ACORN Winery: The Art and Magic of Perfect Balance

In my push to work on the “Wine for Normal People” book (draft done, selling to publishers in process!), many things took a back seat. Among those I feel guiltiest about: not reviewing the ACORN Winery samples that Bill and Betsy Nachbur so generously sent to me for consideration in a timely fashion. This will rectify that situation, but the guilt remains! 

If you haven’t read my reviews of ACORN or heard my podcast with Bill and Betsy, I’ll give a refresher on who they are and then I’ll explain why they are one of my favorite wineries in the United States.

ACORN: A Gem in the Russian River Valley of Sonoma
ACORN is located in the Russian River Valley of Sonoma and run by a down-to-earth, fun couple who are each in their second act of life. Bill Nachbur is the grower and winemaker, Betsy Nachbur is the marketer and hospitality guru. The winery is small – the Nachbur’s make only about 3,000 cases each year – and the mix is nothing like what you’d expect from the Russian River Valley of Sonoma, where there is Pinot Noir and Chardonnay everywhere you look.

7108Bill, a San Francisco lawyer, became fascinated by wine growing and eventually winemaking. A true intellectual, Bill is one of the most thoughtful and intelligent winemakers I’ve ever met. As he became increasingly disillusioned with his life as a corporate lawyer, in the late 1980s Bill took courses to learn the crafts of wine growing and winemaking. In 1990 while touring around the valley, Bill, who was already looking for a vineyard to call his own, hopped out of the bus he was on and found his bliss. Betsy, still in the throes of corporate life, gave her ok and the Nachbur’s bought Alegría Vineyards, an old, historic property in Russian River Valley that needed some love.

Bill ditched his law gig and became a full-time farmer. After months or years of identifying the mishmash that was planted in his vineyards, he realized he had something special. Rather than tear up the Italian and southern French varieties for the trendier Chardonnay and Pinot Noir that were taking over the Russian River Valley, he cultivated the grapes, produced stellar results, and sold his harvest to other wineries. Wanting more than a weekend role in the venture, Betsy soon quit her big San Francisco corporate job to join Bill. In 1994 they established ACORN Winery, when Bill made his first vintage. In 1996, ACORN’s 1994 Sangiovese was released and 26 years later, here we are.

 

The Magic of ACORN

32-acornACORN still sells half its grapes from the Alegría Vineyard to other wineries, but they now make seven wines from their estate vineyards: Zinfandel, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Sangiovese, Dolcetto, and two blends – a Rosato (rosé) and a field blend they call Medley.

Each wine is technically a field blend (although some more than others) – incorporating the grape plus mixed plantings of other grapes that were in the original 100+ year vineyard. Grapes are fermented together, which means the flavors are sometimes unexpected and original – in a good way.

Beyond the field blends and the grapes, what sets ACORN apart is the genius of Bill Nachbur. Nearly every wine is meticulously balanced, with a mark of his vision in each glass. When you meet Bill, he’s a relatively quiet type. He has dirt under his nails, he’s quietly snarky, and has an intelligence in his eyes that tells you he’s constantly thinking. That translates to his wines: they show the relationship of Bill to his vines and to his cellar. Rarely do you encounter a winery with such a vision behind them: ACORN is one of those wineries.

 

The wines and buying small…
But enough build up. Trying to put a positive spin on my being a slacker, I’ll say that in the years I’ve been fortunate enough to receive wines for tasting from ACORN, I’ve never had the opportunity to look at Bill’s wines in a “vertical” – the same wine tasted from different years. By hoarding the samples for two vintages and waiting to taste them, I gave myself the chance to try both 2012 and 2013 wines.

untitledAlthough both vintages were wonderful, I had a clear preference. Still, the thing I found most fascinating and invigorating was the vast difference between the wines from 2012 v 2013. Their consistencies were clear – Bill’s magical art of achieving perfect balance in his wine is really something remarkable – but the differences showcase his skill in understanding his fruit and his fearlessness in creating whatever wine nature yields.

Only in a smaller winery – not one owned by the big guys and scrutinized for ways to make maximum profit with minimum cost – could you find this type of variation from vintage to vintage. To achieve scale and cost targets, larger wineries homogenize the wines to some extent. They rely on this “sameness” — or at least some driving force that connects the flavors – to propel their sales and marketing machines. Some don’t even change their tasting notes from year to year.

Tasting the vintage variation for me, emphasized the importance of supporting places like ACORN and other small wineries where the winemaking is done by one guy or a few people. As we see the large wineries sucking up prestigious, once boutique wineries, it becomes ever more vital for us to support the artists and farmers who make wine.

Am I saying stop buying the large guys? NO, frankly, logistically and financially it’s not tenable for most of us to exclusively buy from small wineries. Instead, I’m just saying that when we can swing it financially, we need to make space in our routines for special wines made by special people, and we need to encourage our friends to do the same. If we don’t, our choices and opportunities to taste wines from people like Bill and Betsy will be few and far between (because we’re not the only ones who know about the top boutique wineries – the big guys know too and that’s how places like Copain, J Wines, and MacPhail get purchased). Sure there are thousands of independent wineries, but of those, there’s a narrow band of greatness.

On to the wines… Where I had the opportunity to review two vintages of the same wine, I’ve stacked the reviews to show you the comparison easily…

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2012 Dolcetto
Blend: 96% Dolcetto, 2% Barbera, 2% Freisa

Dark in color, the wine smelled earthy with dried cherry, dried raspberry, and orange peel. Although it had a strong tannin backbone, it wasn’t bitter. The tannins were soft, not coarse tasting. The wine tasted like red cherry with baking spice and earth.

Drink or sink? Drink but I find this to be more of a delicious food wine –with mushroom risotto or bean stews, it will shine far brighter than as a sipper.

 

A note on 2012 and 2013 vintages in Sonoma…
2012 was a perfect year weather wise, so quantity and quality were high. Some growers had challenges with deciding when to pick – the grapes achieved high sugar levels in many cases but the tannins may not have been ripe. Winemakers had to work in the cellar to tame the tannins. Still, most of the wines were excellent.

 

2013 had a long, moderate growing season with even flowering and few temperature spikes. It was more even and growers were more prepared for the bounty, after 2012. Some consider it better than 2013, although both were plentiful and of high quality.

 

2012 Medley
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Blend: 35% Syrah, 35% Zinfandel, 5% Cinsault, 4% Sangiovese, 4% Muscats, 3% Viognier, 3% Dolcetto, 3% Alicante Bouschet, 3% Petite Sirah, 5% other. 70% French oak, 22% American oak, 8% Hungarian oak

Dark plum in color with anise, licorice, dark cherry, tobacco, raisin, and plum aromas. The flavor was like raisins and plums with tobacco, wet grass, and a Syrah/horse leather note on the finish. A tad bit hot from the alcohol, but otherwise expertly balanced medium acid and tannin.

Drink or sink? Drink…tasty but I don’t like this as well as 2013.

 

2013 Medley
Blend: 24% Syrah, 20% Sangiovese, 12% Zinfandel, 11% Consult, 11% Muscats, 7% Dolcetto, 4% Blue Portuguese, 3% Alicante Bouschet, 1% Petite Sirah, 7% other. Oak was 38% French, 38% American, 24% Hungarian oak.

img_9270Crimson with a brown rim, the aromas of the 2013 burst out of the glass with cinnamon spice, clove, black pepper, nutmeg, leather, black fruit, tropical fruit, and a hint of menthol. The wine tasted like plums and tangerine with black pepper and baking spice, forest floor, and herbs with licorice and clove. Not only did the wine have a perfect balance between alcohol, tannin, and acidity, the fruit was so beautiful that you could almost taste the sunshine in the glass.

Drink or sink? Drink. One of my favorite wines of 2016. This vintage is complex, and although less restrained than the 2012, it’s all sensory pleasure and it’s awesome!

 

 

2012 Axiom Syrah
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Blend: 98% Syrah, 2% Viognier

Dark purple in color, the wine stained my glass on the swirl. Coffee, leather, horse saddle, dark soil, and black plum aromas dominated. The wine tasted far fruitier than it smelled – plummy with blackberry and black cherry flavors. It had some pepper and cola too – almost like a Dr. Pepper! Excellent balance of acidity and tannin to keep the explosive fruit from feeling too heavy, although the tannin was a bit chewy.

Drink or sink? Drink, but of all the wines this was my least favorite. It improved considerably with food, even tasting like bacon when paired with Parmesan cheese!

 

2013 Axiom Syrah
Blend: 98% Syrah, 2% Viognier. This vintage aged a month longer in oak (17 months) and included nearly 3x the amount of Hungarian oak, some new. French oak was substantially decreased from 54% in 2012 to 35% in 2013. 

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Similar dark black color to the 2013, this wine also smelled like horse saddle but was spicier with licorice, sautéed herb, clove, and dark cherry aromas and flavors. Rather than chewy tannins like the 2012, the 2013 was smooth – with enough acid to keep it fresh and enough tannin to keep it grounded. The finish was like sweet oak, leather, and cloves. Savory and delicious.

Drink or sink? Drink. I found this to be a very satisfying, whole wine but it is big. If you aren’t a fan of the many facets of Syrah and the leathery, clove notes it can pick up from oak, this may not be for you but it was delicious to me.

 

2013 Sangiovese (20th Vintage)
Blend: 98% Sangiovese (23 clones), 1% Canaiolo Nero, 1% Mammolo Toscano
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Typical of Sangiovese, the wine was a brick red color with a brown-orange rim. Highly aromatic, it smelled like orange peel, tea leaves, candied and red cherry, with a strong hit of chamomile. That herbal tea note with orange and cherry persisted on the palate and complemented the fresh acidity and mild tannin. A wonderful, flavorful, and unique wine.

Drink or sink? Drink. Maybe the best Sangiovese I’ve had from ACORN, this vintage is complex and tasty. A perfect food wine because of the acidity, this would be excellent for herb rubbed poultry or eggplant dishes with Mediterranean seasoning.

 

2013 Heritage Vines Zinfandel
Blend: 78% Zinfandel, 13% Alicante Bouschet, 7% Petite Sirah, 2% includes Carignan, Trousseau, Sangiovese, Petit Bouschet, Negrette, Plavac Mali, Syrah, Tannat, Muscat Noir, Peloursin, Cinsault, Béclan, Grenache.

img_9265A lovely ruby color, aromas of fresh raspberries and blackberries with black pepper and vanilla come through immediately. With a little time in the glass, there is a hint of earth. Decadent but not heavy, the black plum and dried raspberry are balanced by chocolate, campfire, and woodsy notes. A perfectly balanced profile of gentle tannin and acid, with alcohol that keeps the wine feeling silky and soft but not hot.

Drink or Sink? Drink. In my estimation, this is ACORN’s best vintage of Zinfandel ever (I know I just said that about the Sangiovese, but I LOVE 2013!). It was sexy and smooth and I enjoyed every sip. An excellent wine but of a different character than many Zins because it’s a blend of many things.

 

2015 Rosado
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Blend: 25% Dolcetto, 25% Sangiovese, 25% Zinfandel, 20% Cabernet Franc, 5% Syrah

A dark pink or light red, this is a dark hued version of rosé and tastes more like a light red wine and is made in the Italian tradition (hence the name, rosato). Great for a hot day, the wine is refreshing with dry, salty earth notes, cherries and dried strawberry aromas and flavors. A nice touch of bitter tannin and great acid. More textural than fruity, this is a great heavier style rosé but is still light and refreshing.

Drink or sink? Drink. Would be great with Thanksgiving dinner because it’s a little heavier!

 

What do you think? Are you a fan of ACORN’s wines? Do you have any other small wineries you want to share? Please write a comment below!