The pinch-me-brilliant wines of Rhys Vineyards.
He began scouring the region for potential vineyards, and between 2001 and 2005 identified and developed four sites to go along with the one behind his house, which he had aptly christened Home Vineyard (there is now a sixth vineyard, located in the Anderson Valley north of Sonoma; it's the only Rhys property outside the Bay Area). The vineyards ranged in elevation from 400-2300 feet, had cool microclimates, and also very distinct soils, which was a critical element in Harvey's plans: He wanted to see if he could craft wines that somehow reflected these differences. His goal was to make Rhys a laboratory of terroir. The vineyards were farmed biodynamically, and the winemaking regimen, overseen by Jeff Brinkman, was uniform across all the vineyards—mostly whole-cluster fermentations, natural yeasts, limited use of new oak— in the belief that this would isolate and accentuate the soil expression.
The results have been pinch-me brilliant. The Rhys wines are hypnotically good—crisp, poised, succulent, with sensational minerality (sorry, scientists) and structure. Deceptively pale in color—the best pinots often are— they are also astonishingly low in alcohol: Some of them clock in under 13 percent. What makes the wines even more impressive is that they share all of these qualities yet are strikingly different from one another. Harvey's experiment is succeeding: The Rhys wines truly are vins de terroir, with an individuality that seems clearly derived from the soil. Drinking the Skyline Vineyard pinot noir is like sucking lightly sweetened grape juice off a stone, and it is surely no coincidence that the vineyard lays on a bed of rocks. The Alpine Vineyard pinot has a chalky texture that is presumably linked to the soft shale in which the vines are planted. My favorite of the pinots, from the Horseshoe Vineyard, is so silky it seems almost weightless, yet it somehow manages to paint every corner of the palate with enthralling cherry and spice flavors and zesty minerality. I think the Horseshoe site is Harvey's greatest find; in addition to the pinot, it also produces the best American syrah I have tasted and an awesome chardonnay, too. I could go on, but you get the idea and I'm starting to gush. (For more gushing, you can read my full tasting notes.)
The pinots are the stars of the Rhys stable, and it is impossible to overstate what Harvey has achieved with them (although I'm trying). Known as the "heartbreak grape," pinot noir is a notoriously capricious variety. Burgundy, where it has reigned since the late 14th century, seemed to be the only place it was capable of flourishing, and even there it could be maddeningly hit-or-miss. A lot of pinot has been planted in California, Oregon, and New Zealand, and some good wines have been made. Even so, Burgundy nuts like me were convinced that pinot was only truly at home in the limestone-rich soils of east-central France and that New World renderings were forever destined to be also-rans. Rhys has cracked the code, however, turning out delicious pinots that in their subtlety, elegance, and sense of place approach the very best red Burgundies. I think all they lack at this point is the same intensity and length of flavor, which will presumably come with vine age, and a demonstrated ability to gain complexity as they mature, and I am confident that will happen, too.
That Rhys is evoking these comparisons less than a decade after producing its first commercial vintage is mind-bending. After all, it took the Burgundians hundreds of years of trial and error to get where they are today. Sure, Harvey was driven, and while I didn't inspect his financials, money clearly wasn't an issue when it came to pursuing his ambitions. Even so, exceptional wines aren't supposed to happen this fast, and certainly not with a grape as ornery as pinot noir. Harvey insists that he mostly just got lucky; to the extent that he is willing to claim any credit, he says that he simply had the good sense to learn from the Old World's example—cool, rocky hillsides with shallow soils give the most compelling wines. That's certainly true in Burgundy, and as Harvey puts it, "Burgundy has all the answers if you know to ask the right questions."
Harvey and his colleagues no long work out of a warehouse; they have now moved into a custom-built winemaking facility in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Harvey continues to look for additional vineyards but says that finding sites that satisfy his criteria is not easy. It would be a good thing if he could, because Rhys' output is small: It makes only about 5,000 cases annually, which helps explains why the mailing list filled up so rapidly. Here's a bit of encouraging news, though: Harvey told me that people on the waiting list are going to be offered wine this autumn, from the estate's Family Farm vineyard; some regrafted vines came back into production in 2009, which bumped up the size of the crop. My advice? Pounce. You can contact Rhys at email@example.com.
Photograph by Hemera/Thinkstock.