Richard Prather was right on a demographic trend when he left his family's Washington state alfalfa farm years ago, sure that he'd never go back to farming. In much of rural America, the average age of the family farmer is near retirement. Yet after skipping out halfway through a career managing auto body shops and in sales for DuPont, here he is now, riding a tractor up and down his wife's family farm in west Sonoma County, growing grapes for ultra-premium wine. "Never say never," Joelle Prather jestingly reminds him.
The whole story is that Joelle's great-grandfather purchased the ranch in 1910 to grow apples and cherries on the ridgetops. Grapes weren't planted until 1996, when her father, the late Vince Pedroia, was retiring from a veterinary career. Today, the Prathers farm 32 acres, selling the fruit to high-end clients like Schramsberg and Radio-Coteau. This allows them to reserve just 5 percent for their Occidental Road wines, which are available at a comparative "grower's discount." Richard, who went back to school to study viticulture, is the vineyard manager and winemaker. "We're it, we're everything," says Joelle. "Growers, sales—and janitors!"
There's no tasting room per se. One-to-one contact with customers at events and state fairs is key, and the Prathers form personal connections with wine club members, just as they do with grape clients. Their 2010 Horseshoe Bend Vineyard Chardonnay ($25) has a floral aroma, with golden raisin and fermented apple. Oak is limited to a lingering caramel aftertaste, and the finish is chalky and crisp. The 2009 Pinot Noir ($34) is full of soft, raspberry and cherry fruit, with a hint of spicy Christmas candle. Cool-climate Syrah at its best, the 2007 Syrah ($38) serves up a modest dose of the varietal's signature aromas of tobacco, leather and animal hide, and a hefty dollop of fresh plum, boysenberry fruit, finishing with plush tannins thoroughly integrated with the fruit.
These wines bear the appellation Russian River Valley, although grown only yards away from the southwestern boundary. The vineyard sweeps downhill toward Freestone and sports a view of the blonde coastal hills beyond. Up here, it's actually warm enough for Zinfandel to ripen. The 2008 Helen's Ridge Zinfandel ($34) is the biggest surprise here, with a hint of savory aroma over pure, soft black cherry fruit. Atypically bottled in a Burgundian-style flask, it would make for an ideal brown-bag stunt to pull on your favorite "high-alcohol Zin" pooh-poohing Pinot fan. Surprise!
Occidental Road Cellars, 2064 Gravenstein Hwy. N., Building 7, Sebastopol. Winery visits by appointment, Saturday 1–4pm. 707.874.9470.