Gary Farrell: A story of pinot perfection

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The first wine I ever tasted made by Gary Farrell was a 1978 Davis Bynum pinot noir. It was double-blind at a wine competition, and I was wowed.

I was seated next to the great winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff at the 1981 Sonoma County Harvest Fair wine competition, and both Andre and I voted the wine a gold medal, but we were outvoted by the other three judges. The wine wound up with a silver medal.

Later Andre told me that it was a great wine. “Whoever made that wine,” said Tchelistcheff, “has a great palate.” He said he appreciated the perfect balance and excellent acidity.

I soon learned that in 1978, Davis Bynum had promoted Farrell from assistant winemaker to his son, Hamp Bynum, to winemaker. In the next few years, Farrell — a quiet, unassuming but brilliant man — would make some startling Bynum wines, many of them pinot noirs. In the early 1980s, he started his own wine brand and eventually made great zinfandels, sauvignon blancs, gewurztraminers, and some of the industry’s most famed, in-demand pinots.

Wine lovers today know that the visionary Davis Bynum was a pinot pioneer in the Russian River Valley, that Williams Selyem established a worldwide reputation for some of the finest pinot noirs ever made, and those led to an explosion of interest in not only that grape, but also in western Sonoma County as one of the blessed places on earth to grow pinot noir.

Truly knowledgeable people know Farrell deserves as much credit as anyone for proving that Russian River Valley was pinot noir heaven. He reached for the stars with every bottling, and his efforts over three decades were remarkable.

Not always recognized for their greatness by some East-Coast “big-is-better” wine freaks,Farrell’s more elegant wines always captured the spirit of cool-climate wine-growing, a widely appreciated trait in California that calls for a true understanding of Burgundian diversity and balance. It also calls for knowledge of the importance of structure. and why great pinot rarely conforms to the broad generalizations demanded by some self-proclaimed pinot experts.

Gary Farrell Vineyards and Winery, built in 2000, is located in a fairly quiet stretch of Westside Road south of the Wohler Bridge. Ostentation was never its goal. Quality was.

The story of the project is complex and entails a wine-loving investor and the sale of the project in 2004 to Vincraft Group. Its officers are Pete Scott, former chief financial officer for Napa’s Beringer; Walt Klenz, former president of Beringer; and William Price III, the owner of two great Sonoma County vineyards (Durell and Gap’s Crown), who also owns other wine interests, including a partnership in Kistler Vineyards.After a short stint with the prestigious but small Alysian Vineyards nearby, Farrell left the wine industry to pursue other business interests. He remains a resident of Sonoma County.

As for the winery bearing his name, it always pursued his demand for quality, which pleased him. And soon it was time for a new winemaker. With such industry talent leading Vincraft, it was inevitable the partners would find sensitive pinot noir specialist Theresa Heredia, who had made great pinots at Joseph Phelps’ western Sonoma County brand, Freestone Vineyards. She soon was hired as the new Farrell winemaker, and as soon as I tasted her first pinot noirs under that brand, I knew the project was in great hands.

In 2016, at one of our catch-up lunches, Gary told me he couldn’t be more pleased by the new owners’ choice. The winery style continued to replicate Farrell’s approach almost as if he had written down instructions.

What’s distinctive about the project is that it never owned a lot of the grapes that produced its terrific wines. What it did have is what Tchelistcheff implied decades ago: a brilliant palate and a style that could maximize the best Sonoma County vineyards Farrell could find – most owned by growers who would work with him.

This meant Farrell could choose only those grapes he knew would work. And that was evident from something Heredia told me in a recent interview in the newly redesigned tasting room with a glorious view of the site. Even though she works primarily in cool climates, she said, “We pick earlier than most of the others who get fruit from the same vineyards.”

It retains the acidity that I believe is essential for a great wine, and it was ostensibly the same message Farrell gave me when I met him in 1986.

A testament to Farrell’s adherence to his philosophy of balance and good acidity is the fruit he identified from independent vineyards, usually long before many others. They include Rochioli, Howard Allen, Bacigalupi, Hallberg (off Highway 116 in Sebastopol), Kent Ritchie, Bob Pellegrini’s Olivet Lane, Price’s Durrell and Gap’s Crown, coastal-facing Fort Ross Seaview to the north, and even the great Santa Maria property, Bien Nacido.

Heredia still buys fruit from these great vineyards – another nod to a man whose very first pinot noir, made 40 years ago, impressed the greatest of all California winemakers.

Wine of the Week: 2015 Gary Farrell Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, Hallberg Vineyard ($55) — Yes, it is expensive. But with its juicy complex fruit of raspberry jam, red cherry, and Burgundian forest spices, it is simply one of the most impressive pinot noirs I have ever tasted on release. Not only is the vineyard one of the finest in California, it was farmed perfectly for Heredia’s more restrained style, yet the wine delivers amazing complexity, partially because of perfect, restrained aging in French oak barrels. I compared this wine to three other superb pinots whose average price is $80. As much as I love the others, I preferred this one. Burgundy collectors may love this wine and could easily rate it a relative bargain!

Sonoma County resident Dan Berger publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 am.

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