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NM: And here we are, ten years on, with so much having developed for the Sonoma Coast as a wine region. How did things evolve from this formative period to allow you to venture into your own winemaking and eventual launch of the Bjornstad label?
GB: [After leaving Flowers], Greg La Follette and I started Tandem Winery with the 2000 vintage of the Pisoni Pinot Noir from the Santa Lucia Highlands. Now, one of the things about a collaboration like that is that, generally speaking, the winery guy is more 'out there' and a bit more of the public face of the brand, whereas the viticulturist is not as much. And that was the case with us, so a lot of the relationships we built came about because he'd met the Van der Kamps and the Pisonis, buying fruit from them first for Flowers and then later for Tandem, when I developed my own relationships with them. Since it was his major at [UC] Davis, he was on the front lines with the winemaking, where I was more in a peripheral and supportive role. With that experience, I really got to know the growers, how the fruit comes in, and what the course is that the wine takes once the grapes arrive into the winery.
So, when it was time for me to step up and do it myself in 2005 with Bjornstad Cellars, I'd already had some background and went to the four growers that I'd been working with for the longest — the Porter-Bass and Ritchie vineyards for their Chardonnay, the Van der Kamp and Hellenthal vineyards for their Pinot Noir. These were the vineyards from which we'd already been buying fruit, with the exception of Hellenthal. Gard Hellenthal, who had had some land with grapes that he was selling to W.H. Smith and Eric Sussman at Radio-Coteau, was ready to develop a five acre block of his land into vineyard and came to me as vineyard consultant. So, we did the soil pits and development together, and then I designed it all — with the same care and attention as if it were my own. Then, lo and behold, it happened that I ended up buying from that very land! And that's how the four of these vineyard designates came about for the Bjornstad label.
"I went through a radical switch from the Napa Valley to Sonoma County. It was a completely different world, from the geography to the people."
NM: So, in one way or another, you'd become involved early on with a number of Sonoma Coast producers who have since successfully built stellar reputations making wine from Burgundian varieties. Given the sheer talent you were working with at the time, I'm guessing that this period was very formative.
GB: Absolutely! When I was studying for the two years at [UC] Davis, the bright light in my perspective seemed to be Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon — and I'd pursued that with Château Lafite and then later with Newton and Joseph Phelps. But then I went through a radical switch from Saint Helena in the Napa Valley to Fort Ross in Cazadero, Sonoma County, just a few miles from the ocean. It was a completely different world, from the geography — the steep and rugged coast, the desolation, the remoteness, the rain — to the people, who couldn't have been more different from the well-heeled residents of central Saint Helena. It was a huge shift! Then, on top of all that, it was suddenly about the Burgundian varieties: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and even some Pinot Meunier. It was a complete change of direction. But through with my involvement at Flowers, I learned so much from that change; it was an amazing education. And it was also an exhausting job, much more than what had been initially advertised. I was hired on as the assistant winemaker for [a modest] size of production and 23 acres of estate, and then within a month of that, they bought a whole other ranch of 300+ acres with the intention that 80 acres of it were to be developed into vineyard. So, there I was, tasked with farming the existing land and developing the new land in this completely new world of the Sonoma Coast — which at the time had no existing infrastructure! I'd been connected in the Napa Valley, but here it was suddenly a question of 'Who do you get to do your work?— your subcontractors, your equipment, your surveying, all that kind of stuff?' It was so remote, there was no labor pool.
Veraison of an Appellation
NM: But as challenging as things were at first, it turned out to be quite a good fit for you. In fact, moving over to the Sonoma Coast in many way really shaped your career by allowing you to take part in the early evolution of a burgeoning California wine appellation!