Westside Road in Healdsburg is the cool end of the Russian River Valley. That’s just fine by Thomas and George Baker, founders of Thomas George Estates Winery (8075 Westside Road, Healdsburg, 707-431-8031, thomasgeorgeestates.com). When geography gives you cool vineyards in this part of Sonoma, you focus on the stars of Burgundy: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
Since launching the winery in 2008, the Bakers have assembled four select vineyards to grow both varietals. These small-lot artisanal wines tend to spotlight individual vineyards, although the winery does make one blend from each grape. The winery tunnels into the hillside beneath the Baker Ridge Vineyard. Although the operation does have some stainless steel tanks and oak barrels, the dominant vessels are concrete eggs. The vessels have been gaining a lot of traction in Burgundy, and U.S. winemakers have been adopting them, especially for Pinot Noir and Burgundy.
During fermentation, the corner-free eggs allow the wine to circulate naturally, constantly stirring itself. This movement keeps the cap submerged without having to punch it down. By submerging the skins, the winemaker can extract maximum fruit flavor and—with reds—maximum color. Aging in concrete provides micro-oxygenation to the wine in a manner similar to oak, but without the added wood flavors. The resulting wines have the mouthfeel of barrel fermentation with the neutrality of steel. Winemaker Nicolas “Nico” Cantacuzene, shown at left, jokes that the wine “makes itself” in the eggs. But judging by the few we tasted, there’s a lot more of the winemaker’s art involved.
Tasting in the vineyard
Since it was a nice fall day, we followed hospitality director Lauren Helm to the top of the hill above the winery for an open-air tasting. We were looking down the hill (photo at top of the post) from the Baker Ridge vineyard. The first wine she poured was the 2015 Estate Chardonnay Sons & Daughters. Made from grapes entirely from the Sons & Daughters vineyard in the Chalk Hill sub-region, it is a splendid example of everyday unoaked chard. Whole clusters of the handpicked fruit were racked off to a mix of stainless steel tanks and concrete eggs. The resulting wine stock aged on the lees without secondary malolactic fermentation before blending to bottle. The nose shows a lot of peach and plum with a bright citrus zing that hints at the wine’s minerality. In the mouth, it’s a full, lush wine with notable lime and green apple flavors. The acidity makes it a great food wine at only $20.
The 2012 Estate Pinot Noir was made more traditionally. The hand-picked, destemmed grapes were allowed to soak cold for five days in open-top fermenters. Fermentation proceeded slowly over 16 days, and the skins were pressed after draining the tanks. The wine aged on the lees for nearly a year, mostly in French oak. (A small portion was aged in concrete before blending and bottling.) The resulting wine is very fruit forward on both the nose and the palate. Wild berries, cherries, and Damson plum are tempered by notes of thyme and rosemary. The tannins are nicely structured, though the wine should soften nicely with a little more age. Pricing ranges $37-$43.
Wine tasting is available at the winery and its picnic grounds without reservations daily from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Notably, Thomas George has good national distribution.