The Mystique of Anderson Valley (Part 1)

Welcome to Part 1 of our profile of California’s Anderson Valley Appellation. This piece covers some of the history, geography, weather, and other factors that set the quality and uniqueness of the region’s wines apart.

Under the Radar

At some point in 2019, I came to realize that some of my favorite American pinot noirs and chardonnays were coming from Anderson Valley, California, almost irrespective of producer, because I was drawn the region’s unique stylistic signature. Anderson Valley wine has a certain refinement, bordering on elegance, that when combined with its flavor profile is unmistakably Anderson Valley. The next closest in style are Willamette Valley and, to a lesser extent, Santa Lucia Highlands.

The pinots are black-fruited with good doses of baking spice and scorched earth minerality, while the best chardonnays can have unusually incredible depth (more so, I would say, than most of the pinots), and often feature penetrating stone minerality, baking spice, and nuttiness to go with its fruit. Both tend to carry high levels of acid and relatively low levels of alcohol and tannin, making them great candidates for up to a decade of cellaring.

Once this realization occurred, I decided to reach out to producers of the region to see if they would be willing to submit samples and their winemakers’ time to help me put this piece together. Thankfully, a good number agreed, and here we are. Part 2 will cover the wines themselves along with the future prospects of Anderson Valley.

Writing a piece about a wine region that you’ve not visited is challenging, and all the more so when the region in question is a bit of an enigma. Anderson Valley is an off-the-beaten path pocket in the world that hasn’t seen the kind of commercialization that America’s other wine regions have despite the incredibly high quality wine it produces. While Anderson Valley’s wineries and vineyards are as modern as any other, there remains paltry wine tourism infrastructure, and therefore limited fan fair outside dedicated winos. Anderson Valley lives a weird dichotomy in which the wine is widely recognized as among America’s best, yet the region is almost always an afterthought in the discussion of which American regions produce the best wine.

The Wild West

The remoteness of the Valley is often the first explanation for the region’s unremarked status, which usually begins with a description of Highway 128, the road one would drive if heading there from the Napa/Sonoma area. Here are comments from the winemakers interviewed for this piece about Anderson Valley’s location.

Highway 128

“It’s the land that time forgot” Tony Rynders, who consults on Jackson Family Wine’s Maggy Hawk project, explained. “The way [Anderson Valley] is physically set up, the logistics of getting there, you have to endure forty minutes of switchbacks that disincentivizes people from going there.”

The final stretch into Anderson Valley coming from the south includes “this incredibly windy and treacherous road,” Katey Larwood of Goldeneye told me, referring to Highway 128.

“The last 45 minutes is a mountain logging road, essentially,” FEL Wines winemaker Ryan Hodgins said.

To get there, “you have to go fifty miles past Healdsburg on really windy roads that scare people, then you get to a very small town with not much around it commercially,” Julien Howsepian of Kosta Browne said. “But it’s absolutely gorgeous, rural California. Kind of like turning back the clock a bit.”

Siduri Wines’ Matt Revelette pointed out that “when you’re on the 128 up to AV, it’s wine growing for the sake of wine growing…[you’re] not going to stay at the [non-existent] Four Seasons, not going to have a bachelorette party up there… Not many people end up there by accident.”

According to Ashley Holland of Read Holland Wines, Highway 128  “is pretty treacherous. Visitors aren’t increasing because of it. It means Anderson Valley has an untouched feel to it… It has an X factor.”

These descriptions immediately piqued my interest, helping to explain why Anderson Valley is what it is, why more people aren’t visiting, and why the traditional kind of tourism industry that sets up shop in a wine region hasn’t materialized. This has left the region to the people who inhabit it, preserving what seems to be an incredibly unusual and quirky population.

“The people are as much part of the region as anything,” Katey told me. “It’s an area built around community populated by an odd medley of people that you wouldn’t think would live harmoniously, but do. It’s fascinating.” Today’s Anderson Valley community received an injection of hippies who left the Bay Area in the 1970s and ventured north, forming an agrarian society in which the locals lived off their land in a somewhat collective manner. “These are hippies that own guns because there are wildlife and you have to protect your land,” Katey explained.

“Candidly,” Tony confessed, “it’s dope growing country, and that helped make it an early adapter of wine. The volumes were small, it didn’t really have a voice of its own, nor were people listening. But fast forward to today, [the wine industry is] tapping into a coming-of-age type of energy.”

“I really love Anderson Valley,” Matt told me, “and I really appreciate it for being what it is. It has a kind of anti-developmental attitude, but in a charming way. I wrote my senior thesis on why people should live in eco villages, and Anderson Valley reminds me of that thinking: remote, not congested.”

A story from The June 19th, 1990 New York Times

When the hippies showed up, they joined the historic logging community that founded the modern area, which is northern Redwoods country. Katey describes these loggers as “quasi-environmentalists that wear tie die,” which perhaps explains how hippies and loggers could live, at least somewhat, harmoniously. Additionally, “there’s the apple and sheep communities, and then along with the wineries, a wonderful Latino migrant population. The people make the region special.”

The feel of Anderson Valley “is very rustic, very old time,” Katey said. “You come in first through Boonville [if you’re coming from the south]. It’s five stores, no stop signs, and you drive right through it. It opens up into a wonderful valley where you see a long floor and wonderful hills and ridge tops. My first time there was to explore the area, we camped and tasted and were really in the soil and breathing the air.” It was a magical experience for her, and “immediately knew I wanted to come back.” Howsepian called it “tucked away, quiet, super peaceful and tranquil,” the kind of that feeling that you can “only find in these remote places.”

For Ashley, whose path first went through New Zealand and other parts of California, and included major producers like Gallo and small ones like Three Sticks, Anderson Valley “is special, it’s untouched; there’s a lot of Californian history there.” This shows through in the wine, she said, which “shows the spirituality” of the region.

From talking to these winemakers, I got the sense that Anderson Valley today might be what we consider a “throw back” to the 1970s Napa as it appears in stories like Bottle Shock, meaning a wine scene full of risk-acceptant serious people who are figuring out how to make the best wine the region can produce, while not worrying about how they might appear to the observers who aren’t visiting. You can hear in the voice of the winemakers as they describe what they’re doing that they feel like they’re in the early days of establishing a truly world class wine region, even as their wines are receiving world-class reception among wine critics.

The Rustic Borderland

The region focuses on chardonnay and pinot noir, just like America’s better known pinot and chardonnay regions, Sonoma and Willamette Valley, though there are a few other varieties, namely pinot gris and riesling. And just as those better known regions are distinctly and uniquely their own, so too is Anderson Valley.

The Valley is historically a cool climate region, especially within the context of California, but to leave the analysis at that is to skip over the geography, which has an incredible impact on the singular profile of Anderson Valley wine. FEL’s Ryan Hodgins sees Anderson Valley as “the tipping point between California and Oregon,” not just because it’s one of California’s most northern wine regions, but because it sits between the better known Sonoma and Willamette styles.

Anderson Valley is only “15 miles long, running south east to north west, so that the north side that faces the south west is dry brown grass hills that look like they belong in Santa Barbara or San Diego County.” Meanwhile, “the south side of the Valley is protected from the afternoon sun and is old growth Redwood and Douglas Fir country, the most northern the Redwoods really grow. I look at these 250 foot-tall trees from our vineyards.”

Just north of the Valley, the forest begins to harken the famously wet Northwest forest. “It’s the tipping point between the warmth and dryness of California and the coolness and moisture of the Northwest,” Ryan added, which means that in the wine “you get some of the elegance, prettiness, and delicacy of the great Willamette Valley wines to go along with some of that California ripeness, though [the ripeness] isn’t turned up to the ten or eleven that the more southern applications can give you.”

Goldeneye’s Larwood noted that the region “is commonly referred to as the Oregon of California from a pinot perspective.” The natural result of this geography is a wine profile that Ryan aptly describes as “light on its feet, with really fresh acid. The fruit tends to be darker – a signature for AV is black cherry, compared to, say, Russian River Valley signature red Bing cherry.”

This geography has a lot to do with why Anderson Valley wine stands out uniquely from other American pinot and chardonnay. In addition to its northern location, Anderson Valley opens up directly to the Pacific, which means it gets the brunt of the storms in the winter that can often lead to a growing season that starts later in the year than its southern compatriots. “Our phenological markers like bud break, bloom date, verasion date, etc. line up more with the Willamette Valley than with Sonoma or Napa,” FEL’s Ryan told me, referring to the pre-2014-2018 draught vintages.

Another aspect of Anderson Valley’s outlier status among California’s other regions is what Larwood described as the Valley’s “really extreme diurnal shifts” that come “mainly during the summer growing season.” She noted, for example, that “on May 5th [of 2020], I came to work at 6:30 in the morning and it was 32 degrees and we had our fans and sprinklers on to protect the grapes from the fog. By 1:00 pm, it was 80 degrees, and when I left at 6:00pm it was windy, foggy and 55 degrees.” While the number of “growing degree days are pretty average compared to the Russian River Valley [for reference], the highs are really high and the lows are really low, and that makes it the perfect pinot place because we are able to ripen and get fruit complexity without cooking any of the grapes; they’re able to hangout, relax and ripen.”

Copain winemaker’s Ryan Zepaltas has a lot of experience with Anderson Valley and Sonoma, which together comprise about 70% of the wines he makes. As a point of distinction between the two, he highlighted the impact of Anderson Valley’s frequent fog. “We work with a lot of Sonoma fruit that comes from nearer the ocean, but even still, those vineyards are just above the fog lines. In Anderson, however, a good amount of pinot sits below the fog line and gets shorter windows of sun exposure. Whereas our Sonoma fruit is concentrated and softer, Anderson is a little more about tannin management and working with fruit that never really gets fully phenologically ripe. It can be ornery.”

“Everything, all weather and temperatures, are determined by proximity to the ocean [in Anderson Valley],” Ryan Hodgins noted. “Boonville fuit gives you a little more California, tends to be more black cherry and fruit forward. As you get to what the locals call ‘the deep end,’ close to the ocean, you get more baking spice, cigar box. The mid-point of the Valley has a bit of both.”

The Balance Challenge

Maggy Hawk’s Tony Rynders called Anderson Valley’s tannin profile “the most striking thing [about the wines of the region],” adding that they “need mitigating” because he “doesn’t want gritty tannins dominating the profile, which can be an inherent property of the appellation.” To achieve the desired tannin profile at Maggy Hawk, the project where he consults, they “have moved away from punch downs” to “lower the extraction.” Instead, they do “gentle pump overs” and whole cluster fermentation to reduce crushed skins.” which prevents more tannin from leaching into the juice.

The house Copain style is a restrained, almost elegant structure, with doses of dark fruit and earthiness. To achieve that in Anderson Valley where grapes can have a hard time fully ripening, Zepaltas has to balance the need to “push ripeness” in the grapes on the vine, meaning allowing the fruit to hang long enough to build sugar “to get good concentration,” with ensuring that the fruit doesn’t ripen to the point that it gets too sugary. Compared to other parts of California, Anderson Valley’s wines are “more tannic, less concentrated, and more transparent.”

This balance is a challenge that all Anderson Valley winemakers face from time to time. If they let the fruit hang too long, it loses its Anderson Valley uniqueness. But, if they harvest too early, they end up with high levels of pyrazines and low limits on alcohol and tannin. Under ripe fruit tends to produce less fruit and more green flavors like bell pepper. “If it’s too green [then] it’s gross, but if it’s just on the edge [of ripeness] then it’s snappy and fresh,” Zepaltas said.

The ripeness that he’s looking for is a certain level of “fruit maturity that translates into flavor development.” He likes to pick the fruit “al dente, which is right when the clusters start to soften but still have some snap to them.” The juice of the fruit “will taste like pink lemonade right before this moment hits, and then it turns a corner and picks up fruit flavor and concentration before it starts losing acidity.” That’s the exact time he aims to pick.

Getting to that point is “really about monitoring weather.” While cool weather usually doesn’t stunt maturation, “[if the fruit is at a good spot when cool weather hits] you could pick it and it won’t matter.” However, if “there’s a heat spike, a one or two day difference is huge.” Zepaltas does “a lot of tasting and weather monitoring, which means spending a lot of time in the vineyards. There are differences block by block in terms of ripeness based on the aspect, rootstock, clone, etc.”

“You always have to look at the weather stations to see what the temperature is [of your vineyard’s little micro climate],” Zepaltas explained. “The weather is not only different depending on where you are, but changes a lot throughout the day and throughout the year.” Generally speaking, it’s coolest near Navarro at the most Northwestern part of the valley and warmest near Boonville in the Southwest.

Skycrest Vineyard

Copain is a good example of how this climatic variance impacts viniculture because it produces wines from vineyards spread across the Valley. “I harvest every or every other day [up and down the Valley]; there are lots of things to schedule,” Zepaltas said, explaining that “at Maggy Hawk [Vineyard], say we have eight different blocks, I’m probably picking that eight different times. Skycrest has five blocks, those are five different pick times. Scheduling so that we pick each block at optimum rightness is a huge challenge” that he doesn’t face to nearly the same extent in Sonoma.

Another important element to grape growing in Anderson Valley is the intense sun, which similarly differs from vineyard to vineyard. “We have to make sure that the fruit is shaded from the sun so it doesn’t get burnt from the really intense four to five hours of sunlight each day.” At the same time, though, “fog and wind are big deals here, so we have to make sure that the shading we put on the grapes [by leaving leaves on the vine to cover them] does not trap the moisture around the grape [which causes mildew and mold]. About half the Valley is frost protected by water, the other half by fans.”

Water can be challenging as a factor because it isn’t always plentiful. The climate is commonly referred to as a “maritime desert” in which an average growing season only sees about 40 inches of rain. “With that influence,” Larwood explained, “we have disease pressure and extreme sun exposure.”

Distinctively Anderson Valley

All of these climatic and geographic realities, complications, and challenges add up to an appellation that does not suffer fools. Not a single one of these winemakers got their start in Anderson Valley, and though each’s path to the Valley is different, they are all some variation on a theme of ‘once I got to Anderson Valley, I knew I had to make wine there.’

Another point of distinction for Anderson Valley is that a lot of wine from there is not made by wineries dedicated to Anderson Valley, let alone located there. With notable exceptions like legendary French sparkling wine company Roederer (who began producing in 1988) and Domaine Anderson (which planted roots in 1981) and boutique producers like Read Holland, most Anderson Valley wines are made by big labels that have decided to include some Anderson Valley in their lineup.

Along with Roederer, Jackson Family Wines (JFW) has made enormous investments in the Valley. A number of their projects source from JFW-owned vineyards, leading to cross-pollination across the portfolio. For example, JFW owns Maggy Hawk Vineyard, which is the source of a lineup of JFW-owned Maggy Hawk-labeled wines as well as a Maggy Hawk Vineyard-designate for JWF-owned Copain. JFW-owned Siduri produces an Anderson Valley appellation blend pinot sourced from several JFW-owned vineyards. And the list goes on.

Entire articles could be written on Roederer’s and JFW’s histories in the Valley, but suffice it to say that these major names making major investments have given the region a huge boost in credibility and visibility. “The reputation of AV is growing with JFW’s thoughtful effort,” Ashley Holland (of the very small and boutique-y Read Holland) told me. That effort includes hosting tasting panels and other industry events to which non-JFW producers are invited. FEL’s Ryan Hodgins has “done some panels with them; they’re commitment to quality as far as the bigger wineries out there, and they continue to invest in the Valley.”

FEL is itself a label under Cliff Leade, which owns a number of wineries. Goldeneye is owned by Duckhorn, and so own. Wineries like Siduri, Kosta Browne, Litterai, Failla, William Selyem, and others have made the decision to add Anderson Valley-designate to their line up. “This investment [by larger and reputable wineries] in the Valley is good, it’s driving the reputation in a sustainable way,” Hodgins said. “In the last ten years, there has been a substantial improvement. Attention from great producers in other pinot regions that source from Anderson Valley “has contributed to the growth in the Valley’s reputation.”

“Even down in Santa Barbara,” Goldeneye’s Katey noted, “there are wineries sourcing from Anderson Valley. You have these wineries [from outside Anderson Valley] with the marketing capabilities, clientele and wine clubs that know their wines, and then they see an Anderson Valley wine and it opens their eyes to the fruit profile and the wines that can be grown here. People learn about Anderson Valley through brands that are outside the Valley.”

Kosta Browne’s Cerise Vineyard

This is certainly the Kosta Browne model, from which the Cerise Vineyard pinot noir and chardonnay are the only Anderson Valley wines in their sizeable lineup. They are also the newest, and most expensive. Even still, “we don’t have a problem selling it,” Howsepian told me. “Only our most senior club members [and select retailers] get it. These are the members who, for the most part, have already been with us for five to eight years. We’ve had success selling it and telling the story.”

Further, Katey pointed noted that “most [wineries in Anderson Valley] are still today mom and pop-run businesses, which makes it special because people can still do that there whereas down in Napa, Sonoma, it’s pretty difficult to do that now [because the cost to produce is too high].” The absence of substantial tourism and remoteness has, thus far, allowed small producers to stay in the game.

There is no wine region I know of that shares many similarities with the story of Anderson Valley. In the course of writing this piece, I am often reminded of Tony’s line about the Valley being “the land that time forgot.” It’s obvious that a lot is happening on the wine front, yet the wine world remains largely ignorant about it. Its remoteness isolates us, allowing us to enjoy its wines while never actually connecting with the place.

Or, do we connect to the place through the wines? Anderson Valley wines are distinctly Anderson Valley because the terroir is incredibly strong, and there are no mass produced wines to obscure it. This is a testament to those involved in the Valley’s wine scene, suggesting that the place is really that special that it must be showcased rather than manipulated. In Part 2, we’ll go in-depth into the wines themselves, and discuss what kind of future Anderson Valley may have.

California’s Most Exciting Up & Coming Pinot Producer

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A few weeks ago I visited Napa Valley with two friends who had never been to the area before. The idea was to visit two wineries per day that would collectively give them a decent spectrum of what Napa and its environs have to offer. Wineries include Napa’s Rombauer, Failla and Chimney Rock, and Sonoma’s Carlisle, Arnot-Roberts (which makes wine from fruit from several parts of California) and Mojave, which is an Anderson Valley and Santa Cruz pinot noir project made in Napa.

Those wineries cover a pretty good diversity of styles, vineyard sourcing, business models and production levels. Next to Rombauer and Chimney Rock, Arnot-Roberts may stand out as a particularly niche and small producer. By all accounts that observation would be right, but if we want to think small in this context, Mojave is miniscule in comparison to all of them. Arnot-Roberts measures its production by the thousands of cases, at least; Mojave barely hits the second hand when counting barrels (figure roughly 25 cases per standard barrel).

Mojave is the side project of Becky George, who is the winemaker at Kelly Fleming Wines. I first met Becky in late 2017 at Kelly Fleming to taste those wines. It was my first winery visit on that five day trip, and I consider myself very lucky to have started the trip there. The wines are anything but the prototypical tannic fruit bomb that I expected to be inundated with during the visit. It was very helpful to start with Kelly Fleming’s reserved and elegant wines because it helped to calibrate my expectations and put me in a much better mindset to evaluate subsequent wines.

While on that 2017 trip, I was able to try Becky’s inaugural Mojave release, the 2016 Monument Tree Vineyard, and enjoyed it enough to buy three bottles when I returned home. My experiences with Becky on that trip were enough to name her one of Good Vitis’ 2017 Tastemakers, a distinction given to those individuals who changed how I thought about and appreciated wine that year.

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I still haven’t opened any of my 2016 Mojaves, so when I was planning this more recent trip and received the 2017 release email, I sent Becky and note and asked if she’d be around to taste it with me. When I arrived, she had opened the 2016 and 2017, and we were able to try the 2018 in barrel as well as a 2018 pinot from Santa Cruz that she’s making for the first time.

One of my favorite things about Becky is a seeming contradiction: her wines are exceptional – both Mojave and Kelly Fleming – yet she’s only really getting going as a winemaker. She is very open to others’ thoughts, and is very outgoing in terms of soliciting advice from more experienced winemakers. The amount of promise she holds is unusually high.

Another of my favorite things about Becky is her decision to focus her side project on pinot noir because it is a very different grape compared to those she makes at Kelly Fleming. Fleming wines are almost entirely Bordeaux varieties (the exception is the Big Pour blend, the current release of which includes 15% syrah), and have a classically constructed profile hedging towards the Bordeaux style while maintaining the purity and density of Napa’s fruit notes.

Similarly, Mojave pinot also hedges towards the Burgundian style while maintaining the purity and density of Napa’s fruit notes. Yet this pinot noir profile is, at least from my experience, rarer than the Fleming profile of its type in the context of California. I appreciate that in both labels Becky pursues what seems to me to be the same goal: make old school wines that retain their inherent Californian DNA, meaning all the natural characteristics of the grapes that get lost when pushed towards higher alcohol and tannin levels.

Monument Tree Vineyard is located in the northern end of Anderson Valley, which makes it notably cooler than Napa. Making it cooler yet, the vineyard is northeastern-facing and planted on a hillside, which protects the vines from afternoon sun. This location and orientation does all sorts of things for the grapes, namely that it slows maturation and prevents high levels of sugar development, which helps develop higher acid levels, lower alcohol and more non-fruit nuance and complexity than vineyards further south. Becky uses certain processes, like modest amounts of whole clusters during fermentation and significant portions of neutral oak, that highlight these cool climate eccentricities in the wine, which are readily apparent.

The 2016 vintage was, according to many winemakers in northern California, a near-perfect vintage in that it had desirable temperatures that were consistent, the right amount of timely rainfall, and no real weather incidents to speak of. It was a great vintage for Becky to launch her brand, allowing her to put a solid foot forward into the market on day one.

The 2016 Mojave has developed nicely since I tasted it roughly a year ago, and as good as I remembered it being. Mojave Monument Tree pinot noir is California pinot for Burgundy and Oregon pinot lovers, which means it is a bit funky. It is full bodied and ripe because even Anderson Valley has real warmth despite its cool California climate, but the acid is juicy and the wine remains agile. It has huckleberry, herbal and damp earthy flavors and aromas that harken me to the Nuits-Saint-Georges and Volnay regions in Burgundy. It is drinking well now, though I will try to refrain from opening the first of mine until at least 2020, if not longer, as I think it will get better with age.

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2017 was an entirely different and more challenging year. Heat spikes started in June and routinely lasted three to five days. Periods this long are enough for the vines to go defensive and shut themselves down, and this start-stop pattern prolonged veraison (the onset of ripening when the grapes turn from green to red and begin to develop sugar), which took up to six weeks depending on the location (an exceptionally long time).

Tasting the 2017 was challenging, not unlike the vintage, because it kept changing. Start the fruit! Stop the fruit, start the earth! Now, add the fruit! At first I called it more fruit-forward than the 2016. Fifteen minutes later, I changed my mind. Twenty minutes later I was returning to my initial impression. The fruit is darker in the 2017 regardless of whether it’s more prominent in the profile than the 2016 (I’m still undecided). I get serious plum and dark cherry. There is a spicy note that isn’t apparent in the 2016, and it does seem more brooding in stature and flavor. But the Burgundy funkiness is there, like the 2016, albeit it slightly quieter at this stage. I do suspect the wet forest and floral aromas and flavors will become more prevalent with age.

The 2018 barrel sample produced the most brambly of the three vintages. I also picked up a saline quality, though that could be residual carbon dioxide, and some tobacco and violet flavors. But that’s all you’re going to get from me because I don’t place much value in barrel samples, and I don’t think you should too, either. Especially when critics score them. I’m on my high horse here. Wines go through an incredible amount of development in barrel, so placing any credence in reviews based on barrel samples risks getting a wrong impression. Some wines get better in barrel, some get worse. It can go an infinite amount of ways. Here’s what I’ll say about the 2018 Monument Tree Vineyard in barrel: it’s good now, and I imagine it will get even better and I’ll like it even more after it’s been bottled if things don’t go wrong.

We also tasted Becky’s first non-Monument Tree pinot noir, a 2018 from the Hicks Vineyard in Santa Cruz. The site sits just five miles from the ocean, which puts it squarely in a maritime climate. If you like cold climate pinot, this is as legit as they come. One of her two barrels of this one is neutral, the other new. The neutral barrel has spectacular gamey and floral notes and a masculine structure driven by acid. The new barrel (medium toast) is rounder and softer with more apparent tannin. She is making the Hicks Vineyard in the same fashion as the Monument Tree because, as she described it, it’s like going on a first date: since you don’t know the person (wine), you stick with what you know in your interactions with them. I’m really excited to try this when it’s released.

Becky is a great winemaker, and will only get better. I imagine her wines will follow a similar trajectory. If you get excited by discovering something new on the ground floor, and if you like old school pinot noir, then Mojave is a great project to sign up for now.