By Laura Ness
When E. & J. Gallo Winery (Gallo) of Modesto, purchased the iconic Talbott wine brand in 2015, a shockwave hit the Monterey wine community. Many felt Robb Talbott had “sold out” to arguably one of the biggest corporate players on the wine scene. He could have done far worse by the company, as it turns out. Gallo, the world’s largest family-owned winery, was founded in 1933, and has since built a formidable presence, acquiring 80 unique brands sold in more than 90 countries around the globe. Gallo already owned hundreds of acres in the Santa Lucia Highlands, a prized growing region whose star continues to rise. They knew exactly what a gem they were acquiring.
Robb Talbott began Talbott Vineyards in 1982, and built it into a powerhouse, with wines named for members of his family, including his children (Kali Hart and Logan). The Talbott crest adorned what was the first premium line of wines to be screwcapped in its entirety, across all tiers. His most strategic move was purchasing the famed 565-acre Sleepy Hollow Vineyard from Jerry McFarland in 1994, who originally planted it in 1972.
The son of a Central Valley farmer who became fascinated by winegrapes at UC Davis, McFarland searched for years for the ideal spot to plant Burgundian varietals. He found it just west of River Road, along the banks of the Salinas River, where prized row crops have been grown for decades, giving the region its moniker, “The Salad Bowl of the World.” He envisioned a time when the Monterey region would become the most revered spot on earth for tourism, lauded for its natural beauty, its perfect climate for outdoor recreation and even more so for its exceptional wine and food. Planting this vineyard to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, when everyone else was trying to grow Bordeaux varieties, was a seminal moment in the region’s agricultural development.
When winemakers discovered how well Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grew here, the game was on. Other growers followed suit, and by the early 1990s, there began a shift away from growing row crops to planting vines. By the early 2000s, this particular section of the overall Monterey AVA had been well-established as unique in its own right, and the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA became the hot new darling spot from which to source high-end Burgundian varietals, thanks largely to the efforts of Dan Lee (Morgan), Rich Smith (Paraiso), Nicky Hahn (Hahn), Gary Pisoni (Pisoni, Lucia) and Gary Franscioni (ROAR), Steve McIntyre (McIntyre), Tondre and Joe Allarid (Tondre) and later, the likes of John Boekenoogen (Boekenoogen), Steve Pessagno (Pessagno), Gary Caraccioli (Caraccioli), Chuck Wagner (Mer Soleil) and a host of others. But Talbott probably did more to spread the lore and allure of the Santa Lucia Highlands than any other, simply because of the size and distinctiveness of this single vineyard, and the excellent and consistent wines it produced.
Sleepy Hollow Vineyard lies at the northern end of the Santa Lucia Highlands Bench, and as such, enjoys the coolest of maritime climes. It proved to be just perfect for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and the Talbott reputation for stunning, focused, high acid wines that have garnered great scores and gathered legions of fans throughout the world. Talbott became a presence on wine lists and supermarket shelves everywhere. Many brands purchased grapes from here, including La Rochelle, Steven Mirassou’s former Pinot Noir label, until Talbott decided they needed all the fruit for themselves. After all, Kali Hart and Logan Chardonnays and Pinots were flying off the supermarket shelves from coast to coast.
After 33 years of running the Talbott wine brand, Robb decided to call it quits to focus on personal pursuits. Selling to Gallo was a win-win, no matter how you look at it. The Gallo family’s love for Talbott wines, which they professed to have enjoyed at many personal celebrations, was exceeded only by their love of the Sleepy Hollow Vineyard, named one of America’s Grand Cru Vineyards in 2016 by Wine Enthusiast.
Dan Karlsen was Talbott’s winemaker when the sale to Gallo occurred. Not being much of a “corporate guy,” Karlsen knew exactly the person who would be the perfect caretaker for the storied vineyard and brand going forward. That person was David Coventry, whom he’d met and worked with at Chalone, and who went on to great success at Morgan and DeTierra. In 2005, two of his wines appeared in the ‘Top 10 Wines of the Year’ list in Wine and Spirits magazine, and he was the only Monterey winemaker to make the 2005 ‘Top 100 Wines’ list in Wine Spectator magazine for that year. Coventry and Karlsen had spent a lot of time together, being neighbors on River Road. Says Coventry, “It’s a lot of work to pass this stuff along. Dan flat out told me I was the only person he gave a damn about teaching. This stuff is special.”
Due largely to time in the vineyard and cellar with Karlsen, Coventry had a firm handle on what the vineyard could do and was already excited about the possibilities. “When I started in 2016,” says Coventry, “The first thing I did was taste through all the 2011s, 2012s, 2013s, 2014s and 2015s. I started to think about how we could take the wines to the next level.” Imagine how delighted he was when on his first day on the job he was told that he could have all the resources needed for a major replant.
“You could see what was doing great and what was not producing. It was clear that after 44 years, we needed to make some changes in order to honor the ground. The old Martini and Wente clones were very low yielding and had to go. The older clones of Chardonnay fared better than the older Pinot.”
The vineyard, which was roughly 2/3 Chardonnay and 1/3 Pinot Noir, had very little clone 777, 115 and Pommard. These were the top three Pinot Noir clones Coventry wanted to add. They now have significant blocks of those clones coming online, with 25 acres of Pommard. “We’ve found it to be the key to unlocking a lot of really nice wine. It makes a great backbone.”
As for clone 115, he says, “This is a real standard in the industry, and we needed a lot more of it. You get a beautiful mid-palate from it, and it also give you a lot of fruit in the front of the mouth.” He’s very excited about the fruit coming from the young 115 vines.
He’s also added some clone 943, which he believes will do spectacularly at this site.
As for Chardonnay, Coventry says clone 95 works spectacularly here. “It’s like heaven for this clone. Clone 4 is really hard to get ripe here. You have to put it in just the right spot.”
Coventry worked closely with vineyard manager Kevin Ryan to map out a plan for the vineyard overhaul. “We are on target to replant between 30 and 40 acres each year, sometimes 60, over the course of 6 years. We’ve done 150 acres already, and have 120 more to go. In all honesty, we’ve learned so much from what we’ve done. We see eye to eye and Kevin is always finding me new rootstocks and clones from all over.”
Coventry calls Ryan, who joined Gallo four months prior to his start, a true vine whisperer. “He knows what I want and just delivers. His office is next to mine and we go out into the vineyard together all the time. We are really paying attention to the young vines, how we water, how we do leafing. When we see a heat spell coming, we water ahead of it. Being in the coolest part of the AVA, we generally don’t see heat spells lasting more than a day or two.”
As was customary in the days of large tractors, the original vineyard was installed on the traditional 9×12 spacing of the era, which netted you about 500 vines per acre. Did they have to change row direction, too? “No,” says Coventry. “They nailed the row direction. It’s North/South, about 15 degrees off. The new spacing is 6×9, which means we have roughly 1k plants per acre now.”
Gallo has provided absolutely everything needed to guarantee that the replant is done to the highest standards possible, as befitting so valuable a piece of earth. They’ve done extensive ground studies and analysis, soil amendments, rootstock trials and topnotch quality budwood.
According to Ryan, the replant involves these Pinot Noir clones: 113, 114, 115, 667, 777, 828, 943, Pommard 4, undefined Dijon selections, and Vosne-Romanée. For Chardonnay, clones are 4, 76, 95, 548, 809, Mount Eden, Musqué, Robert Young, and various Wente selections. These are planted on a mix of rootstocks chosen for the particular soils and elevations in the vineyard, and include 5C, 101-14, 110R, 420A, 1103P, 1616C, 3309, AXR-1, GRN3, GRN4, Ramsey, Riparia Gloire, and SO4.
“The new plantings are beautiful!” says Coventry. “Spacing is now standardized for today’s tractors, and makes all the viticulture work, like pruning and picking, a lot easier. You can do a better job at growing grapes, which makes my job of making wine that much easier.”
What about the old clones originally planted here? Martini was the lionshare, and is certainly distinctive, but prone to disease and not much remains planted anywhere. It fell out of favor when the Dijons became popular. The Gallo team is presently on the hunt for some cleaned up virus-free Martini vines.
“We did find a clean Wente Chardonnay, and have planted 9 acres of that. We’ve also added some Mount Eden Chardonnay, which is fitting, because it’s a grandchild of the old Wente clone. We’re trying to keep the genetics of what made this place famous intact.” In addition, they’ve planted some clone 809 Chardonnay, which Coventry describes as beautifully aromatic.
Coventry says Gallo’s viticulturist, Brodie McCarthy, is a great resource. “He scours the country for clones I want. He finds nurseries with interesting stuff. For example, we have 5 acres worth of a DRC clone coming in February of 2021 that’s already set up on rootstock. You have to think years ahead when it comes to planting a vineyard.”
The replant will shift Sleepy Hollow slightly more towards Pinot Noir, with an eventual 60/40 Chardonnay/Pinot Noir ratio. Says Coventry, “We are a luxury Chardonnay house that just happens to make exceptional Pinot Noir.”
Of the Sleepy Hollow replant this far, Coventry says, “We immediately noted that the chemistry of the vines started a steep upwards trend, and the barrels had to keep up. The flavors have become more intense, which required the coopers to shift and keep pace with the fruit.”
Coventry explains that they’ve updated the packaging and the product mix to reflect the evolution of the brand. “We’re giving back Robb’s family names. We stopped doing Logan and Sarah Case, although we will keep Kali Hart, as it’s such a strong brand. 2016 was the last of the Logan’s, and 2017 is the last Sarah Case.”
Starting in 2015, they began sourcing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir for the Kali Hart wines from the Olsen Ranch Vineyard, which is on the southern end of the SLH bench, where the climate is warmer and fruit develops riper flavors. This helps them keep a consistent balance in the Kali Hart wines, requiring less intervention to create a fairly uniform product. Coventry says they are replanting this vineyard as well, shifting the row direction from East/West to North/South and sourcing better clones. “This is a gem of a vineyard,” says Coventry. “It’s all limestone and granite. We are breaking it up during the replant to give the vines a chance. This will add up to making a big difference in the wine. I want to see this vineyard at its prime.”
Changes in the overall Talbott wine lineup extend to the Diamond T wines as well, long prized as some of the brand’s most distinctive, if not elusive, bottlings. They come from Robb Talbott’s personal vineyard on Laureles Grade above Carmel Valley, a steep chalky hillside with maritime influence.
Says Coventry, “We are now only doing one Diamond T wine, instead of two. It makes it so much better than playing a game to make two different wines from the same spot. We’re replacing these with Block specific wines from the Sleepy Hollow Vineyard. It’s making my life easier and the wines better!”
The Block wines were something he and assistant winemaker, K’Sondra Fredrickson, came up with during harvest 2017. They noticed areas of the Sleepy Hollow Vineyard that were doing spectacularly well. “Its our job to go out in the vineyard and see what is going on. We decided to keep those areas separate and put the wine into the best barrels. Later, the brand team came to us and asked about doing block specific wines, and we were already doing it!”
The first two they did were Pinot Noirs from Block 48 South and Block 23 West. The Block 48 is mostly clone 113 from one 2.4-acre section that Coventry says delivers an exceptional purity of flavor. It’s an intense, laser-focused wine with great horsepower and a sinewy sheen on the forever finish. It exhibits refinement, perfume and nobility.
The Block 23 Pinot Noir reflects three different clones from one spot in the vineyard, clones 113, 114 and 115, which were co-fermented in what he calls an “old technique to develop synergy.” It has a bigger, juicier frame, delivering blackberry, raspberry, blueberry, rhubarb and boysenberry. With slightly higher alcohol, 15.7 percent vs. 14.7 percent, it doesn’t come across as hot, but instead, robust, energetic and brimming over with unctuous fruit.
Coventry says they strive to make each Block wine “excellent, but different.” Barrels play a role here as well, with Block 48 getting Francois Frere and Billon, while Block 23 gets medium toast Francois Frere, Damy and Tonnellerie De Mercurey.
Are there more Block wines on the horizon?
“Oh, yes, we have two Chardonnays we just released to Wine Club. We will do more of these wines, for sure. We probably won’t use the same blocks every year, but it depends on where we find the exceptional quality. There seem to be ‘sweet spots’ in this vineyard that shine every year.”
Coventry says he’s been flattered by all the great scores the wines have received since he came on board. With all the replanting, the viticulture changes, the shifts in barrel selections and the subtle nuances of winemaking, Coventry feels he knows where he can unlock a bit more horsepower, tap a teensy bit more finesse.
“Now, when I get a 96 point score, I know exactly where those other four points can come from.”
He recently ran into Robb Talbott who told him how impressed he was with the way the Talbott wines were evolving. That means a lot. Says Coventry, “It is absolutely an evolution. Talbott has a new story. What is old is new again. We are advancing the legacy, not just maintaining it. I truly believe that the Golden Age of Sleepy Hollow and Talbott is now.”