Monday, July 20, 2009

Peaches from Pope Valley -- a visit to Dollarhide Ranch

Napa Valley is not known for biodiversity, and no wonder, since wine grapes fetch a fortune compared to everything else. The exception is D0llarhide Ranch.

The 1500-acre ranch is owned by St. Supery, which stands out among major Napa Valley wineries as a Sauvignon Blanc specialist.

Visiting last weekend, I expected to see some grapevines and taste some good wines. I didn't expect to nosh the best nectarine I've had in a long time. Turns out that celebrity chefs Thomas Keller, Alice Waters and Cindy Pawlcyn share my taste in stone fruit -- heritage varieties that might not be beautiful, but are brimming with intense flavor.

Dollarhide Ranch is in Pope Valley, on the far east side of Napa County. The fog rarely clears Howell Mountain, so Pope Valley is significantly hotter than Rutherford, where St. Supery's winery is located.

When I think of great Sauvignon Blanc climate, I think of cool, rainy New Zealand. The temperature hit 104 (40 Celsius) while I was sweating in the shade at Dollarhide, and I really wondered how St. Supery's wines keep the crispness for which they're well known. VP of Vineyard Operations Josh Anstey, who lives on the ranch, assured me that the temperatures drop below 50 degrees some nights.

The temperature variation is key to allowing the grapes to maintain their acidity. At the same time, the abundant sun and heat allow them to get very ripe, giving bright fruit flavors without the pyrazines that turn to strong herbal flavors in New Zealand. If there's a good "California style" of Sauvignon Blanc, this is it.

How big is Dollarhide Ranch? Anstey says it contains 10% of all the Sauvignon Blanc grapes in Napa Valley. There's also 200 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as smaller plantings of Semillon, Chardonnay, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Muscat. The Cab is grown on hillsides, where it can get some relief from the heat, while the Sauvignon Blanc grows on the flatlands.

The Sauvignon Blanc vines are all recent. There were no grapevines when St. Supery owner Robert Skalli, who lives in southern France, bought it from a cattle rancher in 1983. Skalli planted Cab and Sauvignon Blanc, but he took bad advice from UC Davis and planted all of the Sauvignon Blanc on AXR1 rootstock. Within a decade the ranch was infested with phylloxera, the root-sucking scourge, and all of the Sauvignon Blanc vines had to be ripped out and replanted.

Ironically, St. Supery developed its reputation for great Sauvignon Blanc during the replanting time (1995-2004), when it was purchasing many of its Sauv Blanc grapes. Now, all of the winery's Sauv Blanc grapes come from Dollarhide, Anstey says. There is a Dollarhide Ranch-labeled single-vineyard wine, but that's just 500 cases of a cherry-picked tank selection.

"We bought a lot of Sauvignon Blanc grapes from a lot of high-reputation growers from all over Napa Valley, but the fruit from this ranch was always better," Anstey says.

I loved the 2008 St. Supery Dollarhide Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($38), which has a fresh, green-fruit character. It's crisply refreshing with strong grapefruit flavors and notes of guava skin, and it's just the right tonic on a hot day.

But the grapes aren't the best fruit on the ranch. Anstey also has 1000 fruit trees, including 60 different heritage varieties of peaches as well as nectarines, pluots, apricots and Asian pears. Anstey sells the fruit to Bay Area restaurants, including the French Laundry, Ad Hoc, Chez Panisse and Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen.

"It's something special to pick a peach in the morning and deliver it to a restaurant in the afternoon," Anstey says. "The biggest thing most commercial peach growers think of now is shipability. Flavor's not the most important thing. Some of these peaches aren't going to get as big and beautiful as the ones you see in Safeway."

When Anstey handed me an Arctic Sweet white nectarine that he pulled off the tree, I took a tentative bite before greedily gobbling it. The variety is well-named: there's plenty of sugar, which I reacted to by genetic imperative. Normally I'm a yellow-peach guy because I like their stronger, tangier flavor. This had plenty of acidity, though, allowing it to carry the sweetness. I had another at home, and the experience was just as good, so it wasn't just the "everything tastes better with the winemaker" phenomenon. This really was a nectarine of the gods.

I also sampled a Red Haven peach, which wasn't as exciting, but with 60 varieties they can't all be brilliant. And I played Pooh Bear, poking my finger into a honeycomb Anstey pulled away from the hives he keeps.

Anstey owns 30 head of beef cattle and also keeps three goats that Pine Ridge winery wanted to get rid of. They're cute critters, but they're not dairy goats, and what Anstey really wants is to make goat cheese (which is great with Sauvignon Blanc). So I believe there's a harvest-time goat barbecue in Dollarhide's near future.

With all the stone fruit, I wondered if Anstey gets distracted from the grapes, which are still the ranch's main value-added product.

"I think that keeps me interested in my job," Anstey said. "I've been doing this job for more than 10 years. I'm always looking for a new challenge. By the time we're ready to harvest the grapes, these (stone fruits) are pretty much done."

But if you're at Ad Hoc in late fall, you might see once again a "late harvest" product from Dollarhide Ranch on the dessert menu -- late harvest honey. You won't taste Sauvignon Blanc in it, because bees don't pollinate grapevines, but if you get a hint of Arctic Sweet, the nectarine gods have blessed you.


Anonymous said...

I thought the winery was in Rutherford?

LesleyKeffer said...

St. Supery Winery is in Rutherford, surrounded by estate vineyards. The winery's largest estate is called Dollarhide, in north-east corner of Napa Valley.

Jack Everitt said...

Quite interesting about their stone fruit. Feel like I've been missing out.

Also, a minor quibble, "When I think of great Sauvignon Blanc climate, I think of cool, rainy New Zealand."

Perhaps subtracting the word "great" from that line? I mean, I've never had a great Sauvignon Blanc from NZ. The great ones come from Sancerre, Alto Adige and Friuli/Brda. (Well, also Araujo...and a few Rochioli have rocked.)

I've arrived at the mindset that SB from NZ is their workhorse grape; many make competent wine from it - does anyone make something exciting? Frankly, I've given up on NZ SB...well, not completely.

W. Blake Gray said...

Hey Jack, that's a fair point. I like Sancerre more than NZ Sauvignon Blanc. But in thinking of climate, I do always think first of NZ, maybe because it's easiest to characterize.

I liked NZ Sauv Blancs a lot more about 5 years ago. I think they're taking herbalism to excess these days.

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