Eric Flanagan fell in love with wine while he was pursuing a successful career on Wall Street with hedge funds. After visiting wine growing regions around the world, he settled on Sonoma County to found his own winery.
It started in 1999 with the purchase of 40 steep hillside acres in Bennett Valley just east of Santa Rosa where he planted Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. In 2011, he bought a vineyard in the Russian River Valley and last year purchased the current winery site on Westside Road out of bankruptcy. His team also has built relationships with growers in some of the best vineyards in Sonoma County and he purchased the Platt Vineyard on a hilltop just three miles off the Sonoma Coast that is planted in Pinot Noir.
The goal is simple: to make great wine using grapes from exceptional vineyards. With the Bennett Valley grapes, Flanagan set out to make wines equal to the Napa Valley cult wineries at a more reasonable price. His wines are a value for their quality, but they are not inexpensive—ranging from $49 to $150 for the signature red blend.
We sat down with Jim Morris, the director of business development and hospitality, for a private tasting. All tastings are private and by appointment only. We spent more than an hour chatting about the winery, the wines and enjoying the view of the Dry Creek Valley, Geyser Peak and the Mayacama Mountains.
The view will change soon when the 30 acres of vineyard surrounding the winery will be ripped out because the vines are infected with the red blotch. They will not be replanted until 2019 with the first crop not until 2016. Fortunately, Eric has many other vineyards in his stable.
Jim pointed out that Eric “has a good eye for under-performing vineyards in great appellations.
His family lives at the Platt vineyard, named for the former Hewlett Packard CEO Lew Platt. It is the western-most vineyard in Sonoma County and it planted with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vines.
We started with the 2015 Russian River Valley Chardonnay ($49) that is blended from two famous vineyards planted with the Wente clone–the Ritchie Vineyard and the Bacigalupi Vineyard. Winemaker Cabell Coursey makes single-vineyard chardonnay from both vineyards ($68). All were excellent complex wines. The Bacigalupi vineyard is next to the source of the Chateau Montelena Chardonnay that won the famed 1976 tasting in Paris.
We then moved on to 2014 Pinot Noirs. The Sonoma Stage Vineyard is in one of the coolest areas in the county, south of Highway 116 between Sonoma and Napa. It receives cool evening winds from both San Pablo Bay and the Petaluma Gap.
The Sonoma Coast is a prime growing area for Pinot Noir, again benefitting from the cool evening and morning fog. Winemaker Coursey, who came onboard in 2014, has worked in Burgundy, New Zealand and the Willamette Valley in Oregon—all famous Pinot regions.
The three Pinot Noirs demonstrate his skills. The Sonoma Coast ($55) is the most produced wine at 860 cases, while 235 cases were made of the Sun Chase Vineyard and Sonoma Stage Vineyard ($68).
We then shifted to one of the original wines, the 2013 Bennett Valley cab ($95) followed by the Bennett Valley Syrah ($75). Notably, we finished with the 2014 Bennett Valley Merlot ($85). Typically, it would have been the first of the red wines.
Our bottom line: excellent wines from quality vineyards. Given the room in the budget, I would have left with cases.
During the tasting, we enjoyed three local cheeses and locally baked bread sticks. Jim takes pride in sourcing food locally.
Over the years, Flanagan has acquired some works of art, including a Picasso that was the inspiration for the blue color in the winery logo.
As Jim pointed out, Flanagan is not running a non-profit business. Unlike some wineries that have owned the land for decades, Eric is a relative newcomer and paid market price over the last 15 years for quality vineyards. That’s why some long-time wineries can sell wines for $25 or $35 that he needs to get $50 to $100 for a bottle.
When you call for reservations, let Jim know what you like or are interested in and he will customize the tasting for you.
By Tim Hunt