A Goose in Philo.

Toulouse wines sport a stately goose on their labels. A hilarious goose illustration on the sign at the end of the driveway just north of Philo in Anderson Valley is a conversation starter in the tasting room at Toulouse Vineyards. Down home and friendly with a classy sophistication describes both the people and the wine at Toulouse. A sense of humor underlies it all.

“Too tense?” reads the sign (and the t-shirt) with the silly goose. “Toulouse” (pronounced too loose) is the answer.

A meandering driveway off Highway 128 in Anderson Valley leads to the crush pad where fermentation bins are ready for the impending harvest. To the northeast vines carpet the hillside in all their ripening verdant glory. An olive orchard borders the two story barn tasting room, winery and residence of the owners, Vern and Maxine Boltz.

In the parking lot, a wiggling Tess, the resident yellow lab, greets visitors and is known as “the sheriff” because she checks everyone out. She is joined by Emme, a sprightly Havanese dog, whose title is “in charge of fun and games.” “We are a dog friendly winery,” says Vern. There is also a “tuxedo” cat named Kitty and a 30-year-old parrot named Fritz in the family..

As I arrive Vern is loading some equipment in a neighbor’s pickup. Inside the wide open doors of the barn he built, Vern joins his wife Maxine and winemaking assistant Rita Goforth Vodopals on a Sunday morning just before harvest to share their story and wine at the tasting bar.

Twelve years ago when Vern retired from the Oakland Fire Department he decided to move to the country. He bought the 160-acre ranch just around the bend from downtown Philo and has since added another 160 acres. “I planted twenty acres in Pinot Noir and one in Riesling.” At the time he planned to only sell his grapes.

Maxine, who was a flight attendant for United Airlines for twenty-five years and then in real estate in the Bay Area, commuted back and forth until 2003. When struck with breast cancer she moved to the ranch full time to recover. Now an integral fulltime part of the winery, which they started in 2005, Maxine “carries the pitchfork,” teases Vern.

“Vern is the dreamer,” responds Maxine. “I never know what to expect when he says, ‘you know what I want to do next?’” For now Vern is the winemaker and bottling line boss. A part time contractor during his fire fighter years, Vern is in demand for remodeling the upstairs living quarters as well as fence mending and winery alterations. “Vern does it all,” says Maxine. But not alone. In addition to Maxine and Vodopals, he is assisted by vineyard manager Hernan Lopez and office manager Denise Morse.

“In 2002, when our first crop was ready to harvest commercially,” says Vern, “the grape market was down, so we started making wine.” He and Maxine wanted to put an animal on the label. “We liked the names Duckhorn and Frog’s Leap,” Vern explains. When they came upon the idea of a goose which no other winery had as a logo, it stuck. Then they learned about the classic big gray breed known as the Toulouse goose

Vern and Maxine have fun with name Toulouse depending upon how you pronounce it, as in “what have we got Toulouse (to lose)? Or “you drink too much and you get Toulouse.” It didn’t take long to adopt “Too tense? Toulouse” as a motto. Spinning off the name makes Maxine laugh, “we’re like Toulouse Boltz.” (Where’s William Safire when I need him…) They keep a copy of renowned journalist and essayist Mort Rosenblum’s book “A Goose in Toulouse and Other Culinary Adventures in France” in the tasting room.

“We’re a little winery but we have a great time,” says assistant winemaker, chief bottle washer, tasting room pourer and “adopted daughter” Vodopals. She was born and raised on the Mendocino Coast and now lives nearby in Anderson Valley. With her infectiously gleaming smile and enthusiastic personality, she’s the perfect fit for Toulouse.

At the tasting bar made from a plank set on wine barrels, it’s easy to figure out why the wines are such winners. The first vintage, a 2002 Toulouse Pinot Noir, made the San Francisco Chronicle’s list of the top 100 wines for 2005. Toulouse Pinot Noir has received 91 points in both Wine News and the Wine Spectator and been named among the “worlds 30 best Pinot Noirs” by Food and Wine magazine.

In 2005, the Boltzes added a rose of Pinot Noir. A couple of years later they made Riesling from their estate grown grapes and in 2008 added Gewurztraminer, grown at Valley Foothills Vineyard and Pinot Gris from Corby Vineyard, both in Anderson Valley. Occasionally, they also make Cabernet Sauvignon.

“These wines are great with all kinds of food flavors,” says Maxine. Mendocino coast chef Dory Kwan has created recipes and menus to go with Toulouse wines. As I take a sip of the Pinot Gris Maxine describes what to eat when you perceive sweetness in a wine. “Have something that is seasoned with a little lemon or lime. You want the food to be slightly less sweet and acidic than the wine,” she explains. One favorite with the Pinot Gris as well as with the Gewurztraminer is Kwan’s cole slaw with roasted peanuts and nuoc cham, a Vietnamese sauce that combines salty fish sauce with sweet syrup, lime juice, garlic and chilies.

Most of the grapes raised at Toulouse Vineyards are sold to such wineries as MacPhail Winery in Sonoma County and Phillips Hill in Philo. Toulouse makes about 3300 cases, most of which are sold in the tasting room. Toulouse wines are also found at Sip! Mendocino in Hopland, Patrona’s in Ukiah, Harvest Market in Mendocino and Fort Bragg and the Albion Market, as well as at major wine shops in San Francisco.

Anytime the “Too Tense Toulouse” silly goose sign is at the open gate on Highway 128 the tasting room is open. Bring a picnic. Borrow the book and sit at the picnic table reading about French food from “A Goose in Toulouse”.

With a goose as a logo, two welcoming canines, such delightful folks in the winery and among the most delicious, well balanced, fruit forward Pinot Noir, Rose, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer to accompany your picnic fare, within minutes you will feel you too are adopted into the family. What have you got Toulouse?

TASTING NOTES: Roasted new potatoes and grilled garlicky locally raised lamb chops accompanied the 2007 Toulouse Pinot Noir in the most delicious symbiotic way. I’d also love goose or even duck with the ripe lush fruit-filled flavors of Toulouse’s Pinot Noir.

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