Though Winegrower and Winemaker Garrett Bowlus has studied abroad at the University of Dijon, done prestigious internships in Oregon, and has taken numerous classes in viticulture and enology through UCLA and UC Davis, he is predominantly a self-taught winemaker. With a great palate and a natural gift for winemaking, Garrett has developed his own thoughtful and gentle approach—an approach designed to show the beauty, elegance and varietal purity of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Albatross Ridge.
“Most winemakers study winemaking and then apply the lessons they’ve learned to the varieties and vineyards they end up working with,” says Garrett. “Our family set out to establish a vineyard in one of the most distinctive and special winegrowing locations in California. I helped to plant the vineyard with my own hands, watched it evolve and mature, and then I learned how to make the wines the vineyard wanted to create.”
In addition to overseeing the design and planting of Albatross Ridge, including the selection of all clonal and rootstock materials, Garrett is in the vineyard daily, where he personally guides the farming, working side-by-side with Vineyard Foreman Mariano Herrera. As part of his belief in making wines that are an authentic expression of Albatross Ridge, Garrett farms the vineyard 100% organically, and by hand. “Because our goal is to nurture the full potential of each plant on our steep, windy mountain site, we essentially treat each vine like a bonsai. This means that we do as many as a dozen hand-pruning passes each vintage in order to do things like shoot thinning, cluster thinning, leaf pulling, and much more. We apply a remarkable level of handwork because it makes a huge difference in wine quality.”
To preserve the diversity of the vineyard’s many small blocks, and the vivid, aromatic character of the fruit, Garrett harvests Albatross Ridge’s 25 acres of vines earlier than many other wineries, at roughly 20.0-22.5˚ Brix. In the winery, Garrett does approximately a dozen individual Pinot Noir fermentations each vintage, with some as small as ½ a ton—all to make just two Pinot Noirs. To naturally accentuate the complexity of the vineyard, while adding to the fresh-cut rose aromatics of the Pinot Noirs, Garrett incorporates small amounts of whole clusters on a block-by-block basis. Because Albatross Ridge picks at lower Brix, Garrett will often do two to three punch downs a day to develop body and color. Free-run wine is kept separate from the press wine, and the final blends are almost entirely free run wine—though occasionally Garrett will add a very small percentage of press wine as a spicy blending component. To preserve their vineyard character, after being aged for at least 11-12 months in barrel with no racking, the Pinots are bottled unfined and unfiltered.
The Chardonnay from Albatross Ridge receives the same intimate attention to detail. All Chardonnays are barrel fermented sur lie, with minimal stirring. In addition, like the Pinot Noirs, the Chardonnays are fermented using native yeast. “One of the many benefits of harvesting at lower Brix is that we never have stuck fermentations.” However, because Garrett picks earlier, he applies a very light press for the Chardonnay (55-60 cases per ton) to avoid any green flavors from the stems and seeds. New oak is used judiciously, and is almost always below 25% for Chardonnay (and 35% for Pinot). To ensure that the oak integrates perfectly, and does not overwhelm the elegance of the wines, all barrels are extra tight grain. Garrett particularly likes to use one-year-old barrels because of the lovely way they frame the fruit character of Albatross Ridge.
“Due to our extremely unique growing conditions, which include our elevation, exposure, and diatomaceous, limestone and shale soils similar to those found in Burgundy, our grapes taste beautifully ripe at lower Brix. Our goal is to capture this fruit character, without losing any of the dazzling aromatics and graceful structure that you achieve by picking earlier.”
For Garrett, this means trusting the vineyard and trusting the process. “Our family was meant to plant this land, and I was meant to make wine from this vineyard. From meeting my wife, Cassia, while working at Bergström in Oregon, to discovering after we planted the vineyard that my great-grandfather used to fly his sailplanes off this same land, there has been a sense of destiny leading us to make wines at Albatross Ridge. While I may have taken the road less traveled to get here, when I look at my daughter playing among the vines, I know I’m right where I’m supposed to be.”