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Landmark Vineyards at Hop Kiln Estate

It’s a quiet Tuesday morning at the new Landmark Vineyards tasting room at Hop Kiln Estate, but the first handful of visitors who wander in couldn’t have been better chosen to help tell the story of what’s new at the old hop kiln, the former Hop Kiln Winery that is now Landmark Vineyards at Hop Kiln Estate.

A Name Change, But History Remains

First, a vacationing couple on a return trip to the Russian River Valley pokes in just to look at the menu — the hour is too early for wine tasting, they say, but they’ll be back. They had stopped buying Hop Kiln wines some years back, didn’t care for it, but they’re interested in giving the new Landmark regime a chance.

Next, a somewhat fatigued gentleman in brightly colored cycling apparel staggers in to ask how much farther to Healdsburg — he rode all the way from Guerneville and now he’s got another six miles to go. This has long been a popular stop for wine country cyclists, and it looks like it will continue to be.

Registered as California Historical Landmark No. 893, the three-towered Walters Ranch Hop Kiln is an iconic sight along Westside Road in the Russian River Valley. Representing “the finest existing example of its type,” according to the bronze plaque, the facility was built in 1905 by Italian stonemasons on tight deadline: they had 35 days to get it ready for the hop harvest, which incredibly, they did.

While wine grapes have been commercially grown in Sonoma County since the mid-1800s, hops, those fluffy little aroma-bombs that bitter your beer, had a half-century heyday when the county was a key hop-producing region, exporting across the nation and even to Europe.

But the industry had left for drier, more northerly climes when Dr. Marty Griffin founded Hop Kiln Winery in 1975. Offering a wide variety of wines, including a popular white blend called Thousand Flowers, Hop Kiln became a favorite picnic stop at a time when there were fewer wineries along this road.

An investment group bought Hop Kiln in 2004 and rebranded it as “HKG” with a focus on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but they were hampered in their plans to expand. Meanwhile Landmark Vineyards, also founded in the mid-1970s (in nearby Windsor, later moving to Kenwood in the Sonoma Valley), was enjoying success with their Overlook Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

However, Landmark owned no such plantings until purchasing Hop Kiln in early 2016. The estate’s 95 acres of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris made the deal sweet for Landmark, which has been owned since 2011 by agri-empire Roll Global, the Pom Wonderful people.

Wines Not to be Overlooked

For the first time, tasters can sip Overlook Pinot Noir while looking out over a premier Pinot Noir region from a bank of windows cut out of the northeast wall of the historic building (look for the “mini kiln” raft in the pond).

Lucky for Landmark, the previous ownership did the heavy lifting of remodeling the tasting room: gone is the center tasting bar and merchandise clutter of years past, but the rustic wood floor remains. Strings of decorative lights add a festive look and, prominently displayed in an alcove, a picnic basket reminds visitors that a decades-long tradition continues — you may bring your own, purchase cheese and other items a la carte, or pick up a build-your-own picnic basket for $40.

Good news for Thousand Flowers fans, you won’t miss it when tasting Landmark’s first vintage from the estate, the 2016 Pinot Gris ($22.50). Juicy lychee, green apple, and pear fruit follow up a nose of honeysuckle and honeydew melon here — made in all stainless steel, this lands in a middle ground between typical California varietal trends, which emphasize either the “French” Gris or “Italian” Grigio.

The 2015 Overlook Chardonnay ($25) is Landmark’s widely distributed flagship, yet the wine, made with Sonoma County and other coastal California fruit, clearly conveys winemaker Greg Stach’s command of oak and malolactic character: elements of baked apple and oak seem captured in wax, to be examined at the palate’s leisure — the apple almost fresh, the oak somewhat floral.

Also held at the nice price point of $25, the 2015 Overlook Pinot Noir finishes with cranberry skin firmness. A special treat for Rhone lovers, the Landmark 2014 Estate Sonoma Valley Grenache ($40) may also win over Pinot Noir fans with its playful, grapey fruit aroma and dry, chalky finish. The winery in Kenwood is surrounded by just a few acres of Grenache and other Rhone varieties.

Pinot Greek Corner

Take in the smoky, dried rose and berry, potpourri-like aroma of the 2014 Kosich Vineyard Carneros Pinot Noir ($55), feel its sinewy black fruit flavors rumble across the palate, brooding but beautiful, and then take a guess at what clone of Pinot Noir makes up a good portion of this wine, which comes from the Sonoma side of the Carneros region, of course, and not — big hint — Oregon. Got it? Another hint? Like Pom Wonderful, it’s wonderful …

Biking to Landmark Vineyards

Biking along Westside Road is a popular activity, but take the extra precaution of turning on a red blinking light — there are many tree-shaded bends in the road. If you’re riding or driving south from Healdsburg, Landmark’s Hop Kiln Estate is more than halfway to the “T” at River Road — turn right to find lunch in fifteen minutes at Guerneville’s boon eat + drink and then stroll amid the giants at nearby Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve.

Landmark Vineyards at Hop Kiln Estate, 6050 Westside Road, Healdsburg, 707-433-6491. Open daily, 10 a.m.–4:30 p.m.

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