Three years ago when I met Mark McWilliams, of the family that owns Sonoma’s Arista Winery, he introduced me to a line of impressive pinot noirs and chardonnays. This spring, I got the chance to sit down with him again, for what, he promised me, were some game-changing developments at Arista. We talked over a tasting of his latest releases.
Mark and his brother Ben sat down in 2012 and talked about where they wanted to go as their parents (who founded the winery in 2002) planned to retire. They agreed that they both wanted to continue with the family firm but that to assure its survival for multiple generations, it needed to evolve. At that point Arista was making their wine in a custom crush facility using a contract winemaker. Output was about 8,000 cases per year. Wine from Russian River was supplemented with selections from elsewhere, for example Oregon’s Willamette Valley and the Santa Cruz mountains in California.
The first change was at the level of objectives. Going forward, Arista would aim to make the best wines possible. Second, the winery would be tightly focused on Russian River Valley fruit. Exceptions would be Ferrington Vineyard in Mendocino’s Anderson Valley, due to its unofficial grand cru status in California, and a new vineyard in Mendocino Ridge. Should other areas be considered, a new label would be started (McWilliams added that such an addition was not planned). Third, the scope of operations would be limited to about 7,500 cases per year. In other words, Arista would be run at a boutique level.
To achieve these objectives, the family would move away from custom crush and open its own, dedicated winemaking facility. It would also employ a full-time winemaker. The McWilliams brothers had very precise requirements in the CV of that winemaker. They did not want a recent graduate, no matter how well minted, as they did not want a long ramp-up period to making great pinot noir. They also did not want someone approaching retirement, as they were looking for a long-term engagement. In other words, they sought the sweet spot on the experience curve of someone who is at the top of his or her game but maybe looking to move from an assistant winemaker role to winemaker or seeking new challenges. This person also had to have a proven record of making great wine.
These requirements narrowed the pool of eligible candidates, as booming pinot noir demand had made the job market tight. The search led to the appointment, on January 1, 2013, of Matt Courtney, who had made wine at Marcassin for eight years. In March of that year, Courtney hired his former assistant winemaker, Gordon Miller, and a few months later Marcassin's former cellar master also joined. For the new winemaking facility, they purchased new, state of the art tanks, hoses, pumps, sorting table, and crusher-destemmer.
In the vineyard, they continued using the services of legendary viticulturalist Ulises Valdez, who had planted and farmed vineyards for them since 2006.
The brothers agreed that they would sell their inventory of non-Russian River wines and end (with mixed emotions) their contracts with vineyards in Willamette Valley, the Santa Cruz Mountains, and the Sonoma Coast. Though a 2014 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir is available, future production will be focused primarily on fruit from the winery's own vineyards rather than contracted grapes.
In 2014, within the self-imposed 7,500 case cap, they then did something heretical under normal practice: Their tête de cuvée would carry the Russian River Valley appellation, with fruit from multiple estate-owned vineyards. Usually in the wine world, the more specific the grape source designation, the better the wine (all else being equal). To elaborate, they reduced the number of cases of wines from each of three estate vineyards and put the wine not bottled with a vineyard designation into the appellation wine. The reasoning was that they needed one wine with sufficient volume to go to retail.
Just to underline the change, the brothers redesigned the label, replacing the modernist one that sported a yellow background with a classic black-on-white design using serif script for the winery name.
Two years later, the results are starting to come in. Arista's 2013 Banfield Vineyard Chardonnay shows refined flavors and balance, moderate oak, and expressive phenolic backbone. The bottle we tasted had been opened 48 hours earlier but remained fresh and vibrant. Banfield vineyard is located in the Green Valley part of Sonoma County. The 10-acre dry-farmed chardonnay block was planted in 1980-81 with 100 percent Wente clone in soil that is sandy loam with river gravel. These now old vines produce only about two tons an acre.
The wine is 100 percent barrel-fermented in entirely new French oak. Unusually, all of the yeast is natural. Primary fermentation took a long nine months at low temperatures with batonnage used to keep it going during the first two months. Malolactic fermentation also used only native yeast. When fermentation was complete the wine was racked off the top using positive displacement and put into stainless steel, where it stayed for another four to six months. At the end of this period, it was racked off again and bottled. The result is a wine that takes roughly a year and a half to make using techniques that would be impossible in the less controlled environment of a custom crush facility. In the course of its élevage, it was never fined or filtered. A miniscule two hundred cases were made.
Pinot noir represents about 70 percent of Arista’s production. The 2013 Russian River Pinot Noir, the winery's so-called appellation wine, that we tasted had been open around 24 hours but was really just opening up. The flavors were intense, predominantly red fruit and the tannins firm but not abrasive. The fruit comes from each of the estate vineyards. The 2013 Toboni and Mononi vineyard pinot noirs come from sites on River Road/Olivet Lane in Sonoma (the other estate vineyard is Lucky Well, overlooking Occidental). The Toboni is aged in 30 percent new French oak for a year and bottled unfined and unfiltered. McWilliams said that with this wine Arista is trying to show drinkers that the Russian River Valley does not have to be only about volume.
This wine has subtle nuances to its flavors and a refined feel in the mouth. McWilliams describes them as carne asada, grilled meat, grilled herb, turned earth organic characteristics. Then there is a darker fruit profile. But the wine doesn't taste stewed or overly ripe on the palate. You get the texture of three-to-four-year-old air-dried wood and you feel the cinnamon spice going across the palate. To my taste, the non-fruit qualities came through clearly in the nose and on the palate. The wine has Burgundian qualities from a ripe year. It is made with a slow, low-temperature fermentation under native yeast. Then it's aged in what McWilliams, without a hint of intentional hyperbole, describes as "the finest oak that money can buy." In barrel there must be no movement. The wine must be left just to rest.
Nine barrels of Toboni are produced from eight acres of grapes. It is a typical Russian River cocktail of clones (667, 777, and Pommard). McWilliams considers it a benchmark of Russian River fruit. Drinking it alongside the appellation wine is instructive. The intensity is "insane," says McWilliams, against the Russian River, which is itself an intense wine. I like his choice of adjective, the difference in intensity is palpable.
The vineyards are certified sustainable and organic practices are used, although Arista is yet to get its organic certification. I ask whether, seeing just one weed in the middle of a pristine vineyard, he would put a drop of Roundup on it. He states firmly "No," and shows me an image on his tablet. "This is our Roundup," he says, pointing at a picture of sheep chomping weeds in a vineyard. Arista uses them to minimize tractor impact.
Point scores are important, and Arista has racked up a lot of good ones — 96 points from Antonio Galloni for the 2013 Banfield Vineyard Chardonnay, for instance, and 95 points from Wine Enthusiast for the 2013 Ferrington Vineyard Pinot Noir. McWilliams says that you have to overlook the obvious flaws in the point system and recognize that point scores are an external imprimatur on one’s work — a method of sampling that does not require the consumer to have a budget large enough to buy hundreds of candidate wines. Arista does not make wines for a high Parker score or go out of their way for it, but do feel 90-plus ratings validate their decision to hire Matt Courtney.
I was impressed with the Arista wines three years ago, but these move beyond them. This is one winery that has made great strides and continues to do so. Look on this vintage to place Arista in the vanguard of Russian River pinot noir and chardonnay.