From Green Apple Books to Great California Pinot Noir at Savoy Vineyard
Ryan Hodgins

In the winter of 1993, Ted Lemon and his wife Heidi went to the Anderson Valley in Mendocino County, Calif. to look for vineyards from which to purchase grapes for their new wine project Littorai. "You could everything there was to see in about three days," Lemon says.

The average price per ton of Anderson Valley fruit was $800 per ton, less than a fifth of what it is today, and much of the production went to sparkling wine. But Lemon, who had worked at the great Burgundy houses Dujac and Roulot before returning to the U.S., wanted a site that would produce great Pinot Noir. A few people mention Richard Savoy, who founded Green Apple Books in San Francisco in 1967 and in the early 1980s turned his attention to wine.

"Rich had been to Europe many times and was someone who really thought outside the box," Lemon says. In planting the vineyard that now bears his name between 1991 and 1994, Savoy used "multiple clones and different rootstocks," Lemon says, which was unusual at the time. He had chosen a site about 40 feet above the Navarro River with both alluvial and sandstone soil. That site has become one of California's best for Pinot Noir, continuing to fulfill the promise Savoy saw in it years after he sold it. 

Even early on Lemon says, "We absolutely saw the quality in the grapes." Lemon's 1990s wines from the site helped make both his reputation and that of Savoy Vineyard. Rich Savoy, he says, "had an interest in working with smaller wineries," and in 2002 began working with Eric Sussman when he started Radio Coteau, which still makes both a Pinot Noir and a Chardonnay from the site.

Sussman says that the large difference between day and night temperature at the site is critical to the quality of the grapes. "The days can get into the upper 90s, and the nights can be pretty cool. I've seen shifts, especially in late September and early October of 50 or 60 degrees. That creates a tension in the wines. The warmth in the day gives them a richness and nice fruit expression, but with the cooler nights, you retain the acidity."

In 2011, Napa Valley winemaker Cliff Lede bought Savoy Vineyard and turned it over to winemaker Ryan Hodgins to manage. He takes about 40% of the fruit from Savoy's 43 acres and makes both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, to which five acres are planted, from the vineyard under the FEL label. In his Pinot Noir, Hodgins says, he focuses on getting the right tannins and structure in the grapes as they mature . "I have good fruit," he says, "and I shouldn't need to do anything radical to it to get good wine."

Hodgins also continues to work with Lemon, Sussman, Auteur Wines, Failla Wines, WALT Wines as well as with with Andy Peay, who grows almost all of his fruit on his 51 acres on the west Sonoma coast. But his yields fluctuate, Peay says, and, "We were looking for one vineyard to make Pinot Noir that would not be affected by weather in the same way as our vineyards." He jumped at the chance to source from Savoy when Lede bought it and offered him a few parcels.

The Anderson Valley produces Pinot Noir "with deep fruit expression, earthiness and spiciness," Peay says, and Savoy is "probably the best vineyard there." The wine he makes from Savoy, he says, is more fruit-forward than his other wines, "a little softer and cherry-noted on the forepalate. But it also has good acidity and spice quality. It "captures California Pinot Noir without moving into that big monochromatic style."

Hodgins oversees the farming at Savoy, and since winemakers work with the same blocks year after year, he farms them as his colleagues wish, though they differ in the amount of direction they provide. Hodgins adjusts his own farming to the weather in a given year. He notes that the long drought between 2013 and 2016 pushed the growing season at the site earlier.

Even with the challenges of recent years, Lemon says, "It's rare in the world of wine to get a great site that's consistently productive, and Savoy is one of those. Savoy has great balance and great acidity, and tannins are moderate. It's a site of moderation. Savoy is a wine of delicacy and elegance and understatedness to me."

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