Christopher Vandendriessche

Winemaker
White Rock Vineyards
1115 Loma Vista Drive, Napa

Interview and photographs by Diana H. Stockton

Christopher Vandendriessche

Photograph: Pricsilla Upton

In the 1860’s a dentist from Massachusetts, Dr. John Pettengill, came to Soda Canyon to buy land and start a new career. He bought 107 acres and planted twenty of them to White Riesling. In 1870 he built his winery, White Rock Cellars. A hundred years later, in 1977, an economist from France, Henri Vandendriessche, came to Soda Canyon to buy land and start a new career. Henri and his American wife (they had met at UC Berkeley) moved to Napa from Paris so she could be near her family. Henri was happy to make a change from international economic planning to running a vineyard, with the intention of making wine.

When Henri bought the White Rock estate, it needed a great deal of work. Its winery had long since become a house and the few remaining vines were no longer productive, nor could their variety be determined. The grapes were black, but without good flavor, so the vines were pulled. To pay for the replant of 1979, Henri sold the ridge land as he planted 36 of his remaining 60 acres. Henri’s two sons, Christopher and Michael, also took part in developing the vineyard blocks. Chris says he and his brother picked a lot of rock and while they were in high school they planted the .8 acre “Cave Hill Vineyard” in Cabernet all by hand. Chris thinks the clone came from John Caldwell. It is on 5B rootstock and now produces their best Cabernet. Its flavor lingers. The brothers also helped with harvest. Chris recalls getting 35 cents either an hour or a bin for hauling grapes. The first release of White Rock Napa Valley Claret was the 1986 made at Conn Creek Winery and released three and a half years later. The vineyards of White Rock are in the Napa Valley appellation because, at the time of the hearings for establishing a Stags Leap appellation in the 1980’s, Henri had said, White Rock is the appellation and didn’t try to include his estate within the boundaries being drawn for the Stags Leap District. In 1988 a new winery was dug into a face of the hills of white rock that cradle the property and Douglas Danielak was hired as winemaker; Henri continued to manage the vineyards. When Henri built the winery, it was fashioned inside the rock so all fermentation and aging could be accommodated within and sized for maximum capacity from the vineyards, figured at four tons an acre. White Rock actually uses only half the space for its wines, so it leases out the other half to a few clients. Presently, these include Hudson Vineyards, Parador Cellars and Kesner Wines.

White Rock has always farmed in an organic manner. Chris says they have never used any sprays. Some of the rows, which are planted alternately to leguminous cover crops or oats, barley and rye, get tilled by hand; otherwise sheep graze down the grass in the spring. Hillside rows follow the contours of the land in a mostly North-South orientation. Sixteen acres of gently sloping hillside are planted to Cabernet Sauvignon and five to Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Malbec. Chris identified the two acres of Cabernet Franc as from an old heritage clone from Newton Vineyards; three acres of Merlot are a Davis clone from Caldwell; one and a half acres of Petit Verdot are from a heritage selection in the 1970s and a newer clone; and a half acre of Malbec, just seven years old, is from who knows where. Fifteen acres of Chardonnay were planted on the flat where it is cooler, and Soda Canyon is altogether cooler than the main floor of Napa Valley. White Rock crops two tons an acre for its red and three tons an acre for its white grapes. All the vines were initially pruned to California sprawl. In 1993 they were changed to vertical shoot position on a bilateral cordon. In addition to nutrients from cover crops, an annually composted pile of stems, seed and waste from the winery with the addition of organic steer manure is put wherever vines need vigor. Chris says irrigation is seldom needed. In winter, a combination of fans and sprinklers is used for the average ten or twelve days of frost protection. His brother Michael took over managing the vineyards from his father in 1996 and continues to adjust vine rows, rootstocks and clones.

Tanks

Photograph: Diana Stockton

After high school in Napa, Chris majored in physics at UC Santa Cruz. He says the professors were most inspiring, yet at the same time it felt perfectly natural for him to get to know and hang out with vineyardists from David Bruce, Bonny Doon, Ridge, McHenry, and Santa Cruz Mountain. Chris doesn't know which of them are still there, but at the start of his senior year he says he knew, "I wanted to do wine, not physics." After graduation, he spent the next three years in France: one and a half years in Burgundy and one and a half in Bordeaux, where he took a post-graduate degree.

Next he worked at Chateau Pape-Clément learning how it made its Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet and Merlot. Then Chris returned to Napa Valley and worked at Luna Vineyards for two years with David Ramey and John Kongsgaard and Luna's custom crush clients Phil Zorn, Bill Knuttel, Doug Shafer, and Dan Baron. After Luna, Chris went off to Rioja, Spain and the Remelluri Winery to oversee two of its smaller, recently acquired facilities in the hill country. He made a study of Tempranillo and Grenache fermentations in steel and cement tanks and barrels of French oak. Then, in 1998, Chris came back to be assistant winemaker at White Rock. 1999 was his first full vintage because he took over from Douglas as winemaker after malolactic fermentation of the red wines in barrel was underway. (After stints at Jade Mountain and Paras Vineyards, Douglas is winemaker at Clark-Caudon Vineyards.)

Chris says winemaking at White Rock is now entirely based on flavor and collective years of experience, "Acid, pH and °Brix are important, too, but it is really all about flavor, one's palate." The number one quality element for Chris, however, is viticulture, the care of the vines. Each vineyard block is picked three times: a main lot plus two smaller pickings. Chris says picking all the fruit in a block all at once pushes the level of alcohol, and as alcohol levels climb, balance in the wine is thrown off. He now works with about twenty lots of red from twenty acres. Vineyard at the tops of the hills, for instance, can ripen as much as three weeks ahead of that lower down. Because Soda Canyon is cool, the vines naturally have a higher acid level, which Chris says is good for aging reds and for getting crisper Chardonnays.

At harvest, a cellar crew culls the fruit the day before the main crew comes in. Then, as the main crew picks, Chris is just ahead tasting and roping off what needs more time to ripen. Most Cabernet is picked at 23.5 to 25°Brix. Before the fruit enters the winery, it is sorted in the vineyard. Then it is destemmed and fermented in the winery, mostly whole berry. After a cold soak of five to ten days, fermentation takes three to six weeks. Main lots are fermented in tank, smaller lots in barrel and bin. Fermentation is mostly a natural process, relying on indigenous yeasts. A risky lot may call for commercial yeast. Several short pumpovers a day are typical. After the primary fermentation of Cabernet at 75° to 80°F, but before malolactic fermentation, the new wine goes through a nice old, gentle Bucher bladder press and then into 50 per cent new French oak barrels where it ages for at least two years before being bottled and aged for at least two more. White Rock uses three types of French oak barrels. It adds no yeasts and malolactic fermentation is usually complete by Christmas. After a year, Chris begins his blending. He finds a Bulldog Pup indispensable for moving wine. Because this device pushes wine out of a vessel using inert gas (one tankful can pump two dozen barrels) it is quiet, so there are no distractions and it needs no electricity, which often goes out at critical moments in Soda Canyon. At bottling time in August, Ryan-McGee Bottling of Napa comes for one full day.

2003 was the last year White Rock made a single Cabernet, its Claret. With the 2004 vintage came the innovation of Laureate, a 50 case reserve program. Laureate spends an additional year in barrel and in bottle. The winery caves were built with niches that can accommodate seven pallets of finished wine, or four thousand bottles as White Rock is adamant about bottle aging its reds to bring the flavor out of the grapes. Chris also urges decanting their “younger” reds. The 2004 Laureate and 2005 Claret are the latest Cabernet releases from White Rock.

Chris says he learned about the influences of native and commercial yeasts working alongside John Kongsgaard at Luna. Chris thinks native yeasts give a heavier, weightier flavor and for his style of Chardonnay he prefers one that is crisp, and crisp dictates commercial yeast. The fruit is picked at 22.8 to 23.5 °Brix, ferments whole cluster and then goes into 50 percent new French oak for a year, where about ten percent will go through malolactic fermentation. The wine spends one year in bottle before its release.

Barrels and bottles

Photograph: Diana Stockton

Not just bottles fill niches in the caves at White Rock. There is also cheese and sometimes ham. Chris and Michael’s sister, Ann Marie, manages the Fatted Calf at Oxbow Market in Napa. She is also a cheesemaker, who spent six years in Aix en Provence. Once she perfects the cows’ milk cheese that is ripening in one niche, she plans to make cheese from the milk of the White Rock sheep. Fresh hams from Chris's own pigs may ripen in the fall, curing to Prosciutto alongside barrels of aging Cabernet. Nowhere is anything wasted or unsavored at White Rock.