March 15, 2019 – Alexander Valley, CA – Nestled between the Russian River and the Mayacamas Mountain Range in the heart of the Alexander Valley in Sonoma County, California, Garden Creek is a peaceful paradise whose rolling vineyards are matched in beauty by the three ancient olive trees that crown the hill on the property. The Warnelius-Miller family has been winegrowing here since 1969. Justin Warnelius-Miller is the second-generation viticulturist at Garden Creek, following in his father James Miller’s footsteps. Karin Warnelius-Miller’s family immigrated to the Alexander Valley from Sweden in the 1970s, and she has spent her entire life in wine. Together they manage all aspects of the Garden Creek estate, from wine growing to winemaking.
“Justin and I were born into winegrowing. We love the dirt, the soil and the seasons. We work extremely hard to succeed. We are the land, the land is us,” says Karin.
Having spent their childhoods in the vineyards, Karin and Justin developed a strong life-long passion for winegrowing. They emphatically believe in the depth and sophistication of their land. They are also incredibly inspired by the beautiful memories, deep relationships, timeless moments and extraordinary pleasures a fine wine creates.
Karin and Justin live their Swedish heritage and embody the value of “lagom” the centuries old Swedish philosophy meaning “not too much and not too little—in balance, moderation, respect.” Together, they have executed ambitious goals to express the incredible nuances of Garden Creek and bottle just two wines, Tesserae ($100), a Bordeaux blend, and a Chardonnay ($60).
Justin’s father, James Miller, a sixth generation Californian, purchased what is now Garden Creek Ranch Vineyards Winery in 1963 as a bare piece of land he could shape with his own two hands. He began by building a cattle and horse barn out of redwood he milled himself, but the ranch didn’t belong to cattle for long. By 1969 James realized his calling was grape growing and he planted his first vines that year. He believed in Alexander Valley’s potential to grow and produce great wines and that conviction led him to be one of the founding members of the Alexander Valley AVA in 1984. In 2001, that original barn was inaugurated as the Garden Creek Winery, where Karin and Justin now produce wine.
The Warnelius family immigrated to Sonoma County from Björsäter, Sweden in 1974. When they arrived at the Swedish consulate in San Francisco for advice regarding their passport, they noticed an opportunity in Geyserville at a vineyard. Justin’s mother, also a Swede, yearned to speak her native tongue. Justin and Karin’s mothers became fast friends, and Karin and Justin grew up together in beautiful Alexander Valley. Karin left the valley for university to study International Business and to work in wine in San Francisco and in Sweden, and Justin, five years younger, stayed on the ranch, helping his father tend the land. When Karin returned to Alexander Valley in 1998 at the age of 26, she and Justin reconnected as friends and soon fell madly in love.
In 2001 Karin and Justin began bottling wines under the Garden Creek name. Today, they are raising a family of their own with two children who help them carry on a 50-year legacy of wine growing.
In 1994, Justin attended the University of California at Davis and Sonoma State University where he focused on viticulture, enology and economics. At 19 years old, he took the reins from his father as winegrower, and without hesitation or compromise was determined to initiate a higher standard of sustainable and organic viticulture practices in the decades-old vineyards. His foresight at such a young age was monumental the future of their vineyards and legacy. With 70 acres planted to wine grapes, he immediately implemented micro-management techniques such as hand-selected shoot positioning and leaf management, planting cover crops, mulching, adding beneficial insects alongside additional irrigation valves on every two-acres and weather meters throughout the vineyards. He began aggressively composting the waste from the winery contracts including stems, skins and seeds and recycling the healthy pomace back into the areas with specific needs to improve soil health. Cover crops including common vetch, bell beans, California and meadow barley, native grasses, Cayuse oats, daikon radishes, crimson and rose clovers were also planted to promote soil health and insect growth, providing excellent organic matter, weed suppression and erosion control. From seeding ground cover and creating a beneficial environment for predators, they diligently preserve the natural habitat on the property.
The vineyards are managed block by block. Garden Creek closely monitors soil moisture, air temperatures and barometric pressures with over two-dozen monitoring probes in the vineyards. They are entirely committed to organic materials when adding supplements. They are also cognizant of the impact tractors have on soils, and therefore utilize lighter-weight equipment including ATVS.
In the winery, they recycle the grey water to hydrate the compost (they the first winery to gain approval to do this from the State of California in 2005.) Both winery and vineyard operations are 100% solar-powered.
In 2018, Garden Creek was chosen as a landmark vineyard to set sustainability standards for Sonoma County Sustainability Certification Program and one of the first vineyards to study their carbon footprint and create a fleshed out Carbon Reduction Plan.
The vineyard team at Garden Creek is full-time and is part of the extended family. The crew employed today is the Gonzalez family, who have been working on the property for five generations. When James Miller first began developing the property in 1964, he was forward-thinking to have created housing for his crew. Not only did he believe it would result in an employee with a stronger connection to his property, but there would also be much less impact on the environment since they would not commute to the property. Today, the crew is comprised of five brothers, one nephew and two cousins. Each of the men has brought their family to Sonoma County and Garden Creek Ranch.
Given that the Gonzalez family has lived and worked on the property for 54 years, their experience and intimate knowledge of every row, vine and curve of the Garden Creek Vineyard is bar-none. They are as equally dedicated to the land as Justin and Karin.
The Garden Creek Vineyard
Karin and Justin’s 100-acre property in Alexander Valley has 70 acres under vine, from which most of the fruit that is harvested is sold to ultra-premium wineries in Sonoma County. The oldest vines were planted in 1969, and the average vine age is 38.
Garden Creek Ranch is made up of hillside and benchland vineyard sites in the southeast portion of the Alexander Valley. Nestled between the Russian River on the west and the Mayacamas Mountains on the east, the area is renowned for growing world-class Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. While the AVA is characterized by a moderate Mediterranean climate, wide diurnal temperature variations and morning fog from the Pacific Ocean allow for exceptional cool-climate conditions.
The Garden Creek terrain is a result of the Franciscan Formation, and dates back as far as 150 million years. This includes sea-floor marine sediments, along with iron-rich igneous volcanic, plutonic and metamorphic rocks. The mélange of soils—seven in all at Garden Creek—offer great complexity to the grapes.
Garden Creek is focused on Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay. Planted on the hillsides, the Cabernet Sauvignon is the dominant variety for the Tesserae bottling. The Chardonnay is made up of 11 clonal selections grown on the property.
The same site-specific philosophy that is taken in the vineyard is adhered to during harvest and in the winemaking process in the cellar. Each red lot is managed individually in small tanks ranging from 350-550 gallons in capacity.
The pre-fermentation maceration lasts on average 8-10 days, at 45˚F. This is flowed by 10-18 days native yeast fermentation and 6-8 weeks extended maceration at 58˚F. The penetration of the cap is only performed by gently by hand at the beginning so as to extract lush tannins and color. After they free-run the juice, the skins are pressed in a basket press.
Garden Creek uses a strict regime of 50% new barrels and 50% used barrels ranging from one to four years old, sourced from six different Tonnelleries coopers, in order to enhance the relationship and individuality of each lot. Wines are racked once in the life of the barrel. With a commitment to aging and longevity, their wine is unfined and unfiltered.
Garden Creek wines are about purity, elegance and balance. No one piece bigger than the other—fruit, acidity, minerality, weight. These wines express lagom.
Production is very small: approximately 400 cases of Garden Creek Chardonnay, and 1200 cases of Garden Creek Tesserae, a Cabernet blend, sold directly from the winery by allocation.
Expansion to Anderson Valley
In 2005, Karin and Justin purchased a 160-acre ridgeline property near Boonville in the Anderson Valley, with elevations ranging from 1400-1900 feet. They plan to plant 30 acres to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the Spring of 2019.
In 2015 they engaged in a 30-year lease of 7-acres of land in Philo, on which they planted to 3-clones of Pinot Noir in 2016. The vineyard is situated above the Savoy Vineyard, at 600 ft. in elevation.
“We had an opportunity to work with this spectacular property and jumped at the opportunity. It is allowing us to get to know the community of farmers vintners in the area, and to gain expertise in Pinot Noir grown on land with great pedigree,” says Justin. “Our experience here will give us great insight as we develop our property near Boonville.”
The Pinot Noir will be bottled under the Warnelius-Miller name, a homage to Justin and Karin’s family dedication as farmers and vintners and commitment to their family legacy.
Membership and Tastings
“We deeply believe in the expression, when you try to reach everyone, you reach no one,” says Karin. Karin and Justin take great delight in hosting every person who visits Garden Creek. They are committed to winegrowing and producing handcrafted, limited-production wines, and sharing these wines in an intimate atmosphere. Therefore, Garden Creek is open only by advance appointment and only to private members.
“When we tell a wine’s story, we tell the human side of the story. Our wines are deeply personal, and our members often develop an emotional connection to our family and the estate. Not everyone understands our journey, but we want to attract people who share our values. They are reflective, they are considerate thinkers,” says Karin.
Garden Creek is a visually stunning property—where a rustic barn melds seamlessly with modern design, where every detail from sustainable farming decisions to the cheese pairings has been thoughtfully made, and where the wines are not released until they are ready to drink (the Chardonnay is aged three years before release, and the Tesserae is aged seven years).
Wines allocations are offered in the Spring and Fall, and members enjoy a close relationship with the estate, including invitations to private winemaker dinners and access to library wines.
The Warnelius-Miller family is active in its local agricultural community. They are members of the Alexander Valley Winegrowers, the Sonoma County Winegrowers, the Sonoma County Vintners, the Anderson Valley Winegrowers in Mendocino County, the California Association of Winegrowers and The Wine Institute.
For more information, please visit www.gardencreekvineyards.com