Chapter I – “Life is a Journey, get on the Red Car”
I started collecting in 1997 when my future business partner, Mark Estrin, revealed the simple joy in sharing a great bottle of Syrah. His precise palette, extensive knowledge and nuanced communication skills made him a respected wine-merchant and the perfect mentor. One afternoon we shared an old bottle of Jaboulet’s Hermitage La Chapelle. The complexity of the wine stunned me, it was rich, deep and concentrated, the aromatics vibrated with licorice, tobacco, earth, iron, blackberries and something floral. I have loved Syrah since that moment, and it turns out, that moment changed my life.
Two years passed and Mark approached me with a proposition; he and his friend Carroll Kemp planned to try their hand at winemaking and wanted me to join them. I was pretty sure it was a dumb idea, but I liked Mark, and I said yes. It was a low budget project with big ambitions—we purchased a ton of Syrah, a fermentation tank, an oak barrel, and supplies—and set out to make some wine. That year, 2000, we made our first 50 cases of Syrah in Carroll’s spare bedroom in Culver City.
The label featured a drawing of an old Los Angeles Pacific Electric Trolley Car and the words “Red Car” in a bull’s-eye. In a prior life Estrin had been a screenwriter and Kemp had been a film producer. The highly stylized approach to our early marketing married Mark’s background as a writer and his experience selling wine. The distinctive front label was a nod to a romantic, idealized past in our home city of Los Angeles. For the back label, Mark wrote a vignette with a tip of the hat to Raymond Chandler:
I walked to the window and pulled back a thin, tobacco-stained curtain. What passed for a breeze from the street below was hot and close and remorseless. Then a westbound Red Car trolley lumbered by, filled with people. For a fleeting moment, I imagined I was in that Red Car, heading to the beach, where the air was fresh and clean and cool. Riding the Red Car to the edge of the continent, to the edge of everything.
From then on, the back label of each wine carried lines of prose written by Estrin: one passage per vintage, each offering a new chapter in an ongoing 1940s era noir melodrama.
“The Window” was surprisingly good—a view shared by several of Mark’s friends who, conveniently, were sommeliers. These early supporters added the wine to their lists at The French Laundry, Spago, Charlie Trotter’s and several other highly respected restaurants.
The first 50 cases sold quickly, and we declared ourselves a “business”. Production moved from the garage to a custom crush facility in Santa Maria, we acquired more fruit, and retained wine maker Tim Spear as an adviser. For the next three years Mark, Carroll and Tim sourced fruit from a number of vineyards and made wines that met with critical acclaim from Robert Parker, who praised the Syrah writing “Red Car has the Midas Touch when it comes to producing wines of character and richness.”
Encouraged, we added a new wine to the lineup, a Syrah we named “The Fight”. Each vintage we commissioned an original painting to create the front label and a serialized installment on the back label written by Estrin. The packaging took almost as much work as the wine.
The wines were a hit, but we weren’t yet making wines like that Northern Rhone Syrah that originally inspired us. For that we would need to grow grapes in a cooler place. We decided Sonoma was that place, specifically the wild coastal ridges North of Bodega Bay known as the True Sonoma Coast. The cool temperature, like that of the Northern Rhone, would allow the fruit to ripen slowly and develop the complexity and depth we wanted. It would be a big commitment, but we were all in………..
Chapter 2 “The heart of Red Car”
In 2003 we bought 128 acres of raw land in Cazadero perched 1,200 feet above the Pacific Ocean. I had a visceral reaction the first time I drove out to the property. Winding down River Road to Jenner then up Meyers grade to King Ridge I passed through forests of old growth redwood, oak and manzanita, and remote vineyards cooled by ocean breezes. Hawks circled above the trees as sunshine pushed the morning fog back out to sea. It was quite an introduction.
While remote we were not alone. Our new neighbors Hirsch, Marcassin, Flowers, Peay and a handful of others had already crafted beautiful wines from vines struggling to produce in this cool and changeable environment. Inspired by their success we retained local winemaker David Ramey as a consultant, Daniel Roberts to help select clones and Ulises Valdez to farm the vineyard. Carroll and Mark worked around the clock to get the project launched.
In 2004 we gathered for a Red Car team dinner to celebrate progress on the new vineyard and high marks from Robert Parker on our 2002 vintage wines. That night, Mark announced that he was quitting his sales job at the Wine House and would dedicate himself fully to building Red Car. He was determined to realize his dream. “When it’s your own vineyard”, he said, “you’re not just selling a bottle of wine. You’re selling your hard work, your time, your imagination, your hopes and dreams.” There were toasts and speeches and we welcomed the future. We decided that the first vines planted would be Syrah.
But life takes cruel turns, and just as we prepared to plant the vineyard Mark was diagnosed with cancer. Should we press on or should we pause? Mark insisted that we continue. “The new vineyard” he said, “will be the heart of Red Car, and by the way, I’m not going anywhere.” We prepared to plant our first, and now oldest vines.
A little over a year later, Mark called and asked me to come by his house. He had been declining and I was unsure what to expect. When I arrived he was resting and waved me closer. In a whisper he told me he had decided to stop further treatment —- he was prepared to let nature take its course. He looked me in the eye and said, “promise me you will finish the vineyard”. As I nodded I would, he recounted something he had been pondering:
“It is said that when we enter this world, our soul shatters into 22 pieces. Our purpose in life is to seek and gather up those pieces to become whole again.”
He paused and looked at me, “Richard, I want you to know that Red Car is my twenty second piece”. I was speechless. At once honored that I had played some small part in helping a friend find peace, I was at the same time suddenly alone with the thought that our journey together was near its end. Four months later Mark was gone.
After the memorial service, Carroll and I pledged that in future years when the fruit from our oldest Syrah vines was exceptional it would be vinified as Cuvee 22 in honor of Mark and the journey we shared. The initial label bore a picture of Mark when he was 22 years old.
As promised, we pressed on, planting blocks of Syrah, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the new vineyard. We envisioned that this place we now called the Estate, would ultimately be surrounded by a small constellation of unique vineyards in Fort Ross/Seaview, Occidental and Freestone, all within the True Sonoma Coast. Carroll began seeking out and experimenting with fruit from several new sites. Only time would tell which would form the next leg of our journey……….
Chapter 3: “True North”
In 2006, while searching for new vineyards to complement the Estate, we met the Hanlein and Coletti families, co-owners of a pristine 500-acre ranch just outside of Occidental. They had recently developed a small vineyard on a south facing slope where the soil and climate were perfect for growing Pinot Noir, and we jumped at the chance to sign a lease. In 2007 we produced the first wine from the site. Inspired by the quality of the fruit and the natural beauty of the place, we named it Heaven & Earth. The label was an ethereal photo of coastal fog settling over fall colors in the vineyard. No Red Car branding disturbed the beauty of the shot.
In 2009 we released the wine, and that same year Wine Spectator published a cover story: “Best Ever California Pinot Noir”. James Laube, one of the magazine’s top critics wrote, “Just when you think California Pinot Noir can’t get any better, it does”. He awarded the 2007 Heaven & Earth 97 points, published a picture of the vineyard, and put an image of the bottle on the cover of the magazine.
It was marketing gold except for one thing—-the front label had no identifying brand. What a bunch of knuckleheads! 2.5 million readers, and no one could identify the wine! Despite some initial confusion, wine lovers did figure it out and the wine sold out overnight. Heaven & Earth continues to be one of our most sought after wines today.
Over the next several years we worked with excellent, and in some cases renowned vineyards including Platt, Ritchie, Doc’s Ranch, Zephyr Farms, Falstaff, Vivio, Hawk Hill, Manchester Ridge and the Hagan Vineyard.
It was a learning process, and in time we winnowed the group down by asking ourselves three questions: first, can these sites naturally lend to the style of wine that we aspire to make – wines of typicity, with fresh and pure aromatics that speak to the place and the people behind the glass; second, can we establish a long term business relationship beneficial to both parties; and, third, can we manage the farming.
We were fortunate to meet and partner with Greg Adams, an accomplished and widely respected viticulturist who consulted on all our farming operations until 2017 when he assumed management of all Red Car vineyards. The benefit of having our own dedicated farming operation had become clear. It enabled us to control the entire production process from grape growing through the bottling of each wine. We confirmed that all great wines are indeed born in the vineyard.
In 2010, having identified several excellent vineyards, we decided it was time to consolidate all winemaking and business operations in Sebastopol. Carroll identified the perfect space— an abandoned tractor dealership! In short order we transformed the space into a winery, a business office and a tasting room; our home for the last decade.
As we evolved, we streamlined the business, paring back the number of vineyards and bottlings, and, importantly, the number of labels. When Mark passed, we lost the ability to create the vignettes that graced our early labels, so we were left to experiment with new ways to differentiate our wines. Predictably, over a number of years we achieved chaos.
While the creativity was fun it caused lots of confusion in the marketplace. We wanted to present a simpler, more cohesive brand and realized the things that defined our “True North”; the soils, the proximity to the Pacific Ocean, and the unique geography of the place were the story. The geography and the vineyard locations would speak for the wines.
Fewer vineyards, fewer wines and fewer labels—–we were finally getting focused. But there’s always an exception to the rule, and ours was Rosé. First conceived in 2013 our Rosé of Pinot Noir emerged well ahead of the current flood tide of Rosé in the market. Consumers loved the tightly wound aromatics of bright fresh fruit, coupled with racy natural acidity and unique textures from barrel fermentation and lees contact. Somehow this wine could not be constrained by our standard package. So, we created a label that complemented the wine’s pale pink color and paired it with a hock bottle to project the compelling structure and pure joy of the wine within. Unexpectedly we created a hit and the Rosé quickly became our top selling product.
Sometimes thinking outside the box pays off.