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WINE & SPIRITS

From one family to another

Lazy Creek Vineyards was a mom-and-pop winery from the beginning. Now a new mom and pop are making it more of a purist operation than ever.

October 16, 2002|Rod Smith | Special to The Times

GOOD news for fans of Lazy Creek Vineyards: The 1999 sale of the tiny Mendocino County estate to a young Napa Valley couple was not the calamity many feared. In fact, it was the beginning of a new chapter in the tiny estate's 30-year history.

That's demonstrated by the current Lazy Creek releases from the 2000 vintage, the first entirely controlled by new owners Josh and Mary Beth Chandler. The Pinot Noirs (Estate and Reserve), Chardonnay and Gewurztraminer are some of the most intense and vibrant expressions of the Lazy Creek terroir to date.

Lazy Creek was a cult winery before the term was coined. Since its founding by Swiss immigrants Hans and Therese Kobler in 1972, its output has never exceeded 4,000 cases. And its followers are passionate. Most of the estate's production is sold through a mailing list, and virtually all of its regular customers have made the trek at least once to the remote Anderson Valley location.

It's a delightful pilgrimage. The unmarked dirt road in the northwest corner of Anderson Valley winds through the gloom of an ancient redwood forest. It crosses three tiny bridges over the meandering creek before bursting into a sunny glade to reveal a scene straight out of a fairy tale.

There's a quaint little house and winery behind a flower-decked rail fence. Tidy close-pruned vines grace the surrounding slopes where each vine block has its own name. Two were named after Kobler pets who are buried there -- a cat on Mitzi's Hill, a beagle on the Schnoopie block. Birds twitter, sheep baa, butterflies flash in the sun. Hans Christian Andersen would feel right at home.

Anderson Valley has one of California's coolest grape-growing climates. The valley drinks in cold air and fog from the nearby Pacific during the growing season. That marine influence makes it ideal for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and the delicate pink-hued Alsatian grape called Gewurztraminer.

In the early 1970s it was nearly impossible to find decent clones of those varieties in California. So the Koblers did it the old-fashioned way -- they took cuttings from famous French vineyards and brought them home in their suitcases. Legal concerns keep the Koblers from confirming the sources, but it is widely believed that the Lazy Creek Pinot Noir vines were propagated from Domaine de la Romanee Conti, the world's most famous Pinot vineyard.

When the Koblers decided to retire in the late 1990s there was keen interest in the property among large wine producers. Rumored suitors (the Koblers decline to specify) included Duckhorn, Kenwood, Roederer, Fife, Kendall-Jackson and Silverado Vineyards owner Diane Disney Miller.

But the Koblers sensed that companies like that would merely absorb Lazy Creek into their larger brands. They wanted to pass it on to someone who would treasure it and carry on the spirit of the place -- preferably a young couple who wanted to raise a family there.

A couple like the Chandlers. Josh Chandler, 37, is an award-winning landscape architect and home builder whose work has been featured in Better Homes & Gardens, Metropolitan Home and other magazines. He has designed gardens for wineries such as Far Niente and Cakebread. He's also a chef, having trained with Masa Kobayashi at Auberge du Soleil in the 1980s. Mary Beth Chandler, 31, worked in wine marketing, most recently for the Chalone Group.

They were married in 1999 and immediately began scouting for property. "We wanted to own land and grow grapes, and we wanted to work together," Josh says. "I've always enjoyed Pinot, and we were looking for a place we could afford. That led us out to Anderson Valley. We didn't know about Lazy Creek, but we'd heard that the folks wanted to sell it to someone who was going to carry it on."

The Koblers paid $1,000 an acre for the 87-acre property in 1972. They sold it to the Chandlers for $2 million, a fraction of what a similar property would cost in Napa Valley, where bargains start around $100,000 an acre.

The Chandlers showed their commitment to the property's integrity immediately by instituting organic farming methods and lowering the yield -- already small on those old vines -- to an average of two tons per acre, "about one cluster per shoot," says Josh. They've cut Lazy Creek's production from 3,500 cases a year to 2,000. And they raised the prices for the new lower-yield wines to match other new-generation small estates. The Estate Pinot Noir, for example, has gone from $15 to $32; the Reserve is $62.50.

Meanwhile, the Koblers, now in their 70s, have retired to a self-designed dream house in the redwood forest just a stone's throw from Lazy Creek. Old customers still come by to see them, often bearing older bottles of Lazy Creek wine to share with the founders.

"I miss the grape growing and winemaking a little," says Hans. "But I don't miss all the people."

To which Therese adds, "I miss the people."

*

Lazy Creek wines are sold by mailing list, at the winery in Philo, Calif., and at a few wine shops including Red Carpet Wines in Glendale, Wine Country in Signal Hill and Morry's of Naples in Long Beach. The winery is usually open for tasting 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, but it's best to call ahead: (707) 895-3623.

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