“I’m not resigning,” Michael Richmond said, “I am retiring. Let’s be clear there.”
Richmond has logged over three decades as a clarity specialist, the last 13 of them at Bouchaine, one of my personal favorite Los Carneros wineries. At its heart, winemaking is all about clarification—it’s extracting, expressing and amplifying the essence of something. To be good at it, one must start from a place of hypothesis—start with a know-it-all attitude and that’s going to be the special guest star in your aromatic ensemble. Nose of steamroller, militant tannins, structure like a cell block. Hints of citrus, mint and defensiveness. Know what I mean?
Meanwhile, there are, happily, wineries like Bouchaine, where moxie and fearless questioning share space as easily as grapevines and wild mustard. Richmond has had a wonderful run, turning out some exceptional Pinot Noirs as well as a fetish-worthy Pinot Meunier, very stylish Chards and a lovely array of other delicate, aromatic wines.
He now passes the torch to Napa native Chris Kajani, who will be the 6th winemaker in Bouchaine’s 30-plus-year history and the first woman to hold the position. A refugee from biotech and chemistry work, Kajani is an alum of the viticulture and oenology program at UC Davis, and was most recently winemaker at Saintsbury. A confirmed “Terroiriste,” Kajani anticipates a pretty seamless transition.
“Wine’s made in the vineyard,” she remarked, indicating the expanse of vines leafing out beyond the winery’s windows—and there is a lot to that. Los Carneros is a unique AVA (the first in California to be defined by its microclimate rather than a political boundary) that straddles Napa and Sonoma counties. The marine influence is strong. For those of you unfamiliar with the Bay Area, that’s shorthand for punishing wind, lots of fog, clay soils, occasionally unpredictable heat waves and freezes. In other words, it’s perfect for the great glutton for punishment we know as Vitis vinifera, and particularly cultivars in the Pinot and Chardonnay families, though the region grows everything from Albarino to Zinfandel. Cool-climate Pinot Noirs are delicate and deeply aromatic. Chards from this region defy the stereotype of syrupy flavors and nose-punching tropical aromatics and remain crisp and refined in the style of white Burgundies.
Bouchaine, under Richmond’s speculative, humility-forward direction, has arrived at very definitive wines from both grapes. And in this tight-knit group of grape-acolytes, there’s every reason to expect that Chris Kajani will continue to build on that legacy, crafting varietal wines that bring her own signature to the label while remaining identifiably Bouchaine. For me this means a lot more armchair time on that gorgeous redwood deck in the future. And for all of us: a wonderful, quietly influential winemaker is stepping down after a long and hugely successful run, so get your hands on the bottles that were touched by the hand of Michael Richmond. Now. While you can.
2010 Carneros Pinot Noir: This bottle is special because 2010 was not a slam-dunk year for Carneros fruit. The weather doubled down on a cold, dank early growing season with a last-minute scorchfest that left winemakers scrambling to salvage their grapes. A less sensitive, switched-on and nuance-appreciating winemaker could have flubbed this vintage (and some did). Richmond? No way. This is one of those “time in a bottle” bottles that effortlessly mingles leather and dusty tannins with lighthearted and slightly tart red forest fruits. It’s delicate yet intense and wonderfully balanced. An unpredictable grape, an unpredictable season, and a paean to place and time. $35.00
2012 “Bouche de Beurre” Chardonnay: Yes, that name means “Buttermouth” and I am touting it unreservedly despite the current disdain for oaked chards, because people deserve to know there is such a thing as a really, really good one. Acidity has not been sacrificed here and this wine knows exactly what it’s doing. Straw-gold hue, rounded mouthfeel, aromatic pear and vanilla dominating. Cellar-worthy, and also damned good right this minute. $50.00
2012 Pinot Meunier: Oh, oh oh. God do I love this wine. Pinot Noir’s dusty-bloomed cousin is usually a character actor in Champagnes. It’s seldom seen in varietal still wines and Bouchaine will make you ask why. This stuff is just so complex and lovely. Sparkling wines with a strong “baking spice” profile have this grape to thank, and it is evident here too. However it is also juicy and bright. Cranberry. Pomegranate. Maybe a touch of redcurrant. Definitely an intriguing note of cedar. Definitely get at least one to save and one to drink right now. $35.00
Michael Richmond notes, “You can go three ways. You can be humble. You can be cynical. You can be jaded. Now frankly, cynical is the most fun, except you’re not learning. And jaded is death. So I’ve tried to be humble.”
Mission accomplished, Michael. Chris Kajani inherits a legacy of wines that are genuinely investigative, engaged, and thoughtful. We can’t wait to see what’s next.