The most celebrated Pinots from the Anderson Valley are probably Ted Lemon’s Littorai bottlings. The Anderson Valley makes around half of Littorai’s production, with the rest coming from various sites in Sonoma. I toured round some of his vineyards, and quizzed him on the farming, which is biodynamic.
We begin at Cerise, one of the vineyards that Ted has made wine from for many years, on the east bank of Anderson Valley. Ted came to Cerise in 1996. ‘It was owned by a gentleman who was interested in planting it, a Kiwi who was a structural engineer who wanted to go back to the land. I was introduced to him.’ They looked at the site. 160 acres on the side of the hill. ‘He said where do you want to start? I said, take me to your shittiest, rockiest piece of land, and that’s these three blocks down here.’ There was a succession of ownership, leading to Kosta Browne, which was then absorbed by the current owners Duckhorn. The fruit goes to Littorai, Kosta Browne, Goldeneye and others. ‘Sadly this is our last year,’ says Ted. It’s between 500 and 800 feet, so it is about three weeks behind the well-known Ferrington vineyard, which is one of the first places in the valley to be picked, and is on the valley floor, near Boonville. But it’s not the coldest site Ted works with. Deers Meadow, his own property is a week later.
Ted initially bought grapes from the valley, but later became a vineyard owner here. ‘Rich Savoy had two vineyards in the valley. He’s one of the most important growers in Anderson Valley history: not because he was the first, but because Rich was interested in quality.’ We were now in the vineyard that Ted bought from Rich. Ted and Heidi decided to come and have a look around the valley because they’d tasted the potential in some of the wines. ‘I’d tasted wines from the valley and thought this is a rustic wine but there’s a spark here,’ he says. ‘This is not great winemaking or viticulture, but there’s something going on in this valley. So in the winter of 1992, Heidi and I came up here with one of the viticultural vineyard managers, and in two days saw everything that was available in the valley. Rich was one of the most interesting, because he had interesting clones, he’d travelled in Europe, he loved wine, he owned two book stores in San Francisco, and this was a fun project for him.’
‘We said, we really want to do a by-the-acre contract. No one does these in California, and at the time the average price for Pinot Noir in the Anderson Valley was $800 a ton, and it was strictly for bubbles. Rich said yes.’
‘This was one of the first by-the-acre contracts, so we called it One Acre,’ says Ted. ‘I was attracted to this site because I knew it was relatively late to ripen. We are at the top of the hill, almost 2000 feet, above Boonville. It has this very gently rolling, peaceful feel. The wine reflects that: it has a lovely generosity, unlike Cerise which has much more tannin and angles to it.’
How did the purchase come about? ‘Back in 2007 I said to Rich, if you ever want to sell we’d be interested. Then immediately the recession happened and I shut up. Then I was in Hong Kong in 2015, and I don’t know what happened, but I said I’m going to write to Rich Savoy. I emailed him and said, you know, Rich, we haven’t talked about this in a long time but if you ever want to sell, let me know.’
‘It was classic Rich Savoy: he wrote back and said yes, but if we are going to do it we have to do it right away. That was it. We bought it from him in 2017.’ This vineyard, called Deer Meadows, is 40 acres in total, with 8.5 acres planted. The vineyards are pruned to double guyot without replacement spurs.
So after purchasing Deer Meadows, suddenly Ted had the rest of the vineyard to work with. Hence the second vineyard designate from here, The Return. ‘When we bought this property, we really only knew the part that made One Acre. I’d never really paid attention to this far end, because we were busy with other things.’ This slope, which is west and north west facing, has a very different character to One Acre. ‘It has softer tannin, even though it is one of the steepest vineyards we work with at Littorai. It actually makes a wine that has this wonderful soft, sexy fruit quality, and the tannins are always gentle.’
Is the farming off-the-peg biodynamics, or more measured? ‘I would describe it as – this sounds presumptuous but it is honest – trying to be what he [Steiner] really meant it to be. It is not the cookie cutter stuff, but adaptation to our specific environment. We use the preparations: we like them, we think they work. But the compost quality and diversity? That’s massive.’ It’s important? ‘It’s really important.’ What do you use? ‘It’s mixed. All the prunings are mulched and put in, the pomace is put in, we use 400 bales of hay from our property in Sonoma county. Wood chippings from the forest. Green material from open fields in the summer. The more diversity the better for me.’
I quiz Ted on his approach to farming:
Ted also has animals in the vineyards. ‘We started with three sheep back in 2014, and they have been grazing everything in the Sonoma Coast for the last few years now. But through breeding the flock, this is the first year we have them in the Anderson valley. They will do this property that we own, and Roman that we lease.’ In the new plantings, every 10th row two rows are sacrificed to native plants. ‘These are natives that are hardy, easy to propagate and grow, not fussy.’
Paul Ardzrooni is a fourth-generation grape grower who has his own vineyard management company. I visited some of the vineyards with him and Ted. How long has he been running vineyards here? ‘Since January 1st 1990. I came up here after harvest 1989.’ Has it changed much since then? ‘A lot. For better or worse it has changed.’
What’s the talent of the Anderson Valley? ‘It does really well with Alsace varieties, but Pinot Noir is our main focus. When I came there was a lot of Gewurztraminer and a lot of Riesling. People experimented with Pinot Gris and it did really well. Then we grafted all the Riesling and Gewurztraminer that was on AxR1 to Pinot Noir, and then we pulled it all out and planted more Pinot.’
We visited one of Paul’s vineyards, Wendling, which he planted with Ted. Ted takes quite a bit of this, but Paul also sells to other people. Ted’s part is farmed biodynamically. There’s also a bit – less than an acre – of 1 x 1 m planting here, which was done for fun. Target yields are 2.5-3 tons an acre, but this would be a very good year. Some parts they crimp rather than mow. They grow specific cover crops for crimping: ones where the stalks will break. Legumes work well. They prune late because they are worried about frost. Altogether Wendling is 10.5 hectares, and Ted’s block is 2.5 hectares.
There are three kinds of farming taking place in the block: biodynamic, organic, and conventional, with herbicides. Does Paul notice a difference in the fruit? ‘I have to be careful here, but some of the best wines that come from the vineyard are from the conventionally farmed blocks,’ he says. ‘This is where Ross (Cobb) gets his fruit.’ Does it make it cheaper? ‘It does. But we are really light.’ Do clients pay for the crop or the area farmed? ‘Some pay by the acre, it depends. But there is nobody in here that I don’t have a long-standing relationship with. I deal with the person who pays the bills. There is no big corporate where there are people that come and go.’
Littorai Les Larmes Pinot Noir 2020 Anderson Valley, California
13.5% alcohol. 27% of the blend is declassified vintage designates (Savoy, Cerise, One Acre, Roman, Wendling). 32% is press wine from these. Then 18% is Wendling and 23% Deer Meadow. Beautiful aromas of red cherries, plums, strawberries and fine spices. Floral and expressive. The palate is supple, fine grained and shows a sweet fruit core. Easy, fleshy and appealing with some nice grainy, spicy tannins on the finish. It’s fruity, open and delicious with a sweet core of fruit, but there’s a sense of elegance and ease here. 94/100
Littorai Cerise Vineyard Pinot Noir 2020 Anderson Valley, California
12.8% alcohol. Sweetly aromatic with some pretty cherry and redcurrant fruit as well as some fine herbal hints, a touch of mulch, and some stewed plum hints. In the mouth there’s a lovely elegance: it’s really supple and fine, with molten tannins, sweet strawberry and cherry fruit, and under the sweet, soft fruit enough acidity and structure to keep it in perfect balance. There’s a fresh sappy edge on the finish. So lovely. 96/100
Littorai Cerise Vineyard Pinot Noir 2017 Anderson Valley, California
Sweetly fruited and textural with fine spices, red cherries and plums. Nice depth and good texture, which is quite grainy. Such finesse here. 95/100 (tasted in April 2022)
Littorai Wendling Vineyard Block E Pinot Noir 2020 Anderson Valley, California
13% alcohol. Sweetly fruited and expressive with beguiling red cherry, sweet plum and fine herb aromas. The palate is multi-layered and textural with some subtle green hints sitting under concentrated sweet cherry, raspberry and strawberry fruit with some liqourice and pepper detail. Such a refined, textural Pinot offering potential for development but also joy right now. 96/100
Littorai One Acre Pinot Noir 2020 Anderson Valley, California
12.4% alcohol. From the section of Deer Meadows vineyard that Littorai began with. Haunting perfume: very pure and well defined with sweet cherry and plum fruit with some sappy green hints. Floral and aromatic. The palate is sweetly fruited with some fine herbal notes, as well as a core of sweet strawberries and cherries, finishing with a bit of structure and a sour cherry tang. 96/100
Other Littorai wines (tasted April 2022):
Littorai Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2019 California
50% own grapes (press wine of all the single vineyard Pinots), 50% purchased. Very expressive nose with sweet cherries and raspberries. Supple, grainy and expressive on the palate with raspberry and cherry fruit, and nice tapering fine spicy finish. Lovely detail and finess here. 94/100
Littorai Pivot Vineyard Pinot Noir 2018 Sonoma Coast, California
Very fine expressive red fruit nose, showing floral red cherry fruit. So enticing. Expressive palate with light red cherries and spice. Mineral, taut and quite light. Lovely balance here with some sweetness on the midpalate. 96/100
Littorai The Haven Vineyard Pinot Noir 2018 Sonoma Coast, California
Some warmth here: nice sweet strawberry, cherry and spice with a lovely mineral core. Fine spices, sweet cherries and some plums, showing lovely elegance. 95/100
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