John on Wine – Spotlight Winery: Phillips Hill Winery

This piece originally ran in the Ukiah Daily Journal newspaper on June 11, 2015

On visits to the Anderson Valley, I have asked tasting room staff what wineries I should visit. While tasting Pinot Noir at the press tasting session during the recent Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival; and sommelier Chris Sawyer and I had a conversation about his favorite local producers in the area. Over and over again, people in the know mention Toby Hill and his Phillips Hill Winery as a ‘must visit’ and ‘must taste’ spot in the Anderson Valley.

Surrounded by green, the Phillips Hill sign welcomes visitors travelling on Hwy 128 between Philo and Navarro

Surrounded by green, the Phillips Hill sign welcomes visitors travelling on Hwy 128 between Philo and Navarro

Out past Gowan’s Oak Tree Fruit Stand and the turn off to the Philo Apple Farm, on Highway 128 between Philo and Navarro, is Phillips Hill, a winery and tasting room in a converted and historical apple drying barn facility.

The old apple drying barn is the new Phillips Hill winery tasting room site

The old apple drying barn is the new Phillips Hill winery tasting room site

When I arrived, the smell of freshly cut grass from the picnic area mixed with other outdoor scents; floral, herbal, wide open natural outdoor perfume of vineyard and orchard greeted me. I walked through the aroma room, where collected materials help prepare visitors for some of the scents they may encounter in the wines, then ventured upstairs to taste through Toby’s current releases in his beautifully appointed, rustic yet refined, tasting room.

The aroma room at Phillips Hill

The aroma room at Phillips Hill

Toby is an artist, both with canvas and wine. A native Californian and grandson of a grape grower, Toby earned a BFA from the California College of the Arts which has allowed him to more fully appreciate the efforts and artistry of grape growing. The name of his winery, Phillips Hill, honors both of his paternal grandparent’s family sides, as does his marriage of art and wine. Each label of the Phillips Hill Winery portfolio of wine is a miniature reproduction of an original abstract composition created by Toby.

Toby Hill's original artwork graces each Phillips Hill wine label

Toby Hill’s original artwork graces each Phillips Hill wine label

In 1997, Toby purchased land in the Mendocino Ridge appellation, overlooking the Anderson Valley, and made his first wine using 2002 Pinot Noir grapes grown on Oppenlander Vineyard, nearby in Mendocino’s Comptche. Ten vintages later, all five of the expanded line up of 2012 Pinot Noir wines made by Toby were rated 90-94 Points by Wine Enthusiast magazine, two were designated Editors’ Choice wines, and another designated a Cellar Selection wine.

Toby Hill

Toby Hill

Informed by his trained and professional experiences as a fine artist, Toby crafts wines of intent; pursuing elegance and ethereal power, wines with delicacies, subtleties, and nuances. Using native yeast, less intervention, believing less is more, Toby wants each wine he makes to be a genuine expression of the land the grapes come from, terroir driven wines, spending time he feels essential to making great wine in each vineyard his wines come from as they are being grown, respecting each farmer’s art.

Never content with yesterday’s accolades, always striving to make better wines, Toby has made pilgrimages to Burgundy, France, and has invited respected French winemakers to work with him at Phillips Hill Winery, all in an effort to craft “old meets new world” style wines, with flavors of clear discernible fruit notes offering a beginning, middle, and an end, hinged together in harmony and balance.

I first tasted Toby’s wines with his fiancé and partner, Nastacha Durandet at last year’s Anderson Valley barrel tasting event, and promised myself that I would return to write this piece. Natacha was born in France’s Loire Valley and her passion for wine tasting and collecting began early, leading her to work in some of France’s finest resorts alongside esteemed master sommeliers. Natacha’s background in culinary arts has allowed her to bring an elevated experience to tastings at Phillips Hill Winery for visitors and Muse Cru wine club members.

Natacha wears many hats at Phillips Hill Winery, overseeing the tasting room, wine club, marketing, and events, including sumptuous Muse Cru wine club dinners that take advantage of an on property commercial kitchen. If Natacha is in the tasting room when a Muse Cru wine club member visits, she will prepare a cheese and charcuterie plate, featuring seasonal terroir driven French, Spanish, and Italian cheeses, chosen to naturally pair perfectly with Toby’s terroir driven wines. Cheese and charcuterie plates are also available for purchase by the public and can be enjoyed with wine at picnic tables. Natacha also serves up four Muse Cru wine club dinners annually; Farm to Table, Dungeness Crab, Harvest, and Mushroom themed dinners.

Together, in everything they do at Phillips Hill Winery, Toby and Natacha strive to provide the best visceral experience for their customers; whether visiting their tasting room or picking up a bottle of wine in their local wine shop.

Inside the Phillips Hill tasting room

Inside the Phillips Hill tasting room

Toby poured a half dozen of his wines for me:

2013 Phillips Hill Chardonnay Ridley Vineyard Anderson Valley $30 – Really gorgeous wet stone minerality leading to clean pure Chardonnay apple, pear, and peach fruit.

2014 Phillips Hill Gewurztraminer Valley Foothills Vineyard Anderson Valley $20 – Deep honey, nectarine and apple, fleshy round mouthfeel, lemon peel citrus. This is an Alsatian styled dry Gewurztraminer, and I love it.

2013 Phillips Hill Pinot Noir Boontling Anderson Valley $28 – Candied cherry, cranberry, and cola mark this bright, round, wine.

2013 Phillips Hill Pinot Noir Anderson Valley $40 – Yeah. Multi layered, light Pinot funk, oak, tannin, dried herb mixed with strawberry and cherry fruit.

2012 Phillips Hill Pinot Noir Oppenlander Comptche Mendocino $45 – Toasty, deeper, rich, really nice round mouthfeel, earthy spicy notes come out with air, phenomenal balance, integration, seamless. A lovely touch of barnyard perfume. Darker blackberry meets rich chocolate covered cherry.

2012 Phillips Hill Tempranillo Lake County $35 – Great food wine, big gripping masculine married to feminine, massive depth, a treat.

Every one of these wines is a winner, and made more delicious for having been poured on the property with Toby as my guide. Reflecting on the three Pinot Noir wines, Toby shared, “that’s one of the great things about buying fruit from different vineyards; these are terroir driven, and I want that different personality to be expressed.” Mission accomplished.

A modest $5 tasting fee is waived with purchase, and case orders receive a 20% discount. Phillips Hill Winery is located at 5101 Highway 128, Philo. For more information, call (707) 895-2209 or visit http://www.phillipshill.com.

In October 2006, I took my then nine year old son Charlie to the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, CA to experience Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon performed by Roger Waters, principal lyricist, founding member, bass player and co-lead vocalist of Pink Floyd.

Roger Waters injected politics into his concert, performing Leaving Beirut, a musical retelling of being taken in by an Arab family in Lebanon when a younger, poorer, Waters was caught hitchhiking in a torrential downpour. The song included strong criticism of President George W. Bush and his choice to bring war to Iraq. Waters also wrote political messages on a lighter than air inflatable pig that was carried from the stage into the audience and (unlawfully) released. Messages on our pig included “Habeas Corpus Matters A Lot” “Impeach Bush Now” and “Vote Nov. 2nd””

Waters’ messages of peace over war, human rights over torture and illegal imprisonment, and disapproval of our involvement in the war in Iraq was met with general approval in Mountain View, although I did hear a few people complain about paying to be lectured to and not liking it. Several East cost performances of Leaving Beirut were met with even greater displeasure. In all cases, jeers were turned to cheers as Leaving Beirut was followed by Sheep from the Pink Floyd album Animals – the irony lost on most.

During the war in Vietnam, Rock music was a vehicle for political expression, and years later Waters again used it to marry the power of words, music, and crowd. Compared to the near endless supply of mindless pop acts dancing through lip synched performances featuring auto-tuned recordings, I was grateful for Waters’ artistry and ability to move and educate me.

I can almost hear you asking, “so, four paragraphs about music John, what does this have to do with wine?” Thanks for asking.

I received a copy of Been Doon So Long, a Randall Grahm Vinthology, by Randall Grahm.

A couple of quick notes; I revere Randall Grahm, I was three days away from buying this book when it was delivered to my door for me to read and review courtesy of Amy Cleary of UC Press. When I worked selling wine books and wine accessories for the Wine Appreciation Guild, I used to arrange my sales trips to allow me to wake up in Santa Cruz so I could enjoy Bonny Doon wines at their tasting room for breakfast.

Randall Grahm is the owner and Winemaker of Bonny Doon Vineyard. Randall Grahm and Bonny Doon are nearly synonymous, so inextricably are the two linked for wine lovers. Randall Grahm became well known as one of the pioneers of Rhone varietal wines in California (Cinsault, Grenache, Mouvedre, Marsanne, Roussane, Viognier), and was at least equally well known for his mold breakingly unique wine labels (Chuck House, Ralph Steadman). Grahm found additional substantial success with relatively obscure Italian varietals.

Fortunately for anyone who loves wine, literature, and wine literature, Randall Grahm is also famous for his marketing prowess, which included  his writings in a Bonny Doon Newsletter. While the Bonny Doon Newsletter was intended to aid the mercantile, to promote and sell the wine, the Newsletter became more ambitious, educating and sharing Grahm’s point of view.

Randall Grahm’s writings for the Newsletter were not limited to mere articles alone, or pre-blog blog entries in print medium; they included brilliantly executed parodies of notable literary works including Don Quixote, Catcher in the Rye, and A Clockwork Orange. Couched inside of each parody, Grahm commented on notions Doon-ian, and often poked fun and sometimes derision at a host of subjects enological or viticultural satirically. Grahm also parodied literary poets like Ginsberg in poesy, and popular song lyrics – including Have a Cigar from Roger Waters of Pink Floyd.

Been Doon So Long is a collection of these writings from the newsletter, as well as articles, speeches and essays. Sure to please his many fans, and educate a legion of new ones, Randall Grahm has also written a wonderful review on the history of his many wine labels.

The quality of literary playfulness, genius, makes this work of literary parody a great literary work in its own right.

In the book’s center, at its core, is the book’s masterwork, a parody of Dante’s Divine Comedy. In  Da Vino Commedia: The Vinferno, over nearly 60 pages with beautiful illustrations by Alex Gross, Grahm tells the tale of being taken “doon” through the nine circles of wine hell. After pointing out the sins of the industry in fullness, Grahm writes of being made to face his own sins and a desire to save himself from mortal zin, um sin.

As Grahm has grown older, he has grown wiser, and Grahm has reconsidered his priorities. A young daughter Amelie and a health scare have caused Grahm to focus his energy; his spiritual path has seen him divest himself of over 2/3rds of his labels and decrease his case production to less than 10% of Doon’s previous output. He writes with passion about wanting to make honest wines that represent the place they come from, that have Terroir.

In an effort to achieve his goal of producing wines with Terroir, Randall Grahm is moving his wine operations from Santa Cruz to San Juan Bautista to grow grapes in the limestone rich soil, perhaps from seed, without irrigation or trellising, dry farmed and head grown; he wants to make Rhone and Italian varietals , wild and profoundly original, complex and emotionally resonant of the land itself.

In addition to Randall Grahm’s passionate views on Terroir, Grahm opines on the superiority of a screw cap to a cork as a bottle closure, the general banality of California Chardonnay, the adult theme park that is the Napa Valley with its focus on lifestyle instead of life, and his abhorrence of point scores for wine (they are fixed, reductionist while wine is living, ever changing).

Randall Grahm’s incredible grasp of the esoteric, his depth of wine knowledge, his passion for grape growing, his literary bent, and sheer talent brought together in Been Doon So Long caused me to feel unadulterated awe as I read his words, to shake my head in admiration (and a touch of NV) at his writing skill. More than once, reading in a public place, as I came upon a particularly naughty passage, I burst out in laughter causing those around me to seek the cause.

Randall Grahm fights the fights, going against the grain, doing things the hard way, in an effort to make something special. I have always loved that he makes un-boring wines. Doing things Grahm’s way has meant having to write messages on an inflatable pig – or the Doonian equivalent. Newsletters, Radio, interviews, meet the winemaker dinners, anything and everything in service of educating a public unfamiliar with Bonny Doon’s unfamiliar wines. I like wine with a message. Grahm’s wines are message laden beverages – communicating unusual varietals, unique techniques used to produce them, visually artistic labels, and the wealth of information printed on them ; similarly his book is filled with messages, sometimes stuffed into satire, and further wrapped in the cloak of parody, or song, or poesy. Delectable, complex, textured, dense and filling.

Been Doon So Long, A Randall Grahm Vinthology is not Wine For Dummies; but if you have someone in your life who loves wine or literature, or in a perfect world loves both, this book would make an incredible gift that will be appreciated greatly.

I read over 100 wine books while working as a wine seller and marketer, while working for wine book publisher the Wine Appreciation Guild, and as a consumer and lover of wine. Simply put; I have never enjoyed a book on wine as much as I enjoyed Randall Grahm’s Been Doon So Long.

DISCLOSURE: I received Been Doon So Long, A Randall Grahm Vinthology as a sample from Amy Cleary at UC Press. My love of the book Been Doon So Long is in no way linked to how I came to receive the book.


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