wine features
The New Generation of California Vintners:
An Interview with Alex Davis of Porter Creek Vineyards, Healdsburg, CA

March 2009

Photo by Antoinette Bruno
Porter Creek Vineyards, set in the heart of California’s wine country, has been producing wine since 1982. Alex Davis, who took over as winemaker from his father in 1997, represents the next generation of California winemakers. Davis produces small quantities of high quality, food-friendly, Old World-style wines in a market dominated by Robert Parker-style wines. Take their fruity, well-structured Hillside Vineyard 2006 Pinot Noir, for example. Planted in 1974, these are among the oldest Pinot Noir plantings in the Russian River Valley. Davis, who uses French oak barrels for aging, now oversees all the Porter Creek wine production. His underlying philosophy is that a good wine should showcase the terroir more than the actual process.

Antoinette Bruno: How long have you been making wines here?
Alex Davis: I took over from my dad in 1997.

AB: How long has the winery been here?
AD: Since 1982. I worked pretty extensively in Burgundy before taking over for my dad.

AB: What got you into wine?
AD: It was an obvious direction to try, but I got really into it in Europe when I was in Burgundy.

AB: So there wasn't a little rebellion there?
AD: There was a little rebellion taking over: I converted everything to natural yeast when I first took over. My dad did encourage me to spend time in Burgundy.

AB: What is your philosophy on wine?
AD: To try and make a wine that has the most minimal fingerprint from the winemaking; where you taste the purity of the winemaking site.

AB: What is the biggest challenge facing your winery?
AD: Pierces disease that is attacking some vines. In the market, the challenge is selling more true-to-type style, less Robert Parker-style and over-manipulated wines.

AB: How does your wine differ from Robert Parker-style wine?
AD: We avoid that syrupy, goopy style. There’s a certain leanness to our wines.

AB: Do you see yourself as being part of a winemaking movement?
AD: I’ve been making wine the way I do for 10 years, and it wasn’t necessarily in fashion back then, but I stuck with it. Now I see a wave of winemakers doing more of a style that I like. It’s coming back in style to make balanced wine, and balanced pinots based on red fruits that are structured, but not so heavily extracted.

AB: What's the hardest thing you've had to do in your career?
AD: Drop Sauvignon oak and dry Rosé production before it got popular.

AB: You make a lot of wines. Does that make it hard to focus?
AD: No. They are all small production. I do four different Pinots and five different varietals. It does take a different approach, but if you have worked with Pinot, you can work with everything.

AB: Tell me about Carignane.
AD: Old Italian-American immigrants planted them in the pre-prohibition era. When you have old vines, production goes down but quality increases because yields decrease. You can make fine wines as long as you have fine vines. I get these [Carignane grapes] from Hawthorne, further north.

AB: How do you market your wines?
AD: Through tasting rooms and restaurants. Mostly direct to consumer.

AB: Tell me about barrel tastings.
AD: It’s a regional event. Futures are historically known as pre-arrivals. This allows the wine buyer to purchase wines well in advance of the release.

AB: What is your price point to restaurants?
AD: Wholesale to restaurants is $192 to 288 per case.

AB: How are you finding sales to restaurants?
AD: They are definitely buying less, but they are still buying.

AB: How do you overcome the challenges of producing such different wine in a market dominated by one particular style?
AD: The best market for us is New York City where people are exposed to everything and they don’t want to be told by someone like [Robert] Parker what to drink. They want to try it for themselves and decide. They have more Old World sensibility. That’s for our wholesale market. For our direct customers, we have a tasting room so people can taste the wines and see what they like.

AB: What wine are you most proud of?
AD: The old vine Pinot Noir. It’s more of an intellectual style—not as big and rich as wines you would usually find here [in the Russian River Valley].

Winery Information:
Porter Creek Vineyards
8735 Westside Road
Healdsburg, CA 95448
(707) 433-6321