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Alderbrook Vineyard & Winery

Sonoma County region

Alderbrook’s new reds are already earning top honors at the major wine industry competitions

“Why?” “Who says it has to be done this way?” “Has anyone tried it this way?” “It will probably work better if . . .” You can almost hear David Coleman’s brain churning away, questioning, testing the conventional wisdom, wanting to find another way. Such is the case with Sonoma County’s fast rising Alderbrook Winery. A year ago the Gold Wine Club featured Alderbrook’s Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, which turned out to be one of the most popular selections of 1996. The winery’s 1995 Merlot is one of the best of that varietal we’ve come across in years and definitely worthy of a Platinum Wine Club selection.

Located just west of Healdsburg, between Dry Creek Valley and the Russian River Valley, 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 whites. 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. One of the first wine-industry veterans to join the team was General Manager John McClelland who brought over 25 years of winery experience and valuable connections to some of the area’s best growers. Next came winemaker Bob Cabral. Bob is a native Californian, born in Fresno, who at the age of 18 enrolled in the enology program at California State University, Fresno. After graduating in 1984, his first job was with Vie-Del Company in Kingsburg, where he filled the position of Assistant Winemaker/Chemist. He then went on to become the Associate Winemaker at DeLoach Vineyards in 1990 and the Crush Winemaker and Assistant Winemaker for the Kunde Estate Winery in Kenwood.

With the two key players in position, George 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 need 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 with Zinfandel and buying programs were established to bring in top Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Pinot Noir from nearby growers in Sonoma and Russian River Areas. The early results of Alderbrook’s new reds are already earning top honors at the major wine industry competitions. However most, including the 1995 Merlot featured in this offering, are being made in very small quantities to date.

Featured Wines

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

Picture of 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. Supéry 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. Supéry for 9 years. ‘I learned the technical side of the business at Mondavi,” Kristi says. ‘At St. Supéry 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.

George & Dorothy Gillemot

Picture of George & Dorothy Gillemot

To some, owning a vineyard and winery is a labor of love, to others it’s a savvy investment. For George Gillemot, it was all of the above, plus an opportunity to live and work in one of the most picturesque spots in the world.

To understand how an engineer and telecommunications mogul ends up owning a backroad winery, it helps to understand the ‘can do” attitude that has been passed down from one Gillemot generation to the next. It started with George’s father who grew up in Budapest, Hungry during World War I. Wounded in a battle, he was taken to a prison camp in Siberia where he faced certain death from overwork and starvation. Yet the resourceful elder Gillemot convinced his captures that he was a cook (despite never having actually been one). Working in the kitchen he managed to survive the war and eventually immigrated to New York, where he bought a motorcycle and headed west to seek his fame and fortune in California.

It was in Santa Monica, California that George Gillemot was born, raised and educated. He graduated from UCLA with a degree in Business Administration and later with an MBA. During World War II, George enlisted as a Navy Pilot and was stationed in Alameda, Norfolk and eventually at Barber’s Point in Hawaii. Discharged in 1945, George soon met Dorothy, and the two were married in 1946. It was at this time that he got a job working for a telephone company in Santa Monica, known then as the Associated Telephone Company (it would later become GTE). For 18 years George worked his way up the corporate ladder, finally becoming a Methods Engineer who specialized in solving system problems. In 1974 he came up with a unique closing device for covering spliced cables. After GTE refused to patent the invention, George took his idea and started his own company. During the next ten years, the company, Communications Technology, grew into a large international telecommunications equipment manufacturer.

In 1984, ‘I was made an offer to sell the company that I couldn’t refuse,” George says. He and Dorothy took the proceeds from the sale and tried the leisure life of retirement. They purchased a home near Lake Tahoe, traveled, and dabbled in a variety of investments. Then in 1991, a conversation with neighbor Mark Rafanelli led George in a new direction. It turned out that Rafanelli was a partner in the Alderbrook Vineyard & Winery and that he and the other owners were considering the possibility of selling their property. The thought of living and working in the warmth and beauty of Sonoma County was appealing to George and the investment opportunities also held considerable allure. After a bit of negotiation, George purchased the vineyard and winery but decided to lease back the winemaking operation to the original partners. The arrangement held up until 1994 when a variety of troubles forced the original partners to abandon the winery. George, whose only related winery experience had been as an investor in Schramsberg Winery back in 1975, knew it would be foolish to tackle the challenge without expert help. He developed a strategy that put together a top flight team of seasoned pros to run the operation for him. By recruiting experts like winemaker Bob Cabral and General Manager John McClelland, George made a real commitment to building Alderbrook into a world class winery.

In recent years George has built upon his commitment to excellence by financing new production and barrel storage facilities, upgrading the winery’s cooperage program and expanding the hospitality and office spaces. ‘The sky’s the limit,” says George when asked about the winery’s future. ‘I would like to someday produce 150,000 cases a year- whites and reds. The plan is not so much about quantity but rather to consistently produce quality wines that everyone can enjoy,” he adds. So far the Alderbrook wines have captured more than 200 medals and have gained wide acceptance throughout the States and in much of Europe.

Today George and his wife Dorothy ( who serves as the vineyard and winery’s controller) divide their time between their Tahoe home and their cottage at the vineyard. ‘Nothing is finer after putting in a full day than relaxing in the evening, enjoying the spa, the beautiful scenery and a glass of our Chardonnay”, says George. It sounds like a recipe for a long and happy life to us. We wish George, Dorothy and the team at Alderbrook plenty of future success.