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Arnot Roberts víngerð ársins, San Fransisco Chronicle 2013

Jon Bonné

In the 1980s, Duncan Arnot Meyers and Nathan Lee Roberts became friends as they pushed their mountain bikes up the hills outside Napa. Later they both would be drawn to wine, but always, there was cycling. They traded up to road bikes. Meyers even hoped to make a career as a competitive cyclist.

They still scout Sonoma's back hills on two wheels, now with an eye toward vineyards.

Eight years after founding their label, Arnot-Roberts, the two have made a string of wines that have become synonymous with California's bounty.

There is, for instance, their galvanizing Clary Ranch Syrah, which rewrote the wisdom about where that grape could grow. But also their old-vine white field blend, a tribute to Sonoma's past. And their addition of the obscure Trousseau grape to the roster of California's possibles.

For this - and much more - Meyers and Roberts are The Chronicle's Winemakers of the Year.

Their success comes as we're witnessing a time of transition for California wine. Roberts and Meyers come from a new generation of winemakers who share a kinship with the pioneers of the 1970s, a similarly urbane perspective that's very different from recent years' inward gaze.

"I always felt like we were in the right place at the right time," Roberts says.

But as hometown boys, the two men, both 40, are the embodiment of the new California story - proof that the state need not emulate wines from elsewhere or fall on programmatic, high-octane winemaking. It can exult in its own great possibilities.

Working in a tiny Healdsburg warehouse, with no staff and no outside funding, they craft 2,700 cases each year. When the easy money was in more obvious wines, the two friends decided to please only their own palates. They bet their careers on the provocative.

"I think what they've done that's very cool is to take the road to purity," says Napa winemaker John Kongsgaard, who hired Meyers as an intern. "Their wines, the statements they make, are so subtle that the undiscerning might miss it. And they're not afraid of that."

Those hunting for signs of hope in California saw in Arnot-Roberts an ability to finesse bottles that diverged from old story lines. Ethereal Pinot Noir from the same mountain where Martin Ray farmed his famous vineyard. Gamay Noir that rivaled the best Morgon without sacrificing its Sierra foothills roots.

As this new California reaches the mainstream, Arnot-Roberts keeps advancing the conversation. Its founders share an unwavering belief in the state's present and future greatness.

Napa roots
The two were raised on Napa's sleepy east side. They met on the first day of third grade, served in the Cub Scouts together, graduated in the same class at Vintage High School.

Roberts' dad, Keith, founded one of California's only American-owned cooperages. Father and son worked together after Roberts finished college, work that sensitized Roberts to the flavor of oak. Roberts sometimes makes a barrel, but typically he and Meyers use hand-me-downs that age wine without imparting flavor. (More recently, they have been tinkering with clay amphorae.)

He is shy about his other wine ties, notably his grandmother Margrit Biever Mondavi, Robert Mondavi's widow, who helped design the Arnot-Roberts labels. His mother, Annie Roberts, was a longtime chef at Robert Mondavi Winery.

Meyers' father, David, was a Napa attorney, and his mother taught humanities at the local school. One of his close friends was Bernard Portet, co-founder of the Clos du Val winery.

It was a solid middle-class existence, and Napa's era of landed wealth was still at least a decade away. But the 1970s and '80s also were a time of corporate investment, of the desire to make wine at scale - and followed by an era of cult wines and have-it-now ambitions. That offered valuable, if unsettling, perspective.

"It became about making an industry that didn't exist before," Meyers says. "It shifted gears to 'Let's make this an industry here, let's make something that makes people a lot of money rather than something that lets a farmer put food on his table.' It's almost like the Industrial Revolution, but in wine it happened later. The smaller guys were always there, but operated in the shadows of the bigger guys."

After attending college in Colorado and giving up his dream of becoming a professional cyclist, Meyers became a wandering cellar rat at Caymus and Groth. In 2001, the two friends roomed together and decided to make a single barrel of wine, a field blend from Dry Creek Valley.

They liked it enough that the next year they gathered $10,000, filed commercial paperwork and made four barrels of wine. But it wasn't a career. Roberts kept crafting oak barrels. Meyers became assistant winemaker at Pax Wine Cellars.

They realized that if they steered clear of investors and debt, they could quit their day jobs and still make the wines they wanted. It was crucial to keep their work on a human scale, a lesson learned by watching both Kongsgaard and Ted Lemon, who patiently built his Littorai Wines over 20 years - both men trading easier paths to success for the chance to work without compromises or loss of financial control.

The early 2000s were a risky time for vintners to follow their own tastes. California wine was in the nadir of its oversize era. At first, the Arnot-Roberts wines inched down that path.

But along came the cooler 2005 vintage. Grapes were less ripe, in particular their Hudson Syrah, which Meyers recalls having "this ethereal quality in the fermenter."

The pattern repeated itself a year later when, inspired by the Hudson, they hunted a cooler site for Syrah. The chilly hills of Petaluma's dairy country seemed just right, in particular a spot in the Middle Two Rock area called Clary Ranch, marginal enough to retain the energetic flavors they wanted without too much alcohol. (Perhaps too marginal: Clary struggles to ripen each year.)

Then, the 2008 Clary. At just 11.5 percent alcohol, it was a lightning rod, initially almost too severe. But with more time in the bottle, it blossomed, becoming redolent with pretty peppercorn and sage aromas, intense even with its slight frame. Soon enough the '08 Clary became sommelier catnip, a calling card that telegraphed a different mentality taking shape in California. The two men quickly gained a loyal nationwide following.

"That was a lesson in the importance of vineyards on the edge," Roberts says. "We took that lesson and applied it to other wines. When someone says, this site doesn't get ripe enough for X winery, that's a sign."

New guard
On a recent day, we sit down to lunch at a picnic table at their Healdsburg facility. Roberts serves fennel soup and sardine conserva he made the previous night. The two men and their families - both are married, Meyers has a son, 3, and 18-month-old daughter, and Roberts has a 9-month-old son - embody the DIY ethos of California's culinary new guard. Everything is hands-on. They recently purchased a small drum roaster for their espresso beans.

"There's a return to artisanally produced things, and smaller scale. People have seen what a mass-production approach means," Meyers says. "I know I would be busted if I tried to bring home something spoofed up to my wife."

Hence their omnivorous choices in grapes. As with most of their contemporaries, farming their own land isn't an option; a Napa childhood doesn't exempt you from the harsh realities of modern California real estate. So they rely on the labor, and goodwill, of a network of grape growers from Lake County to Santa Cruz.

"We've never limited what the winery was going to be about," Roberts says. "It's a reflection of our own taste in wine. Why wouldn't I make wine from the varieties I love?"

If winemakers - and critics - of an earlier generation bragged about a sort of "My family drank Coke" populism, Roberts and Meyers grew up with wine, often local wine, on the table. They later honed their palates on everything from Cote-Rotie to Austrian Blaufrankisch, not unlike the perspective enjoyed by many 1970s wine pioneers.

Ultimately, their palates led them to seek out viticultural hard cases. They gave up their Syrah grapes in the Hudson vineyard - not marginal enough, they decided. They discovered Fellom Ranch, an old Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet planting across a gully from Ridge's famous Monte Bello. The vineyards are more affordable, and it's no coincidence that many of these sites were planted around 1980, about a decade before growers became fixated on fashionable choices in grape clones and rootstocks.

19th century planting
But nothing resonated quite like their Trousseau. Entranced by the red wines of France's Jura region, Meyers and Roberts began hunting that variety amid the discards and overlooked plantings that dot California - to no avail, even though Trousseau was part of the state's 19th century plantings.

They realized that the grape was the same as the Port variety Bastardo - itself an obscurity, but one that the Luchsinger family in Kelseyville (Lake County) had planted in 2001, installing 2 acres with hopes that someone might use it in Port-style wine.

At first, Trousseau was just another curiosity in the Arnot-Roberts portfolio. But the 2011 vintage galvanized a diffuse group of Jura partisans throughout the country. It earned enough attention that the two secured more grapes last year from new plantings in the Bartolomei vineyard near Forestville and the Bohan vineyard on the Sonoma coast.

Most vintners would revel at their work being poured by the glass at the French Laundry; they were more excited to find the Trousseau at a Texas chain steak house.

"This wine," Meyers says, "does have the chance to transcend boundaries."

Their Cabernets and Chardonnays might be the most quietly radical, in part because those wines have reference points from their childhoods. They are, Roberts points out, "the only varieties for which we have an inspiration in California." (One exception: In 2012 they made a bit of Zinfandel.)

Pendulum swings back
Certainly their Cabs aren't shy - the Fellom brims with dark fruit, olive flavors and the intense minerality of Santa Cruz - but they are aged in mostly old oak barrels and made in a style that evokes California Cabernet from three decades back.

Chardonnays fall neither to recent stainless-steel fads nor the Baroque barrel-fermented style; instead, they bring to mind the grape's more innocent times.

None of this is meant to be reactionary. It's simply a case of two native sons viewing California's bounty through a different prism.

"I don't see our wines as extreme," Roberts says. "They're unique. Maybe there's a few that are polarizing. But I consider our wines to be made in a classic style."

Meyers, as always, is quick to finish his friend's thought.

"There's a 20-year chunk of California history where the majority of players in it were in it to hit buttons. Now we're swinging back, because that style has marginalized customers. Not everyone wants to have wines that simple.

"This is one of the most exciting times in the history of California wine. Five years ago, would we have been talking about Mourvedre from the foothills or Trousseau from the coast?

"It's great to come to work in the morning."

From the notebook
Arnot-Roberts wines don't have an obvious signature, although the Syrah and Pinot Noir show signs of whole-cluster fermentation. Cabernets similarly show a leafy freshness reminiscent of the 1970s - although, unlike in that era, they are less likely to receive routine acidulation.

Whites - which typically undergo malolactic fermentation - have more flesh than you might expect. Meyers and Roberts now insist on using indigenous yeasts (a choice they adopted from John Kongsgaard) and minimizing sulfur dioxide during crush and fermentation.

In addition to Gamay Noir, their 2012 vintage will bring additions, including more Trousseau, skin-fermented Ribolla Gialla, Pinot Noir from the Coastlands vineyard near the Sonoma Coast and the Legan vineyard outside Santa Cruz, and a 12.7 percent alcohol Zinfandel from Lodi's Kirschenmann vineyard.

Wines are available by mailing list and from some local retailers. Current and future highlights include:

2010 Clary Ranch Sonoma Coast Syrah ($40, 12.2% alcohol): The Arnot-Roberts calling card. A full, intensely savory range of pepper spice, green olive and mineral. The 2011 North Coast Syrah ($38, 12.9%) is a bit warmer and mellower.

2011 Peter Martin Ray Vineyard Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir ($60, 12.2%): From a late-'70s planting in a historic Saratoga site, it brims with iris, bayberry and great perfume.

2011 Arnot-Roberts Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay ($33, 12.7%): Another old-vine discovery from the Trout Gulch site near Aptos, on pure loam. Tangy and precise, with green apple but a depth of texture that signals that area's potential. Possibly their best Chardonnay.

2011 Compagni-Portis Old Vine White ($30, 13.5%): A field blend of Gewurztraminer, Sylvaner and a range of historic white grapes from a 1954 vineyard. Balancing a chlorophyll-like herbal side with anise, chestnut and pear flesh.

Jon Bonné is The San Francisco Chronicle's wine editor. Find more coverage at E-mail: Twitter: @jbonne

Written By
Jon Bonné

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