Sonoma County region
Preston Rises Above The Crowd Of Ordinary Wineries
Like the two creeks that have carved an indelible path through the vineyards of Preston Winery insisting on finding their own way through the gravely terrain, so too has Lou Preston carved his own unique path with his approach to his wines and winery.
Lou and his wife Susan acquired their vineyard property in 1973. The original parcel was 85 acres comprised mostly of old prune and pear trees, with a few acres of old Zinfandel vines. They did not automatically run out and plant cash crops like Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Instead, they actively researched and sought after varietals they felt were suited to the specific growing conditions of their property.
The microclimate although unique, is generally consistent throughout the vineyard. The inland hot-air masses contribute to warm temperate days, which later converge with the cool nighttime offshore ocean breezes, producing ideal growing conditions. The real challenge to the Prestons was finding the right varietals which suited the climate conditions and the widely divergent soil types on the property. The seven or eight soil types range from hillside gravely-clay to rich valley bottom loams. This posed both a problem and an opportunity. On one hand they could not devote a large portion of the land to just one or two varietals, yet they had the potential ability to cultivate an unusually wide array of varietals on a single property.
Lou went through the obligatory viticultural courses at U.C. Davis. He also looked at what other vineyard owners in the area were doing, and listened to invaluable advice of the local old-time farmers. He quickly applied what he had learned, matching six varietals to the appropriate soil types: Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Chenin Blanc, Cabernet, Gamay, and more Zinfandel. Throughout the seventies the Prestons continued to fine tune the vineyard, planting and replanting different varietals trying to create the perfect match to the conditions. During these experimental years however, they remained steadfastly committed to Sauvignon Blanc and Zinfandel. These two varietals were perfect for the area and the Prestons continued to expand the plantings of those two varietals right from the start.
Looking for a varietal that would compliment Zinfandel, Lou became interested in Syrah, by means of a neighboring vineyard owner. In 1978 he decided to plant two different clones of the Syrah grape. Early success with this experiment compelled Lou to add more acreage of Syrah within the next few years. Then on a trip to France’s Rhone Valley in the mid 1980’s, he discovered it had virtually identical climate and soil conditions as his vineyard in the Dry Creek Valley, where his vineyard was located. This realization helped solidify his belief that there was great potential for growing Rhone varietals on his property.
Meanwhile, production output at the winery had climbed from an initial 1,000 cases to 4,000 cases, outgrowing the old prune dehydrator barn they were using as the winery. A bigger facility was completed in 1982 allowing Preston to ride the growing success of their Zinfandel and “Cuvée de Fumé” (Sauvignon Blanc) flagship wines. Production quickly exploded to 20,000 cases, due to these two wines.
As production increased each year through that explosive period, so did Lou’s efforts to find the right mix of varietals for his vineyard. A successful experiment with another Rhone varietal, Viognier, convinced him to finally make major changes in the winery’s varietal direction. “That was enough proof for me,” says Lou. “I knew a move into the Rhone varietals was the right thing to do.” In 1988 his increasing commitment in this direction led to new plantings of Marsanne, Grenache, Mourvedre, Cinsault, Carignane and Muscat Blanc.
The winery is now growing sixteen different varietals and making over a dozen different wines. Lou has taken full advantage of what could have been a problem to many other vintners. The property’s diverse soil composition, once a difficult challenge, has resulted in a wide selection of specialty varietals that have helped form the winery’s identity. It is a tribute to the Preston’s tenacity and boldness to carve their own path in the face of conventional wisdom.
Even with an increased number of varietals and wines, Lou plans to stay at the 18-20,000-case level for the foreseeable future. “We’re at a comfortable level right now,” says Lou. “We want to concentrate on what we are doing right now and maybe add a few Italian varietals eventually” he revealed.
Higher sales and increasing production is not how Lou Preston measures success. Yes, he likes to a make a little money with his endeavor, but what once started as a business venture has become more a way of life. “We don’t see ourselves as just a winery operation,” says Lou Preston. “We are developing an identity. We unconsciously created an independent lifestyle and work style. Home and hearth, friends and family, wine and food, vegetable, herb and flower gardens and lots of cats has become our way of life on the farm.” he expounds.
Lou Preston has indeed enveloped his personal beliefs, goals and lifestyle into the way he runs his winery. As an example, Lou switched to organic farming in the late 1980’s. “We live on the winery property,” he stated. I was concerned about my family’s and our employee’s health. Besides, repeated application of chemicals harms the soil and becomes less and less effective over time.”
Also in the late 1980’s Lou became fascinated with making bread. It started with a casual, unplanned visit at the winery by New York chef, restaurant owner and author, Evelyne Sloman. Evelyne was on the west coast promoting her new cookbook, “The Pizza Book.” Lou and Evelyne talked extensively about breads and pizzas and from that time on, Lou was an avid amateur bread maker. He even constructed a commercial kitchen inside the winery tasting room to facilitate his new found passion. Then, frustrated with the confines of the commercial oven, Lou built a larger “forno” oven, made of clay and stone, and heated by a wood burning fire. The delicious bread he bakes is not for sale, however winery visitors are treated to samples of bread he concocts on a daily basis. His breads have practically reached cult status in the area. “It rounds out our visitors’ experience at the winery,” he says.
The Preston property is also home to a small plot of olive trees—“a result of another hobby that has gotten out of control,” muses Lou. His wife is Italian and on their frequent trips to Italy, have brought back several varieties of olive trees to make their own olive oil. “Having our own olive oil is another extension of the simple food-and-wine connection Susan and I love,” he reveals.
Gold Medal Wine Club is extremely pleased to feature two wonderful hallmark wines from Preston Winery. Both the featured Zinfandel and Syrah are specialties of the winery. Zinfandel from day-one has been one of the winery’s most important wine. It is the traditional red grape of the Dry Creek Valley and has contributed significantly towards Preston Winery’s success. The Preston Zinfandels of today are made with grapes from the cuttings of the 80-100 year old vines on the property. “Each year as the vines get older, the wine gets better and better,” says Lou. “The old-clone Zins have more intensity and complexity,” he adds.
Syrah is gradually becoming a mainstream wine. Preston is among the finest producers of Syrah in California. Syrah is the grape that started Lou’s direction into the Rhone varietals. The Syrah clone that he originally planted in 1978 was brought to the U.S. from a viticultural research station in southern France. It is unique in the fact that it was never made available for general distribution in California–only one other vineyard has it. Maybe that is the secret to Preston’s perennial Gold Medal success with this wine. “The 91 vintage was a turning point,” says Lou. “Before, we blended it with many different blocks of Syrah, but the 91 was made entirely from a single block. It is ripe and soft, big and complex, and a comfortable contrast to the harsh Cabernets. It has immediate appeal and fits with many food preferences,” he says proudly.
Two Gold Medal wines from Preston Winery. Enjoy.
Kevin Hamel became winemaker for Preston Winery in 1989.
Kevin Hamel has been instrumental in developing the Rhone-wine program started in the late 1980s. So successful have the wines been, in 1993 Preston Winery was honored as one of Wine & Spirits magazines, ‘Estate Wineries of the Year.” This honor goes to top wine producers who are consistently making excellent wines.
Kevin grew up in northern California, in a large family of seven brothers and sisters. He and attended U.C. Davis in the mid 1970s, studying fermentation science and enology. He worked his way through school selling wine at Corti Bros. in Sacramento. After graduation in 1978, he worked as a technical supervisor and research liaison for Cockburn Smithes Portugal. He returned to the U.S. in 1980 to work directly under Darrel Corti as wine department manager. After five years at Corti he left to work at Lavotti Bros. as a sales representative. Then in 1988 he landed the position of assistant winemaker with Santino Winery.
As winemaker at Preston, Kevin is in charge of all wine production, coordination of wine style decisions, development of new products (this keeps him busy!), and wine education of the Preston staff. ‘I want to help the general public become more comfortable with wine,” says Kevin. ‘And I’d also like to help the California wine industry refine varietal-regional matching to wine styles,” he adds. Both are worthwhile goals and at Preston he has the platform to do it.
Lou Preston - Owner
Like many of the people who own a vineyard, Lou Preston was not fulfilling a lifelong dream when he jumped into the wine business. He saw an opportunity. An opportunity to be a part of a rapidly growing industry, full of excitement and promise. It was not until later that he realized he had fulfilled a dream. ‘I saw two options at the time,” recalls Lou. ‘I could continue crunching numbers in my auditor career, or I could jump over the desk and do the winery thing,” he explains.
Lou Preston was born in San Mateo, California, a city just south of San Francisco. He stayed in the area to attend college at Stanford University, where he studied political science and international relations. He also studied Czech at the Defense Language school and was recruited by the U.S. Army Security Agency in Europe in the mid-1960s. There he served as a Linguist and Intelligence Analyst for two years.
Lou came back home in 1967 to become the head of his family-owned Preston Ranch Company. Lou’s family had run a dairy, orchard and vineyard operation in Healdsburg since the early 1950s. Lou spent summers and weekends at the ranch while growing up.
While running the family business, Lou attended Stanford Graduate School where he earned an MBA degree in Accounting and Finance. Anxious to put it to use, in 1971 he departed Preston Ranch to become an auditor for Arthur Young & Co.
He remembers vividly the audit they were conducting at Beaulieu Vineyards in 1972. ‘There was incredible energy in the industry at the time,” he explains. ‘Andre Tchelistcheff [well known winemaker pioneer] was still at the winery. There was lots of activity at the University level. There were a lot of things happening. It was a great time to be in the industry. I decided right then to become a part of it.”
Lou promptly boned up on viticulture and enology at U.C Davis. The following year he and his wife, Susan, purchased the Preston Vineyard property. ‘At first it was a business venture,” says Lou. ‘What developed was a way of life involving friends and family, and a partnership with the harmonies and rhythms of nature on the farm,” he adds.
Lou and Susan’s two daughters, Francesca and Maggie, and son, Tim, grew up on the farm. The girls are away attending school and Tim is computer graphics artist and designed the Preston Winery newsletter.
Lou, Susan and their entire staff invite all Gold Medal Wine Club members to visit the winery and experience the difference of their wines and hospitality first-hand.