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Uncorked: Winemaker remains driven after nearly 50 years

Richard Arrowood has completed nearly a half century of harvests.

After the recent completion of his 47th growing season, the Sonoma County winemaker remains driven. He claims to have never made or drank the perfect wine. A challenge that Arrowood assumed when he put a pair of Sonoma wineries on the map as winemaker prior to 2006 when he founded Amapola Creek. 

“I don’t know in 47 years if I’ve ever been 100 percent satisfied,” Arrowood said. “I’ve never tasted a perfect wine. But I do my best to create one.”

Using the majestic western-facing slope of the Mayacamas Mountain Range, Arrowood has 20 acres of grapes grown from 350 to 1,000 feet. A new canvas on which the experienced winemaker can show his deft touch. 

Winemaker spotlight

Sanity was questioned when Richard Arrowood told his wife Alis he wanted to build a new winery. Arrowood’s career started in 1974, as a winemaker at Chateau St. Jean where he produced the first vineyard designated wines in Sonoma County.

He founded an eponymous label in 1985 and served as winemaster until 2010. It seemed like Arrowood had little to prove in a long, illustrious career, and he could ride into the sunset with countless accolades.

There’s a lot of red tape to cut through opening a winery. Harvests demand excruciatingly long hours. There are countless other challenges that thwart many attempts. 

But, Arrowood wanted the opportunity. 

“I had to convince my wife that I wanted to build a totally new winery,” Arrowood said. “She did a little kicking and screaming and asked me if I was out of my mind. But it has been fun and exciting. It’s provided me a chance to correct some of the mistakes I made in the past. The bureaucracy involved can wear you down. But each harvest there’s a new excitement and a yearly renewal.”

The results have been phenomenal. Arrowood’s new facility is mostly metal as the elimination of wood helps deter TCA, a chemical compound that can taint a cork and ruin a wine. The vineyards are certified by the California Certified Organic Farmers and the wine is spectacular. 

While there may have been a time where Sonoma had an inferiority complex to its supposed “big brother,” Napa Valley, Arrowood is a leader amongst winemakers that have defined the area’s wines. 

“Napa had the sizzle,” Arrowood said. “But we had the steak. Napa makes great wine. But so do we in Sonoma.”

Loaded with integrity, Arrowood only puts his finest fruit into the final product. In 2011, there were only 600 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon. While the statewide harvest was troubled, Arrowwod kept his best fruit and quality didn’t suffer.

Last year was a great harvest for Arrowood, one of the top two to three he’s seen in 47 years. Arrowood dropped half a crop and still easily hit normal year numbers. As for his lengthy tenure as a winemaker and critical acclaim, Arrowood’s roots remain as a farmer.

“I still put my pants on one leg at a time like everyone else,” Arrowood humbly joked. “As a winemaker you are only as good as this year’s harvest. I believe in what we do and our philosophy has been to produce quality wine without compromise.”   

What to buy

Amapola Creek, Zinfandel, Monte Rosso Vineyard 2009 ($42): This is an amazing interpretation of Zinfandel. The characteristics of the 118-year-old vines shine. With incredibly low yields, the flavors are intense but in balance. Arrowood lets the vineyard really speak in this wine as vibrant black cherry, licorice and pepper notes resonate. A great mixture of vanilla and cedar highlight a lingering finish.  

Amapola Creek, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma Valley 2008 ($70): This wine has a satiny mouthfeel and a complexity that calls attention to what flavors emerge. It’s elegantly crafted with tannins that provide a structure for cocoa and dark chocolate to mix with plum and cassis in a wine that stands as a Sonoma County standard barer. It is long-lasting with a robust finish of black cherry notes that continue to linger. Layer after layer of dark chocolate, coffee and cherry continue to emerge the longer it stays open. This is special.   

Wine 101

Arrowood said the usage of certified organic grown grapes has led to stronger vines and better grapes. No artificial sources are allowed in the vineyard. 

“We produce a better wine without chemistry,” Arrowood said. “The soil is more alive and healthier. We only take out what we put back into the ground. It’s a 360-degree circle and we are stewards of the land. I always wanted to take pictures and leave footprints when it came to farming.”

• James Nokes writes a bi-weekly wine column for the Daily Chronicle. He’s been tasting, touring and collecting in the wine world for several years. Contact him at

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