Home Wine Industry Spotlights Perfecting Pinot: Goldeneye Elevates Winemaking in Anderson Valley

Perfecting Pinot: Goldeneye Elevates Winemaking in Anderson Valley

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Early morning fog from the Pacific Ocean flows into the Anderson Valley through the coastal redwoods and rises into the hills before dissipating as day warms the air. These maritime influences keep daytime temperatures low, making it the coolest wine-growing region in California and the perfect environment for the Pinot Noir grapes for which it has gained fame.

“Over the past decade, Anderson Valley has entered the world stage,” says Kristen McMahan, Winemaker at Goldeneye. “As one of the largest producers in the Valley, we take that to heart. We want people to explore Anderson Valley, and we want to be a good representative and steward of the place where we grow grapes and make wine. We’re really proud of it, and so we aim to deliver the best possible examples of the Valley’s wines.”

When it was designated an American Viticultural Area (AVA) in 1982, two-thirds of the Anderson Valley’s 582 vineyard acres were planted to Chardonnay and Alsace Varietals like Riesling and Gewürztraminer. But Pinot Noir plantings had been expanding in California, and they soon found their way to this rural haven, where local winemakers began exploring the complexity this fruit could produce.

Building nested within a field of grapes
Photo Credit: Wildly Simple Productions

“Pinot Noir hits a sweet spot here with the climate and an amount of rainfall, sun, fog and wind that makes it perfectly happy,” says Goldeneye’s assistant winemaker, Lyle Dowsett. “We get good color, polished tannins and complexity; we can make a very balanced wine.”

Dan and Margaret Duckhorn shrewdly chose Anderson Valley for their foray into Pinot Noir, founding Goldeneye in 1996, years before the Pinot Noir boom. This timing is reminiscent of their championing of Merlot wine in the late 1970s, which resulted in elevating the variety from a blending juice to a Napa star and turned Duckhorn Vineyards into one of the most famous Merlot producers in the world. Then, as now, The Duckhorn Portfolio led with single-vineyard wines.

McMahan adds, “I feel very fortunate that we have estate vineyards encompassing the length and width of the Valley, giving us so many different fruit profiles, spices and tannins. They’re truly unique and beautiful vineyards to work with.”

Group of vineyard workers sorting through grapes along a conveyor belt
Photo Credit: Wildly Simple Productions

Making Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Wines

When McMahan stepped into the Goldeneye winemaker position in 2021, she began evolving the wines in a way that stayed true to their roots and showcased the Anderson Valley terroir. That means, first and foremost, making sure that each of the wines has a distinctive sense of place. It also means staying up to date on products that can help them achieve these goals. She and Dowsett look at each decision — from technology to barrel type, sanitation practices to sustainable packaging — in the context of its impact on the quality and character of the final product. Because they’re in a very rural location, staffing is always an issue — Goldeneye has two winemakers and three cellar staff — so technologies that streamline processes and utilize staff more efficiently are also essential.

“One example is pumpovers,” McMahan explains. “We traditionally used an air pump, which usually required two people — one person over the top and one on the bottom. Lyle found a pump that let us free up an intern to do other work.”

Dowsett’s find was the patented Bowpeller centrifugal pump designed by McFinn Technologies, which they installed last year. Its patented low-shear centrifugal design makes it much gentler on the wine than other pumps, as well as being easy to operate and a good value for the cost. Other centrifugal pumps are shaped like a propeller inside a chamber, so it acts more like a blender, whereas this was developed for dairy, where things like cottage cheese have to be handled delicately, so the whole chamber moves.

Bowpeller device showcase

“Before the Bowpeller, we had to remove the solids with a sump and screen ahead of the pump, which used a lot of labor and added oxygen even when it wasn’t needed,” explains Dowsett. “Now, with Bowpeller, we can connect it directly to the tank and it’s so gentle that grapes and skins remain intact. We can also dial in how much oxygen it’s getting rather than having to splash it into a sump.”

The Goldeneye winemakers have also improved safeguards to retain the flavors and delicate aromas after fermentation by diligently blanketing headspaces in tanks and using inert gas from a nitrogen generator for racking.

Dowsett continues, “In Pinot, florals and fruit can fade quickly in you’re not careful. We age about 16 months, so we want to maintain each vineyard’s sense of place and have the wine be very fresh — to jump out of the glass.”

Glasses of wine with a bottle labeled: Goldeneye

As part of both The Duckhorn Portfolio and the Anderson Valley, these two Goldeneye winemakers are cognizant of the legacies their wines represent. It’s been almost 50 years since the Duckhorns founded their first winery, and many of the Valley’s wineries have been there for decades. This sense of continuity in heritage and connection to place informs their decisions and honors the communities they cherish. Yet, it clearly doesn’t stop them from innovating.

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