IN SOUTHERN SONOMA COUNTY, a serpentine road climbs out of Bennett Valley and onto Sonoma Mountain, eventually leading to a tiny winery, Laurel Glen. From the "30-acre cabernet vineyard the view is of the Mayacamus range to the east and Jack London's old haunts near the town of Glen Ellen, farther south. Rocky, iron-rich soils and ideal northeastward-facing slopes produce exceptional mountain grapes here, the beginnings of a concentrated, flavorful wine that should be extremely long-lived. As yet no one can say with certainty because the 1981 vintage was Laurel Glen's first release. It has won many awards; the rapid evolution of the winery's reputation is both an agricultural and a personal triumph for the owner, Patrick Campbell. It may also be an indication of the direction in which much larger wineries will go toward reducing the number of different wines made and thereby improving quality, and in emphasizing basic viticultural over wine-making high tech.
Campbell was more interested in growing grapes than in pressing them when he and his wife, Faith, bought three acres on Sonoma Mountain in 1976 and began accumulating more vineyard, most of it planted in 1968. "I like growing grapes," he said. "The winery just provides something to do with them." That comment is typical of a man with a master's degree in theology from Harvard and semiprofessional status as a violin player. He does most of the work in the vineyard himself, despite the fact that polio contracted at age 5 left him dependent on crutches. He employs one full-time assistant, a one-day-a-week maintenance man for the winery and 30 pickers during harvest. He pays them by the hour, rather than by weight, so they will cull out questionable fruit. "Every bucket is inspected either by me or my foreman," Campbell says. "The longest time between the pick and the crush is five minutes."
A metal crushing tank follows the tractor through the vineyard; with field crushing, the freshness of the fruit is preserved. The must is pumped into 2,000 gallon stainless-steel fermenting tanks. Campbell pushes the cap down by hand for about a week; the pressed wine then goes into new Nevers oak barrels, expensive but essential.
"We try to get a lot of oxygen into the wine early," he says. "We splash it, and beat it up, to blow off those volatile, stinky components and start building character." It is aged for 22 months, racked five times the first year and three the second year. "It's an aging regime, like they do in Bordeaux," including topping up the barrels. Campbell fines with egg whites in the traditional manner and filters enough for clarity. The wine is held at the winery for a year after bottling; he would like to hold it for five years. "It's not a soft, mellow California wine. It's tough and hard, and it takes time."
Laurel Glen produces only 4,500 cases annually. Campbell would like to expand his vineyard to 40 acres, "but after that you lose contact with all the parts." The sum of those parts is a wine every cabernet drinker should taste. The '81 has an intense, cherrylike nose and great promise; the '82 is leaner, with a spiciness and more classical structure. Naturally, it is the winemaker's favorite Laurel Glen.