Terroir is a complex concept. It’s commonly translated as “a sense of place,” and most understandings of the term are largely dependant on how the vine’s physical environment affects the expression of the resulting wine. Soil type, aspect, climate and farming regime all contribute to the raw material—grapes. Then it’s over to the winemaker to preserve these distinctive markers of that particular place and encapsulate them in a bottle. Though it’s quite difficult to measure or quantify, I’m convinced that terroir exists and that wines can convey a complex sense of place. I’m also interested in a broader concept of terroir that includes culture, people and emotion: the emotional input of a farmer or winemaker or team of people that become an integral part of the wine; the culture that exists in the place where the wine is grown and made. This dimension of terroir certainly defies empirical analysis and yet I’m equally as convinced that it affects the way in which wines express themselves and how we perceive them. Wine is inherently a human product. Nature produces grapes, humans make wine, so any concept of terroir without the inclusion of human input seems incomplete.
Very few times in my life has this concept of a more holistic definition of terroir made more sense than on a recent trip to visit Ordaz Family Wines in Sonoma. My visit with the Ordaz family was initiated a few months back with an email from Eppie Ordaz asking to schedule an appointment to taste me on his family’s wines. A few weeks later we met in Redwood City and began talking as he opened the wines. Though I had vaguely recognized the name “Ordaz” it wasn’t until chatting with Eppie that something clicked…he is the son of legendary grape grower Jesus “Chuy” Ordaz. Chuy’s name is known to many due to his namesake Chardonnay vineyard 1,400 feet up in Sonoma’s Moon Mountain AVA, made famous by producers such as DuMol, Failla, Neyers and Bedrock. Chuy has farmed those vines for more than four decades. On the same rugged mountain Chuy also looks after legendary vineyards such as Fredericks Vineyard (a designate of Turley), Maus Vineyard, and perhaps the jewel in the crown, Montecillo Vineyard. Montecillo was planted back in the 1960s and is home to some of the oldest Cabernet Sauvignon in California. Chuy’s vast experience and knowledge of this mountain is second to none. He has literally spent a lifetime establishing vineyards and growing grapes here. Eppie now works closely with his dad to buy very small parcels of fruit (normally a ton or less) from the best blocks on the property. They are minimally but thoughtfully crafted into wines that intricately reflect this rugged, rocky, mountain terroir. After buying some of the wines on the spot I invited myself to visit the vineyards and hopefully meet Eppie’s dad.
The following week we all met at a tiny gas station in Kenwood, California, and headed for the vineyards. Parking at the foot of the mountain where the sealed road abruptly finished, Chuy playfully gibed at his son for not wanting to get his truck dirty! We all climbed into Chuy’s somewhat more “weathered” truck and snaked our way up a steep and rutted gravel road. As we rumbled along, historical commentary about the mountain and vineyards was interspersed with friendly banter and personal anecdotes. It was impossible not to be in awe as we stood on top of the mountain looking at these 50-plus-year-old dry-farmed vines with the man who had been their lifelong caretaker. Eppie and Chuy joked about who makes the call what exact parcels to select and when to pick them. They lamented about previous eras when the fruit was less sought after and cost one third of the price per ton that it commands today! When the conversation turned more toward the winemaking side of things Chuy drifted off and before we knew it he was down a nearby row, pulling sucker shoots and leaves off of the vines. “He doesn’t like to stand still,” Eppie laughed as his dad disappeared deeper and deeper into the vines. The sun was starting to set and we had to hit the road. Eppie called out to his dad, “You’ve got the keys to the truck, come back up here.” Eppie was on the hook for cooking family dinner that night and knew how difficult it could be to get his father out of the vineyard. The connection between people and place is flourishing here. I feel truly lucky to have witnessed it first hand. The Ordaz wines represent the dedication of a lifetime’s work, the love and respect between father and son—truly magical.
2017 Ordaz “Maus Vineyard” Sonoma Valley Rosé ($19.95) Made from 70% Grenache, 15% Syrah and 15% Mourvèdre, a beautifully pure, refreshing, quaffable style of rosé with plenty of texture and layers to go with the crunchy acidity and zippy drive. Speaks distinctly of the incredibly shallow soils with fractured sandstone in which the vines struggle. A summer favorite for sure!
2013 Ordaz “Montecillo Vineyard” Sonoma Valley Zinfandel ($34.99) Powerful yet fresh. Pure yet wild. This fascinating mountain fruit Zin is simply captivating. It’s taken entirely from the older blocks of Zinfandel at Montecillo Vineyard, and there is an effortless concentration to the wine that seems to come from the quality of the fruit rather than extreme ripeness or extraction; more structured than your typical Russian River, Dry Creek or Lodi Zin, really expressing its mountain home. 91 WE
2013 Ordaz “Montecillo Vineyard” Sonoma Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($54.99) From hand-selected parcels of old-vine Cabernet high on Moon Mountain in the famed Montecillo Vineyard. Planted in the late 1960s at 1,800 feet in elevation, this site produces some of the most distinctive and sought-after Cabernet in the state. Packed with briary dark fruit, graphite, cigar box, chicory and dry earth. Medium-bodied, with firm tannins and a linear shape. Quite savory and “old school” with plenty of traditional varietal character complementing the muscular mountain fruit.