Sonoma County region
Topolos Winery earned The 1999 Environmental Business of the Year Award
Michael Topolos is literally and figuratively breaking new ground. Not only is his winery producing top quality medal-winning wines but unlike most other wineries, he’s also doing it in an environmentally friendly way. In fact Topolos Winery recently earned The 1999 Environmental Business of the Year Award, and Michael himself was recognized as the 1998 Biodynamic Winemaker of the Year. He also received recognition from the California State Assembly, the California State Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives, for his efforts in organic and biodynamic farming.
“The recognition is nice,” says Michael rather humbly. “But we do it this way because of our personal beliefs and philosophy.” That belief and philosophy centers around the caring of the soil and protecting the natural environment. Organic farming prohibits the use of synthetic chemical products. Special attention is made to increase soil microbial activity and to avoid adding to the soil any substances which are not derived directly from nature.
The science of Biodynamic farming goes beyond the anti-chemical organic methods by using a three tiered approach. First is applying specially formulated biodynamic compost mixtures into the fields to restore the natural balance between the vines and soil. Secondly, various herbs and minerals are used to invigorate the vines and concentrate the wine flavors and aromas for the wine produced from the grapes. And third is using cover crops and companion plants to create necessary biocomplexity for a healthy environment and nutrients for the vines. The basic idea is to create healthy soil and raise healthy vines that ultimately, will not need the help of chemicals to withstand the natural environment. “I’m sure that some day everyone will use these methods to farm,” says Michael.
The Topolos Winery started in 1972 when brothers, Michael and Jerry Topolos, bought 26 acres in Sonoma county and created a 5-acre vineyard planted to Zinfandel. It was the culmination of a goal set six years earlier when Michael Topolos first moved to Sonoma. Ever since his days as a wine clerk in San Francisco in the early 1960’s, Michael had wanted to get into the wine industry. Buying this property meant he could finally grab a toehold into the business.
The following year, 5 acres of Chardonnay grapes were added along side the Zinfandel. By this time Michael was totally immersed into the grape farming lifestyle. Several years later he was on the lookout for more vineyard land. In 1978 he discovered that nearby Russian River Vineyards Winery was up for sale. It not only had the right size vineyard, it also had several homes, a winery facility, and a century-old manor house that had been converted into a restaurant. The winery was not active and the restaurant was leased to a third party.
Michael learned that the original Russian River Vineyards Winery was built in 1969 by Robert Lasden. Lasden planted the first vineyards on the 30-acre property and built the original winery facility. The winery architecture is quite distinctive, with two tall hop kiln wooden towers and a smaller Russian style turret splashed against the horizon of West Sonoma County. In 1975 Lasden sold his venture to two San Francisco real estate developers, Jack Lowe and Roy Georgio Jr. They in turn, converted the century old, brown shingle building into a tasting room and restaurant. A few years later the property was sold to Michael and his brother.
Michael and Jerry purchased the property and immediately started putting the winery back into operation. Up until then the Topolos brothers had sold all of their fruit production to other wineries. But now it was time to get further entrenched in the industry by making their own wine. They stripped the building, bought all new equipment, sanitized the barrels then brought in the harvest.
The first bottling from their newly acquired winery was a 1978 vintage Cabernet Sauvignon. Since then Topolos has produced dozens of wines including five or so different bottlings of Zinfandel, a Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Petite Sirah, Alicante Bouschet, Charbono, Pinot Noir, Merlot and a handful of proprietary red wines.
Just about one-fourth of the grapes used to make Topolos wines come from their own vineyards. The rest are bought from other vineyards under strict guidelines that Michael has established for his wines. Virtually all of the grapes they buy are organically grown using no chemicals or pesticides. “We believe in the premise of clean farming,” Michael points out. “It’s a way of life for us, a philosophy we adhere to. We do everything we can to replenish the earth and recycle what we use.” The winery is an active member of The Organic Grape Into Wine Alliance (OGWA) and California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) organizations. Three years ago the winery became a certified BioDynamic grower and just last year, Michael became the first certified Biodynamic Winemaker in the United States.
Today, overall production hovers around the 18,000 case level. The winery houses more than 400 American and French barrels and assorted fermentation and storage tanks where Topolos’ super-premium and ultra-premium wines are produced. “We’re fighting the growth,” says Michael. “I’d rather be out in the vineyard than spend my time on the phone taking orders. We’re at a comfortable level right now.” In fact Michael has preferred the farming end of the business so much so that he has turned most of the winemaking duties over to winery cohort, Jac Jacobs.
If you ever get a chance to go to Sonoma County be sure to put Topolos Winery on the must-visit list. And after your winery tour be sure to eat lunch or dinner at the Topolos’ Russian River Vineyards Restaurant. Jerry Topolos and his wife, Lisa, have operated the restaurant since 1983. It is the only family-owned and operated winery and restaurant combination in California. Its unique setting and historic architecture and great food, make it a memorable visit.
Michael Topolos received critical acclaim for his wines
Michael Topolos is right where he wants to be—on his tractor in the vineyard. He started a winery; received critical acclaim for his wines; wrote several books on the subject; and he is a teacher of wine appreciation at a nearby Jr. College. But ‘Farming is on top of the list,” Michael reveals. ‘I’ve met a lot of my goals,” he continues, ‘that’s one reason I handed over the winemaking job last year to Jack. I want to spend more time farming.” Michael plans to put in another 40 acres of vines using better clones. ‘We can always improve,” he says. That statement seemed more a reflection of his personal philosophy than about his wines.
Michael has always striven to improve, to gain more knowledge, to give something back to the world. Ever since he began attending San Francisco City College in the early 1960’s, Michael has never really abandoned academia. He has studied and/or taught at six different northern California colleges, and for 14 years now continues to teach at Santa Rosa Junior College.
To make ends meet while studying at S.F. City College he went to work for a local area wine shop. It was this turn of events that served as a catalyst for Michael’s career in the wine industry. His thirst for knowledge soon spilled into the wine world as he tasted and learned all he could. It wasn’t enough though. He wanted somehow to get closer to the wine industry.
His studies continued after City College with a brief stint at San Francisco State. He was still learning about wines at the wine shop and took mostly history courses at the university. In 1966 he moved to Sonoma to get closer to the action. His plan was to save enough money in order to buy property to plant a vineyard. He would enter the wine industry literally from the ground up.
He transferred to Sonoma State and continued to study history. He landed a job as a wine buyer which led him on frequent European trips to procure fine wines. Eventually he switched to the University of California at Davis to add viticulture to his course studies.
By 1972 he was able to buy a 50 acre parcel in Sonoma with 2 other partners. He later ended up buying half the property for himself. Michael quit his wine buying job to concentrate on planting his vineyard. He also continued his research into wines and even wrote a book about the Napa Valley.
From the outset Michael decided to avoid using pesticides and chemicals in his vineyard. By this time in his life he felt strongly about things like that. To poison the ground and deplete the soil was against his philosophy, contrary to his way of life. The Topolos operation was to be an earth friendly operation, using natural resources wisely and recycling whenever possible.
Even through the beginning stages of his new career, Michael continued his academic studies. He attained his teaching credentials and started teaching wine courses at Sonoma State and Santa Rosa Junior college. Shortly after he and his brother bought the Russian River Winery property he scaled down his teaching time to Santa Rosa.
Taking care of the land, planting better clones, making great wine, researching, educating others—Michael says he wants to continue to improve. Just look at what he is doing and that becomes obvious.