Landmark Vineyards' roadside mailbox in Kenwood, Calif. is a John Deere tractor facsimile. Deere is also a name on the mail.
Yep, it's the same Deere as in John.
Michael Deere Colhoun is the great, great, great grandson of the man who invented the steel plow. The former Stanford, Conn. commercial real estate executive who grew up on a dairy farm is the proprietor, along with his wife Mary, of Landmark, one of the Sonoma Valley's most recognized wineries.
A real, meticulously restored John Deere Model A sits at the entrance to Landmark on Adobe Canyon Road, an even bigger clue that the owner is an ancestor of the man who built the world's largest farm equipment manufacturer from that single steel plow.
The connection between Colhoun and his great, great, great grandfather runs far deeper than name alone.
Listening to Colhoun's goals for and the evolution of Landmark from just another winery to one of the premier wine houses on the North Coast is like hearing the echo from the past of John Deere who said, “I will never put my name on a product that does not have in it the best that is in me.”
Deere was the first to create the steel plow. Colhoun, however, has plenty of competition in the rarified world of ultra premium California and imported wines. On what seems like every corner of every main rural road in the valley, there are signposts with arrows pointing to dozen of wineries, all inviting wine aficionados to tasting rooms.
The Colhouns are relative newcomers on the North Coast. They moved from the Northeast to California in 1992 at the invitation of Mike's mother, Damaris Deere Wiman Ethridge, who became a partner in Landmark in 1974 when it was in Windsor, Calif.
The partners sold the Windsor property and John Deere's great, great granddaughter bought 20 acres in Sonoma Valley and became sole owner of the Landmark name and wanted her son to run a new vineyard and winery in Kenwood.
“She worked on me for two years to move to California and take over Landmark,” said Colhoun. She was subtle about it, never pushing too hard, he admits. After visiting several times, Mary and Mike and their two children traded the East Coast for California's North Coast.
“I talked to a lot of people who were successful, and they all encouraged me to come to California. Gradually I got the wine bug,” he said.
The bug has bitten many and it has coined the phrase heard often in Napa and Sonoma counties; the North Coast wine business is where you can take a large fortune and make it a small fortune.
The Colhouns have been successful where many others have not. Landmark produces about 30,000 cases of wine per year, two-thirds Chardonnay. Landmark competes in the $25 to $60 per bottle market, the most rapidly growing wine market in the U.S. Landmark sales total $6 million annually with a 20-percent profit in a good year.
“Why have we succeeded where others have not? One reason is that we wanted to stay very focused from the beginning … to do one thing well … make the best quality Chardonnay we can.
“We vowed to keep it simple and not try to make six or seven varietals right off the bat in hopes of maybe getting one or two right and let three or four go wrong,” he said. “We also had no preconceived ideas about the business. We looked at Landmark with open minds. We listened to people.” They hired a business consultant in the beginning to develop a plan for the winery. “We stuck with it and did not deviate. I think that was one reason we have enjoyed success.”
The success comes with recognition of wine quality and value and that leads to sales. Landmark wines have won the praise of people like noted wine critic Robert Parker. The Wine Spectator ranks Landmark among the 100 top Chardonnays. Landmark's Grand Detour Pinot Noir has made Wine Enthusiast's editor's choice. Magazines like House and Garden and Food and Wine have recognized Landmark wines as among the best. Its Damaris Reserve Chardonnay consistently draws scores of more than 90 in wine judging.
The climb to the top started when the Colhouns followed winemaker Eric Stern's recommendation to hire Helen Turley as consulting enologist, one of the most respected enologists on the North Coast. “She had made a little bit of a name for herself overall when we first arrived, but in the small circle of premium winemakers she was really respected. She brought to us credibility in helping our winemaking team develop style and methodology.”
As their wines became recognized, the Colhouns took to the road to promote the acclaim.
“To be successful you have to have a great product, and we believe we do. However, you cannot come up here and be a gentleman farmer, even with a great wine. You have get out there and promote your product. You cannot be successful by people coming to you,” he said.
Colhoun said only about 10 percent to 20 percent of the people who get into his style of winemaking make a profit. “The wine business is different from any other business,” he said.
The Colhouns focus on selling their wine to people “who want something extraordinary in quality. The way we want to position our wine we cannot cut corners in terms of the vineyards and people who supply us with fruit.”
For example, Landmark uses only French oak barrels. “With the imbalance between the values of the euro and the dollar, it costs us $1,000 per barrel for French oak when American oak is only $500. But, if you are going to be in the ultra premium world, you have to walk the walk, not just talk the talk,” he said.
Landmark purchases Chardonnay grapes from as many as 28 different vineyards. Most (23) are Chardonnay vineyards. The remainder yield grapes for the winery's Syrah and Pinot Noir, Landmark's newest wines.
Head winemaker Stern said getting grapes from so many vineyards is Landmark's way of hedging its bet.
“The vineyards we deal with year after year provide consistent, high quality grapes. However, by dealing with more than two dozen growers, if one has a bad year for weather reasons or whatever, it would represent only about 4 percent to 5 percent of our crush,” said Stern.
Landmark crushes only about 500 tons per year. It is all hand picked and delivered to the Sonoma Valley winery in 1,000-pound bins.
“As a winery, we are in the enviable position of not having to put inferior grapes into a bottle of Landmark wine. If it is not what we want to sell, we put it on the bulk market,” said Stern.
Most all of Landmark's grapes for its flagship Chardonnay wines are from Sonoma County, primarily from four appellations — Sonoma Valley, Carneros, Sonoma Coast, and Russian River.
Landmark buys small lots of Chardonnay from vineyards in Monterey and Santa Barbara counties. Its Pinot Noir grapes are mostly from the Sonoma Coast with a small lot from Santa Barbara County. The Syrah is all from Sonoma Valley.
Stern and his assistant winemaker Greg Stach visit all the vineyards throughout the summer monitoring progress, tasting the grapes and suggesting vineyard management practices.
“We really like dealing with real professionals. They are way ahead in anticipating what needs to be done in the vineyard to ensure quality and doing it. It is much easier than dealing with growers who do not have the technical background or years of experience in managing grapes,” he said.
“We do not have to dictate how to produce great quality grapes; most of the growers we deal with have been doing it for years,” said Colhoun, who has contracts with all of Landmark's growers. Most are evergreen contracts.
Like any business, there are those who stand out as grape growers. “It is really a small, coffee shop world up here. As we listen to different winemakers and taste a lot of different wines, you learn who is among the elite growers here,” said Colhoun, who pays a 20 percent premium for grapes over recommended North Coast prices.
“A lot of times vineyards are looking at us as hard as we look at them. They want to know what does our label bring to their grapes?” he said.
Both Stern and Stach are California State University, Fresno enology graduates.
“I took a few viticulture courses in college, but most of what I learned about viticulture I learned over the past 20 years in the vineyards,” said Stern. “Viticulture is more complex than enology.
“I have learned that good grapes make good wine. Perfectly balanced fruit from a vineyard means you do not have to do much in the cellar, and that is preferable.”
Grape growing techniques continue to evolve with new technology like drip irrigation, narrower rows and vine spacing and ever changing trellising systems.
Stern said the biggest change he has seen in his 20 years on the North Coast is the matching of varietals with soils and locations.
In the 1970s and into the 1980s there was little consideration for matching environment with varieties.
“People would buy 20 acres and decide they wanted to make several wines so they would put in five acres of Cabernet, five of Merlot, five of Riesling, and five of Chenin blanc without regard to whether the area would produce quality grapes for the wines they wanted to make.”
Stern said winemakers and viticulturists know much more today about matching location with variety, “but we still have a ways to go. The European model is 1,000 years old. We have been at it a little over 100 years,” he added. “Having said that, we definitely do much better matching soils and locations to varietals.”
Landmark is ranked among the elite on the North Coast. Colhoun said the challenge is to stay there by maintaining quality and tweaking a good thing.
“The big thing is to add new vineyard designates on the label to give people something new,” said Colhoun.
Twenty percent of Landmark's sales are via its tasting room and wine club, and the Colhouns are working to increase that. “We think it can be 30 percent to 40 percent.”
Another way to increase sales is to take the tasting room to the consumers.
Landmark has joined with eight other North Coast wineries to open a wine tasting room called the Press Club in the Four Seasons Hotel in San Francisco.
“It is a great opportunity for us. It will increase our exposure with the wine drinking world that comes to San Francisco, but never make it to wine country. Studies have shown 60 percent of the people who visit San Francisco plan to make a visit to wine country, but never make it. So we are opening an urban tasting room for them,” he said.
Landmark sells every Chardonnay vintage, but Colhoun does not plan to expand production. “I do not want to lose the quality aspect of what we are doing and getting bigger might do that. I do not want to make us generic,” he explained. “I think we are in a good economic environment for doing what we are doing.”
“The premium and ultra premium markets are expanding. The young millennium group is drinking wine. Younger men are drinking more wine than beer. It is an exciting business we are in, and we must continue to market to the up-and-coming group with quality.”
Stern is enthused that the 2007 crop will fit that goal.
“I tasted these 2007 wines as grapes in the vineyard, as juice and now in the malo-lactic fermentation process. What I have noticed is a broad pattern of Chardonnay wines evolving very dramatically in richness and complexity. In many ways they are more intriguing than any recent vintages, and we have had a string of good vintages.
“I think the 2007 Chardonnay is going to be extraordinary. I am excited about so many good wines. The 2007 blends will have a lot of good elements” said the veteran enologist.
Mike Colhoun brought no viticulture or winery experience to Landmark, but he did bring an open mind and that is how he and his wife Mary have positioned Landmark wines as some of the top wines in the nation.
The Landmark Vineyards tractor/mailbox says Deere and the mail in the box also says Deere.
Greg Stach, assistant winemaker, left, and Eric Stern, head winemaker, stand in a newly planted Rhone variety vineyard at Landmark.
It is a competitive, rarified world on the North Coast where there is a winery tasting room around every bend.
Wines produced by Eric Stern, left, and Greg Stach, have won many accolades and scored high in many wine judgings.
Greg Stach examines the new Rhone variety vines planted at Landmark.
Eric Stern has been a winemaker on the North Coast for 20 years, 18 at Landmark.