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Chalk Hill Appellation Video

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Chalk Hill

Chalk Hill In the hilly terrain due east of Windsor, nestled in a far corner of the Russian River Valley appellation, is the small viticultural area of Chalk Hill, with rolling hillside vineyards and unusual white soil made not of chalk but of ancient volcanic ash and rock.
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Chalk Hill

by Michele Anna Jordan 

     In the hilly terrain due east of Windsor, nestled within the far corner of Russian River ValleyShow on map, is the small viticultural area of Chalk Hill, with its rolling hillside vineyards, unusual white soil made not of chalk but of ancient volcanic ash, and its single estate winery. 

     There is a wildness to the terrain of this region, and little traffic.  There are no European-style chateaux and few public events; Chalk Hill Estate is open for tasting and tours by appointment only. Chalk Hill AVA, which is bordered on the south by Mark West Springs Road and on the west by Old Redwood Highway, seems much farther away from civilization than it actually is, though how long it will remain this way is anybody’s guess.  The city of Windsor would like to see housing built here, Healdsburg prefers an open-space green belt, and vineyards, considered by some to be a perfect compromise, are a flash point among environmentalists.  A few years ago, the Windsor School District appropriated nearly 35 acres of Rodney Strong’s 152-acre Chalk Hill Vineyard for a new high school.


     Whatever the fate of the region, Chalk Hill’s agricultural future seems, to some extent, secure.  There are several large ranches committed to farming and conservation. Chalk Hill Estate currently has about 300 of its 1200-acre parcel under vine, with long-term plans to plant another 150 to 200 acres. Nearby, a 3,000-acre ranch focuses on habitat restoration for wood ducks, there are a handful of large cattle ranches, and a well-known market garden, Tierra VegetablesShow on map


     Less than two miles north of the AVA’s one winery is the Chalk Hill Clematis Nursery, where Murray Rosen presides over what may be the largest selection of clematis vines in the world, sold via phone, fax, e-mail, and wholesale, including to such local nurseries as Harmony Farms, Western Hills, and Vintage Gardens.  Murray began developing the ranch, in association with owners Richard and Kaye Heafey, six years ago as a specialty flower farm.  Although it is still young in the world of premium cut flowers, the blossoms are sold all over the United States to specialty designers and have been featured at events for President Clinton and the Dali Lama, among others, as well as at Sophia Coppola’s wedding. 


     In addition to its vines and  flowers, the high-end company makes extra-virgin olive oil from 250 olive trees, originally planted to provide oil for the Heafey family.  Initial pressings drew such rave reviews that the company decided to offer it to the public.  The 1999 oil was released April 1, along with a traditional-style balsamic vinegar made in association with Paul Bertoli of Oakland’s Oliveto restaurant; the 250 bottles will be sold only through the website (www.chalkhillclematis.com).  


     Chalk Hill Clematis Nursery is open to the public just one day a year, May 5.
Lee and Wayne James of Tierra VegetablesShow on map have been farming on Chalk Hill Road since 19tk, although their profile soared in 1980, when they began producing chipotles using their estate-grown peppers and an old refrigerator converted into a smoker.  Today, they operate a CSA (community supported agriculture) program with tk subscribers, sell at several farmers market, including in Healdsburg, and distribute their selection of smoked chiles and chipotle powder throughout the country.


     Rodney Strong was the first to use the Chalk Hill designation on a wine label; it appeared on the company’s 1977 Chalk Hill Vineyard Chardonnay five years before the appellation was formally established in 1983.  Today, Rodney Strong maintains two vineyards in Chalk Hill, the second one purchased to replace the acreage lost to the new high school in Windsor.  Two wines, a reserve chardonnay and an estate chardonnay, bear the designation.  Dan Wildermuth, vice president of marketing for Rodney Strong, believes you can taste a distinct mineral quality in the chardonnays of Chalk Hill.


     What distinguishes the Chalk Hill viticultural area from surrounding regions is the rocky volcanic soil  and the relatively mild climate (the jut of land known as Chalk Hill is on private property in Alexander ValleyShow on map).  Hills form a barrier that blocks coastal fog; temperatures here are higher than in the rest of Russian River ValleyShow on map, of which the AVA is a part.  The orientation of Mt. St. Helena to the Pacific Ocean creates a chimney effect above Chalk Hill; a nearly constant breeze washes over the land, lending a slightly cooler climate than in nearby Alexander and Knights valleys.  

     Although no one disputes that chardonnay is the lead varietal, warmer parts of the AVA eventually may prove better for red grapes.  Once Chalk Hill Estate finishes replanting its vineyards, necessary because of a pervasive phylloxera infestation, Mark Lingerfelder, vineyard manager, explains, they will consider planting additional acreage on south-facing slopes near the winery itself.  The new plantings will be of red grapes, the merlot, malbec, cabernet sauvignon, and petit verdot already under vine here, a move that would eventually shift the winery’s percentage of red wine, currently only about 20 percent of its total production.  But this is a long way off; the estate, established by Fred and Peggy Furth in 1972, is half way through a six-year replanting program.

     In addition to its vineyard and winery, Chalk Hill Estate includes several lakes, a wedding park, stables, and the largest indoor equestrian arena in North America.  The winery’s chef, Craig Strattman, has an organic kitchen garden, a single acre currently in the full flower of spring.  In addition, he has the entire 1200 acres at his disposal for harvesting the edible wild plants that he frequently features on his menus, a fitting tribute to one of Sonoma County’s remaining urban wildernesses.

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