I recently interviewed Gary Farrell, one of California's most respected winemakers. Farrell's new label, Alysian, is a well-kept secret—small lots of impeccably made Russian River Valley Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (and an occasional surprise from outside the appellation). Here's what the master has to say about his past, present and future in Sonoma. —Anthony Dias Blue
Anthony Dias Blue: What got you started in the wine industry?
Gary Farrell: As a student at Sonoma State College, I enjoyed producing small lots of exotic beers in my garage. Surrounded by vineyards in rural Sonoma County, my love for fermented beverages eventually led to the home-production of wine. This hobby inspired me to sample wines (whenever possible) produced in the region during the early 1970s and seek "cellar jobs" as a means to support my education. Thus, my career path as an artisan wine-producer in the Russian River Valley wines was a logical transition from by early successes (and failures) in home brewing and winemaking.
Gary Farrell on his home turf, Sonoma's Russian River Valley.
PHOTO COURTESY OF ALYSIAN WINES
ADB: How did you come to start your own label and when?
GF: As a young man, I was highly motivated to work hard and pursue a career in a field I enjoyed. My early attraction to wine led to a challenging career path, as most wineries in the late '70s and early '80s struggled and offered modest wages. What I observed, however, was a great opportunity for enterprising young winemakers who were dedicated to excellence. It seemed few producers took winemaking seriously and even fewer targeted the "top of the market."
More specifically, I saw an incredible (untapped) opportunity for the production of high-end Pinot Noir in the Russian River Valley. As others in California focused on Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel, I launched my own Pinot Noir brand in 1982. Many skeptics thought I was crazy; suggesting great Pinot Noir would never be produced in California. This only deepened my resolve and motivated me further to prove them wrong.
My first release, the 1982 Gary Farrell Pinot Noir, produced from the Rochioli Vineyard, went on to be one of the most decorated wines of the vintage. Successes with subsequent vintages eventually quieted the critics and help establish my brand as one of the early, premium producers of Russian River Valley Pinot Noir.
ADB: Have you always been passionate about Pinot Noir?
GF: Pinot Noir has always been my varietal of choice, both as a producer and a consumer. I admire Joe Rochioli, Tom Dehlinger and Joseph Swan for their incredible vision and pioneering efforts to plant this variety in the Russian River Valley four decades ago. In particular, it has been an inspiration and an honor to work with Joe Rochioli. Joe's work in the vineyard has never been motivated by profit, but rather pride and determination to produce the finest Pinot Noir grapes California has to offer. His resolve and determination had a huge impact on me as a young winemaker, and his work ethic continues to be a model for how I try to conduct myself in business.
ADB: Tell us about Alysian.
GF: I am extremely proud of the 22 years I spent developing and managing the highly successful Gary Farrell brand. However, that success led to growth. By 2004 I had developed three vineyards, built a state-of-the-art winery and increased our annual case production to well over 20,000 cases.
The day-to-day demands of running a business eventually put me behind a desk and took me away from what I love to do: making wine. This realization (along with 60-100+ hour workweeks) prompted the very successful sale of my namesake brand in 2004.
It was clear almost immediately after selling my former brand that I wanted to continue making wine. I partnered with long-time friend and colleague Bill Hambrecht in 2007 to craft tiny amounts of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from the Russian River Valley. This project would never be motivated by money; but rather is an extension and expression of a lifestyle we both enjoy.
We created the absolutely perfect winemaking environment for the crafting of small lot, ultra-premium Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Our Westside Road facility is equipped with the very finest processing equipment, tanks and barrels obtainable with the goal of showcasing the Russian River Valley's most reputable vineyards in extremely limited production wines.
Which appellations do you work in?
GF: We are clearly a Russian River Valley focused brand. All our Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays will come from this appellation. The only deviation was a tiny lot of Zinfandel produced in 2009 from Dry Creek valley's Bradford Mountain Vineyard. I simply could not resist the temptation to produce this wine, as the 2009 Zinfandel grapes from this property were as good as I have ever seen! We have not produced a Zinfandel since and will try (no promises!) to remain focused on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the Russian River Valley.
ADB: What's special about the Russian River Valley?
GF: The vast combination of unique microclimates, soil types and vineyard orientations combine to make the Russian River Valley a very interesting and complex appellation. Due to its diversity, some micro-appellations within the region are better suited to the cultivation of Pinot Noir than others. Most of our offerings come from the "Middle Reach" along Westside Road. Rarely do we experience extremes of heat or cold along this stretch of the Russian River. Marine air cools the vineyards at night and daytime temperatures peak between 80 and 85 degrees. In cool growing seasons, more coastal vineyards may struggle to achieve ripeness. During warm seasons, areas to the east will ripen the fruit too quickly. The Middle Reach seems to be the "chosen spot" within the Russian River Valley, and arguably enjoys one of the most reliably optimum climates of any appellation or sub-appellation in California for the cultivation of ultra-premium Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
ADB: Tell us about your winemaking philosophy.
GF: Throughout my career as a winemaker, I have objected to the style of wine California is often criticized for within the international wine community. Because growing conditions are often warm and early rains are uncommon in California, winemakers are tempted to produce riper and riper wines . . . simply because they can! For decades, this trend continued and was (unfortunately) supported by influential critics giving high marks to massive, high-alcohol wines that lacked balance or structural integrity.
I have always disliked these wines and have remained committed to producing wines of elegance, finesse and balance with refreshing acidity and low pH. Though wines produced in this style may require additional aging to develop and be fully appreciated, it is this style of wine which will be most enjoyable with food and will reward those who are patient enough to carefully cellar the wines.
ADB: Where is Alysian sold and how can listeners learn more about the product?
GF: In an attempt to "spread the word" about our new brand (many think I am still with Gary Farrell Winery), we have placed small allocations of our products in multiple important wine markets throughout the country. Of course, we also sell direct through our wine club. For more information on our products, please visit our website at