When Harmon Brown and his wife, Joanne, bought a home in California’s Napa Valley in 2006, they were not thinking of starting a winery. “We just wanted a beautiful setting in which to enjoy retirement and our families,” said Brown, who ran Telluride’s popular Harmon’s restaurant for ten years, from 1996 to 2006.
“We fell in love with a place on Pritchard Hill,” Brown said, of the couple’s property in the eastern hills of Mount St. Helena, “that happened to have a small vineyard of Syrah and Cabernet.”
“This is a relatively cool area,” Brown said of the region, and, with Pritchard Hill’s above-fogline altitude of 750 feet, the grapevines “gain more sun exposure” than lower elevations.
Add to that a topsoil featuring volcanic components that is “very thin and holds little water,” and Pritchard Hill produces grapes with “firmer tannins and better age-ability” than most, according to the Browns’ website, and the “rocky soils help the grapes build flavor.”
By 2008, the Pritchard Hill Syrah grapevines, planted by the Browns’ predecessors in 2001, had reached maturity. “There is a belief that mature vines produce more complex wines,” Brown explained. Another plus: the vines were densely planted (with more than 2,000 vines per acre), thus producing smaller berries with a more intense flavor, thanks to “the ratio of skin to pulp.”
“Since this was a prime location for great wine, and we had previous experience in the wine business,” said Brown, who cofounded Spottswoode Winery in St. Helena, Calif., in 1982, and was its president for the next five years, “we decided to produce a wine we could be proud of.”
The couple named their new enterprise Aril (an aril is the blood-red, tooth-shaped edible fruit of the pomegranate), in a nod to the 130-year-old pomegranate tree on the Pritchard Hill property that produces up to 95 of the thick-skinned, amply-seeded fruit every year.
THE FIRST CRUSH
Aril’s first “crush” in 2008 went straight into fermenting tanks, and then, as wine, into French oak barrels.
“After a period of time in the barrels,” Brown said – two-plus years – “the wine is bottled. The result of that first crush was 220 cases of Aril Syrah, most of which went to clients on the winery’s mailing list.” By 2011, Aril was producing 330 cases. The year 2012 marks “our first Cabernet harvest from our estate vineyard,” Brown said.
Aril’s 2008 Syrah garnered wine scores in the 90s, high marks for a wine’s debut on a scorecard compiled by such industry heavies as Robert Parker/Wine Advocate, Wine Spectator Magazine, Michael Broadbent, Decanter Magazine, Gambero Rosso, Burghound and more, with a score of 96 to 100 considered “extraordinary” and a score of 90-95 “outstanding.” It’s unheard of “to get accolades like that from the industry on your wine the first time out,” said Steve Craig, of The Wine Mine at Pacific St. Liquors, which carries Aril.
“That will certainly get everybody’s attention,” he added.
The grapes for Aril wines come from two vineyards in the Napa Valley – Pritchard Hill, and the nearby Atlas Peak. Aril’s winemaker Nate Weis is also the winemaker for Antica, the Antinori winery adjacent to the Atlas Peak Syrah vineyard (Atlas Peak was established in 1992 as an American Viticulture Area). The 2008 Aril Syrah was praised by Wine Enthusiast for displaying “a rustic earth minerality along with the supple plum and black cherry fruit” that is “complex and layered, turning delicate despite its structured earthiness.”
The wine “is a big wine,” said Brown, “with a rich body, framed by ample lively acidity. The color is deep purple, and on the nose, there is spice and fruit, with black pepper and brambly black cherry aromas, accented by toasty oak.”
Aril is now fermenting an Estate Cabernet Sauvignon that will be cellared until 2014.
“Nate has chosen to be very hands-on with our grapes,” said Brown, “and they are hand-picked, hand-sorted and aged in French oak barrels.” The 2008 Estate wine, Brown said, “is softer and more delicate than its burly cousin. The body is light and soft, with medium weight. The acidity on the palate draws the wine into focus, and dominates the long finish.”
Aril’s production grew to 330 cases of Syrah in 2011, and 2012 will mark the first Cabernet harvest (with a release anticipated in 2016).
The Browns have begun work on a new Syrah, as well – “a Syrah rose,” said Joanne Brown. “We produced an experimental two cases in 2010. It has the characteristics of a true French rose.
“We were so pleased with it that we are producing it commercially this year.”
THE TELLURIDE CONNECTION
The Browns have a home in Telluride, and maintain strong business and philanthropic connections to Telluride, as well, where Joanne Brown, a partner in Aril, is chair of the Telluride Foundation and a partner in Two Skirts, the go-to Main Street women’s clothing store.
Harmon Brown, who went from a career on Wall Street to the cut flower business in Bogota, Colombia, founding Floramerica S.A. and Sunburst Farms, in Bogata and Miami, said his decade at the helm of Harmon’s in Telluride was “about the most fun I ever had. It was also an opportunity to develop an intimate acquaintance with wine sales at the consumer level.”
Aril wines are now on sale at The Wine Mine, a retail wine shop on Pacific St. The wines will be available at the following restaurants – Allreds, Arroyo, The New Sheridan Chop House, Cosmopolitan, and The Hotel Madeline – in the coming year.