Twin brothers, Jim and Bob Varner are responsible for planting, growing and making some of California's most compelling Pinot Noir. They had been growing Chardonnay on Spring Ridge Vineyard since the 80's, but in 1995 they embarked on planting Pinot Noir. Their approach was similar to planting Pinot Noir as it was to Chardonnay, in small block parcels. The Spring Ridge Vineyard is a unique site. It is situated next to an open space preserve and sits on a property that spans elevations from 500 ft to 1800 ft. in the Santa Cruz Mountains. One ridge away from the Pacific Ocean only 10 miles away as the crow flies. This protected area experiences typical Bay Area maritime weather but at the altitude which the vineyard sits, the nights are even cooler and daytime highs are less sizzling, making it ideal for grape growing. The Varners make three single-block Pinot Noirs: Picnic, Hidden, and Upper Picnic. The blocks are small; combined, they total 6.5 acres.
Earlier in the month, not long after ten o'clock when we unlock our front door and begin the business day, in walked a man who apologetically asked if we were open. If I am sitting at my work station and look towards the door, people entering the store are back lit, so recognizing someone can be a challenge at first glance. I stood up and quickly knew who it was. Bob Varner. Well, that's not entirely true. Bob and his twin brother, Jim, look awfully alike, so it was considerate of him to stretch out his hand and greet us with "Bob Varner". At TWH, we've been lucky to have these unexpected visits from the Varner brothers. Sometimes it is Jim and sometimes it is Bob. Their visits are always a highlight to working here, but this last visit was particularly meaningful and memorable. The last couple years have found the Varners facing many challenges, not the least of which, they will no longer be making wine from Spring Ridge Vineyard. The 2014 vintage is their last.
Bob lead me through the newly released 2014 Pinot Noirs. He started with a refresher course about the site, how the sedimentary rock is a combination of clay and loam and is almost sponge-like, explaining that when it rains, the water drains away in minutes. He went on to tell me that they dry farm, use no fertilizers and grow natural cover crops. The first wine we tasted was the 2014 Hidden Block. It was very open-armed and generous right out of the bottle. Hidden Block is planted to a clone of Pinot Noir called Dijon 115 and is north-facing. Bright, red cherry fruit rushes out of glass and lingers on the palate. Aged in French barrel, about 20-30% new (as do the other blocks), it is remarkable how well integrated the wood is with the fruit. A seamless structure. Next came the 2014 Picnic Block. It is the lowest vineyard, sitting at 600 feet and has the shallowest soil. A darker fruit profile than the Hidden Block, the acid perception is also more intense. The wine has real energy. They chose to go with an "elegant" barrel, one that has no heavy char. Next up was the 2014 Upper Picnic. Here, the Pinot Noir was grafted on to Gewurztraminer that was originally planted in 1981. Bob described the energy of the plants as old-vine. Upper Picnic is separated by only ten feet from the Picnic Block, but it has a bit more soil. It is always the last block to be harvested. The flavors are denser with red cherries galore, but the wine remains elegant throughout. One vineyard, three blocks of Pinot Noir: all three subtly different, but all three amazing.
Varner wines are the result of thirty-five years of hard work. Self-financed, they sold grapes long before making it commercially. They took on a long cycle of planting, as they didn't want to make any mistakes. Bob explained to me that "over time, site will dominate". All their decisions, all their attention to detail in the winery (i.e. they designed their own tanks) was an effort to take all that they learned along the way to carefully choreograph the outcome. Bob told me that his passion for making wine rests in the interplay of Science and Art. After Bob left the store, I was overwhelmed by emotion. I was thankful for this industry that gives me an opportunity to meet people like Bob (and his brother). Making wine is not a vanity project but a way of life for the Varners. Great people, great wine. Do not miss out on the 2014 Pinot Noirs from Varner. Just don't. - Anya Balistreri
"The 2014 Pinot Noir Hidden Block is the most immediate and dense of the four Pinots in the Varner range. A core of sweet red cherry and plum fruit fills out the wine's mid-weight frame effortlessly. Round, pliant and totally seductive, the 2014 has a lot to offer, including tons of near and medium-term appeal." 93 points from Galloni for Vinous.
"The 2014 Pinot Noir Picnic Block is bold, powerful and beautifully resonant on the palate. Succulent red cherry and plum fruit is nicely pushed forward, with pretty floral and savory notes that add striking aromatic complexity. There is lovely depth and texture to this pungent, racy Pinot Noir from Bob and Jim Varner. Beams of tannin underpin the subtle yet persistent, structured finish." 93 points from Galloni for Vinous.
"The 2014 Pinot Noir Upper Picnic is all class. Silky tannins and expressive, perfumed aromatics give the wine unreal finesse. Just as compelling on the palate, the 2014 is absolutely exquisite in its understated, nuanced expression of the Santa Cruz Mountains. What a gorgeous wine it is. The Upper Picnic is the most elegant of these four Pinots." 95 points from Galloni for Vinous.