1972...a year for new thought and tradition-reversing headlines, world-wide: the Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional. Nixon opened relations with Communist China by sitting down for a chat with Mao Zedong. George McGovern, presidential hopeful, upset time-honored conservative notions by abandoning shirt and tie in favor of a white turtleneck.
That same year, while finishing law school, Jayson Pahlmeyer was at the starting gate of his grapes-to-wine quest. He and John Caldwell, a good friend and fellow wine explorer, had developed a penchant and a deep admiration for the Bordeaux style of grape growing and winemaking. Their shared wine palate and nose led them on investigative trips to the famous French vineyards where they acquired cuttings from the five classic Bordeaux varietals. Smuggling them back to California by way of Canada, they began their grand experiment.
The Caldwell family owned a 55-acre parcel off the beaten path in the Coombsville area. Despite being out of the accepted loop for what was considered "Wine Country," Jayson and John decided to perform the trans-Atlantic transplanting here that would produce Jayson's dream "California Mouton." The area's wine experts grimaced at their plan. Even at a mere 500-foot elevation, a good portion of the acreage was vertical, presenting massive rock-clearing problems due to the extreme pitch of the land. The boulder-like size and density of the rock pieces were formidable obstacles. Also, there were stout 300-year-old oak trees blocking important sunlight. But Pahlmeyer and Caldwell would not let pessimism rule.
In stepped Jack Caldwell, John's father, helping them refurbish a junked mining rig salvaged from Montana. With additional shovel-help from a crew of eight men, they planted around the long-standing oaks and lava rocks, sacrificing a considerable amount of usable acreage to preserve the natural environment.
Jayson now recounts, "It took us six years to get our first commercial harvest. In 1981, '82 and '83 if you had come out to the vineyard, you would have said it looks like these guys really screwed up. The vines just sat there doing nothing." The immigrant vines were unaccustomed to the soil and the standard three year maturation period extended to six long years. But Jayson and John's patience-some called it delusion-paid off.
A vineyard neighbor, friend, and guru of Napa Valley winemaking, Randy Dunn, was so impressed with the fruit's intensity and complexity that he offered to purchase every bit of the 1986 crop. Randy's entry into the Pahlmeyer saga was extremely timely because now that the vines were finally ready, Jayson would need the expertise of a bonafide winemaker to bring the experiment to the ultimate test: the tasting.
Robert Parker gave that 1986, first vintage release a stunning score of 94 points; the Pahlmeyer Red Table Wine emerged a critical favorite of the year. Now Jayson could be sure that there was method to the Bordeaux-in-California madness. As Jayson's winemaker until 1993, Randy Dunn fine-tuned the unfiltered winemaking process and made the Pahlmeyer Bordeaux blend a serious contender.
Pahlmeyer's next varietal offering, the Chardonnay, was made by Bob Levy, currently the winemaker at Harlan Estate. His preference for working with low-yield harvests, tough grape-selection standards and limited cellar intervention made him another good fit for the Pahlmeyer program. The 1989, 1991 and 1992 Chardonnay offerings were his workmanship. Then, another textbook example of "right time, right place" occurred. Pahlmeyer's 1991 Chardonnay landed a feature role in the Hollywood blockbuster Disclosure. The Michael Douglas and Demi Moore battle-of-the-sexes flick was instrumental in pushing the "little wine company that could" further toward national name recognition. The legend was officially launched.
Helen Turley was offered the reins as winemaker when Randy moved on to concentrate on personal projects. At Pahlmeyer, Helen immediately began her steady rise to world-renown prominence for the vineyard and winemaking magic she performed. A pioneer in the industry, she constantly pushed the envelope in winegrowing and winemaking with cutting-edge and risky techniques. She also became instrumental in opening doors to women in the wine industry, an insular world known for its fierce attachment to tradition.
Helen continually sought out better fruit sources for Pahlmeyer. As the new millennium emerged Pahlmeyer sourced fruit from low-yield sites in Spring Mountain, Wooden Valley, Atlas Peak and Coombsville. In order to push their quality to new levels Jayson knew that he would have to have complete control over what was happening in the vineyards. The only way to do this was to plant estate vineyards, leading to the development of Pahlmeyer's Waters Ranch and Wayfarer Farm.
The Waters were pioneers in Napa Valley, establishing their Ranch in the early 20th Century. Their original home built in 1908 is still standing. Childless, in the 1950's they turned their spread into a camp for Girl Scouts. In 1996, the Waters' ranch came to Jayson's attention. At 1,500 to 2,100 feet above sea level, the property was ideally situated for raising Bordeaux-style grapes. Today, the vineyard supports just over 70 acres of vines planted over the saddleback of the mountain by the vineyard developer extraordinaire David Abreu. Each block of the vineyard is unique, offering the different growing conditions needed for Chardonnay and each of the five Bordeaux varietals that go into the Pahlmeyer Proprietary Red: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petite Verdot and Malbec. Jayson, as before, set out to plant this vineyard with land preservation and conservation in mind, donating 57 acres of the property to the Land Trust of Napa Valley.
The story of our Sonoma Coast property, Wayfarer Farm, begins with David and Dorothy Davis, an archetypical 1970's California couple. They supported their chosen simplistic lifestyle by selling the Farm's small fruit and vegetable crops to local upscale restaurants like Chez Panisse and Zuni. By the late 1990's they were ready to retire to Oklahoma. Helen Turley and her husband John had already established their nearby Marcassin Vineyard, which has become the iconic vineyard of the region. As consultants to Pahlmeyer at that time, they introduced Jayson to the Davis's. Pahlmeyer purchased Wayfarer Farm in 1997 and enlisted David Abreu to develop the property.
The bulk of Abreu's previous work in vineyard design had been exclusive to the Napa Valley. Wayfarer Farm was the first vineyard he developed on the Sonoma Coast. His meticulous eye and penchant for perfectionism produced another state-of-the-art vineyard for Pahlmeyer. Wayfarer Farm would be the proving ground for one of the first "true" Sonoma Coast wines. The locale boasts an extremely rare combination of climate and geography. The Pacific Ocean's cold water currents mix with the land's warm air to produce a night fog ideal for growing Burgundian varietals. Today, this amazing appellation is the prime viticultural source for Chardonnay and Pinot noir and has been referred to by Jayson as California's Cote d'Or. The long-awaited 2005 Pahlmeyer Pinot noir was released in 2007 to rave reviews.
In 1999 Jayson promoted rising star Erin Green to Winemaker. She had been Helen Turley's protege since 1985, assisting Helen in making the wines of Colgin, Bryant Family and Martinelli. Having worked with Pahlmeyer's fruit since 1993, she was already extremely familiar with their methodologies and intense product expectations. Erin's extraordinary talent for tasting and blending, combined with her viticultural experience, are reflected in the consistent quality of Pahlmeyer wines. In 2006 Erin was promoted again to Director of Winegrowing and Winemaker.
Pahlmeyer's standards were raised to an even higher plateau with the input of Michel Rolland, who experts agree is the world's most formidable blending expert and consultant. Three times a year he traveled from France to work shoulder-to-shoulder with Erin, tasting hundreds of barrel samples to help create the optimal Pahlmeyer blends.
On the eve of Pahlmeyer's 20th Anniversary, the family is more involved than ever. Jayson's wife, Paige, has increased her long-time involvement in the team with her new role as President and his daughter, Cleo, has joined the family's endeavors in Sales and Marketing. The family and rest of the Pahlmeyer team look forward to the next 20 years and beyond, rededicating themselves to remain true to the passion that defines the Pahlmeyer story and that is sure to become its legacy. Read less