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Anne Moller-Racke'squest: the ultimate Pinot Noir.

Anne Moller-Racke's first job in the California wine business was in the tasting room at Buena Vista winery, after she arrived from Germany in 1981. She had come with her husband Marcus Moller-Racke, whose family had extensive wine holdings in Germany. The family had just bought Buena Vista in Sonoma Carneros, and young Marcus had been sent to sort it all out.

In 1983, after some time spent learning the operation, the family put Marcus in charge of production and he appointed his wife as manager of the vineyards, which at the time totaled 540 acres. When the Moller-Rackes divorced in 1991, there were 945 acres of vines, including the 257-acre Tula Vista Ranch, which Anne developed with dense spacing and a full palate of clones and rootstocks.

Shortly after the divorce, Marcus returned to Germany, and Anne took a break from wine to return to college, studying business and art history, an odd juxtaposition of interests. A few years later, she returned to Buena Vista (still owned by the Moller-Racke family, so she found herself working for her ex-husband) as a consultant. Because of phylloxera, she spent a great deal of the 1990s replanting vineyards she had originally planted in the 1980s. In 1997, she was named vice president of vineyard operations at Buena Vista. Full circle, it seems.

She became more and more intent on developing Tula Vista Ranch as an estate, somewhat in the Burgundian mode, for artisanal wine production. When Allied-Domecq bought Buena Vista in 2001, she wisely retained Tula Vista, which she had renamed The Donum Estate, as a Racke holding (the company name), and began to develop it as the heart of a largely Pinot Noir-focused operation. She also plucked out the Robert Stemmler brand and brought it along to Tula Vista. In 2003, the Moller-Racke family named her president of Donum, and at the end of the year, the first Donum Estate Pinot Noir, a 2001, was released. The circle had expanded.

OK. That's the prequel, the background that sent me into Carneros on a fine morning recently to meet with Anne Moller-Racke and taste a few wines. I drove slowly east on Ramal Road, San Francisco Bay on my right, looking for the small sign. Before I found it, I noticed a large flock of sheep, which seemed appropriate for a Carneros wine operation and fitting for the terroir as well.

Moller-Racke, who is married to restaurateur Saul Gropman, maintains an office with a tasting area at the Donum Estate head-quarters, only a few yards from the grazing sheep. On the wall is a large landscape painting in the Romantic tradition, titled "Harvest Time on the Rhine." The painting is by Anton Diezler, from about 1830. It was a gift to Marcus from his father on his 40th birthday.

While an appropriate painting for a winery office, it doesn't reflect her current interest in art. "My taste in art has changed from more figurative work to more and more abstract. I have collected mainly California artists. For the longest time I had an art payment every month rather than a car payment. I know most of the artists that we have in our house, and that adds a personal dimension to the work," she said.

"These pieces have become good friends. I am not as interested in art history or analyzing the pieces. Art has to touch me emotionally. The piece has to speak to me," she added. "I look for the craftsmanship in the painter's work and appreciate creativity. But execution is also important."

It struck me that by changing a few nouns, she could be talking about wine, at least the kind of wine that is being made at Donum. "I'm not interested in making an international style wine. In the end, wine is made on passion and it must be placed in the context of the vineyard, the terroir. I frankly can't define terroir, and I don't know where it comes from," she said.

"I do know that when you work the land over and over, as I have done here, you learn a lot about the variables, about fine-tuning the vines," she said. "You know, at harvest there can be as much as six Brix difference in berries from vine to vine. That kind of sorting out can't be done in the winery, it has to be done in the vineyard, beginning with tasting the grapes. And it can't really be done on a large site. It's especially important for Pinot Noir because you don't blend other grapes. Ultimately, when you have farmed a vineyard for many years, you learn to look for differences in blocks within the vineyard."

Not surprisingly, Moller-Racke believes that the vineyard is more important that the appellation itself. "Carneros, as an appellation, is in transition. In the 1980s it was dominated by sparkling wine," she said. "That is no longer true."

Carneros is a large appellation and is split between Napa and Sonoma. Is there a difference in growing conditions between Napa Carneros and Sonoma Carneros?

"There is a difference, but there is also a difference between northern and southern Carneros. Western Carneros is more affected by wind, therefore the growing conditions are harsher and cooler.

Wind has a huge impact, especially on Chardonnay. Southern Carneros is closer to San Francisco Bay and, again, the temperatures are lower. The chief difference in soils is that along the creeks there is more silt and the soils are richer. On the ridges, soils are more gravelly and shallow," she said.

Water is an important tool in grapegrowing. Can you describe how you use irrigation in the Donum vineyards?

"Water is my gas pedal. I think it is one of our most powerful tools in California. Today, we have wonderful tools to help us make good irrigation decisions. For example, neutron probes, which measure soil moisture in the ground per foot of depth, give a clear reading of the moisture in the soil," she said. She also keeps track of weather information and uses pressure bombs to measure the plant's stress level. All of that information, together with field observations, is important in directing plant growth, she added.

As a winegrower, what are the most important decisions you make, besides irrigation?

"Pruning, because it is a decision of what you are farming for and the balance of the plant. It's also important to understand the season," she said, explaining that the vines had to be farmed differently in an early season than a late season.

Moller-Racke tastes regularly with winemakers Ken Bernards and Kenneth Juhasz. "We are so small and harvest is so short that I have lots of time to watch the wines during fermentation. In December, we normally review and summarize the season, and set some goals for the coming one. In the next few months, we bring the wines in again and again to get the first blending ideas, and then discuss issues like harvest time and ripening. It is very important that I have my own impressions of the results of each block or section so that I understand more deeply how certain actions have affected the wine. Our tastings help develop a common language. When we discuss certain actions in the field, this becomes important. It gives us joint goals and translates the farming aspect into winegrowing," she said.

What do you look for when tasting Pinot Noir?

"I want my Pinots to have intensity and power, but also elegance. I don't want my wines to be simple or one dimensional," she said. She added that the delicacy of Pinot offers more nuances, as the varietal character is not so overpowering but more restrained. "It demands more from the wine drinker," she said.

"I want my wines to have a sense of place. To express not only the vintage, but show their origin that can be traced throughout the years," she added.

RELATED ARTICLE: The Wines

There are four Robert Stemmler wines in current release and two Donum wines. The only white wine is the 2001 Robert Stemmler Carneros Three Clone Chardonnay. The Weimer clone is planted on 3309 rootstock, which according to the winemakers' notes "yields floral aromas, a silky entrance and 'upper notes.'" The Old Wente clone, planted on St. George, "gives deep fruit tones, length, depth, structure." The Monticello, on 3309, "offers vibrant citrus fruit, lush mid-palate presence." From my tasting notes: "Integrated oak, silky mouthfeel, elegant wine." The wine went through malolactic and was aged 11 months in 70% new French oak. There were 2,000 cases produced. Suggested retail is $25.

The only non-Carneros wine is the Robert Stemmler 2001 Russian River Valley, Nugent Vineyard Pinot Noir. There were 1,315 cases produced, with a suggested retail of $32. This was the first harvest from an 11-acre vineyard planted in 1997 to 116 and 667 clones. It shows bright fruit and a lively mouthfeel. It was aged 11 months in Burgundian cooperage, as were all the Stemmler and Donum Estate Pinots we tasted.

The Stemmler 2001 Carneros Pinot Noir is from the Donum Estate and the nearby Ferguson block, which Moller-Racke leases and manages. There were 6,360 cases made, with a suggested retail of $32. Clonal selection included Martini and Hanzell. The wine shows a lovely raspberry nose, with layers of flavor and a complex finish.

The Stemmler 2001 Carneros, Ferguson Block Pinot Noir is from a vineyard planted in 1974 with Martini selection clones on St. George rootstock. Yield was very low, about 1.5 tons per acre and only 4-5 pounds per vine. There were 400 cases made. Suggested retail is $40. It is an intense yet elegant wine with layer after layer of fruit leading to a long finish with marvelous velvety mouthfeel.

The first release from Donum Estate was the 2001. There were 3,564 bottles produced, packaged in four-bottle boxes. Suggested retail is $60 per bottle. Fruit comes from the Donum clone on 3309 rootstock and Martini on St. George rootstock. The 2002 Donum, released this fall, was also packed into four-bottle boxes with 420 9-liter cases produced. Suggested retail is also $60. The wines are rich and seamless with vibrant fruit mingled with forest floor and earth aromas. The mouthfeel is silky and lush. A terrific beginning for Donum.

L.W.

RELATED ARTICLE: Donum Estate At-A-Glance

Property: The estate is on the first low range of hills north of San Pablo (San Francisco) Bay. It is a 257-acre property with 147 acres planted in 1985. Moller-Racke also leases and manages the Ferguson block, a 56-acre vineyard planted in 1974.

Winemakers: Ken Bernards, Kenneth Juhasz.

Winegrower: Anne Moller-Racke. Phil Freese, consultant; Nabor Camerena, foreman.

Mission Statement: To produce "the ultimate Pinot Noir."

L.W.

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Author:Walker, Larry
Publication:Wines & Vines
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2004
Words:1870
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