Travel, Etc.

Travel, Etc.

Travel, Etc.

Travel, Etc. --> Hendry Ranch

Sonoma and Napa Spring Break Tour 2005
A visit to the Hendry Ranch - Wine, according to George - 101

On our second day, we took the short drive across Highway 12 to the Southern Napa Valley where the benchlands below Mt. Veeder meet the Carneros for a visit with George Hendry. Hendry wines were just introduced to Indiana last year and I have to admit that at first glance the simple black and white labels almost look as if they had been done on a Xerox machine until you notic the fancy deckled paper they are printed on. However, the proof behind the simple package was in the tasting. And, they were impressive, very impressive. We decided to find out why...

The Hendry Ranch

The Hendy winery is a relatively new winery with a long history. George Hendry has been growing grapes all his life, farming the same ground his father farmed before him. However, George took a detour along the way. While still maintaining the vineyards, George received his graduate degree in nuclear physics in 1963 and is still president of Cyclotron Inc., where he designs and manufacturers particle accelerators to manufacture radio pharmaceuticals.

However, all you have to do is look at George's hands to know what his first love is - growing grapes. And not just any grapes. Until 1992, he sold all his grapes to other wineries including Cabernet, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir for Mondavi Reserves and Opus One, not to mention the "George Hendry Reserve" Zinfandel that helped make the Rosenblum winery famous.

Methodical, deliberate, very precise and possessing a wickedly dry sense of humor, George's scientific personality comes through in every aspect of the winery. He rivets you with his depth of knowledge and seems to speak with an almost Papal authority when it comes to winemaking. He appears to live simply with his two dogs in a large1880's family home that belies its age. He dresses in denim from head to toe, crowned by an authentic pith helmet that looks like it could have came from a Rudyard Kipling story.

There is no public tasting room here, deep in the rolling benchland just south of Mt. Veeder. There is only a small sign on the mailbox marking the Hendry Ranch. George and his wine growing neighbor, Susan Ridley, became partners in 1995. She handles the marketing and he handles the wine, employing only full time help, even during harvest. Over the hours we spent with him, George gave us a fascinating lesson in Wine Making according to George - 101. Linda took four pages of notes and while I have spent many an afternoon talking to winemakers, I have never come away with anything approaching the picture of the relationship between wine growing and wine making that George outlined for us.

George's property encompasses 200 acres with 117 acres planted to 15 varietals planed in 29 distinct blocks. He broke his discussion into three parts...

The Land & Climate
He started by trying to help us understand his terroir by comparing two Pinot Noir blocks that stand side by side. Block 3 is 1.6 acres on the flats, next to a creek, just across from the winery; it produces a thin, lighter bodied, red cherry style Pinot Noir. Block 4, on the other hand, is 5 acres right next door, on the slope up from the creek; it produces a rich, medium bodied, black cherry Pinot Noir.

Why?  Lesson one... it's all about moisture.  It seems grapevines love to produce leaves, and the more water they have, the larger the canopy they produce.  When they are stressed by lack of moisture they put all their vigor into the fruit.  It seems that since block 3 is close to the creek there is no keeping the roots away from moisture so the vines grow throughout the season.  Block 4 is on a slope, with good drainage, and far enough from the creek that unirrigated the vines stop growing about half way through the season and concentrate their energy on the fruit.

He also made the point that there is a reason that there are very few places in the world well suited to growing wine grapes.  I never thought about it before, but Bordeaux is on the same latitude as Oregon and Napa is the same as Sicily.   They both grow Cabernet. It's just different.  Bordeaux's cooler, wetter climate influenced by the warm current of the gulf stream produces leaner, more nuanced wines. Napa's warmer, drier climate, influenced by the cooler waters of the Pacific, produces riper, bolder fruit. So it doesn't make sense to try and make Bordeaux in Napa or bold Cabernet's in Bordeaux. 

The Grapes
George spent a long time talking about the fruit, but we came away with knowing that the most important thing is the point at which he harvests his grapes - or his thoughts on ripeness. 

George believes in using phenolic ripeness as his guide for when to pick his grapes rather than the typical sugar level measurement of the grape, Brix.  To make a complex subject that I barely understand slightly simpler, suffice it to say that phenolics comprise a group of many compounds present in the skins and seeds of grapes that contribute to the color, flavor and tannic content of the wine.   So just when we were beginning to think he was more chemist than winemaker /physicist, he told us how he knows when they have achieved phenolic ripeness.

Ideal hang time for the grape clusters is about 131 days and at that point he begins checking.  He makes his judgments by taking a grape seed and grinding it between his molars. When it is no longer bitter, it's time to harvest.  Seeds and skins ripen more slowly than the grapes themselves so by the time the green seeds turn brown, sugar levels have also risen. Sometimes this means he has to deal with exceptionally high alcohol because sugar levels go higher while he waits for phenolic ripeness.   To solve that, he often has a few barrels from each batch treated using the spinning cone method to pull their alcohol levels down under 10%.  He then blends those barrels with the other wine to reduce the overall alcohol level.  The bottom line is that by waiting, the riper seeds and skins produce softer tannins, less bitterness and a more approachable wine.   

The Winemaking
George's attitude toward the wines he makes is that they should be blended for harmony and balance, with no one flavor dominating... much like French cooking.  The winery is only five years old and is a state of the art facility.   The entire winery is designed to facilitate the movement of the wine through gravity, not pumps.  The fermentation tanks have even been placed a level below the floor where the crush is done so the crushed grapes can flow directly from crushers into them.  

While in the barrel room, the discussion turned to TCA contamination and while George is moving to screw caps for his white wines, he is still in the camp that feels that red wines intended to age need a permeable closure like cork (a very debated question as to whether or not corks actually "breath.") The interesting thing he had to say was that he discovers a surprising number of barrels that are subtly tainted with TCA. George seems to posses a highly TCA-sensitive palate. In the evenings, when the winery is quiet,  he will come back and carefully taste through the red wine barrels checking for contamination.    At the Hendry winery, it all seems to be about attention to detail. 

After finishing our tour, we tasted through a selection of his wines, including the unoaked Chardonnay, two Pinot Noirs, two Zinfandels and a Cabernet.   I can only say that the quality really does show.  They are exceptional wines and George is an exceptional winemaker. 

As we tasted the Cabernet, George asked if we wanted to him to open an other bottle as he was detecting a slight cork taint.  I was trying to detect it when herd instinct kicked in and we all agreed that it was very subtle, but  there was no need to open an other bottle.  As we drove away, Tom turned to me and said "did you really think that wine was tainted?" I didn't and neither did anyone else.  In retrospect, I think he was testing us, we failed... 

Wine Guy Reviews
Simply put... this is the best bottle of Napa Valley Pinot Noir I have ever had.
Hendry Ranch Pinot Noir 2002 Napa Valley, California $29
A Wine Guy Pick What We Thought: This classic Pinot Noir is light garnet in color and medium-bodied with a candied black cherry nose and a near perfect blend of ripe black cherry and spice on the incredibly rich palate supported by velvety tannins and finishing long and smooth.

If you liked Peter Rosback's Sineann Chard, you're gonna like this one...
Hendry Ranch Unoaked Chardonnay 2004 Napa Valley, California $17
A Wine Guy Pick What We Thought: As a rule, good unoaked Chardonnay is hard to find... most that I taste are tart and acidic. This, however, is a big exception to that rule. Made without oak or malolactic fermentation, this wine is rich and ripe with a nose of ripe pear and a soft, smooth palate of more ripe pears and apples. The very pure fruit is supported evident but very subtle tannins, and a long, clean finish.

An elegant, food friendly Zinfandel...
Hendry Ranch Zinfandel 2001 Napa Valley, California $18
A Wine Guy Pick What We Thought: This beautiful Zinfandel has a spicy, peppery nose of candied plums and a rich, ripe plum and black raspberry palate that is accented by notes of chocolate and more peppery spice. In spite of its 15.4% alcohol, this wine manages to be fully textured without being heavy. An elegant Zin that hides its alcoholic heat well.