Nothing but Berries

My last visit to Fallbrook Winery was in 2006; longtime restaurateur Ed Moore had invited me up to listen in on a blending session for the winery’s 2004 Merlot. But one blend led to another, and before long, Moore had collaborated with Fallbrook owner Ira Gourvitz and winemaker Duncan Williams to put together a palatable red table wine made from two parts Cab and one part Merlot. Moore named it 3rd Corner Cuvee, then settled on a price for 125 cases of the stuff.

Back then, private-label bottlings like that one amounted to some 40 percent of Fallbrook’s business. Five years later, Gourvitz judges it’s closer to 20 percent, and not because business is hurting. Quite the opposite: the crushpad has been expanded, and there is new, high-end winemaking equipment tucked inside the recently built barrel-storage facility. “We just outgrew our old space,” says Gourvitz with a smile. “The Fallbrook label is starting to get a little grip.” He beams over the sorter-shaker table, picked up after a 2009 trip to France with Moore. “We went to all the First Growth Bordeaux chateaus, from La Mission Haut Brion to Yquem, everybody. Every one of them had one of these.” The shaking table helps ensure that “nothing but berries gets into the fermentation bins. The fruit is so much cleaner.” In sum, “We’re trying to function like a big winery on a smaller scale” — best farming and production practices, multiple price points, broad range of varietals, etc. He’s still pulling Chardonnay out of the celebrated Sleepy Hollow vineyard up in Monterey, but it gets poured alongside a relative (and welcome) oddity like locally sourced dry rosé.

Today, I’m back in that same lablike blending room. Gourvitz and Williams are still quietly sparring over the best way to go, but otherwise, things have changed considerably. For starters, there’s another winemaker onboard: Vernon Kindred, late of Idaho. “My dad made wine there as a kid,” he explains, “so I kind of grew up that way,” eventually going to work for an Idaho winery. But after his daughter grew up and moved out, “it was time for an adventure.” He headed west, found Fallbrook, and has no plans to leave. “There’s something about these grapes, this place.”

That’s the other really big difference at Fallbrook: grapes at this place. Five years ago, the first tiny batches of estate-grown wine had just gone into barrel, pulled from a young hillside vineyard facing the winery. Now that vineyard is mature and surrounded by acres more. The long, sloping approach to the winery is lined with vines planted by Williams way back when, but now tended by Jake Ruhe, the sort of vineyard manager who recommends a round of hedging before pruning — more work, says Gourvitz, but better results. “It was always all about this, though,” he says, “all about the vineyards and the estate wines. I was a grower, remember” — in Sonoma, before coming south.

But getting back to the lab: today’s blend is for the ’09 Fallbrook California Cabernet. The ’08, which shows up at both Costco and Ruth’s Chris, is running low, and the goal is to put together a blend that will keep up brand continuity even though it’s a touch short on barrel age. By the fourth round of tweaks, everybody is happy: the fruit profile is very close, and the oak is making itself known on the palate. “My favorite wine term is, ‘You know, this wine tastes good,’” concludes Gourvitz. “What a concept.”

Back in ’06, 80 percent of the fruit for the Fallbrook Cabernet came from Temecula. Now, nearly 80 percent hails from the considerably more fashionable Paso Robles region, and Temecula is nowhere to be found in the mix. There’s a little local fruit out of Bonsall, a bit of Syrah to beef up the middle (the ’08 used Petite Sirah), some El Dorado Merlot for rounding out the finish. And for the oak: three percent Estate Cabernet. “About three years ago,” says Gourvitz, “I decided that our oak profile was low. I thought it needed a hit, that all our reds should go in new French oak first and get that shot of flavor and structure. It’s made a huge difference.” It certainly shows in the ’09 blend; Williams praises its spice, and the way it contributes “more oak and tannin texture on the mid-palate.”

The blend means one less barrel for the Estate Cabernet bottling, sold under Fallbrook’s 33 Degree North label. But nobody’s overly worried because it’s not all about the Cab. “Cabernet Sauvignon is the king grape,” explains Kindred, “but it’s not the best grape that grows here. So its perfect place is in the BDX” — Fallbrook’s Bordeaux-style blend, named after the industry’s shorthand for the wine — “because we can take other components and make it look good.”

Adds Williams, “The Merlot picks it up, complements it. And we’ve got a little more Merlot acreage now than Cabernet, so as time goes by, it will be the driving component. That’s a good thing. It’s round, it’s rich, it’s fruity. This was our goal when we started planting: a unique Bordeaux-blend estate wine. Not Cinq Cepages, not Opus One — but BDX.”

As a result, says Kindred, “The BDX takes priority in the blending. It’s our flagship wine; it’s what drives everything else. We’ll sit down and do the blending, and whatever varietal lots we have left over after the blend, we’ll bottle on their own. We thought we were going to get to do an ’08 Petite Verdot, because we liked it so much. But it all fit into the BDX,” so no-go on the solo Verdot. “Then we had some Cabernet Franc left over,” and, voilà, ’08 features an Estate Cab Franc. Also: Merlot, Malbec, Syrah, and Sangiovese. (Those last two don’t ever fit into the BDX, but it’s okay, they manage just fine on their own.)

Walking around the grounds, Gourvitz practically radiates contentment. “It took 17 years,” he begins, then changes course. “My son Ted is really taking hold on the business end. He’s been here about seven years. My golf game is getting better.”

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