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SAVORING SONOMA / THE WINES

Going her own way

Marimar Torres comes from a legendary Old World wine family, but her focus is firmly on the future.

June 01, 2005|Corie Brown | Times Staff Writer

Sebastopol, Calif. — At a seminar on biodynamic winemaking in San Francisco recently, Marimar Torres, owner and winemaker of Marimar Estate in Sonoma's Russian River region, ricocheted with determination around the tasting room. Pulling her cellar master, Tony Britton, first this way then that, she sampled wines and pelted winemakers with questions.

Many vintners would have a hard time wrapping their minds around New Age-y practices such as burying cow horns full of manure in vineyards, but Torres is a woman with a mission.

Daughter of the legendary vintner Don Miguel Torres, she's a member of one of Spain's foremost wine families. But today, Torres is focused on the future, not the past -- specifically the future of her Sonoma County winery. So when it comes to whatever doubts she might have about biodynamic winemaking, she's utterly pragmatic. "What if it works?" she says.

Torres is ready to do anything -- except what she refers to as the "cheap tricks" commonly used by other wineries -- and to spend whatever it takes on costly adjustments such as a recent changeover to organic farming to get "back in the game."

She's tired of being ignored by wine critics. Since her 1990 vintage, for which powerful wine critic Robert Parker gave her Chardonnay 88 points, he hasn't written a word about Torres' wines. Without a mention from Parker, Marimar wines have no buzz. No buzz, slow sales.

Rather than continue to watch her wines be shipped to a European market less influenced by American critics or, worse, have them pile up in inventory, Torres is shaking things up in her vineyards: In addition to considering making the move to biodynamics, she's just gone organic, rethought vine management and has overhauled her lineup of wines.

Torres came to California on a wine sales trip with her father in the late 1970s and decided to stay. After a brief marriage to an American, she persuaded her father to help her stake a claim in the then-emerging, cool-climate Sonoma Coast region. "Everything I've ever wanted to do, my family has supported me," she says during a recent interview at Marimar Estate.

What Torres wanted was to produce one Chardonnay and one Pinot Noir. For the Pinot, she planted six clonal varieties to be blended into a single food-friendly wine. And for nearly two decades, she has cultivated her vineyards and blended her wines accordingly, only deviating to make a second Chardonnay, the robust Dobles Lias (so named for its extended contact with the lees).

Now she's changing that philosophy to release three single-clone wines from small vineyard blocks, and a fourth wine that is a blend of two clonal varieties. Another new release is designed to be a "super Pinot Noir," labeled Cristina Selection. It's a blend of four clonal varieties that she hopes will demonstrate characteristics favored by Parker and California's other influential wine critic, James Laube of Wine Spectator.

"People had been asking for the single vineyard wines, but I said, 'No, it's not my philosophy.' But, why not? The vineyard is in its full maturity now. Particularly with the organics, it has never been this good," says Torres.

Siphoning off her estate's most expressive component wines from the signature Marimar Pinot blend, which she'll continue to release, is not without risk. But while Torres says she is being careful not to allow production of new wines to diminish the quality of the existing label, it's a risk she is willing to accept. "It's a tricky thing: taking away from the master blend to get the most out of the stand-alone wines," she says. "I'm trying to find the balance between finesse and extraction. We taste it with and without, and if we think it hurts the blend, we won't do it."

Lean and clean

Marimar fans are used to ignoring the critics. They like the leaner European style they have come to expect in her estate Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs.

Steve Heimoff, West Coast editor of Wine Enthusiast Magazine, considers Marimar Estate wines to be among the Russian River's finest. "She's done it right," he says of Torres.

"I really like her wines," says Chris Meeske, owner of Mission Wines in South Pasadena, formerly an influential sommelier at Patina. "Marimar Chardonnay is restrained and elegant with a lightness that allows the grape to express itself. They aren't flashy. Her Pinot Noir is the same way -- a focused, pure expression of the grape. They are food wines, no question about it."

The problem, says Meeske, and the reason he doesn't stock Marimar wines in his store, is that people who like that style of wine and can pay the $30 to $45 that Marimar costs, typically reach for European wines. When people buy California wines, he says, "they want that opulence and generosity of fruit that you get with the California sunshine," particularly at these prices.

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