Monday, June 7, 2010


According to Bob Varner there are really only two ways to approach winemaking. You can begin with a budget; the wine will have a retail price of so much, which means I can spend this on grapes, that on barrels, bottles, corks, and so on. Or you can say I'm going to make the very best wine I possibly can, regardless of what it costs. That's the approach he and his twin brother Jim take to their wines.
The idea behind Varner Winery began when the brothers were at UC Davis; Jim studied oenology, Bob biology. After graduating they were introduced to Dr Kirk Neely, a local dentist who owned an idyllic property next to the Windy Hill open space preserve in Portola Valley. The area seemed perfect for a cool climate vineyard, located just below the fog line, and in 1980 the brothers planted two acres of Chardonnay by Dr Neely's house which became known as the Home block. The vines are own-rooted and the clone is unknown, but probably Cloned 4; they were simply purchased from a local nursery. Further down the hill they planted Gew├╝rztraminer on its own roots. The following year they added the Amphitheater block, which was again own rooted, probably to Wente clone. A few years later in 1987 the Bee block was planted, this time with hybrid rootstock and grafted with cuttings from the Home Block.

Over the following years they farmed the vineyard and the fruit was sold, mainly to Thomas Fogarty and Bargetto. The brothers established a wine import business and worked at Fogarty. Then in 1996 they finally got bonded as Varner Winery and produced their first vintage. Permits to allow construction of a winery took a while longer, so the initial vintages were produced at Mount Eden and Chaine d'Or.

In 1997 they began planting Pinot Noir; the Hidden block contains Clone 115 and the Picnic block contains Clone 777. They later grafted over the 25 year old Gew├╝rztraminer in the Picnic block to clone 777; the vines had been producing excellent fruit, but commercially were not viable.

The Varner philosophy is to be as hands-off as possible. The vines are trained in an unusual way, with two short cordons, each of which is pruned to two canes, and a single catch wire above. This results in an open canopy allowing each side to ripen evenly. All blocks except for the lowest are dry farmed. Sulfur is sprayed to control mildew, but that's all. Any imperfect fruit is dropped prior to harvest, with the result that there is little or no sorting required. The fruit is destemmed and crushed into a tank to allow any solids to settle, then pumped into barrels to ferment. No yeast or sulfur are added.

When it comes to racking, most wineries either siphon or pump the wine. Again the Varner philosophy is different - each of their barrels has a second hole in the 'head' (the flat part) stoppered with a bung, like a traditional cask, and racking is done purely by gravity. They even have a device to gently tilt the barrel when it's nearly empty. As a result of this gentle handling no fining or filtration is required. After fermentation the wines stay in barrel for around 9 months; the French oak barrels are on a three year rotation, so roughly one third are replaced each year. Each block is then blended separately.

The winery's total production is around 100 barrels, or 2500 cases annually. Visits are strictly by appointment only.

2009 Home Block Chardonnay, barrel sample
The nose was light, with cracker and lemon notes. On the palate there was creamy lemon, green apple and melon, with nice acidity. The Home block typically has lower alcohol since the own-rooted vines reach full ripeness at lower sugar levels.

2009 Amphitheater Block Chardonnay, barrel sample
Slightly lighter in weight than the Home block, with a more citrus/floral character. the finish showed interesting hoppy notes.

2009 Bee Block Chardonnay, barrel sample
The vines on Bee block are 6 years younger than Home block. Bee block is typically the most 'Californian' in style. This showed more toast, stone fruit and asian pear notes.

2009 Hidden Block Pinot Noir, barrel sample
Two samples from different new barrels. Both showed delicious cherry and raspberry fruit on the nose, with one having a smoky note and the other more woodland. The wine is light in colour (for California) with lots of rich spicy cherry fruit, pepper and rhubarb and a great long finish.

2009 Lower Picnic Block Pinot Noir, barrel sample
Nose shows strawberry and floral notes; on the palate it's earthy with rich, dark fruit and mineral notes.

2009 Upper Picnic Block Pinot Noir, barrel sample
Slight funk on the nose; this was less earthy and lighter, with cherry and berry notes, good tart acidity and nice structure. the Picnic block needs more time than the Hidden block from my experience.

Varner remains one of my absolute favourite producers (I own more of their Chardonnay than anyone else's), and a visit to the winery is highly recommended.