one winery, one wine
What happens when you quit your day job. (From the Fall 2010 issue of SONOMA)
Bill Canihan with a bottle of Exuberance and an heirloom Ford tractor.
In 2006 Bill Canihan was a mortgage banker for commercial real estate in San Francisco when an existential door opened in front of him and the voice inside his head said, "Enter."
Looking back, he says he knew a crossroads was on the horizon. "Each deal became so tedious and mind-numbing-the average time was six months to close. Then the capital began to dry up. With all the appreciation in real estate I knew there had to be a correction, I could see it coming. I just didn't think it would be this bad. It was very scary."
The portal before him led to a parcel of acreage on the cusp of Carneros that his father had bought from a Basque farmer in 1975 and left fallow to let the land rest and rejuvenate. The long-term plan was always to plant an organic vineyard, fulfilling the dream of Canihan's Swiss immigrant grandfather who arrived in California with exquisitely bad timing, intending to produce wine just as Prohibition began.
With mortgage banking behind him, Bill Canihan came to the 20 acres at the tip of the Sonoma Valley with the one thing it had previously lacked-a motivated steward with the time and determination to grow great fruit. He had already ripped the soil in 1998, planting nine acres of pinot, syrah and cabernet franc.
"From day one we practiced organic," he says looking out at rows of syrah and pinot from the weathered barn that serves as office and artifact. "We were certified in 2008."
Organic certification is only a part of the formula for sustainability Canihan brought to the property. He hired the ubiquitous wizard of sustainable winemaking-Phil Coturri-to manage his vineyard for its first four years. The vines are dry-farmed as soon as root health allows, fermentation occurs with native yeast, the wine isn't fined or filtered, they drop a lot of fruit to focus the flavor in the best bunches, and yield-so far-has rarely if ever exceeded one ton per acre.
All that, of course, has a price.
Organic farming and the kind of labor-intensive vineyard management Canihan practices is three to four times more expensive than a typical non-organic vineyard.
"In 2008," Canihan reveals, "vineyard management alone cost us $30 a bottle. The lowest we've done is $19 a bottle. That's just vineyard management costs. It doesn't include bottles, labels or foil."
So if you've wondered why your favorite bottle of boutique, small lot, exquisitely crafted, biodynamic, dry-farmed pinot, cabernet or syrah costs $60 a bottle, consider the upfront costs.
Bill Canihan was somewhat surprised. "I wasn't exactly clear on the economy of small vineyards," he confesses. "I didn't realize a lot of these vineyards are tax write-offs. I thought I might be able to live off this."
He may yet.
The 2007 San Francisco International Wine Competition had 47 judges tasting 4,300 wines. After three days of sipping and spitting, the awards for Best Syrah/Shiraz, and Best of Show Red Wine, went to the 2004 Canihan syrah "Exuberance." It was the first commercial release of Bill Canihan's life, and his was judged the best red wine in the entire competition, which encompassed a galaxy of wines from all over the world.
That's when you say, "Well now, maybe we have something here."
A word about "Exuberance." The name is attached to Canihan's very best wines and it has to be earned. There isn't an automatic Exuberance for each varietal each year. "There's a huge difference year-to-year," Canihan points out, underscoring a dilemma too many winemakers try to mask by tweaking the formula to achieve the same level of perceived quality from vintage to vintage. "Our winemaking philosophy is hands-off," Canihan insists, "in that we are caretakers who guide the wines into the bottles."
And if you're committed to minimum intervention, letting the vineyard, not the lab, produce the wine, you're going to get annual differences in quality.
Where did the Exuberance name come from? Funny story.
"Alan Greenspan was describing the condition of the real estate market, and he said, 'There is a tendency toward irrational exuberance.' I thought that was an interesting expression when you think about producing less than a ton of grapes an acre for a wine that costs $30 a bottle just to cover the vineyard costs."
It may be irrational, but the product is spectacular and the 2004 was not a fluke. The 2005 Exuberance syrah won a double gold at the 2008 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition and the 2007 vintage of the same wine won double gold, Best of Class and a Sweepstakes award in the Spring 2010 Sonoma Valley Wine Competition Awards.
When asked for a tip on the single best wine he had tasted recently, Sonoma Market wine buyer Mike Short immediately pointed to the 2007 Exuberance syrah. And we haven't even talked about the pinots, which are the real focus of Canihan Family Cellars. The 2006, non-Exuberance pinot noir is stunningly good.
Bill Canihan is a former downhill ski racer who almost made the 1978 Olympic team and spent three years on the pro circuit. You don't get that good without drive, focus and discipline. All of which suggests that Canihan's wine will be on the podium for many vintages to come.
(From the Fall 2010 issue of SONOMA)