06th Jul 2023
06th Jul 2023
DuMOL must be one of the best-priced producers in the world right now for spectacular Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays. The style here perfectly hits that sweet-spot target of generous fruit with captivating finesse.
DuMOL’s Andy Smith took some time putting down roots. Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, he studied winemaking at Lincoln University in New Zealand. He worked at Dry River in Martinborough before heading to Australia and eventually coming to California to work for top producers such as Littorai and Paul Hobbs. So, when he speaks, his nomadic past makes for an unusual yet infectious accent.
In 1999, Andy came to work for DuMOL, which is based outside of Santa Rosa in Sonoma. Established in 1996, DuMOL was a fledgling producer of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, buying fruit from growers in the Russian River Valley. The odd name comes from an amalgamation of the names of one of the founders’ children (Duncan and Molly).
In 2005, Andy became a partner in DuMOL, and in 2015, he and two other investors bought out the original owners, so Andy is now a co-owner of the business as well as the very hands-on viticulturist and winemaker.
“When I arrived at DuMOL, we were buying all our Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes and making wines similar to the negociant system in Burgundy. Since then, we’ve transformed ourselves from a negociant to a domaine model. I think it’s a natural progression...the desire to grow the fruit yourself, determining planting, genetic material, and vine density. And then establishing true intimacy with the vines, site, and land over time. Control your own destiny. It’s the most rewarding aspect of this whole endeavor.”
DuMOL started investing in vineyards in 2004 when they purchased a quartet of vineyard sites that stretch across a set of ridgetop east-facing plateaus in the Green Valley AVA, west of Highway 116.
“DuMOL Estate, Bressay, Kearney, and MacIntyre vineyards are contiguous parcels,” Andy explained. “On varying soils, they are planted at unusually high-density—3,630 vines/acre—to mostly the same genetic vine material, but they each taste completely different.”
Two more vineyards were purchased in 2016: Flax and Wildrose. Flax Estate sits in the northwest part of the Russian River Valley on the famous stretch of Westside Road. It was planted in 1998 to Pinot Noir heritage clones: Pommard, Mt. Eden, and Swan. Wildrose is an isolated, dry-farmed, three-acre vineyard located northwest of the town of Graton in the Green Valley AVA, planted to Dijon clones of Pinot Noir.
In 2022, a seventh estate vineyard was acquired: Dr. Galante Vineyard.
“We just bought Dr. Galante Vineyard!” said Andy. “It’s a 30-acre parcel with 22 acres of Pinot Noir vines, planted in 1998. The grapes are still under contract for 2023, but we’ll get a little this year and then all for next year. The vines were planted and farmed by Dutton Ranch. They’re very healthy and have good productivity for 25-year vines. The site is a gentle northeast-facing slope, the coolest exposure in this climate. It’s located uphill of the SR Laguna Vineyard, where the afternoon coastal breeze arrives first, and the morning fog burns off last. It has shallow, moderate vigor potential Goldridge soils with areas of deeper ‘Altamont’ sandy clay red soils, which are the best for Pinot. An incredible redwood grove sits in the middle of the property, with some 40 very tall old trees. The land falls away to the north, which is densely forested. It is just a wonderful site and less than a mile from the existing Estate vineyards. We will replant approximately 30% next spring to begin to establish our own genetic Chardonnay and Pinot Noir material. Our 15-person vineyard team took over the farming this winter.”
I asked Andy about the importance of vineyard ownership.
“Owning vineyards provides long-term stability,” he said. “It anchors the business and focuses the brand, but most importantly, it provides the building blocks to a long-term wine style and centers the winegrowing vision. The place becomes the story, not the marketing, or the grape variety, or the people who naturally move through the business over the years. A vineyard is a long-term, generational focal point. I’m not sure a producer can become or be considered a worldwide benchmark as a negoce alone; there are too many unknowns and competing motivations.”
However, Andy doesn’t want to become 100% estate grown.
“A healthy mix of estate, leased, and contracted, is perfect for us,” commented Andy. “There is a huge amount of time and energy involved in learning these vineyard sites; it’s a substantial commitment. We have to pace and focus our time, which is also why our wine growing is focused on a relatively small geographic area. It spreads the risk when frost, heat, fires, etc. occur. Witness 2020, when many colleagues made no wine. We were only 30% down.”
Andy has been working with Dutton Ranch since he started at DuMOL, Charles Heintz since 2001, and Hyde since 2002, just a few of the growers with whom he has loyal, close-knit relationships. “I’m completely involved with what they do from pruning through to seeding cover crops after the harvest,” he said. “But I don’t tell these folks how to farm because they know their sites better than I ever will. They ‘live’ the vines and each vintage. We have mutually high expectations and pay at the top of the market for the fruit, long-term. We collaborate to pull in the same direction: to maximize quality potential.”
When Galante Vineyard comes to DuMOL fully in 2024 (once all existing contracts have ended), 50% of their production will be estate. “But most importantly,” stressed Andy, “Is that for Pinot Noir, we will be 65% estate with the balance either long-term leases or established historical contracts. I don’t mind buying Chardonnay which is more straightforward to farm, and because we have many specific blocks in superb old vineyards. Speaking of which, new for 2022 is Hudson Vineyard.”
Turning our attention to DuMOL’s 2021 vintage on the tasting table, Andy commented: “2021 was just magic. If I’m very, very selective and think of the truly great vintages I’ve done here, it’s 2002, 2007, 2014, 2018, and 2021. These are the years when all the wines we made were great. However, 2002 and 2021 were the best. 2021 was a learning vintage. We’re learning from these dry vintages. It was a dry winter and an early start to the season. Going into flowering, the soils were dry. We had low seed numbers. This is important because the seeds contain the hormones that drive berry growth, so the berries stayed very small in 2021. In the Russian River Valley, we had very good yields for Pinot. This was the one bright spot on the north coast. We had a mild summer and, crucially, mild temperatures at harvest. It was a long, relaxed harvest with beautiful grapes and thick skins. The conditions were just beautiful. In some years, you have to work the Pinot extraction a bit more, but not in 2021. We only had to do 2-3 punch downs. We do very long, slow pressings for the Chardonnay—5 to 6 hours with very little rolling. We extract a lot of the phenolic power from the Chardonnay skins. If you press too quickly, you don’t get that extract. The 2021 wines are so tense and vibrant!”
The style here perfectly hits that sweet-spot target of generous fruit with captivating finesse. I can’t recommend this collection of 2021s highly enough.
As I packed up my laptop to head to the next visit, Andy told me this was his 30th year making wine. Nearly twenty-five of those years have been spent putting down roots at DuMOL, a quarter of a century that has layered over but not completely obscured his eclectic accent.
Article & Reviews by Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW
Photography by Johan Berglund
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