Join Gravenstein Grill & Sawyer Somm on the patio to enjoy wine tastings with 15+ top Pinot Noir producers! Talk to winemakers & growers while enjoying paired hors d’oeuvres from Chefs Bob Simontacchi & Makana Colunga.
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
“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
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
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.
It is finally here, the beginning of Season 2 for The Varietal Show: My hip sit-down interview sessions with fascinating people on the wine scene or those just interested in it! My first trek in 2021 took me to the new cool tasting room for Ancien Wines, with co-founder/winemaker Ken Bernards, located in central Napa.
Keep up with me as the new season unrolls byFOLLOWINGmy You Tube channel, for more exciting weekly episodes on Tuesdays at 12:30pm, and remember to LIKE & SHARE as well!