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Alderbrook Vineyard & Winery - Dry Creek - Sonoma


There are certain corners of the world where natural beauty seems to inspire greatness

There are certain corners of the world where natural beauty seems to inspire greatness. One such enclave is the Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma County, California, home to award-winning Alderbrook Vineyard & Winery and 20+ other noteworthy wineries.

Located just west of Healdsburg, between Dry Creek and the Russian River, Alderbrook’s vineyards meander over 63 acres of rolling hills in one of the world’s most desirable viticultural areas. For more than a century, winemakers have recognized that the valley’s deep alluvial soil, and outstanding growing climate were ideal for producing distinctive varietal grapes. This blend of rich land and cool moist climate attracted partners John Grace, Phil Staley, and Mark Rafanelli to an historic ranch and prune orchard where they founded Alderbrook Vineyards & Winery in 1981. The three men set about converting the old prune orchard into a 55-acre vineyard planted to Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Chardonnay and Muscat Blanc. Staley, a former dentist, took over the winemaking duties and cultivated a style that was recognized by its straightforward varietal fruit and subtle oak. For the next ten years, the emphasis was strictly on developing Alderbrook’s line of estate white wines. The wines achieved a considerable following, won hundreds of awards, and consistently drew crowds to the winery’s tasting room.

In 1991, Alderbrook came to the attention of George Gillemot, a private investor and founder of Communications Technology (an international telecommunications equipment company) based in Los Angeles. George had sold his telecommunications company seven years earlier and he and his wife Dorothy were considering various investment opportunities to liven up their retirement years. Seeing vineyard ownership as a promising long term investment and a relaxed lifestyle, George made Rafanelli an offer. He proposed to purchase the land and winery and then lease the winery back to Rafanelli and his partners. After some deliberation the trio accepted. The arrangement lasted until 1994 when economic and personal considerations led the original owners to relinquish the winery operation.

Gillemot found himself faced with a tough decision: take over the challenge and expense of running a winery or sell the entire operation to the highest bidder. He decided to take on the challenge. Realizing that he had no specific experience with winery operations, his first order of business was putting together a top-notch team of experienced vintners, managers and assistants to keep the winery on track.

George then turned his attention to the winery’s equipment, facilities and vineyards. The tasting room, housed in a beautiful redwood barn (originally used for drying prunes), got a much-needed face-lift and new storage and processing facilities were added. George’s plan was to take annual production from 25,000 cases to eventually 150,000 cases and beyond. To do that, the winemaking team realized that they would need to expand their line of award winning white wines to include reds. In keeping with that goal, in 1995, George purchased an adjacent property that added 10 acres to the original 55-acre holdings. This new property was planted entirely to Zinfandel. Long term grape-buying contracts were also initiated, to bring in top quality Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Pinot Noir from nearby growers in Sonoma and Russian River areas.

The shift in strategy paid quick dividends. Almost immediately, Alderbrook red wines began earning top honors at the major wine industry competitions. Now, five years and literally hundreds of awards later, all four red varietals continue to play important roles in the winery’s success.

In late 1999, Alderbrook Winery began a new chapter in its 20-year history, as George suddenly decided to sell the operation. “I’ve taken the winery to a nice level and now it’s time to do some other things,” George tells us. Recognizing the value inherent in the Alderbrook operation, a group of seven investors formed a partnership that purchased the winery in September of last year. The new partnership includes brothers Bruce and David Myers, brothers Tom and Perry Charter, Court King, Clay Shannon and Alen Darr. Several partners already own vineyard land in northern California and others are involved in California Family Foods, a company that specializes in rice production.

“We were looking to diversify a bit,” reveals partner Bruce Myers. “And with Alderbrook we were simply in the right place at the right time,” he states. The new owners plan to gradually increase production over the next 3 to 5 years, concentrating primarily on four principal wines, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel. Other important specialty wines but in smaller quantities include, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Viognier, a Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc, a Port, a Reserve Chardonnay and Reserve Zinfandel.

Running the show on a day-to-day basis are three Managing Directors who were all brought in while George Gillemot was still the owner. Robert Weinstock, is in charge of National Sales & Vineyard Operations; Catherine Eyler, heads up the Marketing & Public Relations; and Kristi Koford is responsible for all of the winemaking.

This should be an exciting phase for the new Alderbrook Winery. Already running on all cylinders with an impressive collection of award-winning wines and industry-savvy management, the leadership and resources the new owners bring to the table will certainly help kick the operation into an even higher gear.



Kristi Koford - ‘It’s all about the fruit”

‘It’s all about the fruit,” says winemaker Kristi Koford when asked to comment on this month’s featured Gold Medal-winning 1997 Pinot Noir. ‘If you start with high quality Pinot Noir fruit, it really doesn’t need much help along the way—it virtually makes itself,” she adds. We’re not entirely sure how true that statement is, but what we do know for sure is that Kristi’s first-ever Pinot Noir is a true gem. ‘I was pleasantly surprised by the great reviews on the 1997 Sauvignon Blanc too,” reveals Kristi, acknowledging that Sauvignon Blanc is tough to get noticed because there are many different producers and many styles.

Good fruit, good equipment and solid winemaking skills—these are the ingredients that fuel the success of Alderbrook wines. Kristi is quick to point out though that the term winemaker means everyone whose collective job is to preserve the essence of the fruit from the vine to the bottle. And while there is definitely technique involved, more importantly there is attitude, caring about each other and the wines, creating an environment where good things happen and positive energy is imparted. That too, is an ingredient in every bottle of Alderbrook wine.

Perhaps all that positive thinking is a direct result of Kristi’s diverse childhood experiences. As a child she lived in a half-dozen different countries throughout the world. Her father was a well-respected field zoologist who was hired by various governments and universities in a number of different countries. By the time Kristi was 14 years old she and her family had lived in Peru, Panama, Puerto Rico, East Africa, Japan & Australia. In each locale Kristi found a different set of challenges to conquer, not only fitting into school and learning different languages but also leaving friends behind and starting new friendships. It was during these formative years that she learned a valuable life lesson—attitude is everything.

‘It was a great way to grow up,” Kristi recalls. In fact, she was set to follow in her father’s footsteps and enrolled in college at Santa Cruz to study biology and zoology. But she soon realized that a career in field zoology was drastically changing from, being out there in the field, to more of a lab and academic environment.

Interested in studying microorganisms, her path turned to a University sponsored program that was pioneering a process to cultivate shitake mushrooms for domestic consumption. The mushroom-growing facility for the project happened to be located on a nearby 200-acre vineyard property. ‘I ended up working at the vineyard for a while, originally just for fun,” Kristi says. ‘But the whole environment struck a chord with me so I stayed with it,” she say smiling.

Looking for opportunities that would combine her biology and vineyard interest, she landed a job at Mondavi as a microbiologist, working in the lab. There she became interested in enology and worked her way up to a Senior Enologist position. In 1984, after 10 years at Mondavi, Kristi took time off to start a family, then re-entered the workplace 4 years later.

Kristi easily landed a job at a start-up winery St Supery in Napa. Over-qualified but anxious to restart her wine industry career, she was hired initially as a lab technician. Within two months she was promoted to Assistant Winemaker and remained with St. Supery for 9 years. ‘I learned the technical side of the business at Mondavi,” Kristi says. ‘At St. Supery it was learning the management of winemaking, the people, time, and equipment side of things.” After almost a decade in the same role and aspiring to become a full-fledged winemaker, Kristi was ready to move on.

In 1997, Kristi was hired by Alderbrook Winery as an interim consultant while they looked for someone to fill the recently vacated Winemaker position. Impressed by her knowledge and skills, Kristi was hired as full-time winemaker after just 1 month’s on the job.

In the span of three short years, Kristi has made quite a splash as Alderbrook’s winemaker. She has overall responsibility for crafting the winery’s dozen different wines, and has done so in an impressive fashion. Her wines have literally earned hundreds of awards and high ratings from competitions and critics throughout the country. Her goal is simple, yet precise—‘I want to make the best wines I can, wines that are complex, balanced and layered,” she states. When you taste her 1997 Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc, you’ll agree that she is doing just that.

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