The pioneers of Carneros at Bouchaine Vineyards

Bouchaine's General Manager and winemaker Michael Richmond with dog Chewy

Bouchaine Vineyards is the southernmost winery in the Napa Valley, and the oldest continuously operating winery in the district of Carneros beginning with Johnny Garetto who established a commercial winery here in 1929.  But grapevines were planted at this location long before then by a pioneer going by the colorful name of Boon Fly.  He was a major landholder and farmer from the 1850’s who eventually converted his orchards to vineyards.  His name is immortalized on local landmarks such as Fly Bay and Boon Fly’s Hill, not to mention the Boon Fly Cafe at Carneros Inn.   It was fitting that when owners Tatiana and Gerret Copeland sought a General Manager in 2002 that they hire Michael Richmond who is himself a pioneer of sorts.

Michael Richmond began making wine in Carneros in 1979 when he co-founded Acacia Winery, well before Carneros became an official appellation in 1983.  It was during these early years that modern pioneers such as Acacia, Mahoney and Bouchaine – which was founded in 1981 under current ownership –  began to see the potential of growing fine pinot noir and chardonnay grapes in this cool microclimate.  It’s hard to believe that a mere 30 years ago, pinot noir was not widely planted nor appreciated in California to the extent it is today.  Pinot advocates Richmond and Stephen Cary of Yamhill Valley Vineyards in Oregon organized the first Steamboat Pinot Noir Conference in 1979 as a forum for winemakers to share information and insights on “improving the breed”.  The conference, which has become an annual 3-day event, is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year with over 50 participants.  Richmond believes that this conference has helped foster the growth and importance of pinot noir in the U.S. today by focusing on quality. 

This passion for pinot noir is evident when one spends time with Richmond as we did earlier this week.  He’s sort of a winemaker’s winemaker, respecting science but relying a lot on intuition.  The wines are made in small lots from up to nine clones and 47 different vineyard blocks on the 87 planted acres, under varying oak regimes, then ultimately blended for the Bouchaine Carneros Pinot Noir and Bouchaine Estate Pinot Noir.  Walking around in the barrel cellar, he wants us to know each of his wines’ personalities like he does, so we taste the black fruit of the Pommard clones, the red fruit of the Dijon and the floral of Swan clone, and their spicy or smoky transformations when aged under different oak treatments.  We taste the more powerful structure of wines coming from the well-drained Garetto Hills which rise 200 feet above sea level and are exposed to stiff breezes in the afternoon. 

In the vineyards, Richmond is spare on irrigation, with the pinot noir vines receiving about  six to seven gallons of water per year vs. up to 100 gallons for many growers, leading to low yields of about two tons per acre and earlier ripening.  In Richmond’s experience, these earlier ripening  grapes are the most “well-behaved” of the finicky pinot noir, and most richly flavored.  Bouchaine practices sustainable farming which minimizes the use of chemicals in the vineyards and conserves resources.  They are certified Napa Green and “Fish Friendly Farming” which among other things, uses practices which minimize run-off of sediments into nearby waterways and protect local fish and wildlife habitats.  This is particularly important given that Bouchaine is just north of historic tidal marshlands which are being restored. 

With pinot noir, Richmond seeks ethereal perfume and structural completeness which he achieves through blending of different lots and experimentation with oak.  The Bouchaine Carneros Pinot Noir 2007 (10,300 cases, $30) has strawberry compote and plum fruit with a little savory and spice – a full-bodied but fresh wine with soft tannins.  The Bouchaine Carneros Estate Pinot Noir 2007 (1,850 cases, $45) comes from a blend of Dijon, Pommard and Swan clones grown on shallow clay loam and cobbley soils on the estate.  The wine has clear-cut minerality with a purity of briary and black cherry fruit and hint of violets.  It is well balanced with fine tannins, integrated oak and long finish.

With chardonnay, Richmond seeks an elegant wine with richness from wood but not the overt oak flavors.  The Bouchaine Carneros Estate Chardonnay 2008 (6,800 cases, $25) is a classic wine with ripe citrus and tropical fruit with notes of flowers and vanilla.  On the palate the wine shows real winemaking skill – beautifully balanced with lemon curd fruit, rich but almost ethereal texture and long finish.

Bouchaine is a great winery to visit to really appreciate the diversity of microclimates in the Napa Valley.  While “up-valley” one is surrounded by the lush mountains, in Carneros, one is surrounded by gently rolling hills, more wide-open vistas and at southerly Bouchaine, one smells the ocean and feels the brisk ocean breezes that pick-up at 3:00 pm every afternoon.  In fact, Bouchaine has a self-guided vineyard walk of about 1.2 miles where you can experience the unique climate and 360 degree vistas of this property, at your leisure.  It is also a great place to bring a picnic lunch or take advantage of the Table for Two service which offers a choice of four picnic baskets enough for two people including a bottle of Bouchaine Carneros Pinot Noir or Estate Chardonnay, for a single price of $95 with 24-hour advance notice.

Bouchaine Vineyards, 1075 Buchli Station Road, Napa CA  94559. (707) 252-9065/(800) 654-wine.  Open daily 10:00 am to 4:00 pm.