As one or two began to ply their trade around the world, I used to joke that one day I’d write a book about Scottish winemakers. But the joke is on me as more and more Scots take up prominent winemaking roles and establish highly-regarded wineries. High on that list, making ‘cult’ wines sold on allocation, is Andy Smith of DuMOL in California.
Born in Edinburgh, Andy swam competitively for Scotland, but at age 25 took up his first winemaking role, having graduated in oenology (like so many of the tartan terroirists) from Lincoln University in New Zealand. Soon he moved to California, joining the winemaking team at Ted Lemon’s Littorai Wines, and then joining Paul Hobbs when Hobbs started his consulting business. Andy became his winemaker for several years, making wines for around eight different clients in California. One of those clients was DuMOL, a project started in 1996 by winemaker Max Gasiewicz along with two business investors, and named after Gasiewicz’s children, Duncan and Molly. Sadly, after just two vintages Gasiewicz passed away and soon Paul Hobbs had been employed as winemaking consultant. Andy looked after DuMOL and, by the year 2000, had become DuMOL’s full-time winemaker.
Andy is now a full partner in DuMOL, but still very much the hands-on driving force. For a relatively small operation the range of vineyards and locations they work with is surprising – 28 different vineyards and parcels spread across Sonoma and Napa – and it soon becomes clear that it is the dirt that drives DuMOL: “It’s a cliche that great wine is made in the vineyard,” says Andy, “but I do believe the potential for any wine is determined by the vineyard it comes from. The idea is to harvest fruit in absolutely premium condition, then do as little as possible.” A third of the vineyards DuMOL planted and own, a third they completely manage but don’t own, and the remainder are owned by growers from whom they buy fruit. Andy sees no difference in potential quality between the three, “because we manage every aspect in each of them.”
There’s an immense amount of detail about each of the vineyards on the DuMOL web site: click on the harvest photograph below to read more.
Andy is also keen to point out that each of the 28 vineyards was chosen and planted with a very specific purpose in mind: it’s not just about having more fruit. Their own Chardonnay vineyard in Russian River, for example, is in the Green Valley sub-area closest to the coast – foggy, windy with the lowest yields of the region. They also have a precious 18 rows in the famous Hyde Vineyard, perhaps the most renowned Chardonnay vineyard in the Carneros district of the Napa Valley, supplying fruit to a who’s who of Californian wineries including Kistler, Ramey and HdV, the Hyde’s joint project with Aubert de Villaine of Romanée-Conti.
When asked about vine clones (a slightly geeky topic that’s always raised with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in particular), he confesses not to be a great fan of clonal selection. “We are on the 5th generation of our own massal selection,” he says, “which we continue to propagate from our own vines that have the smallest and most intense berries.” None of DuMOL’s vineyards are irrigated once the young vines are established. Some vineyards, including their Hyde plot, are farmed organically, but Andy is pragmatic “a believer in sulphur,” and will treat his vines as required to maintain optimum health. He points out the Sonoma region is cooler and wetter than people might imagine because of the influence of Pacific fog, and diseases like odium (mildew) are an ongoing problem. The Glassy winged Sharpshooter is another persistent problem across California, an insect that spreads a bacterium that can kill vines, called Pierce’s disease.
Planted densely, fruit from the vineyards is always harvested overnight: “It’s all at the winery by 8.30am,” says Andy. After that, it is all about preserving that pristine fruit quality, which means only subtle use of oak (always light to medium toast 300- and 500-litre barrels from top French coopers, chosen to carefully match the particular wine being made). All fermentations are with ambient yeasts.
Production of each cuvée is small – generally fewer than 1,000 cases, which tend to sell-out to private clients and restaurants before ever reaching retail shelves. However, an old friend of Andy’s from his Edinburgh days is Zubair Mohamed of Raeburn Fine Wines, who does import small parcels of the wines directly. Prices quoted are indicative, and stock is limited, so do please contact Raeburn Fine Wines if you are interested in any of these wines.
I had no experience of DuMOL before this tasting, but their reputation for pure, balanced and detailed wines went before them. I found the wines to be exactly that: an unusually refined marriage between the glorious ripeness and sweetness of fruit from California, and the restraint and finesses one might expect from a classic European region.
(2018) A nicely clean and fresh style, slightly more open than the other Chardonnays, opening to good fruit and creamy golden oak notes. A touch of flintiness. Really drinking well, the balance is all you could look for when marrying Californian sunshine with astute and careful winemaking. Precise.
(2018) Fruit goes straight to press as whole clusters and then to barrel for fermentation, which normally takes 4 to 6 weeks. The wine goes through malolactic, but there is no lees stirring. After one year the wine is decanted to steel for an additional six months. Andy says some herbal element in this wine is encouraged by close planting and a slightly shaded canopy. This wine is both a vineyard selection and barrel selection with a lower pH (higher acidity) than might be found in white Burgundy for example. Very subtle oak, just an oatmeal sheen and a touch of lime and apple skins, a little wild yeast lightly earthy character, there is a fruit skin grip and texture, notable acidity and grip, fullness and an orange zest tang, really nicely balancing grip and richness with steely freshness.
(2018) A blend of two vineyards, Ritchie (66%) and Lorenzo, one sandy and giving full, rich fruit, one clay and giving more lean structure. Same vinification as the Estate wine. Slightly broader, more creamy character, a little more toast and almond, the fruit still keen and citrussy, but that nuttiness and softness differentiates. Much more ripeness and golden, luxurious Chardonnay character, but still plenty of grip and acid freshness.
(2018) This contains a proportion of Hyde fruit, from the Wente Clone. Absolutely delicious golden Chardonnay, with deep buttery notes but such delicious freshness, creamy ripe and so moreish, the slippery texture and ripeness making this hugely drinkable, nutty and citrus fresh in the finish. A wine with a huge instant gratification quotient: great drinkability and balance.
(2018) From the famous Hyde vineyard, this block planted in 1982 and organically farmed. A wine that took 10 months to complete fermentation according to Andy, in Chassin-coopered barrels. Deep and 'dirtier' aromas, lots of earthy almost chocolate aromas here, wild herbs and some juicy tangerine quality, but again the zipping freshness of the acidity and note of flint is thrilling. What a layered and complex, terroir-driven Chardonnay.
(2018) From young vines a fruity and youthful style - Andy says "You cannot make profound wines from very young vines." So this is aimed at early drinking and is apparently very popular as a by-the-glass wine in upmarket restaurants. It comes from an old massal selection of vines. Only 10% sees oak, and I thought it had just lovely buoyant cherry and red plum fruit, nice spice and a touch of tobacco. Similar palate, juicy and vital, delicious tang and cherry flesh and juiciness, finishing with a kirsch like intensity but lovely balance and energy. OK, not the layering of the other Pinots perhaps, but delightful.
(2018) A blend of two vineyards, the Occidental Road Vineyard, a 1990 planting of a Massal selection, plus their own sandy vineyard, O'Connel. Andy describes it as "A crafted wine, rather than a grown wine," with some whole bunches in the ferment, very few punch downs, more gentle remontage, and a long fermentation. It sees 45% new French oak. Fantastic glossy, deep black nose, almost cassis ripeness, Some char and coffee richness, graphite too. Delicious balance again, with the ripe plushness and just a touch of briar character, again texturally rich and dense, but the cherry freshness of the acidity cleanses beautifully. This tastes very youthful, but has such obvious quality.
(2018) Gorgeous perfume of violet and fragrant floral character, bursting cherry and cherry-stalk briar notes. Then delicious sweetness in the mouth, touches of mocha and plush, ripe fleshiness, pure and long, the tangy and bittersweet cherry skin quality extends the finish against the sweet fruit.
(2018) LIke all of DuMOL's wines it seems, again the perfume here is magnificent, slightly more ripe almost moving into dried cherry and dried fruit, extreme sweetness. This lacks the nuance and layering of the 2013 for me, but the fruit is so pure, so deliciously all-encompassing, encouraging you to simply drink deeply.
(2018) Served from magnum and the cool old cellars of Raeburn Fine Wines, this has the earthy, lightly salty, truffle and meatiness, with juicy cherry ripeness and freshness, rich, sandy tannins and keen concentration of fruit, texture and acidity. It has retained remarkable freshness though the wine is nicely developed, touches of game and flowers melding with the creamy fruit and oak of the finish. Price is for a magnum.
(2018) From a coastal vineyard at elevation, planted in 2000. Another 'crafted' wine according to Andy, that includes the addition of 7 or 8% Viognier, harvested at the same time as the Syrah by which time is very ripe (six weeks after Viognier is picked for white wine) and aged in a combination of 500-litre barrels with 25% in amphorae. Tight and glossy blue black fruit, a little balsamic quality, Very ripe, aromatic and cassis-dense again, with some meatiness backing up, and a touch of cedary quality. Juicy but firm and structured onto a dense, fleshy palate, touches of clove and liquorice, then all drawn together by creamy slick tannins and plenty of acid backbone.
(2018) A cool vintage with a late harvest and lower sugar levels. 'A very fond memory' of this vintage for Andy. Aged 16 months in new, larger French oak, there's a lovely white pepper lift to this, but also lots of meaty character, gamy, but long and flowing, that completely ripe and seductive fruit weight is there, but so fresh with the acidity and tang of black fruit skins.
(2018) So silky, and yes there is plenty of creamy, bittersweet dark cocoa and ripe blackberry sweet fruit and spices. Such a wonderful fleshiness and weight to this, but terrific creaminess and enough roughening texture too. Elegant, the cooler climate origins are there, but there's no lack of texture and fruit density.
(2018) Andy made 15 vintages at Larkmead, receiving massive scores from Parker. But when planning to release a Cabernet for DuMOL he had the intention of making "A more Pinot style of Cabernet." This vineyard in the Moon Mountain district AVA sits at an elevation of 1,700 feet, and was planted in 1964. Andy loving describes the view, all the way down to the Golden Gate Bridge on a clear day. Organically farmed, the vineyard is also inter-planted with Chenin Blanc, an historical quirk. Supple, soft chocolate and silk dominate the palate with lots of fragrant rosemary and mint, a lovely herbal freshness. That character flows through to the palate too, a beguiling Cabernet, finishing with mocha and berry richness, but signature cherry-skin tangy acidity.
(2018) From Coombsville and Spring Mountain, two of Napa's coolest appellations with one vineyard at a lofty 1,800 feet. It's a more lush interpretation of Cabernet for sure, perhaps the 65% new oak also adding to the chocolate and mint perfume, A little more eucalypt character, but then the palate offering a smoky, deep pool of black fruit, a supple and long finish focusing to a fine point. Take you choice between this and the Montecillo, different styles but equally good and both ageworthy.