Exacting vineyard practices and informed cellar decisions enhance Sonoma County boutique operation’s wines.
One perk of covering the Wine Country is the opportunity to accompany winemakers into the vineyard to observe how soil, elevation, wind, sun exposure, and farming techniques influence flavor and quality. In this era of sheltering in place, it’s the part of my gig I miss the most: experiencing the land via Zoom or website photos and videos just isn’t the same. That said, while participating in a May 2020 virtual group chat with John Hamel, the winemaker at Sonoma County’s Hamel Family Wines, I got a pretty good sense of the winery’s four estate vineyards and his exacting practices for tending their grapes.
John’s parents, Pam and George Hamel Jr., purchased their first property in 2006. The family now owns three vineyards on the Sonoma Valley floor and one on Moon Mountain. As John and his brother, George Hamel III, who runs the business, spoke about the winery’s evolution, several journalists and I sampled one white and three reds, one of the latter a library (older) release. John’s objective is to farm so well that he needn’t intervene much after harvest so he tends to downplay his work in the cellar, but his informed decisions there enhance the wines in equally significant ways. Below are my thoughts on the four wines tasted.
2018 Sauvignon Blanc Tres Palmas Vineyard
Especially when it’s not overly chilled, there’s a lot to notice about this Sonoma Valley Sauvignon Blanc. Minerality and acidity assert themselves first, followed by taut flavors counterbalanced by a faint roundness that doesn’t undercut crispness. None of this is accidental, but rather the result of dry (no irrigation) biodynamic agriculture, mineral-driven soils, and vines as old as two decades. This wine is about its land and farming, though the partial use of neutral French oak barrels during fermentation and aging contributes as well.
The emphasis at Hamel on “farming” wines as opposed to heavy manipulation during the winemaking process is fully evident in this classy Zin. The wine owes its leanness and acidity to John’s constant monitoring of clusters and an early pick date, its mild earthiness to stem inclusion during fermentation. Aging in French oak doesn’t hurt either. (Because even a great Zinfandel will only fetch so much at retail, to make ends meet many producers use less-expensive American oak, often forgoing the elegance French wood can supply.) In no way jammy like many California Zins, this one has character, backbone, and style. If there’s such a thing as a luxury Zinfandel, Hamel’s is it.
What might seem like a bombast of French oak (66% new, 34% once-used barrels, for 26 months) lends power and firmness to this Cabernet Sauvignon–heavy (89%, plus 10% Cab Franc and 1% Merlot) Bordeaux-style blend that reminds this old-timer of 1970s Napa Cabs. Concentrated flavors and grippy tannins courtesy of predominantly hillside fruit (62% from the Nuns Canyon Vineyard, elevation 1,300 to 1,700 feet, versus 38% from Hamel Family Ranch on the Sonoma Valley floor) grab instant attention, but the impression that lingers is one of balance. This is all the more true as this red opens up; though the tannins still registered on day two, the wine had softened, an indication that it’ll likely age gracefully.
2014 Hamel Family Ranch
I’ve got nothing against blending other grapes into Cab but always appreciate a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon like this one that seems wholly complete. I can’t imagine how adding blending in other varietals could improve it. The wine aged in 100% new French oak, an approach the winemaker hints he might not take these days. The interplay between the flavors imparted by the fruit and valley-floor soils are a delight to ponder.
Hamel Family Wines is again receiving guests at Hamel Family Ranch, about 2.5 miles south of Glen Ellen. As conceived before social-distancing and other health requirements, each of its private, appointment-only experiences included a winery tour and a culinary offering. With a few adjustments, they are continuing as before.
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Lead photo, courtesy of Hamel Family Wines, depicts the Nuns Canyon Vineyard.