WHEN I FIRST visited the Gauer Estate Vineyards last month in the mountainous backdrop of the Alexander Valley in northern Sonoma County, two oft-heard phrases came to mind: "Wine is made in the vineyard" and "the Chardonnay vine is a tool for extracting flavor from the soil."
The particular soil at Gauer is volcanic, of a complex composition, and has resulted in grapes that have led to gold-medal wines for several north coast wineries. But Gauer, now intent upon extracting the wonders of the soil for its own benefit, has produced a wine under its own label.
Gauer President Allan Hemphill, wine maker Kerry Damskey and I drove up from the valley floor to the vineyards, which include the Pinnacle and the Wellspring, both set at an elevation of 1,600 to 2,000 feet, and Monument Vineyard, between 800 and 1,200 feet high.
From the ridge back of the Pinnacle Vineyard, we could trace the red volcanic soil between the vine rows to a point where the rows descended to an outcropping of gray basalt earth. From there, they went upward again to the craggy Wellspring, then down to the Monument Vineyard, strewn with granite boulders. The porous soil gives the roots ideal drainage. We were aware of the natural air-conditioning system--cool marine air being drawn in from the Pacific, providing even-ripening weather. All the vines, which appeared virtually manicured, are individually drip-system irrigated with natural spring water.
"Our object," Hemphill said as we made our way down the mountainside, "is to bottle the essence of these wonderful vineyards."
The vineyards, all part of the 5,000-acre Gauer Ranch, began with Ed Gauer, who planted them in 1970. Now 86, Gauer maintains his home there, although he sold the ranch in January to the Huntington Beach Co., a division of Chevron.
Vinwood Cellars, the wine-making facility on the valley floor, offers custom crushing services for both small lots and major vineyards.
Inside, Damskey drew samples of an '88 Cabernet Sauvignon from Nevers oak-barrel storage. Beyond the soft tannins were plummy tastes of potential elegance. These samples were followed by an '88 Cabernet Franc, almost green-peppery in taste. And finally a blend of these and 5% Merlot was tasted. The blend is delightfully greater than the sum of the individual parts. It will be released in 1992.
At lunch, I tasted the first released wine of the Gauer Estate Vineyard, the 1987 Alexander Valley Chardonnay ($16), the golden essence of those mountain vineyards. Damskey vinified grapes from four vineyards separately. Eighty percent of the final blending underwent malolactic fermentation, and the wine was aged in two French oak barrels, Vosges and Nevers. The Chardonnay is delicate. It has aromas of fruit and flowers and is silky soft.
This wine is an arresting California experience. Although it is one of the newest entries in the Chardonnay derby, its California origins should be one of our rightful sources of pride.