“Marietta Cellars: Spinning Magic in Sonoma County”

Scott Bilbro and his late father, Chris

By: Nan McCreary, Sr. Staff Writer, The Grapevine Magazine

Marietta Cellars owner and winemaker Scot Bilbro remembers growing up and watching his late father, Chris, perform magic in his winery in Sonoma County.  Not magic with cards or sleight of hand, but magic in transforming cardboard wine boxes into suits of armor for his boys or grilling sweet but spicy ribs and blending a fruity Zinfandel and a hearty Petite Sirah to make a perfect wine pairing for dinner.

  It is that same magic — the magic of creativity and possibility — that inspires Scot, second generation winemaker at the small family winery founded by Chris Bilbro in 1978.  “I’m building off what my father started,” Bilbro told The Grapevine Magazine, “and keeping a lot of his creeds and thoughts in my head and heart while also making it my own thing.”

  The hallmark of the elder Bilbro’s winemaking was a certain freedom of expression, his son explained, which inspired him to create unique blends of wines atypical of Sonoma County, and all of California for that matter. “Dad was just a pleasurable, comfortable gentleman who did things that made sense to him,” Bilbro remembered. “It wasn’t that he threw the rulebook out; it was just that he hadn’t been classically trained so he did things in a way that made sense to him.”  One such blend was his now-iconic Old Vine Red, a combination of Zinfandel, Syrah, Petite Syrah and Carignan that Chris Bilbro created in the 1980s. The proprietary blend put Marietta Cellars on the map and earned a stable of dedicated followers that continues to this day. What makes this wine especially distinctive is that it’s a blend not just of varieties, but of vintages. “This is a delicious wine that has become a well-known table wine for people across the country,” Bilbro said.  “And yet it started as a little brainchild created by my father in a little cow barn in the hills above Dry Creek and Healdsburg.”

  Bilbro, with a winery as his childhood playground and a degree in Viticulture and Enology at U.C. Davis, has been continuing his father’s legacy since Chris retired in 2012.  While that legacy was well established — Chris’s success with OVR allowed Marietta to grow and purchase its own vineyards rather than continue to source fruit from friends and farmers — the younger Bilbro has access to Marietta’s 310 acres of estate-based vineyards in Alexander Valley in Sonoma and McDowell Valley and the Yorkville Highlands in Mendocino.  Marietta still chooses to source a small amount of grapes from a few select growers with whom they have significant history. 

  Marietta’s vineyards offer an ideal climate for grape growing, with hot days for ripening and cool nights for developing acidity to balance the flavors. All grapes are farmed organically, with no synthetic herbicides, pesticides or fertilizers.  “This means lots of hand labor,” Bilbro told The Grapevine Magazine, “but most of our vineyard crew has been with us for years — some for decades —and they know what needs to be done and when.”  Bilbro and his crew tend the vineyards year round, and when harvest time comes, they pick the grapes with care and precision.  In some years, they may harvest multiple times per block, depending on the ripeness of grapes in that block.  “All of this is time-consuming,” Bilbro acknowledged, “but there are no shortcuts in the vineyard, or in the winery.  Everything is determined by information we’re getting at the time rather than by going on autopilot.”

  In the winery, Bilbro is now spinning wine with his own magic, just like his father before him.  “My winemaking philosophy is an amalgam of my father and my education at UC Davis,” Bilbro explained. “We ferment in stainless steel tanks and age in neutral oak, because we want the grapes to preserve the properties of their terroir.” In any given harvest, the volume of a grape variety may exceed the room in the fermentation tank, so Bilbro and his team separate those grapes into individual tanks for fermentation and aging.  Typically, Marietta has 80 fermentations with each harvest, sometimes with two fermentations from one block, separated by ripeness.  Once the separate fermentation lots have matured in barrel, maybe as long as a year, they bring individual lots of wine together to create the final wine. “It’s much better to make sure the wine is balanced before wrapping the fermentations together rather than finding out a year later that the wine is not as balanced or complete as we like and having to resort to additives,” he said. “We want to make sure that everything that goes together deserves to go together.”

  Marietta creates three series of wines: the OVR series, the Family Series and the Single Vineyard Series.  The OVR series includes wines made from old vines: the Old Vine Red; a Rose made from some of the oldest Grenache and Syrah in the state; and a Riesling sourced from the state’s second oldest Riesling vines. The Family Series features wines that Bilbro names after people in his life and business:  Román, a crisp, modern Zinfandel named after their cellarmaster of 34 years; Christo, his version of a Rhone-style red wine, honoring Chris Bilbro, or “Christo” as his beloved great aunt Marietta (for whom the winery is named) called him and a passionate lover of Syrah; and Armé, a Cabernet Sauvignon that balances New and Old World styles and is named for Marietta’s husband, Armé and Chris’ adventurous great uncle. The Single Vineyard Series highlights individual vineyards that deliver the purest expression of place: Angeli, a Zinfandel from Angeli Ranch in Alexander Valley, settled in 1886 and home to the Marietta Cellars winery; Game Trail, a cellar-worthy Cabernet Sauvignon from the Yorkville Highlands; and Gibson Block, a Syrah from the McDowell Valley, among the state’s oldest Syrah vines, dating back to the 1880s.

  While all of these wines are quality wines in their own right, it’s the historic OVR that’s the signature wine for Marietta Cellars.  The winery produces 50,000 cases of wine a year; 25,000 is OVR. While there’s no recipe for the wine, Bilbro said it’s always based on Zinfandel, with smaller components of Syrah, Petite Syrah and Carignan. “We have a massive barrel room, almost like a three-dimensional matrix with multiple varieties and multiple vintages,” he told The Grapevine Magazine.  “My dad and I would pick lots that we thought might be relevant to the next release, and we’d blindly taste through them and put them in different groupings, like groupings of wines with bright fruit, structure or wines with savory components.  Then we’d pick our favorites from each and blend them together to make the OVR.  We’d do all of this by feel, which is part of that freedom of expression.” The OVR is released in lots, two lots per year.  Marietta Cellars is now on lot #71.  “The blend is always different,” Bilbro noted. “I may add a half a percentage of Cabernet to bring up in some tannins, or a bit of Barbera to bring up the acidity. A percentage doesn’t seem like much, but it can make a difference.” Whatever the blend, the style of OVR is always the same: it’s an easy drinking, medium-bodied wine that’s full of flavor.

  As Marietta Cellars looks to the future, more exploration is in the cards.  Bilbro and his staff are especially excited about their vineyards in McDowell Valley in Mendocino, which is renowned for Rhone varieties and home to some of the oldest Syrah and Grenache Gris in California. “We want to play with historical varieties that are less articulated out there and rearticulate them,” Bilbro said.  “We also want to work these grapes into our existing blends to add some nuance.” These grapes, according to Bilbro, include Mourvedre, Roussanne, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc, Picpoul and Viognier, all grapes from the Rhone Valley that are becoming more popular among U.S. growers.

  Business-wise, Marietta Cellars recently entered a partnership with VINTUS, a wines and spirits importer and marketing agent to expand its presence in the market.  The company has been named a Wine & Spirits Importer of the Year five times (2015-2016-2017-2018-2019-2020) and in 2017 was named Wine Enthusiast Importer of the Year.  VINTUS’ portfolio today includes Chateau Montelena, Gary Farrell Winery, Ponzi Vineyards, Champagne Bollinger, E. Guigal, Chateau Minuty, Ornellaia, Masseto, Pétrus, Château La Fleur-Pétrus, Château Margaux, Masciarelli, Tommasi, Sandrone, Le Macchiole, Quinta do Noval, Dog Point Vineyard, Errazuriz Finca Decero and others totaling more than 40 leading global estates.

  Clearly, Marietta Cellars, a small family winery, has been doing big things since it was founded over 40 years ago.  But the goals remain the same as they were in the beginning: to create something special and share that with the world. “Ultimately, sharing what we do with our lives — rather than our jobs — is important to us,” Bilbro told The Grapevine Magazine.  “Our wine is not a commodity:  It’s something we are pouring our time and hearts and souls into.  When people drink our wines, we hope they think about our family and how much care and focus we put into what we do so they can actually feel what it’s like to make these wines and walk these vineyards. We want people to experience our wine, not just taste it.”

For more information on Marietta Cellars, visit www.mariettacellars.com

Defining the Best Single-Vineyards in the Niagara Peninsula

By: Alyssa Andres

The Niagara Peninsula is the largest viticultural area in Canada, with two regional appellations and ten sub-appellations. The peninsula sits between the Niagara Escarpment and Lake Ontario, creating a unique microclimate that is sheltered from prevailing winds and insulated by its proximity to the lake.  Many small rivers and streams in the area provide an excellent water source for vineyards through the long dry summers, and the soft aspect of the escarpment provides excellent drainage. Centuries of erosion have created a complex soil structure that varies from location to location within the regional appellations, from clay and silt to limestone and sand. The unique variations in soil are ideal for creating wines with distinct character and personality.

  These marked distinctions in terroir and climate mean that a Cabernet Franc will taste remarkably different from one vineyard to the next within the peninsula. Some winemakers believe there is definitive variation in grapes even from one end of a single-vineyard to the next. For this reason, some Niagara wineries are moving toward labeling their wines by single-vineyard and starting to define what the best vineyards are in the region.

  Just like the Grand Cru vineyards in France, certain vineyards in Niagara stand out as being supreme. Cave Spring is a vineyard that first rose to esteem as one of the finest in the region. Located in the Beamsville Bench sub-appellation of the Niagara Escarpment, it is owned by the winemaking family, the Pennachettis. The vineyard gets its name from the limestone caves and natural springs that surround it.

  Cave Spring Vineyard sits along the steep cliffs of the escarpment, planted on gently sloping hills that provide optimal drainage and retain ample moisture during the Mediterranean summers experienced in the region. The escarpment also captures the temperate lake effect breezes from Lake Ontario, which lengthen the growing season and allow for optimal flavor and ripeness in the grapes. Above, on the ridge of the escarpment, the vineyard is surrounded by hardwood forest. The forest retains plenty of moisture that slowly filters through layers of sedimentary rock, feeding mineral-rich water into the vineyard. The soil is a stony clay: a complex mixture of limestone, shale and sandstone that give Cave Spring’s wine a distinct minerality.

  Cave Spring focuses on Riesling and Chardonnay, which the Pennachetti family believes exhibit the ultimate expression of the vineyard’s terroir. They use only the top 5% of grapes from the best blocks and parcels in the vineyard for their CSV estate release. Some of their old vines date as far back as the mid-1970s. The wines are delicate and aromatic with notes of melon, lime, white blossom and a characteristic wet stone that comes from the vineyard’s terroir.

  Both the Riesling and Chardonnay are dry, with vibrant acidity and bright fruit flavors achieved from the vineyard’s ideal location. CSV wines are only produced in the best vintages when the growing season allows for it, but the Pennachettis say there are few years that conditions do not permit, due to the vineyard’s premium locale.

  Down the road from Cave Spring Vineyard, in the Twenty Mile Bench VQA sub-appellation, Tawse  

Winery is also making note of their ideal single-vineyard locations. Owner and founder Moray Tawse purchased his first vineyard in 2000 and now owns over 200 acres of prime grape-growing real estate in the Niagara Escarpment. All four of his vineyards are comprised of limestone clay loam, which gives Tawse wines a unique depth and character. Tawse is not only labeling his wines by single-vineyard, but he has also divided the vineyards into different blocks so he can further define the terroir within each plot. The Cherry Avenue Vineyard has three blocks, each named after his three children: Robyn, Carly and David. Each block is home to different grape varietals, from Riesling to Cab Franc, each thriving in the vineyard’s deep clay soil.

  Tawse winemakers practice organic and biodynamic farming as well as minimal intervention winemaking techniques to allow the resulting wines to display as much of the vineyard’s terroir as possible. The variation between each single-varietal estate bottle is surprising as each plot receives varying amounts of sunlight, precipitation and drainage. Having an array of different plots allows Tawse to pick and choose which of his grapes he uses for single-varietal each year, as growing conditions vary dramatically from season to season.

  For this reason, some winemakers in Niagara choose not to purchase the best land in the region, but instead, act as classic French “negotients” and buy the best grapes from a multitude of different growers and vineyards in the area. This allows them to pick and choose where they get their grapes instead of being tied down to a specific plot.

  One winemaker in Niagara working this way is Thomas Bachelder. He has made it one of his goals to define the best single-vineyard plots in the region. Originally from Quebec, Bachelder started his winemaking education in Burgundy, where he became extremely interested in terroir and its impact on wine. After producing wine in Burgundy and Oregon, Bachelder settled in Niagara, where he specializes in Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. He labels his wines with the name of the single-vineyard, and his latest release goes as far as to define the different ends of these single-vineyards.

  In his most recent release, Bachelder produced three Chardonnays and four Pinot Noirs from five different vineyards in the Niagara Escarpment.

  Three of these vineyards are part of the Wismer Vineyards, a collection of eight farms in the Twenty Mile Bench that are becoming known within the region as some of the best for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Two of Bachelder’s 2018 Pinot Noirs are single-varietals from the Wismer-Parke vineyard, but one is made using only grapes from the vineyard’s west side. The 2018 Wismer-Parke “Wild West End” has a distinct iron, flesh and game note that the other sides of the vineyard do not offer.

  Therefore, Bachelder has taken the notion of single-vineyard and brought it one step further, defining the unique flavor profiles found from one end of a vineyard to the next. 

  One of Bachelder’s other favorite vineyards in the Niagara region is the Lowrey Vineyard. Two of his 2018 single-vineyard Pinot Noirs are made with grapes from Lowrey, one using only Pinot Noir from the oldest vines on the property, planted in 1984. Located in the St. David’s Bench sub-appellation, the vineyard is owned by the Lowrey family, who have farmed the land for five generations. The family turned from fruit farming to grape growing in 1984 when Howard Wesley Lowrey first planted five rows of Pinot Noir.

  Since then, the Lowreys have been supplying grapes to some of Canada’s most prestigious winemakers, including Ilya Senchuk from Leaning Post Wines and Kevin Panagapka from 2027 vineyards. However, the Lowrey’s keep a small percentage of the grapes from their 35 acres of farmland for their craft wine, Five Rows.

  Five Rows Craft Wine has become well-known in the region for producing beautiful, complex wines that sell out before anyone can get their hands on them. The family takes a minimal intervention approach to their winemaking, avoiding artificial pest control and fertilizers, with the intention of producing wines that are truly characteristic of their vineyard. They tend to the vines by hand and treat each vine as an individual to ensure optimal fruit quality. Their hands-on approach produces some of the most highly sought after grapes and wine in the Niagara region, from Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah to Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling.

  All of their fruit comes from their vineyard, and only small quantities are produced. The extra love and attention given to the vines pay off. By focusing on quality over quantity, the Lowreys have defined their vineyard as one of the best in the region.

  By labeling single-vineyard locations, Niagara winemakers can clearly define why their wines are superior. Just like winemakers in Burgundy and Bordeaux, who are known for their specific Grand Cru sites, Niagara is in the process of developing a similar map.

  Now, consumers can learn what vineyards to look out for and start to understand the flavor profiles of different sites compared to others. The diversity in terroir, elevation and climate in the Niagara region means that flavors can vary dramatically from vineyard to vineyard. It is important to define extraordinary vineyards and understand why they are so special.

   As this burgeoning winemaking region continues to grow and businesses expand to accommodate the market, these are the areas that need to be protected. By defining the best single-vineyards and including them on the bottle, Niagara winemakers can display the complexities found in each of these sites and clearly exhibit the impact these locations have on the wine.

  The vineyards start to take on their own personalities, and consumers can begin to taste the characteristics of each one. It’s the next step in the future of Niagara wines.