by Fred McMillin
for June 6, 1997

Winery of the Week

Gary and the Heartbreak Grape

Prologue: "In California they called Pinot Noir the heartbreak grape because it was so stubborn, so particular, so difficult to get right"...by Marq de Villers in his "The Heartbreak Grape" Gary Farrell is in the top three Pinot Noir makers in California...his beautiful Pinot Noirs are of world class" ...by James Halliday in his "Wine Atlas of California"

The Rest of the Story: Napoleon and King Louis XIV knew the Burgundian winemakers could "get it right." The favorite wine of both was made from the Pinot Noir. So, the grape must have created quite a stir when it reached California about 1860...but no. It bombed! In fact, 25 years later the state reported the grape still was not being cultivated "in any quantity sufficient to give token of its merits in California."

By 1960 there still was an underwhelming total of 600 acres of Pinot, and with good reason. British critic Jancis Robinson said not so long ago, "The typical California Pinot Noir often has the unnerving suggestion of overboiled cabbage...the sad fact is that no one has come up with a Pinot Noir that could compare with Burgundy."

But things were stirring. For example, the cool Russian River Valley was proving to be Pinot-friendly. In fact, grape guru Bob Thompson opined that the Valley's Howard Allen Vineyard could "deliver Pinot Noirs tasting closer to an original from Burgundy than any other California region can produce."

Furthermore, in 1974 Gary Farrell started working with Russian River Pinots. His boss, Davis Bynum, noted he was "without doubt one of the most thorough, meticulous and dedicated people" he'd ever encountered in the business. So what happens if you turn Gary loose on Allen Vineyard grapes? Like Rogers and Astaire, it's a perfect pair. I remember when my panel tasted blind the $32 1992 Gary Farrell Allen Vineyard Pinot Noir...brimming with rich berry fruit balanced with bold French oak. Stunning, and without a trace of cabbage!

Just the Facts

Name Gary Farrell Wines
Location Russian River Valley, Sonoma County, CA
Owner, Winemaker   Gary Farrell
Founded 1982
Capacity 6,000 case range
Vineyards Ownded None
Purchased Grapes 100%
Awards One of the top wineries of the year by "Wine & Spirits Magazine." Winemaker of the Year by the Los Angeles Times.

Postscript: In all the Pinot excitement, I failed to mention two other high-scoring Farrell wines, the Chardonnays and Zinfandels.


About the Writer

Fred McMillin, a veteran wine writer, has taught wine history for 30 years on three continents. He currently teaches wine courses at San Francisco State and San Francisco City College and is Northern California Editor for American Wine on the Web. In 1995, the Academy of Wine Communications honored Fred with one of only 22 Certificates of Commendation awarded to American wine writers.


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