while, but they succeeded.

That was then. Flash forward to the present, when the Willamette Valley (along with the Rogue, Umpqua and other regions) are turning out some of the finest Pinots anywhere, and welcoming hordes of thirsty wine lovers like you and me into their hospitality centers.  Thank you, David and Nancy.

As you’ve probably observed, people who run off to make wine come from surprisingly diverse backgrounds. Fortunately, Dick Ponzi had been a mechanical engineer before attempting to make a small fortune in the wine business by starting with a large one. His abilities led him to develop techniques and equipment that have become standard in the overall industry.

Now led by the next generation, the Ponzi Family winery is, like many other friends of the earth, practicing strictly sustainable farming practices, and working to preserve the charm and the products of Willamette Valley.  In fact, the estate vineyards are LIVE Certified Sustainable, the world’s highest standard for sustainable viticulture.

About that next generation. Winemaker Luisa Ponzi enjoyed a graduate education that anyone would envy: an apprentice gig in Beaune, followed by another with the famed Vietti vineyards in Piedmont. It’s that Burgundian soul that gives Ponzi’s Pinot Noirs the elegance we all enjoy.

With a college major in Italian and a degree in music, Michael Ponzi isn’t the first person you’d think of when hiring a vineyard manager, but guess what. Studying in France and Italy gave him the foundation he needed to direct the operations of the company, which he does, along with composing, making music, and being a general Renaissance man.

I had the pleasure of meeting Maria Ponzi Fogelstrom several times when I was Wine Director of the Southwest Florida Wine & Food Festival.  She’s the adventurous one, having pulled stunts like going backpacking in Borneo and who knows what else. As the well-traveled ambassador for the family’s wines, she charms the socks off of everyone.

The Ponzis have met the challenge of growing Pinot Noir, also know as the “heartbreak grape” in an area where everyone said it couldn’t be done. That would be enough of an accomplishment for most of us, but they persist in expanding their ampellographic horizons (and ours) by cultivating not only Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, and Pinot Blanc, but a bit of Riesling as well, and rare Italian varietals like Arneis and Dolcetto.  And let’s not forget their Muscat-based dessert wine, Vino Gelato. (How can you resist something called “ice cream wine?”).

Finding great Pinots for reasonable prices is always a quest, which is why I’m so fond of their Tavola Pinot Noir. They put the fruit right up front, with loads of cherry enhanced by red floral aromas and vanilla. On the palate the tannins are very smooth, and the cherry nose transforms in to dark plum. Lovely, and well under $30 a bottle.

Greg Bjornstad’s Hands-Off Winemaking

So my dear friend and wine buddy Lou Bernardi shows up for dinner with his ravishing wife Denise, and he plunks a bottle of Pinot Noir down on the counter.

“Let’s open this one first,” he says. We’ve dined with Lou and Denise often enough to know that more than one bottle will be drained and enjoyed before the night is through.

“Bjornstad Van Der Kamp Vineyard,” I observe. “What’s a Swedish guy doing making wine in Sonoma?”

“He’s not Swedish,” Lou corrected me. “He’s Norwegian. And he knows what he’s doing.” I poured the first glass and tasted it. “He knows what he’s doing,” I observed.

The Pinot was sensational…full and round in the mouth, without that often-typical strawberry note that runs through so many California wines made from this grape. The wine was a nice dark ruby or garnet color, with a nose of blackberry and black plum. As we stood around swirling and sipping (the bottle didn’t last long), I thought there was even a bit of earth and spice. All around a nice effort, we agreed.

“Got any more?” I asked Lou. He didn’t. So the next morning I got on the phone and contacted Greg Bjornstad his own self.

“I didn’t grow up with wine,” he told me. “We never had it in the house.” So I asked him the inevitable question: what was the bottle that did it for you? (We all have one). He told me that when he was working somewhere in the Caribbean a bartender poured him a glass of $5 Bandiera. “It had a tropical flower on the label,” he recalls. Turns out Greg’s initial wine seduction was accomplished by a hidden winery. I tried to find them. No website, just a phone listing in the online White Pages. Number (in Cloverdale, California) “not in service at this time.” So I couldn’t find out what it was that grabbed him by the throat and dragged him into the wine life. But that’s where he wound up.

As a student at UC Davis, Greg was lucky enough (something of an understatement) to earn an internship at Chateau Lafite. “I was the first student of viticulture ever chosen,” he recalls. “All the others had been in the winemaking program, but I was more interested in the growing end of the process.”

Returning to the US with a First Growth Grand Cru credential like that in his pocket, it didn’t take long for Greg to find a slot at Newton, then at Joseph Phelps from 1992 to 1996. Then, like many before him, he struck out on his own. His philosophy: hands off winemaking.

“I want the wine to be less of me, and more of what I imagine the vineyard to be. Of course,” he notes, “every winemaker has to make choices along the way, and that can’t help but color the final product.” He uses indigenous yeasts, no filtration (except when things get really extreme), no fining, ferments in French barrels, and basically lets nature do what nature does when you crush grapes and leave them alone. The result: softer textures and fuller flavors

“As hands off as possible,” Greg says. Judging by what we tasted from one of his bottles, not a bad way to go.

The Herman Story Story

Russell From came to the art of winemaking a bit late…he was 38 in 1997 when he decided to take the plunge. But once he made the move, he really….well, moved.

After a stint at Langhorne Creek in Australia, he spent a few years dragging hoses and doing whatever else at a custom crush facility.

“It was winemaking boot camp,” he recalls. “If it had anything to do with crushing grapes and helping the juice turn into wine, I did it.” It was a four year hitch, and during that time, he worked with about 20 small wineries and several larger ones.

“We crushed 2000 tons a season,” he says. “A lot of work, but I learned the craft and the process from top to bottom. And I started making my own wine at that facility.” He brought out his first vintage of Herman Story in 2001 (“all seven barrels”) and formally started the winery in 2004.

Russell From

So, what is the story on Herman Story? He was Russell’s grandfather, and there’s some info about him on the back label. According to Russell, Herman wasn’t a winemaker, but was a “rancher, logger, swapper, banker, philanthropist, and teller of tales.” Pretty colorful.

From a marketing standpoint, it seems to me he takes his inspiration from Manfred Krankl at Sine Qua Non: whimsical names for the wines, avant-garde labels, and new label art for every wine he makes. Not a bad way to go.

But the real interest here is in the wines Russell puts out under his grandfather’s name.  He’s not one for the glamour of a fancy tasting room or gift shop on the main drag, even though he does run a small, simple tasting room in downtown Paso Robles. (His winery is between a store that sells welding gas on one side and a tire shop on the other.  The whole place backs up to Route 101). But from that modest winery Russell produces about 4,500 cases a year of Grenache and Syrah blends and, oddly enough, full-bodied, round and rich whites made from Rhone varietals.

I asked him about that.  Why take a chance on Marsanne, Roussanne, Viognier, and other types that aren’t all that popular or well-known among American consumers?  After all, most of what we know about California whites is all about Chardonnay, and maybe some Sauvignon Blanc.

“I make what I want to make,” he says.  Period.  And we’re glad he does, because his “Tomboy” white is a stunner. There’s hearty citrus, but not the orange or grapefruit you might expect. No, this is tangerine, and cinnamon, and a bunch of other stuff that makes me wish I had a few more bottles in the cellar.

Herman Story wines are not all that easy to find, but well worth the search. I was walking down the street in Los Olivos about a year ago, and found a wine shop that had some in stock. I bought it all.

Doug Margerum is The D Man

There are a lot of things to like about winemaker Doug Margerum, including the fact that he’s pretty much of a genius in the wine cellar, but one of his best attributes is the affection we share for a man named Didier Dagueneau. Wait. Perhaps I should rephrase. I discovered our shared respect during a recent visit to Doug’s winery in Santa Barbara County in October. Among the wines he presented for us to sample, there was a Sauvignon Blanc called “D.” Of course, I had to ask.

Didier Dagueneau

Turns out that he named it in honor of Didier Dagueneau, a revolutionary (and that’s exactly the right word) winemaker from the Loire Valley. Dagueneau was not just any heretical winemaker rebelling against his region’s thousand-year-old traditions and techniques. I say “was” because in 2008 he was killed, tragically, in the crash of the ultralight aircraft he was flying.

Dagueneau showed up in the Loire and called into (serious) question what the winemakers in the region have always thought Sauvignon Blanc should taste like. Then he showed them how he rolls. Here’s a bit about him, excerpted from my upcoming book, Secrets of the Wine Whisperer, which will be published in the Spring. Come back often and watch for the announcement.

 The Loire being the spiritual and biological home of the Sauvignon Blanc grape, and the Loirese having made this wine since well before Caesar trisected Gaul, the atmosphere wasn’t exactly welcoming when Didier Dagueneau showed up in the town of Pouilly years before and decided to show everybody How It’s Done. If there is a stronger word than outspoken, he was that. Critical of tradition, too, which kept his neighbors from clasping him to their collective bosom, but despite the inertia of the area, most people agree that even though the prices he charged were astronomical, Dagueneau pretty much redefined what Sauvignon Blanc from that particular area is supposed to be. Maybe revolutionized is a better term, since the offices of his winery were decorated with pictures and posters of Che Guevara and others of his political persuasion.

Big, burly and bearded, hair out to there, red flannel shirted, accompanied everywhere by dogs only slightly smaller than himself, anyone who saw Dagueneau would label him a wild man at first sight, just on appearance alone and before knowing anything about his wine.  He looked like he’d be more at home in Humboldt County than in the outer reaches of Pouilly. He had no formal training as a winemaker, having spent most of his life riding motorcycles at high speeds and winning world championships in dogsled racing. Most of his offerings sell in the $75-$120 range, which is painfully high for a Sauvignon Blanc, since many quite quaffable and highly rated examples of the varietal from New Zealand cost well under $15, and excellent Pouillys and Sancerres are widely available for under $25. But this is a case of getting what you pay for, because his healthy disrespect (or maybe disdain) for the way grandpere used to do it, his limiting of the yield he took from his vineyards, and his pioneering application of biodynamic agricultural principles led him to make wines of transcendent elegance and purity. Critics worldwide consistently rated his wines at 95 points and upward for their style and finesse. So when it came to setting prices for his products, he parted ways with the populist and socialistic philosophies espoused by his Cuban revolutionary hero, and headed straight for the profit motive. He felt that his pricing strategy, called “charging what the market will bear,” was justified. Given the quality of what he made, he wasn’t all that wrong.

Doug Margerum (R) shows off his prized French oak barrels.

So Doug and I had plenty to talk about, as the rest of our wineloving group enjoyed their way through the several bottles he’d opened for us. Here are some of our favorites.

“D” Sauvignon Blanc

On the nose, we all pretty much agreed on the citrus (mostly lime) notes, along with some kiwi and white flowers. Just like the best whites from the Eastern Loire, there’s herbaceousness on the palate, minerality, and the fulfillment of those citrus aromas. WW 94-95

Cousin David Lazer samples the Sauv Blanc from the barrel.

M5 2010

Here, Doug does the classic Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvedre blend, and throws in a bit of Counoise and Cinsault just to be a bit more Southern-Rhoneish about it. Dark fruits on the nose and palate include cherry, plum, and blackberry, along with the expected spice notes from the Syrah. We bought a bunch of it.  WW 93

2007 Barrack “Ten Goal”

A very limited production Cabernet Sauvignon with a touch of Cab Franc and Merlot. This is a chewy wine, loaded with black fruit and body. We’ll probably keep ours in the cellar for a few years.  WW 95

WINEMAKERS — Stormin’ Norman At Cottonwood Canyon

Norman Beko

About ten years ago, my wife and I met a couple who were importing Italian and German wines into Southwest Florida. The enterprise did not go well, but one benefit that came from it was meeting Norman Beko, the owner and winemaker at Cottonwood Canyon. His Chardonnay knocked us out.

We ran into his genial and smiling self again at the Florida Wine Festival in Sarasota, and were impressed anew with what he was doing. Even though he’s a bit off the beaten track, locationwise, his wines deserve a sampling, and his winery deserves your visit. We’re planning to be there in October, just before we go to the Wine Experience in LA.

Specializing in Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the Santa Maria appellation, Norman has expanded his efforts considerably since the last time we met. There are a few Syrahs, some interesting Bordeaux blends, a Cabernet Franc, and some sparklers made in the methode Champenoise. (I suppose if I were surrounded by high-end Pinots and Chardonnays, I’d be tempted to make a Champagne style wine, as well.)

We’re looking forward to visiting Norman and his crew when we tour the Sta Maria and Santa Ynez area this coming October.

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