Ever since 2004, when Sideways shone a spotlight on pinot noir, new labels of this variety have appeared like mushrooms after rain, especially in California and Oregon. Last year, I was serendipitously introduced to one of the newest among these: Nicholas Maloney’s Father John brand. Father John debuted commercially in 2012 with just 200 cases of pinot from the Oehlman Vineyard, a 1989 planting of UCD 13 on Vine Hill Road west of Santa Rosa, and has since expanded to include pinots from Greenwood Ridge Vineyards on the west side of Anderson Valley and from a Redwood Valley site that will be identified on-label simply as Mendocino. Unusually, a small amount of pinot noir and chardonnay from Burgundy is also produced under the Father John label, see below. A recent tasting of the 2014 edition of Oehlman and barrel samples of all the American pinots from the 2015 vintage provided ample evidence that Father John is a project of much more than routine interest.
The 2014 Oehlman (this site has now been rechristened Vine Hill Vineyard on Father John labels) is a beautiful, very transparent, brilliant rosy-raspberry-red colored wine showing some red berry fruit on the palate, but the wine is also savory and finely chisled, with just a hint of tannin-derived texture on the finish. Like really good Burgundies, it is intense but almost weightless, “all silk and lace,” as a Burgundian maker once described his ideal wine to me. Maloney likes whole clusters, and generally leaves more than half of each press lot intact, and he does not add acid. The latter is scarcely necessary since he picks early, when the fruit still has plenty of natural acid. Early picking in cool climates also means that the finished alcohol almost always stays under 13°, and is often closer to 12°, which is a welcome relief from the mainstream of American pinots that finish between 14° and 15°. The spontaneous fermentations are cool, and involve no yeast nutrients or enzymes. There is some cold soak on the front end, pumpovers rather than punchdowns for the duration of the primary fermentations, and no post-fermentation maceration. The press fraction is normally reincorporated into the final cuvée, but kept separate until its character has been assessed. The 2015s, from barrel, are extremely promising, and each is distinctly different from the others. The Oehlman is true to form: light-footed and elegant. The Greenwood Ridge, now resting in an assortment of barrels, is noticeably different: somewhat deeper color, though still comfortably transparent; it is also a bit fruitier, though not in any way “fruit-driven” and signed with notes of savory herbs and conifers. The barrel regime is a work in progress. For the first time in the short history of Father John, two new barrels are being used, both very slightly toasted barriques from François Frères, while two others are Damy barrels previously used for a few vintages of chardonnay. Most of the barrel stock remains as it has been from the outset, however: barrels between two and five years old. The Greenwood Ridge is an exceedingly pure and sleek wine, but its shape, structure and flavor profile may appeal to consumers (and critics!) who need a bit more fruit and color to satisfy their image of California pinot, while the Oehlman/Vine Hill find greater favor in the ranks of traditional “Burgundophiles.” The 2015s will be released early in 2017.
Maloney is a Sonoma County native who first cut his winemaking teeth at Clos du Bois in 2007, but it was time in France, and especially at Domaine Rollin Père et Fils in Pernand-Vergelesses between 2013 and 2015 that focused his passions around pinot noir. Although he does not follow mainstream Burgundian winemaking protocols (the vast majority of Burgundians destem their fruit, ferment in open tanks, punch down fermentations manually, and use new barrels generously) he does aspire to the lacy, ageworthy, highly aromatic, iron-fist-only-when-it-is-covered-with-a-velvet-glove profile for finished wines that many of us associate with very good red Burgundies from the first three quarters of the 20th century. He is also a champion of dry-farmed vines, and wines whose organoleptic space is not given predominantly to ripe fruit. For the record, the Burgundian wines in the Father John portfolio are a white from Les Larrets Blancs near Echevronne, north of Pernand-Vergelesses, and a red from En Lutenière, on the east side of the D974 road not far from Clos des Réas. The 2014 Les Larrets Blancs, raised in a 50-50 combination of stainless steel and well-used barriques, is an appealing, bright, treble clef chardonnay. I have not tasted En Lutenière. Stay tuned as the 2015 wines from both sides of the Atlantic come to market.