For Sonoma County’s most sought-after vineyards, protecting reputation is key

“A big part of my job is focusing on who we work with and why. It’s not just about cashing checks. We need to protect our brand,” the vice president of vineyards at Price Family Vineyards & Estate said.|

About 10 years ago, Rob Harris received a frantic phone call: A winemaker was desperate for 3 tons of pinot noir from Durell Vineyard, a highly prized site for pinot noir and chardonnay grapes in Sonoma Valley.

“So I started the conversation like I always do,” said Harris, vice president of vineyards at Price Family Vineyards & Estates. “I asked him to tell me about himself, the wine project and where the fruit would be going, that sort of thing. If the name of our vineyard is going to be on a bottle, we want to make sure we’re aligned with the buyer and the quality, style and price point of their wines.”

The man on the line quickly became impatient. He offered to take the property’s worst fruit for 20% more than the price of its best fruit. The imperative thing, the man insisted, was that the name Durell Vineyard appear on the labels in his tasting room.

“I mean, I get it. For this guy, the Durell Vineyard name was a means to an end. At least he was honest about it,” Harris said. “In so many words, I told the guy to lose my number. This is just the kind of thing we try to avoid. A big part of my job is focusing on who we work with and why. It’s not just about cashing checks. We need to protect our brand.”

At renowned vineyards like Durell, the fruit is in such demand by winemakers that finding buyers is rarely a problem. The challenge instead is for the buyers — how to get those coveted grapes into their bottles and the desirable vineyard name on their label.

At Price Family Vineyards & Estates, Harris oversees a total of 350 planted acres at six vineyards in Sonoma County, including Durell, Gap’s Crown, Walala and three smaller properties used exclusively for the company’s Three Sticks Wines brand.

Durell Vineyard, a historic property considered among the best sites for chardonnay and pinot noir in Sonoma County, produces grapes for brands like Three Sticks, Kistler, Gary Farrell, Auteur and Patz & Hall Winery.

Gap’s Crown Vineyard and the smaller Walala Vineyard off the Sonoma County coast are also in demand by winemakers for the exceptional pinot noir and chardonnay grapes they produce. Gap’s Crown, in the Petaluma Gap winegrowing area, is considered one of the preeminent sites for pinot noir in all of California. Kosta-Browne, Gary Farrell Winery, Fulcrum Wines, Chateau St. Jean and Ram’s Gate Winery, all highly regarded wineries, are among the fruit’s purchasers.

But Harris makes clear he doesn’t just sell to stalwarts of the industry or big-name brands.

“Part of my responsibility is to keep an eye out for young up-and-comers or small labels that the world doesn’t know about yet — the next shooting star, I suppose,” Harris said. “If I appreciate and believe in what someone is doing, I’ll give them a chance.”

One of those brands was Marine Layer Wines, a Healdsburg-based winery founded by former Banshee Wines owner Baron Ziegler, with winemaker Rob Fischer at the helm.

“Rob was also the winemaker at Banshee, so I knew I liked his wines,” Harris said. “When they launched Marine Layer and approached me about purchasing some fruit from Gap’s Crown, I was able to get them in on a small scale. But regardless of the size of the winery, it’s really about building and maintaining partnerships. Both of our names are going to be on the label, so you need to work with people you believe in.”

Fischer, who continues to make wine for Marine Layer, said he appreciates that Harris isn’t willing to sell his fruit to make a quick buck, which protects the integrity of the vineyards. For him, finding growers who align with Marine Layer’s philosophies is just as important.

“When Rob and I started talking, I realized he’s not only an amazing viticulturist, but we share the same passion for being gatekeepers of the land, and we’re simpatico in how we feel about grape growing,” said Fischer, who has developed a friendship with Harris over the years. “Like Rob, we also want to protect the interests of the brand we’ve poured our heart and soul into.”

Coveted fruit

For some winemakers, like Cody Rasmussen of Desire Lines Wines in Sonoma, the opportunity to source fruit from a coveted vineyard can be enough to launch an entirely new wine brand.

As associate winemaker at Bedrock Wine Co. in Sonoma, Rasmussen had become enamored by the syrah from Griffin’s Lair Vineyard, a prized site in the cool Petaluma Gap that has supplied fruit to not just Bedrock, but to Pax, Kosta-Browne, Arnot-Roberts, Donelan and others.

“We’d worked with that syrah for years at Bedrock, and it was my absolute favorite,” Rasmussen said. “I’d always said if I were ever to start a wine brand, it would be for that Griffin’s Lair fruit.”

So when Bedrock’s owners found out there was extra Griffin’s Lair syrah grapes to be had, Rasmussen jumped at the chance to take them. The resulting wine became the impetus for Desire Lines Wines, which Rasmussen launched in 2015.

“Given that I work for Bedrock and they’ve always done right by folks, I suspect that has helped me through the vetting process when I approach growers about buying fruit,” Rasmussen said. “Even before I give them my wine to taste, they know I come from Bedrock, which has such a remarkable focus on vineyards and farming practices.”

At Desire Lines Wines, every wine label features a hand-drawn illustration of the corresponding vineyard, along with its name in large font.

“When I walk into a meeting with a grower, I want to show them that their vineyard is so important it will appear front and center on our labels with its name in large font,” Rasmussen said. “It helps the grower know we’re going to give them some brand equity in our wines.”

As for Griffin’s Lair Vineyard, a portion of the syrah vines are currently being replanted, so just two winemakers will get grapes this year. Sadly, winemakers like Rasmussen are out of luck.

“The last year I sourced fruit from that vineyard was 2020 and it breaks my heart,” Rasmussen said. “I miss that vineyard. But I’m hoping to get more once it’s been replanted.”

At Price Family Vineyards, Harris recognizes how “spoiled” he is to manage such incredible vineyards. He rarely has to go looking for someone to buy the grapes.

It also allows him to be picky about who he sells fruit to, so finding people he can form long-lasting relationships with is key.

“I like to think people want to work with us not just because of the quality of our fruit, but because of our customer service and partnership,” Harris said. “The wine industry is still relatively small and very human driven, so it’s our partnership they’re paying for.”

You can reach Staff Writer Sarah Doyle at 707-521-5478 or sarah.doyle@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @whiskymuse.

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