Story by Michael Walsh
Photographs by Michael Walsh & Steve Aja, Stephen Ashton

It's not surprising that rebels, renegades and mavericks run through Dennis De La Montanya's winery. His family tree and his winemaking staff are full of them. The De La Montanyas came to this country over 400 years ago and they had their fair share of outlaws, wine smugglers, bankers, judges and politicians. Some were famous and some infamous, but more about that later. I am looking forward to my visit at this young winery with old, deep local roots. Dennis' story is the American dream, of a pioneer family –a local farm kid with apple orchards - a lot of hard work. Creative vigor - a little California magic - and presto ! - great wines.

The winery is located in an idyllic spot for weekend wine tasters just off the famous (or infamous) Westside Road. Part of the pleasure of being there is getting there, as you drive past acres of vines, a few orchards, scoot under a bridge, and make a sharp left into the parking lot of the winery. There's a beautiful new, rustic barn shaped wine-tasting room. This is also the weekend of the Dry Creek Passport event (one ticket gives you special tastings and treats at a number of Dry Creek wineries all weekend). As I pull into the parking lot I am greeted by that's right folks, scantily clad gold rush style floozies! Saloon floozies right there in the parking lot, I believe I have found a fun winery this time!

Being the press dude that I am, I've arrived early to capture everything before the red carpet rolls out for the tourists, locals and the tasting room fills with pseudo-wine snobs. For this weekend's promotion the winery has taken on the flavors of early western California cowboy country. Out back there's a boot hill cemetery, and a saddle on a barrel horse. Six gun toting cowboys and floozies serve up chili and fixins'. No frilly stuff here, this is going to be rock solid fun. I'm going to have a hard time leaving.

Click on Images for Captions

The new wine program at the De La Montanya winery is pioneering a return to small batch, hand crafted wine making. This is a program that is using the best of the scientific methods, but going against the big is better trend, using the best small batch grape growing methods to make exceptional wines. Understanding this approach is the difference between the family and the large corporate winery. As I look around, I see a vigorous, young family winery where the kids play baseball under apple trees and chase fly balls into the vineyards. Wine making today is often a reflection of a lifestyle choice, rather than an avocation, and the De La Montanya winery is a perfect example of this.

Dennis and his Tina, have carved out a vision here that they nurture on a daily basis. Dennis comes by his pioneering traits honestly. He is the descendant of the French Dr. Le La Montagne who left France and emigrated to Holland, then South America and finally landed on shores of New Amsterdam, (New York City) in the 1600s. He started over as a tobacco rancher in what is now the north end of Central Park. How ever battling Indians became too dangerous and he moved his family to the fort at New Amsterdam where he became Vice Chancellor. Many years later in 1850, another move took place, and that was the migration out West during the gold rush boom. The De La Montanya clan settled in the Bay area. That's when things became colorfully California Wild West style and controversial to boot!

They immediately made the papers for fighting over the family hardware store in San Francisco. One brother became a member of the board of supervisors, during the vigilante period upon his retirement in 1880, he moved to Marin county to spend his remaining years. Another brothers, moved to the East Bay, and helped to develop what is now the city of Oakland. As the years rolled by and at the height of the prohibition, another relative would end up as a wine distributor, selling church wine. Now I don't have a lot of space to tell you exactly what that means, but I am sure you can take a guess! Dennis' Great grandfather became known as the hanging judge of San Rafael. He is credited with being the last judge to hang a man in the San Rafael Town Square. The De La Montanya family dinners were peppered with rumors of prohibition wine shenanigans for years. And judging by the expression on Dennis' face as he recalls these tales, just the sheer joy of the tellin it, was enough.

Dennis current holdings contain approximately 100 choice acres of vineyards planted in various Sonoma county appellations - Alexander Valley, Sonoma Coast, Russian and Dry Creek Valley. Tracing back to the 1890s, their property on Westside road was planted with grapes, prunes, and then, apples. Like many land owners who saw the future in grapes, Dennis planted Primitivo and Zinfandel on the 5 1⁄2 acres at the winery. While speaking to Dennis, he notes that he left 100 apple trees surrounding the property. He says, “I like to leave something from the past like the heritage oaks, the apple trees and our magnificent redwoods. The vineyards need to be one with the environment".”

He has surrounded himself with people who share his passion to follow a boutique style of winemaking. His goal is to have fun making the best wines, while emphasizing the wine making experience. They use the most modern technology and science, yet they still make wine the old-fashioned way with small fermenters, basket presses and gravity fed barrel to barrel racking. All in all, it's a handcrafted, small lot, boutique style of winemaking with some choice grapes producing as little as one barrel of wine. Although steering most of the decisions surrounding the winery himself, Dennis relies on the noted consulting winemaker Michael Loykasek.

Now here's another character just as tall as his cowboy boots ! Mike's been known for years in Healdsburg as the “Cowboy Winemaker”". He fits right in! His way with the ladies is as infamous as his reputation for making unique wines. This maverick winemaker is known for his distinctive fruit forward wine and has a history of using the best science available to the winemaker. Mike is proud of this small batch winemaking program saying, “wine making should be a natural extension of the vineyards". Dennis has said we don't have to make huge quantities of wine. He wants us to get the best possible grapes we can from our vineyards. So to ensure the unique crafted quality of our wines, we mark off small lots in the vineyards and pick them when they are exactly perfect. We hand pick them to taste to bring in only the best grapes from certain pre-selected rows, only taking the perfectly ripe grapes. We carefully farm each part of the acreage differently to get the best grapes. That sometimes means picking the same vineyard up to 4 times in a season. We are using about 10% of the total crop for the estate wines, we still sell 90% of the fruit we grow to other HIGH END wineries.

Mike points out that this is the first year they had total control of the wine making process. Starting with the 2003 vintage all the wines were made in the new winery using the most gentle care possible. Then they test, taste and taste some more, sorting out the very best wines. Mike's been making wines for 20 harvests and feels that this is his showcase. “I get to work with more wine varietals than I ever have before. I'm really in a symbiotic relationship with Dennis De La Montanya and this creates the unique opportunity to make the best wines possible."

Dennis is also part of a growing trend in wine making to create specialized theme labels. This year he created his new PinUp™ label. These beautiful new labels feature models in provocative outfits posing on wine barrels. Now get your mind out of the gutter! These harken back to the pin up pictures that decorated the nose cowlings of World War II airplanes, ala Terry and the Pirates. Dennis is marketing his best wines under this PinUp™ label. As he fondly says, The label puts a smile on your face and the quality of the wine brings you back for another taste.

It was interesting to pair the 2003 Rosé, a dry Red Rosé in a modified French style, with food. This wine is a daring blend of 65% Cabernet Sauvignon and 35% Syrah from estate grown grapes. Additionally, this wine was combined using techniques similar to the Rosé producing areas of Provence. Interestingly, French wineries purchase grapes from De La Montanya for their own production.

Dennis says, We get a lot of visitor traffic here at the winery from all over the world and it's tempting to want to capitalize on this and make things grow faster. I have to remind myself that I got into this business to make great wine and it needs to mature over time.

In less than 9 months, they have over 300 wine club members with a goal of 900. Our signature wines are Primitivo Viognier, Pinot Noir, and Rose. We currently make only 2800 cases, in small lots of 50 to 250 cases, as a result many wines are sold out at release, with no plans to make more. In the mean time I am cherishing every moment I can with my growing family. I am lucky I share this dream with my wife Tina De La Montanya. We are all putting in lots of work around here but we I've got to admit we are blessed to have all this.

Enough already, says I. As Smeagel from the Lord of the Rings might say, give us another glass of the Primitivo (since sold out) and more of Mike's dad's chili.” There goes that family thing again !” Well, I'm heading out to hang with the Floozies. Don't miss a chance to sip a great wine. Visit the De La Montanya wine tasting room outside of Healdsburg. It's a fun time with wonderful wines that will soon be sold out. These wines are only sold at the wine tasting room or through their website and to wine club members. Join the club! Don't miss it. These are great wines.

999 Foreman Lane
Healdsburg,CA 95448
707 433 3711
or www.dlmwine.com

Other Great Links
Tasting Notes For Current Release Wines

De La Montanya Winery PDF

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