Sunday, November 22, 2015

Russian River Bliss: Exploring MacMurray Ranch

MacMurray Ranch is an ethereal place. Nestled in a quiet enclave of Sonoma’s Russian River Valley, as you enter the estate, the clock dials back a few decades. Massive, gnarly oak trees scrape the sky. Rows of vines rise up from the forest and stretch to the hills — it’s conducive to a sense of awe and admiration.

On a recent trip to Napa and Sonoma, I spent the afternoon and evening touring the property and dining at the ranch house. The MacMurray Ranch is home to the annual Taste of Sonoma event, which brings together thousands of wine lovers with hundreds of local wineries and food vendors. I’ve never attended, but after spending time at the ranch, I realized it is a perfect spot it is to throw a huge party.

The ranch is massive, comprising 1,500 acres, and has been farmed since the 1850s. The American actor Fred MacMurray purchased the property in 1941, and began farming crops, raising cattle and raising a family. 

Kate MacMurray, Fred's daughter, grew up here, and she was my gracious host for an afternoon and evening at the ranch. She's a genuine, wise soul, exuding a rich sense of historical perspective. As we toured the property, she told nostalgic stories about the ranch and spoke about "Daddy and Mom" with a tone of reverence. 

Fred MacMurray passed away in 1991, and it wasn’t until five years later that the first grape vines took root in MacMurray Ranch soil. 

While grapes are a relative newcomer to this historic site, it’s a beautiful spot for viticulture. This estate is sprawling and diverse, with different slopes and soils. 

Kate MacMurray at home on the ranch. 
These hills are home to some delicious Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris, among other varieties. 400 acres are planted to vines, 280 to Pinot Noir. 

"We're Pinot here," said Winemaker Boyd Morrison, a tall, pensive guy with a passion for site-specific nuances in the Pinot Noir Grape. "That's mostly where our passion is." 

After touring the vineyards with Boyd and Kate, we gathered at the highest point of the ranch to taste some barrel samples of 2014 Pinot Noirs. The wines came from four different estate vineyards (three in the Russian River and one much further south in the Santa Lucia Highlands). The three Russian River Vineyards (along with MacMurray Ranch) are usually blended together in one of three appellation bottlings, the Russian River, Russian River Reserve and the Winemaker’s Block, while the Santa Lucia wine is bottled separately.  

Below are my notes on the four different Pinot Noirs.

2014 Pinot Noir Two Rock Vineyard
Russian River Valley - 223 acres of Pinot Noir
Gorgeous nose of bright strawberries, raspberries, rose hips. Fresh and vibrant palate with tangy acid to zest up a bold texture. Bright raspberries and juicy cherries mix with notes of pepper and clove. I could see this wine adding a whole lot of aromatics and spice to a blend.

2014 Pinot Noir Del Rio Vineyard
Russian River Valley - 44 acres of Pinot Noir
Darker cherries on the nose, more savory spices as well. Full and chewy on the palate, a deep but smooth texture. Plummy, jammy cherries and raspberries. I get sweet tobacco, loam, clay, violets. A deep and somewhat compact wine that could add a whole lot of structure to a blend.

2014 Pinot Noir Laguna Ranch
Russian River Valley - 21 acres of Pinot Noir
More aromatically compact but does show some deper red currant and cherries along with some clove and pepper. Bright acid on the palate but a rich and chewy presence. Rich but tangy cherries along with roses, black tea, tobacco. A long, warm finish. Bold but shows lots of finesse.

2014 Pinot Noir Olson Ranch
Santa Lucia Highlands - 390 acres of Pinot Noir
Bright red cherries on the nose, sweet strawberries and raspberry jam. Chewy texture, medium-low acid, this shows jammy raspberries and black cherry fruit. I get notes of lavender, cedar, cola, sweet herbaceous elements as well.

California wine giant Gallo Family bought MacMurray Ranch about 16 years ago. Kate told me the family sold to Gallo with a few conditions. They wanted to sell to a family company that would respect the unique history and aesthetic of the place. Also, the purchases couldn’t disturb an old fence on the property that was built by Chinese laborers in the 1800s. Lastly, the land had to stay agricultural. Considering the site was prime Pinot Noir territory, Gallo fit the bill and bought MacMurray Ranch. The money from the sale was used to create a non-profit foundation in the name of Kate's parents.

After dark, a group of other wine writers and I gathered around a table in the old ranch house for an amazing meal. The food, served by renowned local chef Gia Passalacqua, was absurdly delicious. "Meals were very important here," Kate told me as we dined. "That's what this ranch is all about, bringing people together in a joyful setting."

My notes on the wines tasted with dinner are posted below.

2014 MacMurray Ranch Pinot Gris Russian River Valley - California, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley
SRP: $20
Smells of creamy yellow apples, nectarines and rich yellow flowers. Bright acid on the palate keeps this lively while the creamy fruit rolls in (pears, nectarines, yellow apples). I get notes of honeycomb and floral perfume. A very pretty Pinot Gris with lots of life. The fruit comes from MacMurray Ranch and Two Rock Vineyard. Very good for the price. (87 points)

2014 MacMurray Ranch Chardonnay Russian River Valley - California, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley
SRP: $20
Great aromatic vivacity: green and yellow pears and apples, honeysuckle, almond and some flinty notes. Crisp but buttery, the balance is wonderful. Tastes of the ripest pears, sliced green apples, with notes of honeycomb, cinnamon, yet some mineral tinge throughout. Love the balance of freshness and richness in this Chard. From Laguna Ranch, Del Rio and Two Rock Vineyards. So good for the price. (88 points)

2013 MacMurray Ranch Pinot Noir Reserve Russian River Valley - California, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley
SRP: $37
Nose of juicy black and red cherries, raspberry jam, along with tobacco, roses and wet earth. A full and velvety approach on the palate, bold, almost aggressive, but some moderate acid for balance. The fruit tends toward the jammy red currants and raspberries, but the fruit is tinted with notes of rhubarb, red clay, caramel and coffee. Long, rich, warm, even exotic. A richer style but very pretty – this will improve for quite some time. From Laguna Ranch, Del Rio and MacMurray Ranch Vineyards. Aged 10 months in 1/3 new French oak. (90 points)

SRP: $60
A wonderfully complex nose of black cherries, raspberries, red licorice, sage, clove, roses, tilled soil. So silky and refined on the palate but the richness is evident. The red fruit is tangy and fresh and complemented by rhubarb pie and tobacco flavors. An underlying mineral essence as well, with hints of savory elements that will come out with time. A much more refined Pinot than the Russian River Reserve, and one of my favorite wines of the trip. From Del Rio, Laguna Ranch and MacMurray Ranch Vineyards. (92 points)

2007 Gallo Family Vineyards Sémillon Late Harvest Style - California, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley
Rich aromas of peach nectar, candied orange peel and clover honey. Smooth and rich on the palate with apricot jam, pineapple cake, orange marmalade, also some candied ginger and caramelized sugar. Medium acid helps balance the richness. Very delicious. (87 points)

The MacMurray Ranch has a lot of different slopes, angles and soils, allowing the Pinot grapes to gain significant complexity.

And here's some GoPro footage from my time at MacMurray Ranch: 

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