Mike and Mary Colhoun of Landmark Vineyards in Sonoma Valley have added a new dimension to making lemonade out of lemons.
They are turning a phylloxera-susceptible, less than desirable quality Chardonnay vineyard into an ingenious wine marketing idea that ties wine drinkers to the vine like no one else.
It is common for investors to join together to finance a vineyard or vintage, but the Colhouns have gone far beyond that in selling vineyard rows like timeshares to make personalized wine.
And they are doing it with a collection of varietals imported from the Rhone Valley of France. Landmark has made its mark with Chardonnay wines. The winery, since the early 1990s, had been surrounded by about 11 acres of Chardonnay.
Unfortunately, early on, winemaker Eric Stern and the Colhouns realized it was not an ideal site for Chardonnay.
“From 1991 to 1996 we made some reasonable quality wines. Some years were better than others,” said Stern. “It is simply too warm here for premium Chardonnay.”
The vines on AXR1 rootstock were nursed along until the phylloxera scare hit the North Coast when it was discovered that the rootstock was not resistant to phylloxera.
To Stern's delight, the Landmark Chardonnay vineyard was taken out. Even before it was pulled, Landmark was buying premium Chardonnay grapes from other vineyards. Now Landmark's award winning Chardonnay comes from 23 vineyards.
The Colhouns and winemakers Stern and Greg Stach decided to replace the Chardonnay with more suitable and increasingly popular Rhone varieties from Tablas Creek Vineyard in Paso Robles, which had imported selected Rhone varieties in partnership with Chateau de Beaucastel from France's Rhone Valley.
There are 22 grape varieties in the Rhone Valley, including the better-known Syrah and Viognier, as well as Mourvèdre, Grenache, and Roussanne, Counoise, Bourboulenc and Picpoul. Landmark has planted five, Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Counoise and Viognier, according to Colhoun.
They are planted in six-foot rows with vines 4.5 feet apart. They are trellised vertically and the irrigation systems are separated out in one-acre blocks for precise water control. Eventually, Stern said the block will be farmed organically, a growing marketing tool on the North Coast.
Grapes from about 100 of the 200 planted rows are being marketed via a clever program — Landmark's Friends of the Vineyard.
“What we are doing is selling individual rows to people and when the grapes are made into wine, the wine will be custom-labeled only for them,” said Colhoun.
So far Landmark has sold 50 rows with an initial fee of $2,000 per row and an annual maintenance fee of $500 per row per year.
On the end post of each purchased row is a brass plaque identifying the row owner and the varietal. An identical plaque is given the new row owner to hang in their office or wine cellar. The vines were planted this year and the first wine releases are not expected until 2010. Members of this exclusive vineyard row ownership will be able to purchase these estate Cote de Rhone style wines in limited quantities (5 cases) for $500 per case.
Each bottle will be labeled with the owner's name and packed in six-bottle numbered wooden cases. Along with the plaque and wine, row owners will receive:
Vineyard updates with photos.
Invitation to attend an exclusive Annual Friends of the Vineyard Gala.
Invitation to attend an On the Road Winery dinner hosted by the Colhouns.
Complimentary night stay in a guest suite on the vineyard/winery property.
Private reception in the winery's presidential tower.