|Todd Gottula and Erin Brooks|
At first glance, the back story doesn't fit. They're tech people, the couple behind Ernest Vineyards. Newcomers to the wine industry. They don't own any vineyards. In fact, they live in San Francisco, from where one still runs a software company.
But if you break bread with Todd Gottula and Erin Brooks, you learn the back story fits much better than it seems. They are wine lovers, land lovers and farm lovers, and their wines are a passion project.
It was surprisingly hard, over a meal at their favorite local restaurant Bar Agricole, to get them to drink their own wines.
"You start in the mid-'90s getting into California Cabs," he said. "Somebody tips you off to a different reality. (Sommelier) Eugenio Jardim said, 'You don't need that Cab, you need Burgundy.' I don't remember the exact wine, but I remember saying, 'This, this is what I want to drink.' I had collected a lot of great California Cabs and I sold them all. I soon found out it wasn't just Burgundy. Rochioli at the time, those wines were unbelievable. I thought, 'You can make this in California.' "
Both Gottula and Brooks spent much of their childhood on farms.
"I grew up in the panhandle of West Texas," Brooks says. "My hometown was 600 people. I grew up Republican. I love my family, I respect my heritage, but I was always looking west. I would sit on the porch with my grandma and watch the sunset, looking west.
"My mom made unconventional choices in the '60s," Brooks says. "She got married to her high-school sweetheart who my family deplored. She got divorced when I was five."
Gottula's grandfather was a Lockheed engineer who owned an 85-acre citrus ranch in Visalia.
"I spent my childhood every summer working the ranch," he said. "It wasn't just working the ranch, but having the great time a kid can have on a big piece of property."
By the time Gottula and Brooks met, both were divorced and he had a daughter, Edina.
"Having a daughter, I wanted to replicate the experience of running around a ranch," Gottula said. "We thought, 'Let's get into the wine business.' But we found out right away that the idea that you're going to buy 10 acres of land with a white picket fence, with a house on it, that is unattainable."
That may still be possible in parts of California, even ones that make good wines like in Gold Country. But if you're in love with Burgundy ...
"On the Sonoma Coast, the combination of the marine influence, the cool nights and mornings, the bright sun, you just get the magical expression of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that's inspiring," Gottula said. "Burgundy has had 2000 years to find the best expression of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. We have the ability to do that on the Sonoma Coast. To put something in the glass that people say, 'That is inspiring. That is amazing. That is what I want to drink every day.' "
The couple found an important ally early: organic farming pioneer Phil Coturri.
"When you first get into wine and you don't have vineyards, the biggest question is, where do you get vineyards?" Gottula said. "Phil Coturri recommended a site that had been overcropped. It's nearly impossible even if you have unlimited funds to work with the best sites on the Sonoma Coast when you're starting out. William Rayhill planted 20 years ago in an attempt to make a big, rich Pinot Noir. The site is really too marginal for that style. People started leaving that site. We started taking the vineyard where it wants to go: harvested much earlier, much lower crop load."
They began with 900 cases in 2012 and by last year were up to nearly 3000 cases with three labels: Ernest, for single-vineyard Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays; Edaphos, for small lots of wines they find interesting, like an Aligoté and a Barbera from Sonoma County; and Eugenia, for rosé.
I tried several of the Ernest Vineyards wines and liked them all. They're all such small-production wines that I don't want to set up one particular one as a unicorn, so this is just a sample:
This wine is from a new vineyard planted in 2012, so this is the first vintage, and it's very promising. It's an elegant wine with delightful mouthfeel, seamlessly smooth yet with texture, and raspberry fruit with notes of rose petals. It's an easy wine to enjoy with dinner yet it also rewards attention. Just 131 cases were made. Buy it here
But I recommend checking out any of their wines, if you see one on a restaurant wine list. So many people want to make Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in California. This couple does it with respect for the land.