Fifty years of growing grapes. Nineteen years of making wine. And you have probably not heard of them, as I had not until I visited them recently. Located in the Alexander Valley, Garden Creek Ranch Vineyards and Winery is a story of love: love for the land, love for the wine and love for the people.
Owners Karin Warnelius-Miller and Justin Miller were raised on the 100-acre property, of which 72 acres are planted. Justin’s American father and Swedish mother purchased the first 54 acres in 1963, planting vines in 1969. They purchased more property in 1970. They named the property Garden Creek Ranch after the creek on the northside of the property and began selling grapes to local wineries in the area. Justin began managing the vineyards at the age of 19.
Karin emigrated from Sweden with her parents when she was a child and they spent their first months living on the Garden Creek property. Her family purchased land nearby, planted grapes and made wine. Karin grew up working in the vineyard and loved working alongside her father in all aspects of the business.
Karin and Justin’s moms were best friends, and Karin and Justin were childhood friends. They lost touch for a few years but by their mid-20s, Karin and Justin fell in love, married and a year later, in 2001, they decided to start making wine under the Garden Creek label. It was an ambitious undertaking but they wanted to share their connection to land through wines.
Karin and Justin work together on the property to manage the vineyards and make the wine. What they have learned, Karin explained is “95 percent hands-on learning. We have learned from years and years of walking the same property. We were told as kids to get out and walk and taste the grapes. That is how we learned about acidity.”
When she and Justin were children, they were expected to work in the vineyards, and as a result, they have become part of the land. “We are the land, the land is us,” Karin said. This passion is something they have imparted to their two children who are 11 and 13 and who have helped plant vines.
In addition to Karin and Justin and their kids, the Gonzalez family from Porullo, Yuriria, Mexico, have been a part of Garden Creek team for almost as long as the Millers. Fidel Gonzalez began working for Justin’s father, Jim Miller, who converted an old dehydrator building into what would become part of their labor housing. Fidel has five sons and one daughter, and each year the sons would come up from Mexico and work harvest.
Today, the entire family are permanent residents and live on the property. The five brothers, one nephew and two cousins, along with their families, are integral parts of Garden Creek Ranch. They have been a part of the property for 54 years and know each row and vine as well as Karin and Justin.
The intimate knowledge and care of the vineyards is also reflected in Justin’s decision to convert to sustainable and organic viticulture practices as soon as he took over in 1994. The vineyards are closely monitored block by block and by soil selection (they have seven soil types on their property).
Their 25-year commitment to sustainability was honored. In 2018, Garden Creek was chosen as a one of 11 landmark vineyards to set the standards for the sustainability initiatives for the Sonoma County Sustainability Certification Program, which is expected to acquire full participation from every vineyard in Sonoma County this year. In 2019, Garden Creek Ranch became one of the first vineyards to study its carbon footprint as a vineyard operation in Sonoma County.
Garden Creek Ranch still sells 85 percent of the fruit they grow but they make approximately 2,000 cases of two wines – a Chardonnay Clonal Selection and Tesserae, a proprietary Bordeaux blend under the Garden Creek label.
They have also started a second label, under the name Warnelius-Miller, in which they will produce small production lots, including Scheurebe, inspired from their travels to Austria, a white Rhône blend of Grenache Blanc, Marsanne and Roussanne and a Pinot Noir from their 7-acre hillside Anderson Valley property, which they purchased in 2005.
They have crafted wines to age but they start the aging for us, holding wines back before release. Karin and Justin say that the acidity needs time to integrate with the tannins and fruit. In a young wine, each element is separate, but by waiting, everything starts to meld together.
The current release of the Chardonnay is the 2015. A blend of six to eight clones, each picked at different acidity levels, the wine is barrel fermented. The wine has aromas of apple, lemon curd and spice. The acidity is lively but delicate and the oak, as described by Justin, “is a ghost in the background. It is not front and center.”
The current release of the Tesserae is the 2012. With pretty fruit and spice notes and soft, sandy tannins on the palate, this is a wine that is ready to enjoy now and is easy to pair with a variety of dishes, such as salmon.
Love is clearly the foundation of Garden Creek Ranch. This love has been growing for 50 years but Garden Creek remains a hidden gem.