Emeritus Vineyards in Sebastopol
Emeritus produces only vineyard specific Pinot Noir from their dry farmed estate.
Established in 1999 by pioneering vintner Brice Cutrer Jones (the original owner of Sonoma-Cutrer), and guided today by his daughter, second-generation President Mari Jones, Emeritus Vineyards’ estate program features 140 acres of Pinot Noir at two grand cru-caliber vineyards: Hallberg Ranch and Pinot Hill.
We interview Keith Hammond Emeritus Vineyards Winemaker to learn more.
Share a popular tasting experience?
Keith Hammond Emeritus Vineyards Winemaker: I would definitely recommend our Estate Tour & Tasting. Our Tasting Room is the best place to experience what we’re all about. It has beautiful views of our vineyard, and a window into the winery, so that guests can feel immersed in our process as they relax and savor our wines.
With our Estate Tour & Tasting, guests start by enjoying a stroll through the vines of our Hallberg Ranch before enjoying a seated guided tasting of our single-vineyard Pinot Noirs. For those who wish to dig even deeper into our portfolio, we also offer an Art of Pinot Noir Tasting, which features some of our most coveted, small-production wines.
What type of wine do you specialize in?
Keith Hammond: We only only grow and craft Pinot Noir at Emeritus Vineyards. This absolute focus is a huge part of our identity, and makes us quite unique. Because we only work with Pinot Noir, and because it all comes from our estate vineyards, we have a depth of knowledge and experience that allows use to explore the incredible diversity of our two estate vineyards in really fascinating ways.
These includes our Hallberg Blanc, which is a white wine made from Pinot Noir, and our very limited single-block and single-clone Pinot Noirs.
What makes your wine unique?
Keith Hammond: Growing Pinot Noir exclusively is quite unique in California. Beyond that, our commitment to dry farming makes a huge difference in the character and quality of our wines. While most irrigated vines have roots that grow three or four feet deep and form a tight ball-like structure, our roots grow 20 feet or more in search of water, with multiple root tendrils.
Dry farming provides many other benefits for Pinot Noir, the most important being the fact that dry farmed grapes achieve physiological ripeness at lower sugar levels. This preserves the natural acidity in grapes that is essential to creating vibrant, energetic expressions of Pinot Noir.
We also corelate dry farming with an overall concentration of flavor in the grapes, as well as their underlying complexity and finesse. From an environmental standpoint, because we do not irrigate our 140 acres of vines, we save the equivalent water usage of 280 four-person households a year. To date, Emeritus has saved more than 400 million gallons of water by dry farming!
What’s one thing you wish more people knew about your winery?
Keith Hammond: Great Pinot Noirs start with great vineyards, and Hallberg Ranch is a great vineyard. When Brice and Kirk first planted it, they took everything they knew about winemaking and applied it to the goal of planting a grand cru-caliber Pinot Noir vineyard.
While Hallberg Ranch may not be a household name among consumers yet, here in Sonoma County it has earned the respect and appreciation of winemakers, which is high praise.
In fact, in addition to our own wines, a who’s who of wineries that include DRNK, Martin Ray, Joseph Jewell, Gary Farrell, Scherrer Winery, and Etude all make vineyard-designate wines from our Hallberg Ranch. In the world of winemaking that’s about the highest praise you can receive.
Describe your winemaking philosophy or approach.
Keith Hammond: Our goal is to craft place-driven wines that are delightfully distinct and balanced, while honoring the vintage and the vineyards they come from. From night harvesting to hand sorting for only the finest clusters and grapes to destemming directly to tank, we take the utmost care to preserve the purity of our fruit before fermentation begins.
Once destemmed, the grapes soak at cool temperatures to extract ideal color, aromas, and fresh fruit flavors.
Once the native yeasts begin to grow and the temperature of the ferments rise, we meticulously guide the fermentations using gentle punch-downs while working to create supple tannins. After the secondary malolactic) fermentation, we begin barrel tasting, where our team evaluates every barrel in our cellar multiple times to assess wine-wood interactions, the evolution of flavors, and to begin determining the barrels that will make up each of our Pinot Noirs.
Once each wine is complete, they are racked from barrel unfined and unfiltered to preserve the elegance, nuance and complexity that define our wines.
How did you get started in the wine industry?
Keith Hammond: When I was 18 years old, I was giving piano lessons to a man who owned a local winery. He took a liking to me and asked me to come work for him. I accepted, of course, and immediately became deeply infatuated with the world of wine.
My career started completely by chance, but now I don’t see how my life could be any other way. Here, in Sonoma, I’m constantly surrounded by incredibly dedicated, passionate and talented professionals that challenge me, keep me grounded, and inspire me to try to keep getting better with every vintage.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned in the winemaking process?
Keith Hammond: The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that every decision in winemaking has an impact, everything I do changes the character of the wine in some way. Because wine is made from nature, no two wines are ever exactly the same, and you only get one harvest per year to get it right!
I used to wake up at night and stress about whether I had made the right decision that day. Since then, I’ve learned to trust my instincts and my skill. That can be a hard thing to do, to learn to trust yourself, but winemaking has helped me grow in that way and I’m very grateful for it.
Do you remember the first time you fell in love with wine?
Keith Hammond: Although I started out enjoying mostly Pinot Noir and Syrah, it was actually a 2003 Russian River Valley Petite Sirah that first opened my eyes in a big way. There was a character to that wine that felt so familiar to me, something I had already felt with other wines I knew.
It wasn’t about how it was made, but something in its DNA. That experience helped me realize what people were talking about with the whole “terroir” thing. I felt like I had finally learned the identity of the Russian River Valley.
Do you have a favorite story about working at your winery?
Keith Hammond: I remember many years ago, I was hosting a couple here at the winery for a private tasting. During our conversation, they had told me that they lived in Colorado and were here celebrating their ten-year wedding anniversary. They said that they had chosen to come to California specifically so that they could come to Emeritus and taste their favorite wines here.
I remember feeling very grateful and proud at that moment, knowing that all our hard work was making that kind of impact on people. The fact that they chose to include us in that very special and personal moment in their lives made me smile.
It’s those instances that keep me striving to be better every year. It’s my goal to make that kind of profound impact on everyone that experiences our wines.
What do you love about winemaking?
Keith Hammond: I love that winemaking allows me to be both a scientist and a craftsman, to conceptualize something beautiful in my mind and then build it with my own hands. There is such immense satisfaction I get from watching a vine grow, eventually producing the grapes that I can use to make a wine that brings joy to people when they get to taste it.
There’s also the historical aspect of it that I find very profound.
Humans have been making wine for over 70 centuries and I get to participate in that in my own way. Through wine, I get to make my own impact on the world in this time and place and say, “I was here, too.”
Do you have any winery traditions with your team?
Keith Hammond: We’re all big music lovers here at the winery, so I would always play music for the team while we make wine during the harvest season. After a while, I felt like I was deciding what everyone was listening to, so I started a game where each day of the harvest corresponds to a different letter of the alphabet.
Each day, the whole team writes down the names of artists or groups that start with the letter of that day and we make a playlist from those names.
It became a very fun tradition that helps us get to know each other even better and discover some fantastic music that we otherwise wouldn’t have known about, it has led to all sorts of very satisfying cultural discussions and exploration.
How does your team help you as a winemaker?
Keith Hammond: Our team is at the heart of what we do. Many of our employees have been with us for decades, and a few, like our Vineyard Manager Kirk Lokka, worked with our founder Brice Cutrer Jones at his first winery, Sonoma-Cutrer.
Not only is everyone here committed to the goal of making some of the world’s best Pinot Noirs, we are a true multigenerational winery. Our second generation president, Mari Jones, learned the Emeritus way from her father Brice, our Assistant Vineyard Manager Riggs Lokka learned his craft from his father Kirk, and I learned my craft working alongside all three of my winemaking predecessors—Don Blackburn, Nicolas Cantacuzène, and David Lattin.
That continuity of knowledge is invaluable as we continue to explore the extraordinary character of our Hallberg Ranch and Pinot Hill estate vineyards.