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Lambert Bridge Winery

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Grapes on the vine

Written by Larry Hanzo

When I started to write this piece I had an historical flashback.  In the late 1970’s a job transfer moved the family to Southern California.  Once we settled in, one of my priorities was to visit the wine country and learn as much as I could about California wines.  It took about two years and by 1980 my wife and I were ready to begin the quest for wine knowledge.

The free wheeling days of the early eighties were quite different from today.  Everything seemed to be simpler and less complicated.  Airline fares were inexpensive. You could fly from the Orange County airport to Oakland for $99.00 round trip.  If you were headed to wine country you wanted to go to Oakland because Napa Valley was only about an hour north of the airport, straight up Rt. 29.

Once we made 4 or 5 trips to the Napa wineries we decided we wanted to explore other areas.  The next county west was Sonoma.  It ran from its boundary with Napa west to the Pacific Ocean.  What a difference!!  Even back then Napa was beginning to be built up, very commercial, and most wineries were in close physical proximity.  Sonoma, by contrast, was beautifully pastoral.  It was more spread out.  Sonoma is twice the size of Napa.  The wineries themselves were separated by apple orchards, vegetable farms, dairies, hatcheries and forests.  The people we met were easy going, down home types.  We loved it and decided to spend a lot of time there.  One of the charms of Sonoma is that because of its size and varying micro climates there is no main “Wine Highway” as in Napa.  You really had to go exploring to find places.We were on such a mission poking around in the Dry Creek area near Healdsburg when we got lost.  Getting lost in Sonoma is a benefit because many of the great small wineries we discovered was because we got lost.  One of the most interesting places we found was the Lambert Bridge Winery.  I don’t actually remember much except that it was an attractive rustic wooden building set back from the road and framed by tall redwoods.  Inside the winery itself was a cozy and welcoming stone fireplace.Today Sonoma County still retains the charm it radiated 30 years ago.  It’s still kicked back and friendly.  It still produces the diverse mélange of agricultural products and now even includes aquaculture fisheries on the coast.  Its so wonderfully diverse that it is commonly referred to as the Provance of California.

The Lambert Bridge Winery is still a small family owned and operated winery.  The setting is even more stunning.  Trees abound and the areas surrounding the building are full of fragrant plants and wildflowers.  A fully furnished picnic area, including two Mugnaini wood fired ovens, covers portions of the front yard.  The main building is still the original wooden structure built back in 1975 with one major alteration.  A few years ago they built an interior glass wall down the center of the building to establish a formal tasting room.  The old stone fireplace is now in the tasting room filling the space with toasty warmth on chilly days.

Pattie Chambers has been the owner since 1993 and Greg Wilcox is the managing partner.  The winery includes 51 acres of land on five different vineyard parcels.  Total annual production is about 8,000 cases.  Their plan is to become a complete estate operation.  They currently grow 80% of their fruit.  

Now that all of the basic statistics are complete, here is what makes them unique among wineries.  Lambert Bridge is in the “experience” business and they are using their wine as an entre’ to get you to know them.  Their whole operation offers many different experiences.  You can help with the harvest, you can sort the grapes, you can make your own blends, you can do different levels of tasting, you can take cooking classes, you can walk the vineyards, you can picnic on the well furnished outdoor areas, you can attend wine dinners, you can rent a cottage and more.  You can transform your visit into the complete shared wine and food learning experience.  Even the hard to impress California wine reviewers rate the Lambert Bridge Winery as somewhere between excellent and extraordinary.

The wine staff is first rate.  Jill Davis, a U C Davis graduate, is the winemaker.  What M.I.T. is to engineering, U C Davis is to enology.  Before joining Lambert Bridge she worked with Myron Nightengale at Beringer,  Andre Tchelistceff at Buena Vista and at the William Hill Winery.  This resume’ and her current work put her among the top winemakers in California.  Mitch Firestone-Gillis, the assistant winemaker, previously held positions at Balverne, Fisher and Williams Selyn prior to joining Jill.  They have a decidedly Old World approach to making wine.  The basic fundamentals is that great wine is made in the vineyards rather than in the winery.  The French word for this is “Vigneron” which translates to “winegrower” in English.  At Lambert Bridge everything they do in the vineyard is focused on growing better wine grapes.  The European attitude throughout the process results in food friendly wines with precise acidity and lower alcohol levels that allow the wine to match up with food rather than overpower it.  Their passion is to craft small lots of artisanal Bordeaux blends, French varietals and Zinfandels, all with distinguishing identities and tastes.

As stated earlier, they only make 8,000 cases annually and 90% of the output is sold at the winery or thru their wine club.  Many local Charlotte area retailers carry the wines.  We are one of the few places on the East Coast where Lambert Bridge is available.  In addition, state laws allow direct shipments from their wine club to North Carolina.

I recently had the opportunity to sample two of their current varietal releases.  The first was the ’05 Merlot (note:  some stores still have the ’04 vintage which is excellent).  This wine was similar in style and taste to a fine right bank Bordeaux.  The nose had notes of cherries, raspberries, sweet oak and spice while the palate was layered with nuances of dark red fruit, cocoa, plums and brown spice.  There is an interesting layer of dark licorice on the mid palate.  The silky elegant tannins made the finish memorable.  The composition was 89% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, 0.5% Cab Franc and 0.5% Petite Verdot.  The wine was barrel aged for 16 months in 100% French Oak with 59% being new oak.  It was also aged for 18 months before release.  As ;you can tell, I really liked this wine.

The second wine I tasted was an ’06 Zinfandel.  Dry Creek Valley, the source of the ’06 Zinfandel, lies above the fog line.  During the growing season, the days start out cool and turn warm, and sometimes hot.  This combination of temperature fluctuation is ideal for ripening the Zinfandel grape.  Zins from the Dry Creek AVA tend to be rich and spicy with a capacity for aging.  The Lambert Bridge Zin is all of that with a defined nose of raspberry, cherry and sweet toasty oak.  The ripe juicy flavors of blackberry, black cherry and sweet plums and spice are all balanced.  The polished tannins along with the hint of vanilla lead to a satisfying finish.  The composition is 93.5% Zinfandel and 6.5% Petite Syrah which makes the wine color an inky black.  Barrel aging was 10 months in 100% French Oak of which 46% was new oak.  This is a big jammy, fruit forward concentrated Zin that would pair up nicely with a slightly charred medium rare steak sprinkled with crumbly bleu cheese.

People in the Charlotte area will have an opportunity to sample these and other Lambert Bridge wines in the near future.  On Wednesday, May 27, Café Monte in SouthPark is offering a full wine dinner featuring the wines of Lambert Bridge.  On Thursday, May 28, Dolcetto Wine Room in the Piedmont Circle is hosting a Lambert Bridge wine tasting.  Both of these events are likely to be sold out so make your reservations early.

Lambert Bridge Winery has a simple yet elegant philosophy – Great Wine, Great Food, Shared with Great Friends.