Row Eleven, Where Are You?
By Jim Clarke
Row Eleven is not a winery that’s easy to visit. The problem being, it’s not a winery at all. Making wine requires a vineyard to produce the grapes, and a winery to turn them into wine. But these days a wine producer doesn’t have to own either of these. He contracts to buy the grapes, and rents the space in a winery. Voilá – the homeless wine company.
This is exactly what Richard de los Reyes and Brad Miller decided to do when they formed Row Eleven Wine Company. They make Pinot Noir in Santa Barbara. They make Pinot Gris in Oregon. Cabernet in Napa. Syrah in Mendocino. In each case they use a local winery that has the ideal facilities for that grape, so there’s no retrofitting to accommodate different winemaking procedures. It’s a much different approach than the California cliché of the doctor who retires, buys a patch of land, and settles into the role of the gentleman farmer/winemaker; Row Eleven’s method is about wine, not lifestyle.
It’s certainly not for everyone. It presumably involves a lot of drive time, and you need connections; the best vineyards don’t sell their wines to just anyone. Winemaker de los Reyes worked at Beringer, Joseph Ciatti Company, and the Turrentine Wine Brokerage Company for many years, in positions that opened the door to many of California’s best wineries and vineyards. Partner Brad Miller provided the Northwest connection, having handled the Ciatti Company’s brokerage work in the Pacific Northwest for several years. By 2003 de los Reyes felt he had grown too far into the business side of wine and decided to get his hands dirty as a winemaker once more. He and Miller decided to collaborate; Row Eleven is the resulting company, and is devoted to creating handcrafted wines at reasonable prices (all their wines retail for less than $40).
Pinot Noir is the centerpiece of the Row Eleven portfolio; in fact, Pinot Noir grapes from the eleventh row of the Bien Nacido vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley inspired the company’s name. They produce two wines under the Row Eleven label, one from Santa Maria Valley grapes, and one of largely Mendocino Pinot Noir with about 15% San Luis Obispo grapes blended in. The 2002 Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir is a full-bodied wine with lots of red fruits – raspberry, cherry, strawberry – touched by clove; on the palate some earthiness shows itself as well. The 2002 Mendocino wine is more complex and beautifully balanced, layered with cherries, cloves, pepper, and earth; the fruit is darker on the palate, with good length.
Another Mendocino wine is the RDLR Syrah – each varietal is distinguished by its own label – made entirely from biodynamically-grown grapes. The final red in their portfolio is Stratton Lummis Cabernet Sauvignon, named for the proprietors’ great-grandfathers. This Napa Cab (I tasted the 2002) is big-boned and shows the darkest of fruits: blackberry, black raspberry, and licorice, rounded out by bitter chocolate, vanilla, some earth, and cedar. The tannins are firm, and while the wine should age well, there’s no reason not to open it right away.
Row Eleven’s one white wine is not from California, but Oregon: the Civello Pinot Gris. Although the grapes are grown in the Rogue Valley rather than in the better-known AVA of Willamette, the wine is a classic example of Oregon’s take on the grape, falling somewhere between Alsatian weightiness and Italian crispness. The nose of the 2003 Civello offers notes of citrus, melon, and peach, topped by some flowery touches, while a chalky note on the palate helps draw out the finish.