Hartford Family Winery
wine pixies

Hartford Family Winery

When I met Don Hartford, President of the Hartford Family Winery, in Manhattan for dinner (along with my friend writer Bill Marsano), the initial conversation did involve yeast, but we weren't yet talking about wine. Both Don and Bill try their hand at artisanal pizza. I do not, but I have a degree in baking and take pride in my bread. The yeast bubbled in concept, frothing in metaphor, as Don came to state that “I take plenty of time and patience producing my Pinot, but get a little impatient when it comes to the pizza dough.” The patience required for the Pinot (and the Hartford Chardonnay and Zin) runs into the 24-month-plus level, while the pizza patience calls for little more than an overnight dough rest in the refrigerator. Before we poured, Don vowed to let his pizza of the future take its sweet yeasty time.

A native of western Massachusetts who now makes wine in Sonoma, Don Hartford is as enthusiastic and as gregarious a winemaker as I have met, yet the seriousness seeps through. I shall taste the perfected pizza at some future date, but I had the privilege of tasting through four Hartford Court Chardonnays, eight Hartford Court Pinot Noirs, and a delightful Hartford Zin. Each wine out of this baker's dozen brought a distinct personality. “Tight-grain oak is one of our keys,” Don stressed, “with 24 to 36 month aging, always carefully managed. It's all to support the personality of the place.” All these wines see 100% French oak, from 40-60% new.

I understand the logic of “starting with the Chards,” although sometimes I wish I could have a separate tasting for the whites, go home, get a night's sleep, and then return fresh for the reds. Not to be, alas. The 2008 Stone Côte Vineyard Sonoma Coast Chardonnay, $60, hails from what they call the “true” Sonoma Coast (meaning you, and the grapes, can smell the Pacific). The vineyard, on an uplifted stony riverbed, is decidedly cool-climate. I enjoyed aromas of key lime and warm sweet vanilla, with flavors of white peach and nectarine. The best aspect: a powdery mineral finish, with a pleasant bit of peach-pit at the end.

The 2007 Four Hearts Vineyards Russian River Valley Chardonnay, $40, refers to the four core regions of the Russian River Valley: Middle Reach, Laguna Ridge, Green Valley and the Santa Rosa Bench. The sandy loam “Goldridge” soil of the region comes into play. My first impression was of green gage plum, pear, green apple. A full impression entered my notes as “apple pie with vanilla pie crust.” The wine has distinct components, guided by a round acidity, leading to a spicy finish.

The 2007 Seascape Vineyard Sonoma Coast Chardonnay, $65, hails from a chilly ridge overlooking the Pacific where, as Don puts it, “you are not supposed to be able to grow good wine grapes.” These grapes do not ripen until mid-October or even November. On the nose, this Chardonnay is a mix of citrus and mineral. As you can imagine, the acidity in the wine is far from shy. Fruit in the mouth has tropical elements, mango and pineapple, with a concentrated, almost candied fruit finish.

The 2007 Laura's Russian River Valley Chardonnay, $65, is a product of barrel fermentation. I loved the nose of ripe pear, honey, and orange blossom (with a touch of mulling spice). The spice continues in the form of baking spice, nutmeg and clove, in the mouth, accompanied by yellow delicious apple. A mouth-filling sensual delight, with a buttery element.

The 2007 Seven's Bench Vineyard Carneros Pinot Noir, $60, is from the Napa side of Los Carneros. “Silky clay is the defining element here,” Don tells me. “You can feel it on the mid-palate and the finish.” My nose danced with this one, enjoying earthy, spicy mocha. In the mouth, this wine is decidedly Pinot but not the shy variety, bringing insistent black fruit, more spice, and black licorice laced with some pleasantly bold tannins. Instantly engaging and long.

The 2007 Land's Edge Vineyards Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, $50, is, as Don puts it, “made at the edge, from one of the coldest and certainly highest elevation Pinot Noir vineyards in the world.” Don seems to like the idea of vineyards that have scant shelter from the ocean. Low yields, of course, buttress the logic of this. “The cool and the fog preserves both acidity and fruit in the grapes,” he relates, “so we have a wine that is more muscular, with greater tannic grip, capable of long aging.” Nose and palate are a range of cherries and berries, fruit the palpable leader, fresh and clean with restrained oak.

The 2007 Hailey's Block Green Valley of Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, $60, is named after Don Hartford's daughter, planted when Hailey was barely in school. Climate is low lying and cool. The nose is clean, with berry and cherry notes and hints of vanilla, the palate similar, with plenty of pure strawberry, black cherry, some baking spice and playful tannins. Decidedly full-bodied with some tang of pure fruit on the finale.

The 2007 Jennifer's Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, $70, takes Mrs. Hartford as a namesake. I enjoyed aromas of rose, violet, earth and black fruit from this cold climate wine. On the palate, black berry fruit coexists with oaky notes of toasted walnut and mocha. Floral aspects from the nose wait patiently through the mid-palate to combine with baking spice on a lingering finish.

The 2007 Velvet Sisters Anderson Valley Pinot Noir, $60, has rather an odd story behind it. This Mendocino region boasts of an obscure 19th century dialect of made-up English called Boontling. Somewhere in the annals of considerable lore of the region the “Velvet Sisters” made their mark. “They were seen sporting about in velvet dresses,” Don tells me. “We named the wine for this and for its texture of plush velvet.” Cherry and raspberry notes lead the nose, with solid berry on the palate enhanced by a touch of fruitcake and apricot pit.

The 2007 Far Coast Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, $70, hails from remote high-elevation vineyards at the northern edge of the “true” Sonoma Coast. This wine is a definite youngster, the nose a bit aggressive and hot, with notes of dark berries and cola. The mouth experiences plenty of action, with black cherry, pomegranate, and candied cherry in on a spicy mix. Tannins are fine-grained and yet have stamina. Full-bodied, with a clean finish.

The 2007 MacLean's Block Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, $60, is named after son MacLean Hartford. The Goldridge-soil vineyard block lies entirely within the estate. Nose features forest-floor, chocolate, and boysenberry. Palate is earth, dark fruit, chocolate and vanilla, with sprinkles of cinnamon and clove on the finish MacLean himself is only twelve, but as he roams the vineyard site regularly we must consider that his stamp has been placed on this excellent effort. This vintage is the inaugural release.

The 2007 Arrendell Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, $85, is a case of saving the best for last. Arrendel is in low-lying, foggy Green Valley. Although Pinot is one of the earliest ripening Sonoma varieties, these cool-climate grapes come into the wineries after the Cabernet. The experience of nosing this wine was profound. I almost wanted to leave it un-sipped, given the rich nutmeg, clove, and mountain sage aromatics. My much-delayed taste revealed some exceptionally pure cherry and red berry fruit. Medium-bodied, soft, and very well put together. Finish is long, and wide.

Speaking of the concept of saving the best for last, and having further suggested separate tastings for separate wines, I must put in a word for the final wine of the evening, the Russian River Valley Zinfandel, $35. Zin is dear to my heart. Alcohol in this one is a modest (for Zin) 15.1%, oak is equally restrained (only 40% new), and the Zin magic is all there: brambly wild berries, chunky tannins, licorice, nutmeg, body and grip. I almost remarked that this wine had all the element of a winning pizza, but I did not want to reopen that conversational track at such a late hour.


Verdict: Very well crafted wines


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Sonoma's potential for cool-climate grape-growing has not yet been fully explored.

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award
James Beard Award Nominee Elliot Essman

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award


Hartford Family Winery

Hailey's Block

Don Hartford, Hartford Family Winery

Don Hartford

Russian River

The Russian River


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