Taking some time to rewind some past interviews, this arose from The Varietal Show in March 2021, when I learned EVERYTHING about a very special winemaker, Ken Bernards. Read through, then watch our show afterwards for an in depth ANCIEN experience! Cheers, Chris
Known for its fruity flavors, bright acidity, soft tannins and delicate demeanor: Pinot Noir is the most transparent of all noble red grape varieties with thin skin and the rare ability to showcase the unique traits of special sites where the vines are planted.
From the famed vineyards of Burgundy to the land of promise in America, the distinctive characteristics of great sites on the West Coast can be explored in the splendid single-vineyard Pinot Noir series crafted at Ancien Wines in Napa.
Prior to launching the boutique Ancien brand with his wife Teresa in 1992, gifted winemaker Ken Bernards’ passion to work with this illustrious red grape started in Oregon’s Willamette Valley forty years ago, when he seized the chance to sip and savor lab samples of Pinot Noir that were offered by his high school friend’s dad, the winemaker at Sokol Blosser in the Dundee Hills.
“Back in the late 70s and early 80s, the Oregon wine scene was overshadowed by mom-and-pop family farmers that worked with fruit trees, nuts, grass seeds and hops instead of wine. So, tasting sips of a finely crafted Pinot Noir in a Styrofoam cup was a big deal,” recalls Bernards, a native Oregonian, who started his college career at Oregon State University in 1983—the same year Willamette Valley become the state’s first official American Viticultural Area (AVA).
Although the exciting field trials with the promising French Dijon Clones 113, 114 and 115 of Pinot Noir began when Bernards was an OSU Beaver in 1984; the university’s Viticulture & Enology program was still in its infancy. Therefore, to create his own route to becoming a well-rounded winemaker, Bernards majored in Flavor Chemistry; fine-tuning his senses researching the aromatic profiles of hops; and broadened his wine knowledge by taking a series of invaluable classes taught by his mentor, Northwest wine pioneer David Letts. In 1986, a preview of his successful career in the Napa Valley began when he worked harvest at Domaine Chandon, the cutting-edge sparkling wine producer started by famed French Champagne company Moet Chandon in 1973.
“That sealed the deal,” says Bernards, who began his six-year tenure as enologist and rising star winemaker at Domaine Chandon after graduating from OSU in 1988. “I was attracted to the seasonality of the wine business, and I came back to start my career.”
While working alongside innovative winemaker Dawnine Dyer at Domaine Chandon; Bernards contributed to the advancement of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vines planted on the West Coast through a series of experimental projects he did that matched distinctive soils, micro-climates and specialty clones of these heralded red and white French varieties with everything from rootstocks and trellis systems, to row direction and shoot positioning. Although he has fond memories from his visits to Champagne and producing ultra-premium sparkling wines using the classic methode champenoise technique in the new world: Bernards says the impact of his first trip to Burgundy was the inspiration for his shift towards producing still wines with world-class fruit from Pinot Noir vines grown on inimitable soils.
“In Burgundy, I felt like every direction I turned led to new discoveries,” explains Bernards. “To me, that fueled my fire to search for Grand Cru sites in California that can consistently deliver, in wet years and warmer years, and produce dynamic flavors that are true to the soils and conditions where the vines are planted.”
ANCIEN SINGLE VINEYARD FOCUS
To start the new stage of his quest in 1992, the first five barrels of Ancien Pinot Noir were made with premium grapes sourced from one of the original Domaine Chandon vineyards that was planted on the southeast edge of the cool-climate Los Carneros District in 1973. While the results were fantastic right out of the gate, the low production of fruit was a sign the vineyard needed to be replanted. As it turned out, this predicament would lead to two exciting projects that allowed Bernards to plant new Pinot Noir vines in distinctive soils that ultimately helped define the Ancien style and spark the single vineyard series moving forward.
The first of these special sites is the Mink Vineyard, a pristine property located at the base of the Vaca Mountain Range and inside the boundaries of the Coombsville AVA, east of downtown Napa. When Bernards teamed up with proprietors Bill and Angela Mink to plant the special mixture of the virus-free Swan Selection and Dijon 115 clones of Pinot Noir on the original 2.5-acre parcel in 1996, the vineyard plantings in this region were much more sparce before it became an official appellation in 2011.
In hindsight, Bernards says confidence in the potential of this growing area was primarily based on his earlier introduction to the stately Martini Pinot Noir and Old Wente vines that were planted in 1966 at the historic Haynes Vineyard next door and the unique qualities of the cobbly alluvial soil that was layered on top of white volcanic ash. In the end, the risk was worth the reward. Not only does the annual release of the mineral-driven Ancien Mink Vineyard Pinot Noir offer opulent notes of ripe berries, blue fruits, mocha, and wild herbs; but the neighboring Haynes Vineyard is now the working home of the Ancien brand and three single vineyard-designate wines that are connected to the old vines on the property. “Serendipity at its finest,” smiles Bernards.
In the windy Los Carneros District, file miles west, the exciting vineyard project at Toyon Farms began in 1998. Although he worked with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes that were used in sparkling wines made for the Domaine Chandon and Domaine Carneros labels; Bernards says the birth of this project was based around his appreciation for the classy still wines being made with high-quality fruit grown at the Hyde Vineyard, which is adjacent to sections of the Toyon property he developed with owner Ed and Camille Penhoet.
“Based on the track record of the Hyde family, we already knew this was primo land,” says Bernards. “While clay soils are quite predominant in Carneros, the underlying layers of shale and limestone allows for optimum drainage which eliminates excess water and provides a sweet spot to grow world-class grapes.”
To test these soils and add a signature touch to the Ancien Pinot Noir section at Toyon Farms: Bernards chose to plant the “Pisoni Clone,” a rare selection sourced from the original blocks at the Penhoet family’s historic River Ranch property in the Carmel Valley AVA. Over time, the distinct characteristics of each block have become more defined. Therefore, unlike the ripe red fruit profile that Saintsbury Winery makes with the Dijon 115 section planted at Toyon Farms in 1996; the more full-bodied Ancien Pisoni Clone style is rich, plush, and layered with deep notes of dark cherry, juicy berries, and earth tones.
Celebrating the advancement of Pinot Noir on the West Coast, heralded winegrowing regions, and the charming characteristics that set top sites apart from the rest, the Ancien Single Vineyard Series has continued to expand over the past two decades. Today, this impressive list of small-lot releases from special sites and regions includes the Jouissance Vineyard in Russian River Valley; Red Dog Vineyard, Sonoma Mountain; the Penhoet’s River Ranch, Carmel Valley; Kathy Joseph’s Fiddlestix Vineyard, Sta. Rita Hills, Santa Barbara County; and the famed Shea Vineyard in the Eola Hills-Amity sub-AVA of Willamette Valley. To highlight his affection for Burgundy, Bernards also became the first winemaker to import grapes from the hollowed region of Morey-St-Denis and vinify them on California soil.
Bernards says he has equal affection for all of these vineyard-designate wines because of the distinguished flavors each has to offer and the additional charming characteristics that develop as the vines mature. “To me, it’s not a contest. Instead, each one of our Pinot Noir offerings is a prime example of the diverse regions I have fallen in love with since I began fine tuning my skills from the 1980s onward.”
IN THE CELLAR
To capture the personality of the site and vintage inside the bottle, Bernards favors a soft, minimalist approach in the cellar with the use of gravity flow; the meticulous process of cold soaks, punch-downs, and extraction; barrel aging; and avoiding filtration to maintain the purity of the fruit. Along the way, gentle adjustments are made to highlight the distinctive aromas, flavors, and subtle nuances that set each vineyard designate apart from the rest.
While Bernards says some of these steps are based around the percentage of whole whole berry content, skin maceration time, or using specialty barrels that can soften tannins or enhance the flavors: in the case of the Russian River Valley Pinot Noir from Jouissance Vineyard, its as easy as leaving some crunchy stems in with the skins and juice during the process. “Suddenly, all that soft and juicy upfront fruit has a little bit of tension, structure, and additional layers of earth, spice, and aromatics,” he says.
ANCIEN WHITE WINES
This attention to detail carries over to the white wine program at Ancien as well. Located on South Coombs Street in Napa, the winery’s stylish new tasting room faces east towards the Napa River and the Coombsville AVA, which is home to the Ancien winemaking facility at the Haynes Vineyard and the historic old Chardonnay vines planted in 1966. As the years have passed, the classic Old Wente Clone section of the vineyard has taken on a life of its own. To honor this legacy, Ancien makes two separate bottlings. The first is the Old Vine Block Chardonnay, which is elegant, stately, and complex. The second is the bright, crisp and fragrant “Musque” version, which is crafted with ripe and tangy fruit from the younger vines Bernards started with select cuttings from the old block in 2012.
To add a twist to the white wine program, the Ancien Carneros Chardonnay is a special cuvée style crafted with newer plantings of the Old Wente Clone at Toyon Farms on the Napa side of the appellation, and prized sections farmed by the Sangiacomo family near Sonoma. As a result, the finished wine features classic hints of tart lemon, crisp green apple and a sexy suede texture, which have become trademarks of the Carneros AVA.
Following his love for the stylish white wines made in the Alsace region of France, Bernards’ first step towards crafting the Ancien Pinot Gris began when he worked with the Sangiacomo family to plant experimental rows of this aromatic white grape variety and a white mutation of Pinot Noir. The success of this project resulted in a two-acre block, planted exclusively for the Ancien brand, which features the rare Alsatian Clones 46 and 52 imported from France. The unique combination of clay soils, warm days, and windy afternoons allow each cluster to slowly develop complex flavors before harvest. The result is a classy white wine that stimulates the senses with fragrant notes of fresh fruits and spring flowers; fills the palate with lively flavors of crisp apple, poached pear, ripe peach and tangy citrus; and renders a long refreshing finish and a true sense of place—in this case a tiny parcel tucked within the stunning 1,600 acres of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vineyards that are farmed by the third-generation of the Sangiacomo family, which planted its first vines at their Home Ranch in Sonoma in the late 1960s.
“To me, it’s all about paying attention to the details and characteristics that make these sites so special. It is not about applying a recipe. Instead, it is more about gently leading the grapes through the whole process from vine to bottle,” says Bernards, who will be celebrating the 30-year anniversary of the Ancien brand in 2022.
SHARING THE PASSION
Although it is tiny in comparison to the very well-known Napa Valley wineries, Ancien is the definition of a boutique brand that produces a wide range of classically styled wines that are elegant, complex, and true to the character of the special sites highlighted in the portfolio. Not only can these well-crafted wines immediately dazzle the nose and palate, but the profiles become even more brilliant as they develop in the glass and represent time capsules of the vintage when cellared.
Over the past twenty years, the success of the Ancien label has earned the respect of star sommeliers, top-notch retailers and members of the media, and created an endless stream of memorable experiences for savvy wine consumers who have discovered the world-class offerings of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris crafted by Bernards and native Chilean Humberto Ghivarello, who was elevated to the position of winemaker in 2015.
On the side, Bernards discerning approach to winemaking and experienced skill set for working with micro-climates, soils and clonal selections have resulted in numerous side projects on a global scale. In addition to being the beloved wine consultant for reputable Napa Valley-based labels that include Turnisol and Porter Family Wines, as well as a handful of other boutique clients in California; Bernards has a long-term track record as a consultant for top brands in the Casablanca and San Antonio Valleys of Chile. Therefore, his perspective of a vintage begins in the Southern Hemisphere each spring. Then, upon his return to Napa, he works with Humberto to blend and bottle wines for the Ancien label in preparation for ripe, fresh and fruity Burgundian varieties that are picked in the first half of harvest. Once that’s finished, his focus shifts to working with high-quality Bordeaux and Rhone varieties that will be used to craft an impressive line-up of sophisticated, structured, and spicy-style wines to finish off the year. “It has been said that winemakers only get so many vintages in their lifetime. When you think about it, it’s not that many. For that reason, I like cheating the system a little bit,” says Bernards, with a smile.