High on a Mountaintop.
One of the best little wineries you probably never heard of sits 1600 feet on a south facing ridge above Anderson Valley. Part of the old Rickert sheep ranch belongs to Lyn and Chris Demuth (pronounced dee-mooth). The Demuths purchased 185 acres of the ranch in 1972. In 1985 they planted four acres in chardonnay grapes on a “little knoll” with a bird’s eye view of the valley and not much above but the wide open sky. Six years later they planted 14 acres in pinot noir grapes.
Chris, who has a stylish goatee, gray hair around his freckled bald head and a degree in chemistry, retired from Bechtel Group where he was a mechanical engineer. Lyn, who is a Crescent City native, developed her palate with four years of classes at Cordon Bleu in Paris. While Chris, having taken all the courses at Santa Rosa Junior College, is the designated winemaker, both could qualify since this is a true mom and pop team effort. Demuth’s professor Rich Thomas helped developed their vineyard.
In the beginning they sold their grapes to Kendall Jackson. When chardonnay became hard to sell they started making wine. In 1987 they poured the foundation for the functional tasting room/winery, which they painted brick red. A magnificent maple tree shades the crush pad and majestic oaks and madrones dot the hilltop. An inviting picnic table is the place to catch the breathtaking view all the way across and down into Anderson Valley.
The Demuths make the wine, and do their own marketing, selling and distributing. “We know our customers face to face,” says Chris. He and Lyn comb the restaurant critic sections of Bay Area Newspapers like the San Jose Mercury News looking for the finest restaurants and “then go out calling.”
“My wife says I don’t take rejection well,” laughs Chris, adding they want to be in the best places and they are doing very well. You can find Demuth Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in such luminaries as One Market and Jardiniere in San Francisco, Viognier in San Mateo, Marche in Menlo Park, the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur and Draegers Markets, which was recently named “National Wine and Spirits Retailer of the Year” by the editors of the Wine Spectator and Market Watch magazines.
Dressed in khaki pants, white shirt, and tennis shoes, Chris shows me around. At the crush pad, he describes how he and Lyn take the grapes from their small picking bins and get them into the destemming machine. “My wife stands on what looks like a trapeze as she rakes the grapes into the destemmer, which breaks up but doesn’t mangle the berries,” he explains. He harvests the grapes in the morning when the temperature is between 45 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Then the grapes are cold soaked for six days. Lyn punches them down three or four times every day.
Next they use a bladder press on the whole clusters and do a light pressing. “We want the fresh juice aroma and flavor,” he says. After pressing the juice is pumped into a stainless tank to settle and moved to a new bin. I ask about the motor I can hear running. It is on the air conditioner, which keeps the temperature controlled. “Heat is a byproduct of fermentation,” Chris explains. When it gets warm enough to send out aromas like you’d smell when a rib roast is cooking, Chris drops the temperature to “put the aromas back into the wine.”
The two best things to know about making fine wine, he tells me, is to start with the best fruit and keep everything clean. “We use no chlorine anywhere in the winery,” he says.
The vineyards are almost all organic and they are fish friendly and sustainable—which are more important than a piece of paper certification, he says. Chris challenges anyone to come and see “our butterflies and worms and frogs.”
Demuth winery is open to the public most Saturdays and Sundays, but the Demuths ask visitors to call first. They will also open if people want to bring a group up during the week. When I was there a young couple from Hayward had made their way up the steep mountain. They met the Demuths at a wine tasting event at Draegers and were on a day trip making the rounds of three Anderson Valley wineries.
The conversation turned to screw caps versus corks. Demuth told them he’s not a screw cap fan. It’s not that he’s against them, but it’s a problem to put them on bottles and costly to adjust their bottling machine. He said that his supplier of corks was told to clean them up to reduce the corkiness that affects about seven percent of wine. Now, he says the corks are working much better, and he hasn’t had corked wine. If by chance someone gets a corked bottle, he’ll replace it. The visiting couple, who were originally from the Ukraine, love wine and go on blogs to learn more. They buy a couple of cases before heading home to their dogs which they didn’t want to leave overnight
The Demuth’s motto labore ad metam means “work to your goal.” It’s on their label and it describes their ethic. “If you get into winemaking you gotta’ be prepared to hang around,” says Chris. He and Lyn have been at this from 1974 until now. “Our dreams have been fulfilled,” he says with a satisfied sigh. They make 1000 cases of wine and sell it for the same price they have since 2002. Demuth Chardonnay is $32 and Demuth Pinot Noir retails for $40. Lyn occasionally puts on cooking demos to match their wines.
“We don’t score high with Parker and Laube (esteemed wine reviewers) but restaurants like our chardonnay,” Chris says with pride. In addition to their website, Demuth wines can be found locally at Patrona, the Boonville Hotel, Cafe Beaujolais, Ledford House, Albion River Inn, the Mendocino Hotel and Rendezvous Restaurant.
The Demuths also participate in Mendocino Wine & Crab Days and at Winesong. When he was next to Napa Valley’s renowned Grigch Cellars at Winesong one year, “they said we never heard of you before,” remarks Chris. He answered, “We are at 1600 feet and under the radar, where it’s a lot of fun for us.”
TASTING NOTES: The 2004 Estate Bottled Anderson Valley Demuth Pinot Noir is a light colored packed-with-flavor wine with a lovely berry aroma. It has the balance of oak without any bitterness and a full lingering finish. Perfect with melt in your mouth Texas style barbecued beef and freshly picked potatoes in a French vinaigrette.