2019 Chardonnay 'El Novillero Vineyard'
"I first visited this vineyard in the summer of 1993. We were looking for a Carneros AVA source for Chardonnay grapes, and I had arranged to meet with Angelo Sangiacomo to see some of the vineyards he either owned, or was farming, at the time. We had just hired Helen Turley as a winemaking consultant so I asked her to join us. We spent the morning touring vineyards near the Sangiacomo home ranch just outside of Sonoma, but after lunch we drove up to the western hills to see this property, and I was immediately impressed with its magnificence.
It’s a 100-acre vineyard that covers the southeast face of a steep hill, and sits in a natural amphitheater looking out over the San Francisco Bay. It’s divided into five separate parcels, each at a progressively higher elevation, with the top-most parcel – the five acres that interested us most – almost 1000 feet high. Even on this warm summer afternoon it was chilly there, and the vines were old and weather beaten from the harsh conditions. Most striking was the soil, a combination of pebbly-gravel and loam, riddled with deposits of clay, which reminded me of the ‘Perrières’ vineyard in Meursault. Helen began to collect soil samples as she turned to me: “You need to buy these grapes.”
While driving back to Angelo’s office we learned that the vineyard was called ‘El Novillero’, and that it was owned by two sisters, Sandy and Nancy Donnell, and their brother Bruce. I told Angelo we were interested in the grapes for Neyers Vineyards, but he mentioned that the vineyard was already under contract. He had taken us there to give us an idea of this project in which he was a partner.
Barbara was working at Chez Panisse at the time, and when she got home that night I explained how my meeting with Angelo had gone. When I mentioned the name ‘Donnell’ her eyes lit up. “I wonder if that’s Nancy Donnell,” she said. Nancy, it turned out, had been Alice Waters’ roommate in college. She and her family were among the original investors in the restaurant. Barbara was to have lunch with her later that week at their monthly board meeting. On Friday afternoon Barbara called me at the office. “I talked with Nancy,” she said, “And it is her vineyard. She heard you had visited with Angelo, and they’d love to sell us the grapes. We can have whatever we want.”
And so began a winemaking tradition that continues with us today. With the 2019 El Novillero Chardonnay, we are closing in on the 30th offering of wine from this remarkable vineyard. The exotic mix of soil, exposure, climate and harsh weather, when combined with the traditional winemaking of Tadeo Borchardt, have given us this vintage which embodies all that we find significant in old-world Chardonnay. It’s rich with an unmistakable ‘Burgundian’ charm. The combination of barrel fermentation and protracted yeast-lees contact add a complex ‘hazelnut’ component. Much like some of the greatest white Burgundies I’ve encountered, there is a delicious hint of butterscotch. We’re in fresh Alaskan Halibut season now, and I’m eager to try a bottle with Barbara’s pan-seared halibut sautéed in garlic-butter sauce." ~~ Bruce Neyers