One of the wineries that most impressed me on my visit to the Anderson Valley was Baxter, which is the project of Phil Baxter, whose winery is located on a ridge top on the way out of the valley, near Philo. He began making wine here in 2003, and his father, also called Phil, was making some wine. ‘I joined my dad in 2003, and then created the Baxter brand,’ says Phil. ‘He had his own brand called Philippe-Lorraine. It was a natural progression from his brand to my brand.’
The winery has been converted from an older building: it’s functional, not fancy, but works well. ‘The people my parents bought the property from ran a cabinet business, and this was his workshop,’ says Phil, as well have a look around. ‘It was an old barn, and he built a newer barn, and now it is about 30 years old. When we moved over here and knew we wanted to do wine, we poured the crushpad out front and then reinforced all the floors, so they could handle a ton of weight.’
Baxter is a micro-negociant, sourcing grapes from priveliged sites across Mendocino. ‘We don’t have vineyards: we buy all our fruit,’ he says. ‘The property could have 8-9 acres planted in various spots, but it’s a lot of work, and we are winemakers foremost and first. And it’s just so expensive to plant a vineyard. It almost makes sense to keep buying good fruit from older vineyards. I also like it that I can go out and play with terroir and play with microclimates. If you have your own vineyard it is great, but you are also stuck with that.’
How did he get to be a winemaker? Phil went through the viticulture and enology program at UC Davis, and then while he was there he did a few harvests. ‘I worked at Schramsberg in 1999, and worked for my brother and father at a winery called Terra Valentine on Spring Mountain in 2001. And in 2002 I worked in Burgundy for Pascal Marchand who was at Domaine de la Vougerie at that time. I came back in 2003 and started doing this: last year was my 20th harvest.’
The grapes are all sourced from Mendocino, and all over the county. There’s Pinot from the Yorkville Highlands, Pinot from the Valenti vineyard close by the winery, and then grapes that come from as far north as Comptche, which is about 10 miles north of the Anderson Valley. Baxter makes somewhere between 30 and 40 tons each vintage, with most Baxter, but also some for others. It’s quite impressive in a small winery like this.
One of Baxter’s most celebrated wines is the Pinot Noir from the Valenti vineyard. So we went to see the Valenti vineyard with Norm Kobler, who runs a vineyard management company in the valley, and who has just leased the vineyard. ‘I just took over management of it last year, and I’m leasing the vineyard for five years,’ says Norm. ‘It was planted in the late 1980s. Back then, the majority was Zinfandel, Syrah and a little bit of Pinot Noir. Since then, around 15 years ago all the Zinfandel was budded over.’ Now most of the vineyard is Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, with some of the newer clones of Pinot Noir. There’s quite an elevation change here. ‘It’s very good soils. It had old forests on it, so there are a lot of nutrients in it.’
There are no herbicides. ‘It is being organically farmed, just not certified organic,’ says Norm. ‘I go through with weed eaters for the weed control and I don’t use systemic fungicides. It has a lot of history and there have been a lot of good wines made out of here.’ The family who own this have 600-800 acres and they wanted to put in a vineyard, but they weren’t able to do it sustainably making money, so they have up on it and that’s why I came in. Last year was horrible: there are 11 acres here and I picked six tons. It wasn’t farmed well the last couple of years and they had a lot of mildew. It grew fairly well but most of the shoots had no clusters on them. Hopefully with my farming I can get the yields up to a sustainable level, so I don’t lose my ass on it.’
The wines are raised in 100% neutral oak, and are sealed with natural cork from MA Silva. I like the fact that Phil doesn’t use capsules, which these days are completely unnecessary.
We began with a look at 2022 wines from barrel.
Baxter Farrington Vineyard Pinot Noir 2021 Anderson Valley
30% whole bunch. Lovely fruit presence here: bright and pure with raspberry and red cherry fruit with some iodine hints. Very stylish. Mineral and expressive with lovely precision. 95/100
Baxter Langley Vineyard Pinot Noir 2021 Anderson Valley
This is a vineyard planted originally in 1982 by Roederer for sparkling wines, which was then movers four years later 10 miles up the road. This barrel is from destemmed fruit, and is fresh, elegant and pure with bright fruit. Fresh with good acidity and nice tannins. 94/100
The same wine, but picked a week later with 30% whole bunch: concentrated, tannic and taut with freshness and depth. Precise, pure, structural, and slightly minty. 93/100
Baxter Oppenlander Pinot Noir 2021 Comptche, Mendocino
Own-rooted vines. Supple, fresh and elegant. Fine, with lovely precision. Nice core of sweet fruit with black tea, plum and wild strawberry notes. Supple and very fine. 95/100
Baxter Farrington Pinot Noir 2022 Anderson Valley
Textural with lovely fruit, showing cherry and raspberry notes. Juicy and fine, this has yet to finish malolactic fermentation.
Baxter Weir Vineyard Pinot Noir 2022 Yorkville Highlands
So elegant, fresh and expressive. Cherry and raspberry fruit with good tannins.
Baxter Langley Vineyard Pinot Noir 2022 Anderson Valley
Very fine with vivid raspberry fruit, showing high acidity and lots of intensity. Firm tannins.
Baxter Bevel Vineyard Pinot Noir 2022
There’s some cherry, some apple and a twist of liqourice. Quite open.
Baxter Petite Sirah Zinfandel 2022
This is from near Ukiah, and it shows great concentration of fresh, vivid fruit. Lovely intensity and freshness.
Baxter Oppenlander Vineyard Chardonnay 2020 Comptche AVA, Mendocino
12.8% alcohol. Barrel fermented in neutral oak, wild ferment. So linear and fresh with lovely purity and good acidity. Linear with nice crystalline citrus fruit with a hint of green apple. Such finesse here. 94/100
Baxter Valenti Vineyard Pinot Noir 2019 Mendocino Ridge
13.2% alcohol. 30% whole bunch. Lovely elegance here. It’s fine grained with a lovely smooth, savoury quality. There’s a hint of earth and some nice mineral notes. Generous but also fresh, and with appropriate structure. 95/100
Baxter Oppenlander Vineyard Pinot Noir 2018 Comptche AVA, Mendocino
13.6% alcohol. 30% whole cluster. Powerful and vivid with lovely tannic structure. This has some sweet cherry and berry fruit but also some fine spiciness. Sweetly fruited but very refined. 95/100
Baxter Weir Vineyard Pinot Noir 2019 Yorkville Highlands
Wadenswil, DRC, Rochioli. Pale in colour, this has a lovely sappy sweet strawberry and red cherry fruit quality on the nose. It’s elegant and sweetly fruity on the palate and a lovely concentration 95
In the UK, these wines are available from Wanderlust wine: https://wanderlustwine.co.uk/winemakers/baxter-winery/
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