Of the hundreds of wineries in California, startups, recent acquisitions of older established projects, and properties with major stories to tell get the most publicity.
So when a winery comes across your radar screen that has been in business for 36 years making excellent wine, does little to artificially hype itself, and seeks no visibility, the story doesn’t automatically write itself.
I have been tasting the wines of White Oak Vineyards in Alexander Valley for decades, enjoying them for the most part, and recently remembered that this project began more than 40 years ago when an Alaskan building contractor and fisherman decided to swap seafood for lessons on how to make wine.
Bill Myers was still relatively young when he bought a 17-acre site off Highway 128 between Healdsburg and Geyserville and began making a small amount of wine.
With talented winemaker Mary Ann Graf as his guru, Myers began making and selling chardonnay at a small tasting room off the Healdsburg square and founded the winery a few miles north in 1981.
Myers and some silent partners realized that making different wines is best done using fruit from regions in which they grew best. So he set off to purchase vineyards in different locales.
Today, White Oak is as much a silent seller of grapes from nearly 700 acres of vineyards as it is a winery.
Of nearly 280 acres planted in the Russian River Valley, the majority is chardonnay and pinot noir. There are also vineyards in the Napa Valley (306 acres) for red wine grapes and a smaller parcel where the winery is located in Alexander Valley.
The project has long been locally well-regarded, but didn’t gain much visible recognition until 1998, when Myers used construction skills to erect a stunning Mediterranean-style winery building that houses a startlingly beautiful tasting room.
But as has been his low-key style, Myers’ property was never really promoted. His nearest neighbors are far more visible — Jackson Family’s handsome Stonestreet project and Napa Valley’s Silver Oak, whose large, sprawling Alexander Valley home is yet to open.
Another reason White Oak isn’t as visible as it might be is that roughly half of its production is dedicated to one wine — a chardonnay that is widely sold around the country. Most other items in the line have more limited distribution; some are available only at the winery.
Visibility of White Oak might increase over the next few years because Myers has brought on board Darryl Miller, a long-time wine marketing expert who has a phenomenal palate and who works closely with winemaker Bill Parker, providing a sounding board during the winemaking process.
Miller is widely traveled and a great brand ambassador.
The widely available chardonnay (the 2015 has just been released for $26) is made in a style Miller calls “full tilt” — 100 percent malolactic fermentation, noticeable oak aging, and a richness normally found only in wines that cost a lot more.
Parker formerly worked at Matanzas Creek winery in Santa Rosa, where he helped to craft a style that emphasized excellent acidity, and this wine displays that characteristic beautifully.
Also in the White Oak lineup is a 2013 pinot noir (Russian River Valley, $35) that has lovely Burgundian aromas of strawberry, pomegranate, and rhubarb.
Probably the best wine in the line is a merlot blend (42 percent) that also uses 37 percent cabernet sauvignon and 21 percent cab franc. It is called Alexander Reserve and is a striking wine partly because it is from the 2008 vintage (!) and is still for sale for only $48. Any other winery would charge twice that for a wine this mature.
The wonderful aroma has classic merlot elements, such as black cherry, tea, and olive, and it reminds me of great merlots from southern Tuscany!
Wine of the Week: 2016 White Oak Sauvignon Blanc, Russian River Valley ($17): Half of this wine uses the exotic “Musque Clone” of Sauvignon Blanc, so its aroma has a trace of the spice that clone provides. The wine is dramatically scented, has no oak, and has a tropical fruit component that is delightful.