Are you busy planning where you will go when we can go again?
On a beautiful sunny morning in the Before Time, Gretel Compton and I climbed the windy road up from Santa Rosa past farms, around slow farm equipment, through oak woodland, and beside green vineyards to arrive at Sonoma County’s Balverne and Notre Vue to meet with Alex Holman, winemaker for 5-7k case production for both labels.
What brought Alex here in January 2019? “I’ve started other small brands for other people and I don’t like the selling part of making your own brand,” Alex admitted. “I like being the rock star finisher and dog and pony show. But trying to sell your own brand is soul crushing.”
What really attracted him to Notre Vue is the opportunity to do small lots, to work with the wide range of soils on the estate, and a diversity of grapes: “My heart’s in the small lot. I was incredibly excited to get away from just doing pinot and chard.”
And he said, he’s falling in love with tannins again.
Trained as a chemist, Alex loves the unique aspect that the property has being in both Chalk Hill and Russian River Valley AVAs: the Russian River Valley is alluvial river stone while Chalk Hill has volcanic soil.
“We’ve got high magnesium soils because of the geysers –from the basalt or in the ancient seabed,” Alex explained. “You can’t just look at the numbers here because of what’s going on in the soils – high mag soils have minerality.”
All the different soils and the various soil chemistry could overwhelm someone else, but not Alex:
“The challenges didn’t draw me here but understanding that part of it put me here.”
Alex continued: “I had a degree in chemistry before winemaking at Fresno State.” He was going to Fresno pre-med just out of the military as a single parent raising two boys and “chemistry was a universal science degree and I could go into any process I’d want.” The truth is, “As a native San Franciscan, I’d wake up every day thinking how to I get out of this god forsaken Fresno!”
“There’s a lot of good advantages” to Fresno, Alex admitted: “I raised my kids there, but it wasn’t the Bay area so I was a fish out of water. My grad professor in chem was the head enologist so obliquely I was involved in wine.” He came to wine from the perspective of solving wine problems as a chemist. From there he was inventing sulphur based fertilizers for the ag business, “And I just needed to get away from rotten eggs. So it became pretty obvious to me at the time to look into going back to school and getting my degree in enology and return with something I really wanted to do.”
His first job in Sonoma County was with Paul Hobbs where he learned a lot but it wasn’t his style of winemaking at the time. Now he’s worked with wine grapes from every AVA in the County.
He takes only a few hundred tons of what’s grown on the property, and the rest is sold. With such a big operation, he’s able to keep the same crew working all year from hand picking to pruning. Wines are sustainably certified from the California Wine Institute following the Lodi Rules model. While not a biodynamic operation, Alex says:
“Biodynamics make you pay attention, so you’re more aware of the surroundings and you’re nurturing everything. I keep myself open – I have no problems stealing good ideas!”
Going forward, he’s excited by the opportunities the owners, Bob and Renee Stein, offer him:
“I’m going to see what kind of bugs I’ve got. I’ve got carte blanche to do what I want. We’ll start with the pinots and see what we get. Malbec is the star of the red wines on the property” so expect red blends to stand out.
Since our visit in the Before Time, Sonoma County has been hit hard once again by fire. “Our location, outside the town of Windsor, straddling both Chalk Hill and Russian River AVAs, was close to the Walbridge fire,” writes Alex in an email update to me, “but it didn’t come close enough to be a concern. That said, like every other winery in the North Bay, the drifting smoke from all of the various fires is a concern. We have sent off grape samples for all varieties and the early cultivars have all been negative. However, the turnaround time for all the local labs is 10-14 days.”
The fires have been followed by a heat wave but Alex says, “The last couple of days have been cool so the sugars are not progressing as fast. Most picking decisions will be made in the next two weeks as labs come back and grapes get ripe.”
“This fire season over the last several weeks, has been a mix of smoke, flying ash and also blue skies and beautiful weather with no presence of smoke in the air. We’re constantly in the process of gathering more data and doing consistent testing, but we won’t have answers until we’ve started making wine. Because we are an all-Estate producer with relatively small volumes, if we have any questions about the impact of the fires, and in keeping with our commitment to producing wines of the highest quality, we can decide not to release any wine from this vintage,” says Alex.
So far harvest 2020 is looking good except for the current fires: “Average yields, great flavors, low mildew pressure during the growing season has been the norm in 2020,” writes Alex. “Notre Vue Estate will continue to process our grapes and make the necessary analyses to determine whether to release each varietal.”
If you’re ready to visit Sonoma County’s Balverne and Notre Vue yourself, they are ready to have you! According to an email with information from Director of Hospitality and DTC, Jennifer Tusa, visitors to the 710 acre Notre Vue Estate in both the Russian River and Chalk Hill appellations will find the interior tasting room closed because of Covid-19 restrictions, but the wineries are able to take advantage of two spacious, intimate, and comfortable outdoor areas which they have adapted to offer a range of experiences.
“Overlooking our lake along its shore are three individual Lakeside Pavilions,” says Jennifer. “These allow us to leverage our “socially distant spaces” during these uncertain times. The Pavilions offer not only peaceful vistas of the lake but in the distance, our Forever Wild land preserve.” This preserve is 350 acres of protected open space.
Another option for visitors is the Block 23 Terrace, which looks out over a rolling hillside estate Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard. “Both of these locations offer a five glass tasting of both the Notre Vue Estate and Balverne wines with options of adding on salumi/cheese boards or curated lunch boxes from local purveyors,” says Jennifer. “The Stein family of Notre Vue Estate is committed to the safety of our guests and staff by following all of the recommended guidelines. The reservation process includes a health assessment waiver, temperature checks upon arrival, masks required unless seated and only seating one whole party at a time. The flights will be pre-poured to insure all appropriate distances. That said, we work hard to provide an interactive experience that is delightful and relaxing. The wonderful views of vineyards and open space from our two venues are the perfect settings to create lifetime memories.” Appointments can be booked on their website www.notrevueestate.com
Learn more about Harvest around the world — and wine and food pairings — next Saturday when the Wine Pairing Weekend Crew explore this theme! Read the invitation and learn how to participate here. September is also California Wine Month with activities — virtual and in person– happening in wine regions though out the state which you can find out about here.
Vegetarian and Pescetarian Late Summer Menu
- Cheese plate:
Rosemary crusted Manchego, Apple Smoked Provolone, Goat Cheese, Apricot Stilton
- California Green Salad:
greens, avocado, homegrown tomatoes with fresh basil, parmesan and garlic dressing
- Pescatarian Pastas:
Clam and Mussels Linguini with garlic and wine
Uni with fresh linguini
- Grilled eggplant with bruschetta
Balverne is the original property name and has historical reference for the property while Notre Vue is the best of their best. These are all wines made by Alex Holman since he arrived January 2019. I can’t wait to try his reds when his 2019s are released! We tasted the wines in the following order, first alone, then with cheese, and finally with the meal. We used the Rose for cooking.
- 2019 Balverne Sauvignon Blanc, Chalk Hill
- 2019 Balvlerne Rose of Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley
- 2019 Notre Vue GSM Rose
- 2019 Notre Vue Chardonnay Musque
2019 Balverne Sauvignon Blanc, Chalk Hill, Sonoma County,
SRP $27; sample for my review consideration
“The majestic Red-tailed Hawk can frequently be seen soaring over the pristine Notre Vu Estate. Our family is proud to have dedicated 350 scores as a “Forever Wild” nature preserve in an effort to support our abundant wildlife. These wines are a direct reflection of our sustainable winemaking philosophy and our rich agrarian heritage.”
These grapes are grown in the alluvial fan.
Color: Pale bright lemon, this is not a dull wine.
Nose: There is no mistaking that this is a Sauvignon Blanc. Perfume, gooseberry, grasses, citrus, grapefruit, there is a lot going on, it is very complex.
Palate: Lemon drop, grasses, nice acidity, minerals and peppercorns on the finish. I felt it was relatively simple on the palate, but it is a very pleasing wine.
Pairing: This wine would go great with a Ceasar salad. Love, love, loved this wine with oysters. Not surprising since we seem to always state how well oysters go perfectly with Sauv blanc. This is no exception. The salinity of the ocean from the oysters become a sweet richness when paired together. both flavors have such an amazing lingering presence. The oysters love the green elements in the wine bringing out lovely lime characteristics. Loves the fresh from the garden bruschetta. Great with fresh goat cheese and alright with the rosemary crusted Manchego. This Wine does not need a heavy or aged sharp cheese to work.
When pairing this wine, stick with the sea, stay with garden freshness, enjoy the brightness of the wine and what comes from the earth together.
The Sauvignon Blanc handles all of the salt of the sea and even more. Calms the richness of the Uni, but loves the cleanliness of the muscles and the clams. It likes clean over creamy. Great with the garlic and spice both in the clams and muscles and the salad. The wine can really handle salt. The salt of the sea, the salt of the eggplant bruschetta. Oysters. The wine tames it and brings out a sweetness in the food that is so wonderful.
2019 Balvlerne Rose of Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County
SRP $24; sample for my review consideration
Pinot noir saignee rose from all estate fruit.
Color: Ballet pink, very. pretty, orange, copper tones,
Nose: Florals, sweet florals, Sue thought of freesia, I found rose geranium, herbs and roses mixed together, and a bit of cotton candy.
Palate: This wine is an easy summer sipper. Dry on the palate, this is not a sweet rose. We did not find anything outstanding with the wine, but there is also nothing wrong with it. This is an easy sipping summer wine.
Palate: When you pair this wine with food, the magic shows! Great picnic wine. Sue thought a country chicken salad on crackers with cheese would be fabulous. This wine might also be very nice with asian cuisine. The smoked provolone was great with the wine. They went together perfectly. Try a roasted tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwich using apple smoked provolone. It also loved the aged provolone that was not smoked. Also very nice with the goat cheese.
More than the rich seafood dishes, this wine went beautifully with the fresh garden salad.
It loved the basil garlic dressing, the garden ripe tomatoes and the parm. It was what we call a Wow moment, and we were not wowed by this wine in the beginning. With the right pairing this wine moves from just being alright to being great.
2019 Notre Vue GSM Rose
SRP $29; sample for my review consideration
Blend of 34% Grenache 33% Syrah, 33% Mourvèdre
Color: Clear and bright reflecting the light, beautiful clarity and color, peachy, apricot blush
Nose: Florals and fruits all very subtle yet pleasing, very clean and fresh, clay, iron, as it opens up rainier cherries come through.
Palate: Strawberries and watermelon, Like a strawberry watermelon salad with a twist of lemon. Clean and refreshing, lively. Even more watermelon cones through on the finish. This is a very pleasing wine.
Pairing: Very nice with the smoked provolone, I wanted a grilled cheese sandwich with the cheese and a bit of prosciutto with this wine. Cranberry crusted goat cheese was also very nice. The apricot stilton was also very nice. Great with the brucetta nicely cutting the fresh garlic in the meal. Great with plain goat cheese as well. Super with the apricot stilton, and also works with the gorgonzola. This is a very versatile food wine. This wine was clearly engaging to the both of us. We did not want to move on after tasting food and different foods with this wine. So fun and exciting. The cream of the uni and the florals come together so nicely when the two are paired together. Both become richer and more complex. The richness oof the muscles are so perfect with the wine, and the bit of chili flakes in the sauce adds a bit of kick that the wine needs.
2019 Notre Vue Chardonnay Musque
SRP $36; sample for my review
Color: Pale daffodil, Very light in color, on the gold side.
Nose: Apple, fresh pineapple, pear.
Pairing: Caramel apple, smooth from the front of the palate all the way through to the finish. This wine has such a nice mouth feel most probably coming from the yeasts.
Palate: This is an amazing food wine. Sue was surprised at how well the gorgonzola went with the wine. I had to try it and totally agreed. We wanted just a bit of apple to accent the pairing. Fantastic with the bruschetta, it loved the garlic and herbs. Sue loved the wine with the cranberry crusted goat cheese and thought it would be a perfect dessert pairing, especially if paired with a homemade savory lavender cheese cracker. Fantastic with the clams and muscles on linguine. Loved the rich and creaminess of the uni pasta. Also nice with the salad.
This Chardonnay was a perfect match for the entire meal.
If you had only one wine to choose from and had to make it shine across the menu this wine will not disappoint. In my fantasy world we were going to grill the mussels, but there isn’t the juice there as when you sauté them in wine, butter, and garlic. Fresh pasta is the way to go. If you are buying fresh shell fish, why not splurge and pay a couple of dollars extra for an experience that offers so much more? I love uni pasta with riesling, but the chardonnay is so rich and satisfying with it. It also loves the pepper flakes and the sea that the mussels and clams have to offer. Rich salmon and avocado as well as the spicy tuna roll in the sushi matched so well with this wine.
This was a great visit to stunning Notre Vue Estate, and I’m grateful for the time Alex Holman devoted to tasting wine and talking with us. I just wish we’d had more time to see the cellar, get out to the vineyards, to check out the preserve, and to get more photos of the grounds!! Next time!