Blends Up There, Down Here

This story starts around 20 years ago, when Peter Van Alyea fell in love with the Sonoma Valley. And, he notes, “If you want to move to that valley and buy property, then you better expect to grow grapes.” So in 1993, that’s what he did, picking up 36 acres of phylloxera-ridden vines in Dry Creek at the very bottom of the real estate market. He rehabbed the vineyard and started switching his 20 acres of Chardonnay over to Merlot, Cabernet, and Petite Sirah. That last one “is a cult wine for a lot of people, but it’s also a great blender grape. It’s the heaviest wine that you can drink, except for maybe Alicante Bouschet, and you’ll find it in probably the majority of Zinfandels out there.” (Legally, to be labeled as a particular varietal, a wine need contain only 75 percent of that varietal.) “It’s in a lot of Cabernets and Merlots, and I’ve sold it to a very well known Pinot Noir producer up there.”

“Up there” is Sonoma — just now, Pete is “down here” in San Marcos, visiting his son Chris, proprietor (and sole employee) of Christopher Cameron Vineyards. These days, Chris is working out of Frank Bon’s Twin Oaks Valley Winery; before that, he found a home at Witch Creek in Carlsbad. “I worked there,” he recalls, “and bartered four tons of fruit to use their equipment.” The fruit was from the family vineyard — Sonoma was suffering a bit of a glut, and Chris was breaking into the SoCal wine business, so the shift southward worked out nicely. “I just prefer to live down here,” explains Chris. “I love surfing, going down to Baja.” (While he was at it, he found a healthy outlet for the family’s fruit in the San Diego and Orange County amateur-winemaking communities. “I started selling about 20 tons, with people buying about 1000 pounds each.”)

Chris got his start in wine when — well, it depends on who you ask. Pete recalls taking his son to Bistro Ralph in Healdsburg while the lad was figuring out what he wanted to do with his life. “I ordered a bottle of Mazzocco Zinfandel, and it was just an awfully good bottle of wine. Chris said, ‘Anything that can taste this good, I want to have something to do with it.’ ”

Chris’s story of choice is a tad less glamorous. Back from a stint teaching English in South America, he landed a job with super-distributor Southern Wine & Spirits and eventually met “one of the kids from the Fetzer family” up in Ukiah. “He said, ‘I made this wine — I just did this and this and this and this.’ And it was pretty good.” Armed with a book and a bunch of his family’s Chardonnay grapes, Chris took a crack at winemaking in ’99 and wound up with a carboy full of brown, murky liquid — just like Bill Pullman with his Chateau Montelena Chardonnay in Bottle Shock. And, like Pullman, he eventually learned that the browning was temporary — a vinous growing pain. “It turned out pretty good.” Good enough to take a shot at going pro in 2002.

(He’s come a long way since that first carboy. Today, he manages to make big, fruity wines — over 15 percent alcohol — that are not obviously, tongue-numbingly so. Response has been good: his wines have found their way into most of the local bottle shops, including the WineSellar, Wine Bank, and onto wine lists at restaurants such as Mister A’s.)

Still, he was cautious enough at the outset to bring in a consultant. Says Chris, “His main thing was to add a little bit of the new vintage to the older vintage.” Father and son let the consultant walk when the man started asking $10,000 a year to give advice on 300 cases’ worth of production, but they held on to the idea. “All the wines I’ve bottled since ’02 have had a touch of new vintage wine in them. The big thing that’s lost in barrel-aging is that youthful fruit” — and a dollop of brand-new wine helps to restore it. “By law, you’re allowed to add 15 percent new vintage; I’ve added up to 8 percent.”

A blending bent, it seems, runs in the family. And Chris was just getting started. “During the ’05 vintage, I started experimenting with different yeasts on a Merlot. I put it in four different bins with four different yeasts and sanitized the punch-down rod between each bin. When fermentation finished, I had Sonoma winemakers who couldn’t tell they were from the same grapes. One was all leather, no fruit. Another was all cherries. Now I do all my fermentations in at least two separate bins with different yeasts; instead of just cooking with salt, why not cook with oregano, too?”

From blending yeasts, it was a short step to blending barrels. “I started thinking, Why not use different oaks, just to bring more complexity to the table?” In 2009, he scored a bunch of Lake County Malbec for $1000 a ton. (Because it’s not from his father’s vineyard, Chris will sell it under his Costa Azul label.) After fermentation, he spread the wine out over a dozen barrels. “World Cooperage up in Napa has found a way to extract different characteristics with convection toasting, as opposed to traditional fire toasting,” explains Chris. “They can do high vanilla, high mocha — it’s spot-on.”

A couple of examples: the wine from the high-vanilla barrel, besides smelling of vanilla, finishes with an intense burst of strawberry jam. To me, it tastes more like Pinot Noir than the easily recognizable Malbec that comes out of the neutral barrel. A tight-grained American oak barrel gives more spice. And so on down the line, each barrel yielding an ingredient for the final blend. “That’s the best part of the job — you get in the cellar and you go crazy.”

That’s the Malbec. There’s also Chardonnay, Petite Sirah, Cabernet, Merlot — and a late-harvest Zinfandel that he’s looking to blend with some late-harvest Petite Sirah. “And I have a barrel of Merlot and Petite Sirah that I co-fermented. I’m calling it Merah. It’s kind of fun to try different stuff.”

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