LA CREMA WINERY: A REASSESSMENT
by Andrew Chalk
Consider La Crema, a brand ubiquitous on wine lists and retail shelves, typically led by Russian River, Sonoma Coast, and Monterey appellated pinot noir and chardonnay. A reliable good value, owned by Jackson Family Wines.
Until recently, that was a rough summary of all I knew about La Crema. However, they invited me to a media event to celebrate their 40th birthday and I came home with a much richer understanding and deeper appreciation for the brand. Here I discuss the wines, along with tasting notes, but let’s start with their history.
Rod Bergland with the assistance of some others founded La Crema Viñera, the original name of La Crema, in 1979 in a Petaluma business park. His objective was to make wine the way that his hero, Joseph Swan, did: minimal intervention and some self-taught technique. Swan was already an icon in California winemaking, despite not starting his eponymous winery until 1967. In 1975 Bergland, a biology student at Sonoma State University, worked a harvest for Swan, pro bono. In 1976 he worked the crush (for which it is believed that he was paid). His time with Swan taught him that Swan was a perfectionist who would readily tip away wines that did not meet his standards, and that he willingly used grotty equipment, including a tiny press that was broken half the time.
The La Creme Viñera operation was like a testing ground for Swan’s techniques. Chronically under-capitalized and fueled only by passion. They had no hot water and no lab. Bergland later recounted to wine writer Dan Berger that he worked the night shift at Safeway to make ends meet. The wines that resulted spanned the spectrum from inspired to irredeemable. One of La Crema Viñera’s first wines was a 1979 Russian River Valley pinot noir.
In 1986 Bergland married Joseph Swan’s stepdaughter, Lynn. The couple worked with Swan on the 1977 vintage and that would turn out to be Swan’s last. He was ill with cancer and passed away in 1989. Control and operation of Joseph Swan Winery fell to Bergland and his wife.
SALE TO JACKSON FAMILY WINES
The Berglands sold La Crema Viñera to Jackson Family Wines in 1993 and retained Joseph Swan winery, which they still own and operate today. Jackson Family shortened the name of their purchase to La Crema and produced the first wine under their team in 1994 (Bergland made the 1993 for them). Jess Jackson had already decided on the mission of La Crema, which would become part of an expanding portfolio of wineries, each with its own specialty and identity. To wit, La Crema would make wines from cool climate regions on the Pacific coast states, mainly from the principal Burgundian varieties, chardonnay and pinot noir. Operationalising that mission meant starting with the Russian River wines that Bergland had created but then expanding to other regions.
Sonoma was used for all sourcing initially, but the catchment area expanded to include Monterey and Willamette Valley. That expansion is summarized in Table 1.
Expansion of La Crema to new places 1993-2019
Expansion has not only been extensive, but also, and more so, intensive. That is, the number of vineyards in the areas above have grown over time. The fastest growth was in the Russian River Valley AVA where, at one time or another, La Crema sourced from ten different vineyards.
Winemaking moved to a Russian River Valley facility in 1996 and a tasting room opened in the town of Healdsburg in 2006. A major marketing expansion was in 2013 when La Crema purchased the Saralee Vineyard and Estate from Richard and Saralee McClelland Kunde. The centerpiece of the buildings, known as The Barn, was built in 1900 and served as a hop store, horse stable, and finally the Kunde family home. La Crema renovated it with the technical expertise of BraytonHughes Design Studios in San Francisco, reopening it in 2016 as “the premier destination for wine education and culinary exploration in Sonoma”, according to La Crema publicity materials. The renamed La Crema Estate at Saralee’s Vineyard provides a full range of tastings, vineyard tours, picnic lunches, classes and private events.
Head Winemaker Craig McAllister joined La Crema in 2007 as the Harvest Enologist, becoming Head Winemaker in 2016. He has made wine in his native New Zealand, Australia, Chile, and Cyprus. He is assisted by Jen Walsh, winemaker, who has specialized in small volume wine making at La Crema and elsewhere. That included a stint in Maryland battling the elements to make good wine.
McAllister sees the winemaker’s job as extracting the expression of the terroir from the grapes provided. His techniques are mainstream with a bias towards minimum intervention. He destems most of the pinot noir and estimates that about 70% of the grapes make it to the fermenter whole. Jen Walsh is increasingly using a small amount of whole cluster on some of the single-vineyard and appellation wines to build complexity. The chardonnay is all barrel fermented and given battonage and hand punchdowns. Ageing is in French oak (a small amount of American is used for some wines) with a remarkably similar level of new oak barriques across wines (about 30%). La Crema is the only Russian River winery with an ownership stake in a French stave farm, allowing it close control over wood selection, treatment, and security of supply.
One trend I spotted was a move towards single vineyard wines. The wide-area Sonoma Coast, Russian River, and Anderson Valley wines still exist as large volume products, but the single vineyard bottlings seem to be the direction in which La Crema is headed.
At a (non-blind) tasting of eight La Crema wines, Craig McAllister took us through the nuances of several growing areas.
2018 La Crema Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast ($23)
Sonoma Coast is a vast area that appears to break all the rules of an AVA. Rather than encompassing similarity inside and difference outside, Sonoma Coast contains a large number of soil types, climatic conditions and topography. It encompasses the Russian River AVA in its entirety, making this wine about 50% Russian River AVA. The wine was 90-95% barrel fermented, 20-22% new oak, 25% of the oak was American.
This wine has a nose of tropical fruit (mango, pineapple) with hints of orange. On the palate there is vibrant fruit due to the medium-high acid. Despite being the volume white in the La Crema range this wine should not be overlooked. It is distinctive and well-balanced. A comparative bargain, it is also flexible, pairing well with lobster, chicken, turkey and veal. Or just as a quaffing wine.
Aged in 35% new oak, 100% French. Nose of honey, brioche, mandarin orange. Palate confirms the fruit in the nose and frames it with a medium acid.
This wine is very much in the big, ripe, fruit California idiom. Nonetheless, it is not a fruit bomb and brings sufficient backbone to keep it fresh.
The Saralee’s vineyard can be described as the estate vineyard, being right outside the visitor centre. La Crema used the fruit before they bought the old Kunde estate.
This wine is aged in 30-35% new French oak.
The nose is citrus fruit (lemons) and wine gums. On the palate oranges and stone fruit. However, my favorite feature is a trenchant phenolic backbone that makes the finish long-lasting and distinct.
A barrel sample. Pre malo. Pre sulphur. It is samples like this that make me appreciate the perspicacity of the winemaker. The skill and experience in being able to project from this clumsy petri dish of aromas and textures and land, without a belly flop, on a sensuous, tensile-fine wine like the previous one is mesmerizing.
La Crema’s widest-sourced pinot noir. This wine is 8-10 months in French oak barrels with 25% new oak.
Nose of raspberry and toffee. Palate of dark fruit, forest floor, root beer. A lot of complexity for the money here. A wine to look for on restaurant lists. Pleasant on its own or with pork, veal or liver.
This wine is 8-10 months in French oak, 35% new.
The nose is cherry and rose fragrance. The palate is bright open fruit with a long fruity finish.
The Russian River brings a character to pinot noir that is different to Burgundy or Oregon. A kind of third expression. This wine illustrates that with its gushing fruit and freshness.
The 2015 vintage was a challenging year. Maybe that accounts for the closed nose. The palate displays brioche and savory notes. Definitely memorable and complex in the mouth. A fact that makes up for the closed nose.
A barrel sample from Saralee’s Vineyard. It is untethered fruit and primary flavors. Once again, the winemaking skills to craft this into a compelling wine leave me in awe. The current vintage is the 2016 so this 2019 should appear around 2022.