I wondered, as I drove to meet Katy Wilson at the secluded Emmaline Ann Vineyard in Sebastopol, what would motivate a young winemaker to join the fray of great pinot noir and cool-climate chardonnay production in Sonoma County. Before I left the vineyard, 90 minutes later, I had my answer.
Wilson, owner-winemaker of LaRue Wines, has had a strategy in place since she crafted a business plan for a small production winery in Agricultural Business 101 at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
Raised in farming, this could simply be a “she drove a tractor before a car” kind of story, but, a closer look reveals someone who, at a very young age, impressed her colleagues who, in turn encouraged and motivated her to make her own wines.
After stints in the Napa Valley and New Zealand, Katy settled at Flowers Vineyard and Winery on the Sonoma coast, then Kamen Estate Wines in Sonoma. Nine years ago, at age 26, Katy was offered some grapes and decided to launch LaRue Wines, vowing to limit production to 500 cases. She named her new winery in honor of her great-grandmother, Veona LaRue Newell, whom she described as inspirational and unique.
In addition to overseeing LaRue, Katy serves as a winemaker for Anaba Wine, Claypool Cellars, Reeve Wines and Smith Story Wine Cellars, all in Sonoma County.
Fine wines begin with great stock and Katy currently sources her grapes from five distinctive vineyards in the Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast appellations. My tasting with her began with her chardonnay release from a known Green Valley of Russian River Valley vineyard that has sourced grapes to Sonoma County icons like William Selyem, Kosta Browne and DeLoach since the early 1980s.
The 2016 LaRue “Heintz Vineyard” Chardonnay ($60) expressed floral and mineral notes on the nose with vibrant citrus and stone fruit flavors through the the finish. Aged 17 months in French oak with 50 percent malolactic fermentation, the wine shows that Katy follows her instinct that it’s sometimes best to leave it alone and develop peacefully. Only 50 cases were produced.
As we tasted, Katy explained that the 2015 LaRue Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($60) had just began to open up during the last few months. Aged 20 months in French oak, 25 percent new, it had classic aromas of cherry and spice and a very balanced flavor profile and rich mouthfeel. At 240 cases, it represents about 40 percent of their total production.
With an east facing vineyard located west of Sebastopol that enjoys morning sun, the 2014 LeRue “Thornridge Vineyard” Pinot Noir ($70) used pommard and 115 clone to produce a “powerful, yet elegant” wine with dark stone fruits, berry aromas and complex, integrated classic flavors. Production is limited to 50 cases.
I was impressed with all of Wilson’s releases, but thought of the 2014 LaRue “Coastlands Vineyard” Pinot Noir ($80) as special and unique, from dirt to drink. It is uniquely derived from some of the county’s oldest pinot noir vines, grown at 900-1,200 feet elevations, two miles from the Pacific Ocean. It is partially whole-cluster pressed and aged for 32 months in 50 percent new French oak, which is very unique.
The “Coastlands” bouquet is rustic and earthy, with notes of dark fruit and spice. The palate is very textural and classically fruit-forward while the finish hangs on. Only a few barrels of this wine were produced.
Grown on six-acres south of Sebastopol, the grapes sourced for the 2014 LaRue Rice-Spivak Vineyard Pinot Noir ($70) come from volcanic ash soil, rare to this region. This release expressed solid spice and mineral elements along with the classic structure and pinot fruit.
In all the releases, there was a balance that made them very approachable to drink now while understanding that they will continue to mature for years.
Since we were sitting in a handsome garden overlooking the vineyard, we ended the tasting with the 2014 LaRue “Emmaline Ann Vineyard” Pinot Noir. The aromas were spiced and heavy with a forest-floor quality, yet the flavors were crisp and toasted.
My first impressions of LaRue wines were aptly described by the Prince of Pinot, Dr. William “Rusty” Gaffney, when he said, “Her wines have a certain transcendent aura that reminds you why you fell in love with pinot noir in the first place.”
I plan to explore each vintage of Katy Wilson’s LaRue wines.
Lyle W. Norton is a wine enthusiast and blogger in Santa Rosa who has written a wine column for 15 years. Visit his blog at www.lifebylyle.com or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.