Greg Stach took a moment to recognize how far Landmark Vineyards had come.
In a humble moment during a recent Instagram Live tasting, the Landmark winemaker recognized a dubious moment in the winery’s past.
“Our wines were bad at the start,” he said with chagrin. “Wine Spectator gave our chardonnay 69 points in 1988. There’s an old saying about wine – if you can’t sell it, at least you can drink it. Well, that was a wine that even our owner said she couldn’t drink.”
It’s a far cry from the wines produced today at the Sonoma winery.
Damaris Deere Ford knew something had to change.
The great-great-granddaughter of John Deere bought out her partners in the winery, and in 1991 focused on one varietal: chardonnay.
Once thought of as undrinkable, Stach referred to the Landmark Overlook Chardonnay as the winery’s flagship, their “original thought wine.” Sourced from 23 sites in Sonoma County, and tasted for the past several years, it consistently has showcased the many dimensions of the varietal.
“We wanted a chard to be lush, rich and creamy, yet still light on its feet,” said Stach when tasting the Landmark Overlook Chardonnay 2018 ($27). “We use whole cluster pressing, native yeast fermentation. Age it on its lees and stir it up every two weeks to create its mouthfeel. Do malolactic fermentation so the crisp apple-like acid becomes like the acid in yogurt.
“There’s always a savory edge the fruit plays off of with flavors of sage, pear, lemon oil and pie crust. It’s wonderfully rich, yet light on its feet and not heavy.”
While chardonnay put Landmark on the map, Stach has pushed pinot noir to new heights for the winery. There’s a burly and bold pinot from the Santa Lucia Highlands, and a restrained, layered and complicated one from the winery’s Hop Kiln Estate in the Russian River Valley.
Santa Lucia Highlands allows for an extended growing season, and the influence of the Monterey Bay offers the cooling effects that allow pinot to thrive.
In the Landmark Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir 2017 ($45), there are blackberry, cherry cola, coffee grounds, hints of wet leaves, cinnamon stick flavors and a touch of cigar wrapper on the finish. It’s a fleshy, fuller-bodied wine with a velvety texture.
“This wine explains what we do,” Stach said. “We are always looking at vineyards up and down the state. This is a fantastic example of finding a vineyard and saying ‘wow’ this is going to make a great wine.”
Planted in 2008, the Hop Kiln vineyards have matured alongside a historic Russian River Valley mainstay, J. Rochioli Vineyard.
“So thrilled with this wine,” Stach said. “We acquired the vineyard in 2016, and got a piece of Russian River Valley history.”
History actually surrounds the vineyard. Rochioli was planted in 1968, long before pinot noir came into its own in California. The wine takes its name from the hop kilns that surround the vineyard. Built by Italian stone merchants in 1905, they stored the hops and barley grown in the area.
“It took the Italian stone merchants 25 days to build one,” Stach said. “They are so dramatic. They made it through the 1907 San Francisco earthquake which had an impact on Santa Rosa and Healdsburg as well.”
The Landmark Hop Kiln Pinot Noir 2017 ($45) is more restrained than the Santa Lucia Highlands pinot. There are flavors of juicy black cherries and warm plums with a rounder mouthfeel. A streamlined burst of acidity in the mid-palate keeps it fresh prior to the cherry and curry spice that sweep in on the finish.
It’s almost impossible to find three wines this good at these prices. Landmark has indeed come a long way.
• James Nokes has been tasting, touring and collecting in the wine world for several years. Email him at email@example.com.