- Winemaker Interviews
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Cameron Stoffel is walking barefoot along sandy loam soil near Mount Olympus Valley Road describing what Ultima Tulie means to him. He says the soil keeps him grounded. You might think that “being grounded” means he imposes limits on himself. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Ultima Tulie is a Nordic phrase that means, “beyond the borders of the known world.” When we believed that the earth was flat, if you had traced your finger along those maps to the end of the earth there was a large waterfall depicted. This was the end of the world as we knew it. That line on the map depicting the end was called Ultima Thule.
There was a time when Cameron didn’t think being a winemaker was possible. Then he and his wife Mallory stumbled upon this Nordic phrase. At that point Cameron realized winemaking was his Ultima Thule and he decided to make it his life’s work. He modified the spelling in a bit of marketing genius to set himself apart and to aid in pronunciation. Ultima Tulie Wines was born. For ten years Cameron has been producing micro lots of high quality wine.
No bottle of Ultima Tulie is sold without first touching Cameron’s creative hands. Not only is he a skilled winemaker who crafts complex Syrah and Petite Sirah (among other varietals) bursting forth on the palate with a myriad of flavors that grab you on the first sip, but he is also the artist on all the labels. Blending femininity with nature, all his labels are mixed media and have a photographic depiction of a woman. Just as in observing fine art, not everyone sees it. That’s part of the beauty—to strive to see it…and to taste it.
The Ultima Tulie logo that appears on all bottles is a mountain with a square in it. This is the key symbol. Cameron believes that humans put their lives in boxes. We don’t know what we’re capable of achieving. The aspect of that square is our self-imposed limits. The mountain range beyond the square represents the nearly limitless trajectory of what’s possible. Beyond Ultima Tulie. Cameron says this logo honors Mallory, who encouraged him to seek out that which made him happy, to pursue winemaking. She encouraged him to believe in himself. Ten years later he has gone beyond the limits of his known world and created…Ultima Tulie.
One of our favorite things to do as wine reviewers is to recommend “under the radar” wineries and wines. There’s something chic and rewarding about sending friends and followers to a wine tasting that doesn’t take place at a commercial juggernaut. The talented people who make these wines can be much more nimble and take more risks than their large-production counterparts. Their wines tend to be refreshingly edgy, unique, and sublime. They go beyond the limits of what others may believe possible. That’s where wine as art is made. That’s where you’ll find Cameron Stoffel.
We strongly encourage you to make an appointment with Cameron to taste and buy his wines at the collaborative tasting room, Paso Underground, in downtown Paso Robles.
What’s your Ultima Tulie?
Buy Ultima Tulie wine, make an appointment, and follow here:
(Note from Steve Rochford, senior writer and co-founder: I rarely write in the first person because I don’t want to inject myself into the story. My writing style is to find a “hook” and then build the winery profile around the accomplished, driven people who make extraordinary wine. However, on our visit to Dovecote Estate Winery something occurred that was so personally impactful that I beg the readers to forgive my literary indulgence with this profile.)
When I was a little boy in the early 1970s in my grandparents’ brownstone in Brooklyn, New York, I frequently ate Cheerios for breakfast. They tasted like purple. They always did and still do. I can’t eat them without thinking that and I have told hundreds of people over the years that that’s what I think. It makes sense to no one but me…
So there we were, enjoying a magical tasting in a retro-modern, open-air, wood-decked boathouse overlooking idyllic Mission Pond at Dovecote Estate Winery. Kristen Wood, a warm and welcoming host, and great storyteller, had opened the property, which was closed for Fourth of July weekend, just for us.
I was admiring the Dovecote label, which is a hawk with its wings closed in a protective manner. It pays tribute to the abundance of Red-tailed Hawks that live at Dovecote. Noah Rowles, owner, farmer, and winemaker works with a falconer who rescues injured hawks and releases them back into the wild at Dovecote Ranch and the Thompson Vineyard. The hawks are the guardians of the vineyard and keep varmints and small birds that prey on juicy grapes at bay. I noticed on the label that some of the hawks' wings were filled in with an electric color, each bottle a different hue. I was trying to figure out if there was a rationale to the coloring—perhaps related to the varietal. I asked Kristen about this and she began texting Noah, who lives with his family on the property. Almost instantly Kristen had a response. Noah had typed, “When I taste the wines, these are the colors I see in my mind.” That answer took me aback. I was stunned for a moment. I dropped my pen and sat back. I knew what he meant. And Noah might be the only person in my 54 years who understands what I mean when I say Cheerios taste like purple.
Dovecote Estate is on Alisos Canyon Road, about 45 minutes north of Santa Barbara and three miles southeast of the town of Los Alamos. Upon entering the gates you are treated to a tree-lined drive that doglegs right around the pond with the estate residence on a ridge to the left amid the rolling vineyards. The ranch was purchased by the Thompson family in 1983, with the first vintage produced from Thompson Vineyard in 1993. Noah acquired Dovecote Ranch in 2014 and began reconditioning the vineyard and crafting extremely limited quantities of Dovecote Estate Wine—and with great success. Their 2019 Noumenon Syrah scored a 96 on Wine Enthusiast, the highest-rated wine by any vintner out of Thompson Vineyard. In 2020 Noah, along with Wes Hagen, successfully petitioned the US Department of Treasury’s TTB to formally establish the Alisos Canyon AVA, which now appears on Dovecote’s labels.
Dovecote’s winemaking philosophy is to keep the wine 100% pure for the most honest expression of fruit and terroir each year. All winemaking is done personally and manually by Noah. His vines are all on their own roots (no grafted protective rootstock) and all fruit comes from their estate vineyards, which they own, control, and farm. They farm naturally and encourage a wild, diverse, and balanced ecosystem within the vineyard. Farming and harvesting is all done by hand. Fermentations all occur naturally with native, ambient yeast that comes in from the vineyard. They make wines that are intended to improve over time (in some cases multiple decades) and hold each vintage until it is tasting as intended. At the time of sale, their bottles have never left the property since the time they were fruit on the vines. Everything from farming, to winemaking, to bottling, to storage happens on-site at the estate. When you visit you’ll see why you would never want to leave.
Make a point in your wine journeys to schedule a tasting experience at Dovecote. You will be blown away by the people, the estate, and the wines. What will you see in your mind when you taste their wine?
Purchase Dovecote wine and follow them here:
What began in the 1970s as a winemaking project by brothers Mike and John Tierney in the garage of their home on Taft Street in the Rockridge area of Oakland, has today become a highly acclaimed, multigeneration family run winery in the heart of Russian River Valley.
Taft Street Winery founders Andy Barlett, John Tierney, Mike Tierney, Mike Martini, Arleigh Sanderson, and Martin Tierney embraced the practice of the Garagistes: renegade winemakers from Bordeaux who produced wines in their garage rather than in the grand Chateaux. That “edge” in winemaking continues to this day with small production, handcrafted wines fêted in Wine Spectator and national and international competitions.
Winemaker Melissa Kuhn came on board in 2017 and her first two releases earned numerous gold medals. She works with local growers to craft special wines that reflect the individual quality of specific sites throughout Sonoma County. Among current releases their 2019 Zachary Hill Pinot Noir earned 96 Points, Best of Class, Double Gold at the 2022 North Coast Wine Challenge. The Zachary Hill Pinot and the 2019 Grenache Syrah Red Blend won Gold Medals at the 2022 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.
In 2021 Taft Street Winery celebrated their 40th harvest. They continue to deliver superb wines that drink way above their price points. Visit them at their tasting room in Sebastopol and find out for yourself.
When we enjoy a bottle of wine in the comfort of our home we rarely think about the struggle (and love) that goes into producing it. In 2021 there were over 4,700 wineries in California, mainly family-owned businesses, many multi-generational. In essence, they are farmers—vignerons. Most don’t have massive marketing campaigns or expansive facilities. They rely on individuals to buy their wine and join their wine clubs rather than corporate distribution.
But they make great wine.
One such example is Ken and Melissa Moholt-Siebert’s Ancient Oak Cellars of Sonoma County. Their home vineyard, Siebert Ranch, has been in the family for three generations dating back to when Ken used to help his grandfather run it. The winery is named for an oak tree on the ranch that is believed to have predated Spanish settlement of California.
Ancient Oak wines come from estate vineyards that they farm themselves, or are farmed under their control. They are made in small lots, with native yeast, hand-sorted, punched down by hand, and barreled in oak barriques from select coopers. They taste through every barrel monthly. As a result, the production is limited and allocated.
Highly acclaimed winemaker Greg La Follette creates three wine levels: Reserve Series (selected from particular barrels), Single Vineyard Series, and Appellation Series, with at least 11 of these wines scoring 90 points or better in Wine Advocate or Wine Enthusiast. Their Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Bordeaux Blends, among others, are exquisite, and many are named for Greek poets, paying homage to one of Ken’s hobbies.
In a devastation hard for most of us to imagine, Ken and Melissa lost their house, barns, and beautiful Pinot Noir vineyard, Siebert Ranch, which had been in their family for three generations, to the 2017 wildfires. The ancient oak survived.
In 2019 they began the slow process of replanting Siebert Vineyards. While they rebuild, what can we do to help? Schedule an appointment to taste and buy their library wines. They are fantastic. If you can’t make it for a visit, buy their wines and follow them here:
Winemakers David Sartain and Jared Lee started Last Light Wine Company in 2011 as a way to showcase the cool climate Pinot Noir from California’s Central Coast. The name Last Light is inspired by the extreme coastal vineyards that grab the “last light” before the sun sinks into the Pacific. It is these locations where Pinot Noir truly expresses itself, and these sites that drive their label.
Now making three varietals, David and Jared source the grapes for their Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Syrah from Derbyshire Vineyard, located a little over a mile from the Pacific Ocean, bordering the Hearst Ranch in San Luis Obispo County. Multiple vintages of their Pinot Noir from this vineyard have earned 94 points from Wine Enthusiast. They also make a Chardonnay from Spanish Springs Vineyard, which grows on steep marine-bed hillsides two miles from Pismo Beach. With temperatures topping out around 80°, and cool nights, this location produces bold aromas and lively acidity.
Last Light’s winemaking philosophy allows the grapes to be the star. Ferments usually have stem inclusion, are inoculated, and tend to have low oak and alcohol impact. They strive for minimal intervention, while addressing Mother Nature’s erratic tendencies. Chemistry is used to confirm their approach, but they rely greatly on their palates.
A true micro-producer, Last Light crafts 250-400 cases of exceptional, hand-crafted wine annually that is meant to be shared with friends and family. If you find yourself in the Paso Robles area and see Last Light on the wine list at a restaurant or in a local wine shop, buy it. If your plans don’t take you there then buy their wine and follow them here:
P.S. We love the label art!
From his earliest memories as a child on his grandfather‘s high-elevation timber ranch in coastal Mendocino County, Steve Alden has always been an explorer. This sense of adventure led him to establishing what is now Murder Ridge Winery.
But how did he get from there to here?
Steve spent his childhood and teenage years on Mendocino Ranch. He then went off to college, earned a degree in Photojournalism from San Jose State University, and worked summers for Newsday in New York and National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. Steve married Amy and the two settled in Santa Cruz. His grandfather passed away in the 1980s and in the 1990s he found himself developing and managing his families’ 2,000 acre timber ranch in Coastal Mendocino. In 1994, Steve and Amy moved to Healdsburg, where Steve immersed himself in viticulture and established Perli Vineyards on the Mendocino Coast. The vineyard sits above the forest line and fog line at around 1,800 feet elevation and 7 miles from the Pacific Ocean in the Mendocino Ridge AVA, which Steve was instrumental in establishing. As Murder Ridge’s grower and winemaker, his first vintage was 2013.
The only non-contiguous AVA in the United States, Mendocino Ridge consists of steep, timber covered ridgelines, jutting above 1,200 feet in elevation. These majestic ridgelines receive uninterrupted sunshine as they rise above the cooling fog that rolls in from the Pacific Ocean. Such unique growing conditions in this AVA impart distinct flavors not captured in any other wines. Pinot Noir is the most commonly planted varietal; Murder Ridge offers three different Pinot Noirs among their current releases as well as a Chardonnay and a Syrah. The wines are bold and complex and show the handcrafted character of an adventurer. This is what you get with great small lot wineries like Murder Ridge.
And how did he come about the name Murder Ridge Winery?
It is the name of a ridge on Perli Vineyards and the site of the murder of Joe Cooper, in the early 1900s, in what appears to have been a dispute with a nearby neighbor, Pete Gianoli. Does this have an effect on the terroir? Probably not but it’s certainly part of the back story and provides a sense of intrigue when you taste Steve’s wonderful wines. Don’t you want to try them now?!
Purchase Murder Ridge wines and follow them here:
“Wine is the only work of art we can appreciate with all five senses.” This quote greets visitors to Fuil Wines’ website, and while many a chef may wish to add their craft to that quote, it suffices as far as we’re concerned.
Fuil Wines is the labor of love of actor Matt Espiro Jaeger, who has added a new artistic medium to his repertoire with the inaugural release in June 2022 of four varietals sourced from Santa Barbara County AVAs. Their Viognier carries the Fuil label. This is a wine made exclusively by Matt from start to finish. Wine is so often more than just what is in the bottle, it is about the story. It informs us as we see, smell, and taste it. “Fuil” is a Gaelic word meaning blood, kin, nature, and temperament. If you see or meet Matt you’ll be able to tell from his pale skin, blue eyes, ginger hair, and copious freckles why the Gaelic culture is appropriate to the label. It is in effect Matt’s “wine as art” personified and elevates the enjoyment.
Fuil Wines also has a Tábla label for their Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay. These are wines where Matt partners with other winemakers in a négociant style. They are meant for food, conversation, and laughter around the table with the people we love.
Helping out at the winery of a winemaker friend several years ago was the final impetus that led to the launch of Fuil Wines. In Matt’s own words: “Winemaking is labor intensive and challenging work. It’s where you go home wet, dirty, and with a slight headache from making decisions based on what you think a wine will taste like 6-36 months from now. That my hard labor could help produce such an incredible work of art was a revelation, and made what had been until then a pipe dream seem a real possibility.” With the release of Fuil’s four wines it is now a reality.
We wish Matt and Fuil Wines much success and hope that you enjoy their art as much as they enjoy creating it. Stop by Augustine Wine Bar in Sherman Oaks and The Magic Castle in Hollywood to taste for yourself.
Purchase their wines and follow them here:
For six decades, four generations of the Wetzel family have farmed the land that was the historic Cyrus Alexander homestead, purchased by Harry and Maggie Wetzel in 1962, that since 1975 has been known as Alexander Valley Vineyards. Their impact on the wine community was significant from the beginning.
In 1984, Hank Wetzel headed the committee that led to Alexander Valley receiving status as an American Viticultural Area, which produces some of the finest wine in the world.
Under the leadership of the Wetzel family and 2018 Sonoma Winemaker of the Year Kevin Hall, who has been the winemaker since 1998, Alexander Valley Vineyards has received an untold number of awards and accolades. They have been good stewards of the land, with recognition for their commitment to sustainable farming by being approved to add the Sonoma County Sustainably Farmed Grapes logo to their wine labels. They also have a heart for philanthropy, with their CYRUS label alone having contributed over $750,000 for youth scholarships.
Probably most of us are familiar with Alexander Valley Vineyards and have seen their wine on the wine list at restaurants across the country and in the aisles of our local supermarkets. How, then, can they be part of our Under the Radar project? When we defined what we meant by, “under the radar“ in our blog on June 16, 2022, we wrote, “It could be a…low-priced wine that you think could not be of high quality.” While Alexander Valley Vineyards does have some pricey and delicious wines (we love CYRUS), their least expensive options deliver even greater value. You might choose to disregard their $20 Zinfandel or Sin Zin labels because you think no wine produced from the Alexander Valley with that price point could be very good. You would be wrong. These are not “low end” wines but rather wines of great quality.
Purchase them to find out for yourself:
With nearly 5,000 wineries in California, the competition for consumer preferences, loyalty, and dollars is fierce. Making your Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, or Sauvignon Blanc stand out from a quality or value standpoint is a difficult proposition at best. Maybe that’s a false premise.
La Mesa Vineyards is a new winery located in the Sierra foothills of Amador County that focuses on rare Rhône and Italian varietals grown on their estate: Primitivo, Barbera, Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Petite Sirah, Viognier, Roussanne and the only Gamay in Amador County.
Côme Laguë, La Mesa’s owner and vigneron, is originally from Montréal, Québec and made his way to California as a technology entrepreneur. He grew up with a large extended family, with 10 generations going back to 1690 involved in agriculture in Canada. His grandfather farmed an apple orchard that eventually became Quebec’s pioneering ice wine vineyard, l’Orpailleur. As you might gather Côme is passionate about wine. He has teamed with consulting winemaker Antonia de Heinrich, who has spent the past two decades working in top wineries around the world: Chateau Montelena, Kim Crawford, Hogue, Ravenswood, and Banshee.
Together, Côme and Antonia took the outside-the-box approach and realized that exciting things were happening in Amador County and decided to focus on varietals that thrive in the high elevation of the Shenandoah Valley AVA. All their varietals are grown from special clones that have been carefully researched to thrive in rich red volcanic granitic soil. With La Mesa's vineyard manager, Jesus Duran, they handcraft in small batches 19 wines on site and roughly 2,000 cases annually.
Visit La Mesa Vineyards and taste in their recently launched beautiful modern glass tasting room with gorgeous views of their vineyards and the Sierra foothills. Tasting room manager Christine Martinez oversees inside and tableside outdoor terrace service, specially designed carafe flight tasting, and a live music program that runs April through October under shade sails outdoors on the terrace.
Find out why La Mesa Vineyards’ focus on varietals suited to their terroir—and not typical in California—is worth your loyalty and dollars. Purchase their wine and follow them here: