As one of the first wineries to receive an operating license after prohibition, the Meeker Vineyard could be considered a member of Dry Creek Valley’s old guard, a testament to tradition in one of the most-respected American Viticultural Areas (AVAs.) The Meeker family traces its winemaking roots back to the 1980s, when Charlie Meeker (then a Hollywood film producer) and his wife Molly relocated to Dry Creek from Los Angeles, establishing the new family business. Today, the Meeker Vineyard remains a family affair, with son Lucas at the helm, serving as both head winemaker and chief operating officer. His twin sister Kelly oversees brand marketing and management, working in tandem with Jeff Shaeffer, Meeker’s sales director.
As part of #WineStudio’s March program, I had the unique opportunity to learn about the Meeker Vineyard first-hand, through real-time discussions with Lucas and Kelly Meeker; participants had the chance to sample three of their wines as well. In case you haven’t heard of #WineStudio (you need to get out more!) it’s a modern approach to wine education that brings together wine makers, distributors, and bloggers via an online forum. The brain-child of Certified Sommelier Tina Morey, it’s the new paradigm for learning about wine.
Our journey to Dry Creek began with tales of the winery itself; how, in early years there was barely enough space for the vats, let alone a tasting room. Not really a problem until the 1990s, when Sonoma County became a wine tourism destination and flocks of wine lovers flooded the town. Realizing they had no way to accommodate the thirsty travelers, the Meekers improvised: they erected the family tipi in the yard and invited guests to sit down for a sip of wine. People loved it, probably because of the warmth and openness of the gesture, and it stands on site to this day, paying homage to members of the Meeker Wine Club, affectionately known as The Tribe.
A Down-to-Earth Guiding Philosophy
Although the tide has turned, many California winemakers long favored an international style geared to attracting critical praise and points rather than crafting wines of varietal character that bespeak a sense of place. That has never been a problem at Meeker, where the driving philosophy, according to Lucas Meeker, is to “create small-batch, unique wines and build a sustainable business in a competitive landscape.” Making varietally correct wines that showcase the best of each parcel of land is no mean feat, particularly when you’re dealing with a wide range of grapes: the Meeker line boasts varietal Pinot Noir, Grenache, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Zinfandel offerings, as well as several Bordeaux-style (meritage) blends. And their Fossil blend is an unusual mix of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot.
So many grapes to keep track of, care for, and vinify! (Note: until recently Meeker also made wines from Carignan and Barbera, along with some other varieties atypical of Sonoma County.) How is that possible? According to Lucas, it goes back to the basics:
It’s super important when you make many wines that they all speak to their part of the mosaic.
During our chat, members of the #WineStudio group peppered Lucas and Kelly with questions about vineyard practices and winery methods. With each response another stone fell into place in the mosaic for me, clarifying how the Meeker philosophy manifests in day-to-day operations:
- Wines trend lower on the pH scale (usually below 3.6) meaning they have high acidity, a critical factor in making balanced, elegant wines.
- Use of new oak is extremely limited, allowing varietal character to shine.
- Extended maceration and cold fermentation help extract highly concentrated phenolic components (especially grape tannins) that affect the balance of the finished wine.
- Alcohol levels, when in balance with other components, do not dictate the overall style of the finished wine.
- Blending is a means to build complexity in wine, not fundamentally change it.
One of the things that struck me as I thought about each of these points was the difference between grape tannins and wood tannins. All tannins create a drying sensation in the mouth, much like strong, black tea will do. Because of this drying effect, tannic wines are often paired with fatty meats, making for a complementary pairing in which the components balance each other out. Grape tannins come from the seeds, stems, and skins of the grape, and wood tannins are contributed by oak barrels. As a student I’ve heard teachers and winemakers speak about the distinction, particularly how they are perceived differently on the palate. It’s a complicated issue, to say the least, and there are many opinions on the subject. The best summary I’ve seen comes from the Wine Anorak so check it out if you’re so inclined. What I took from the article was this: wood tannins are considered as hydrolysable (meaning they interact with water) and are thus softer than condensed grape tannins. Sensation of the two tannins is different, too: wood tannins toward the front of the mouth, and grape tannins toward the back. So now you know.
Let’s Taste the Wines
The Meeker family graciously provided three bottles of their wine as samples for the #WineStudio group. We were not expected to review or promote the wines in return for our participation; however, I am happy to do so. These wines are elegant, soulful, and perfectly reflect the honest approach to winemaking exemplified by the Meeker Vineyard.
2013 Hoskins Ranch Grenache (100% Grenache; 14.4% abv; $37 retail)
Grenache is a vigorous vine and, left to her own devices, she will produce quite a large crop of grapes that often lead to a fruity but uninspiring wine. To prevent high yields, Harold Hoskins, who farms this tiny parcel where the Dry Creek and Russian River meet, carefully limits yields. His workers make three successive passes through the vineyard, dropping more than half the initial crop (a process known as green harvesting.) The vine’s energy is then channeled to the remaining grapes, enabling full phenolic development and enhancing complexity. In the winery, the ripe grapes undergo a 17-day cold fermentation and are aged for 22 months in a mixture of neutral and once-used oak, some of which is American, some French.
In the glass this Grenache is a gorgeous pink-ruby color, reminding me more of candy than wine. Enticing aromas arise, dominated by soft cherry and strawberry notes, with just a hint of vanilla. A sip brings effusive cherry fruit underpinned by a framework of acidity and barely-there tannins that just catch the back of my throat. When I remind myself that this wine clocks in at 14.4% abv, I wonder how that can be: it’s light on its feet and refreshing, making me reach for the glass again and again. I’m a lover of Grenache but, let’s face it, many versions are little more than cherry fruit bombs with enough alcohol to make you tipsy (nothing wrong with that, by the way.) This one is refined, balanced, and elegant: it’s voluptuous but reined in; exuberant but a little reserved. The Meeker Grenache is essentially a vinous contradiction that is very alluring, indeed.
2013 Dry Creek Valley Cabernet Franc (100% Cabernet Franc; 14.7% abv; $45 retail)
Fruit for this wine comes from old vines (30+ years) in the Pedroni Vineyard located in the southern reaches of Dry Creek Valley. The growing season is comparatively long here, allowing the grapes extended hang time – important for full phenolic development that translates into complexity and character in the finished wine. This is critical for a variety like Cabernet Franc, which naturally has green, vegetal aroma compounds. While varietally correct, these compounds can be unpleasant and harsh if the grapes have not fully ripened and are not carefully processed after harvest. Toward that end, all of Meeker’s Cabernet Franc grapes undergo extended maceration and cold fermentation, and are aged in large barrels (29 months in neutral and once-used French oak.)
This wine is a beauty! Dark ruby in color, almost to the edge – it’s dense, velvety perfection. Aromas of blackberry, violets, and thyme waft from the glass in a swirl that makes me imagine sunny hillsides in Provence – or maybe Sonoma. All the fruit comes through on the palate, with a subtle note of green pepper that fades over time. Bright acidity ripples through the fruit, counterbalanced by fine tannins. The finish is long, with a distinct savory element that cries out for a grilled steak (so I made one!) As a long-time lover of Cabernet Franc, I really enjoyed this wine: it’s a gentle giant that should only get better over the next ten years.
2013 Winemaker’s Handprint Merlot (85.72% Merlot, 7.14% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7.14% Syrah; 14.7% abv; $45 retail)
Meeker’s flagship wine has to be the Handprint Merlot, a product of fruit from the Dry Creek and Alexander Valleys of Sonoma. Before you even have the chance to swirl, sip, and savor the wine inside, you can’t help but be intrigued by the unusual bottle. Each one is unique, bearing multicolored handprints where the label would typically be. Mine boasted three different prints: one in turquoise, navy, and lavender; another in pink and coral; and a third in crimson, purple, and gold. And that was a good preview of the bounty inside the bottle.
Dark red with glints of violet throughout, this wine shows almost as many colors as the handprints on the bottle! On the nose there are notes of cherry and red plum, subtle hints of vanilla and cocoa, and just a touch of herbes de provence. The palate focuses more on black fruit than red, with blackberry and black currants right up front. Secondary notes of leather and forest floor emerge, leading to a long, smooth finish. This is a wine with structure and balance, capable of aging for 10 or more years. During our chat, the Meekers indicated that their Bordeaux-style blends are built for the long haul; in fact, their 2005 Hand Print Merlot is still evolving. All I know is I’d love to revisit this one again in 2030!
Folks, all three of these wines are very special. I’m grateful to the Meeker family and #WineStudio for bringing them into my world, and I look forward to trying them again. Will it be the flirty, fruity, cherry-infused Grenache? Or perhaps the Cabernet Franc promising a decade of delights? Maybe another go-round with the multi-faceted Merlot? Sign me up for any and all combinations – and I think I’ll sample a few of the others, while we’re at it. If you’d like to try the Meeker portfolio of wines for yourself, you can purchase them directly from the website. If you live in a state that prohibits interstate shipping, here is a list of distributors by state. However you manage to score a bottle or two, please let me know what you think. I’d love to compare notes!