All Pinot Noir.
Phillips Hill Estates’ tasting room, located between Lemon’s Market and Libby’s Restaurant, in downtown Philo has a charming allure. Stepping inside is worth the stop. The former real estate office with the blooming clematis covered porch has been transformed by winemaker-proprietor Toby Hill into an artisan’s den that is perfect for tasting his vineyard designated Pinot Noir wines.
Hill, who is tall, lanky with tousled sandy hair, boyish good looks and a most genial composure, mans the tasting bar seven days a week. Framed prints of his wine labels, created from his own abstract lithographs and drawings, adorn the walls. Wine barrel end tables, a row of connected wooden church hall chairs and comfy rattan stools are the only furniture in the muted yellow rooms with painted wainscot ceiling.
“People say ‘wow’ when they come in and find I only have Pinot Noir,” says Hill, standing behind a row of wine bottles lined up on the low redwood slab tasting bar. Actually he also makes a little Pinot Noir rose and Gewurztraminer to whet your palate but the main focus is Pinot Noir, each made from a specific vineyard in Anderson Valley or Comptche.
When a loyal customer from Anderson Valley walks in with friends from out of town, Hill is delighted to share his story and guide everyone through a tasting. He starts the tasting flight with wine from the vineyard that began his involvement in the wine business seven years ago. “Surprise Valley, a few miles west of Comptche, is a secret little find,” he says pouring the 2006 Phillips Hill Mendocino Pinot Noir from Oppenlander Vineyards.
Hill describes the scene at Oppenlander, owned by Bill and Norman Shandel, whose family has had the property since the 1860s. The first thing you see when you get to the ranch is a rusty tow truck and next to it and piled here and there between the barn and the vines are old cars and engines and steel chassis with corroded paint.
Clearly smitten with his grape source, Hill conveys enthusiasm in his passionate discourse as everyone inhales the fragrant nose of the wine raised on what the Shandels call Vineyard Knoll. The well tended vines are less than 10 miles from the village of Mendocino.
Hill’s journey to winemaker involved an innate sense of taste, serendipity and being open to what was dealt his way. Born in San Francisco Hill was raised in Manhattan and returned to the Bay Area to go to California College of Arts and Crafts. He went back to New York where he lived the life of a successful artist. Returning to San Francisco in 1989, he had a studio in the emerging Hunters Point artist’s enclave. One weekend he went for a visit to Mendocino County to visit his best friend from high school at his family’s place in Comptche.
“I immediately thought it would be nice to have a place up here in the country,” he says. It wasn’t long before he found thirty acres on Greenwood Ridge. Drawn to the property he decided to build a barn with a two-story artist’s studio and spent more time there than in San Francisco. He packed up and moved. At the time, in addition to his art, Hill had a business in which he was one of two people in the United States who distributed an Italian line of Venetian plaster. “I created narchitectural colors and imported wet plaster for the hand troweled designs,” he says. He brought the “high end boutique business” to Ukiah when he moved to Mendocino County.
“As an artist I fell in love with the medium,” he says and used the architectural plaster to do paintings and drawings in his new studio. Then in 2001 he was offered four barrels of unfinished Pinot Noir wine. Before he had time to reconsider they were rolled down his driveway. “If anyone would have asked if I would become a winemaker ten years ago I would have said they were crazy,” he remembers. Here was someone born in San Francisco and raised in Manhatttan, an urban artist with a successful import business. “It’s great how life just evolves its own way,” he says reflectively.
His wine benefactor was John Pepe, a winemaking consultant from Santa Rosa, who shared expertise for the first couple of years. Hill made 100 cases from those first four barrels in 2002. Each year production doubled and is now is up to 1100 cases. He renovated his art studio into a winery and now his art is focused primarily on Pinot Noir. In addition to a couple of vintages from Oppenlander Vineyard, Hill makes Pinot Noir from Vern and Maxine Boltz’s Toulouse Vineyard in northern Anderson Valley, Corby Vineyard on the east side of the Navarro River, and Marguerite Vineyard on Holmes Ranch in Anderson Valley.
Hill named his winery for his grandmother, whose maiden name was Phillips. For the last seven years he has immersed himself into the wine business. “Making the first 100 cases didn’t take a lot of effort,” he says but then he was committed. Until he built his own winery, he custom-crushed at Milano in Hopland. When sommelier Mark Bowery tasted his first release of Phillips Hill Pinot Noir he immediately put it on the wine by the glass menu at high end restaurants on the Mendocino Coast.
From Hill’s paintings, drawings and lithographs, graphic artist, Ukiah’s poet laureate and long time Mendocino County resident Theresa Whitehill finishes the layout for each new wine label. She integrates “Phillips Hill” in script into the eye-catching original swirls, shapes and splotches along with the name of the vineyard as well as the vintage and “Mendocino”. Whitehill also writes the copy for the back labels as well as the poetic stories about Hill and the wines on his website.
“Wine is an art form,” says Hill. His labels are inspired by the character of each wine. He describes running the tasting room as like having an open studio every day. At ease sharing his art with people who walk in, Hill was fortunate when it came to finding a location on Highway 128.
“Another stroke of luck came when I put the word out that I was looking for a tasting room,” says Hill. The Philo real estate office became vacant and he knew someone who was related to the owner and got the lease. He located a bar on Craig’s list and then he found the redwood slab at Artisan Burl Wood on Ashby Avenue in Berkeley. He hired Carlon Cathey to help out as tasting room manager, fill wine orders and deal with the inventory and website.
“It’s great to showcase these four vineyards and be part of a little known region growing amazingly full bodied grapes. And I love the story of Comptche,” Hill tells the folks going through his flight of intensely bright and delicious Pinot Noirs.
Comparing the 2006 and 2007 vintages of Phillips Hill Pinot Noir from Comptche’s Oppenlander Vineyard, one of the tasters swirls and inhales the aroma and says, “the nose of the ’07 is a little shyer than the ‘06.” It’s younger and hasn’t been in the bottle as long as the ’06,” explains Hill. As they complete their tasting and purchase wine to take home I am reminded of the last couple of lines on Philips Hill Estates’ website from a piece entitled “A Logic of Old Cars” written by Whitehill in the spring of 2005.
“It’s a logic of old cars, an artist who doesn’t know how to stop merging elements of his own life with what he’s found in his path.. . . And it’s a righteous glass of Pinot Noir.”