A Word with David Hirsch of Hirsch Vineyards by Shira Levine
We’re all too familiar with the New Yorker who heads west for more living space and the opportunity to own some land. Enter: David Hirsch of Hirsch Vineyards. The wine grower left the Big Apple back in 1978 and purchased a sheep farm with no inkling that one day he’d be the proud owner of nationally acclaimed vineyard. Hirsch Vineyards is home to some of California’s most curious and prized pinot noirs (and some great chardonnays too). This week he’s made the journey back east to share a few of his most stellar and palatably remarkable blends. Look out for 2007 in particular. You could say it was the year for Hirsch Vineyards. (You could ask President Obama and First Lady Michelle too – they recently enjoyed a bottle of Hirsch’s finest from that very year.)
How did you get into the wine growing business?
I bought 1,000 plus acres of a sheep ranch. It wasn’t much of anything at the time. I literally had no plans to put in vineyards until a drinking buddy of mine from Santa Cruz came up and suggested it. His quote was: “If you plant pinot here, this will one day be a world famous vineyard.” He brought up some vines, Pinot and Riesling, for us to plant; they were also my favorite varieties, and it was slow to start.
You just picked up and started a vineyard?
I was working in the fashion industry and just drinking wine for my own personal enjoyment then. I would travel to Paris twice a year for fashion week and we’d go the few extra hours to Burgundy. I drank a lot of Burgundy at the time. You could say I cultivated a taste for wine then.
And at some point you took the sheep ranch and turned it into a vineyard?
Well, we got rid of the sheep. That wasn’t a good business. The coyotes were eating them up and we couldn’t do anything about it. It really wasn’t until the early 80’s that I got serious about grapes. I was visiting some old aunts in New York and told them about my plans. It was then that I learned for the first time at 40-years-old that my family had actually been in the wine business back in the Old Country. My grandfather in Romania left after the land dried up. Hearing that, I made the decision to leave the clothing business and grow the vines seriously. I had the roots.
Tell us about your 72 acres.
It’s in Sonoma County right along the coast. We’re 1,500 feet above sea level, two miles from the Pacific Ocean, and perched on a ridge all while also in the middle of the Redwood rainforest. Then there’s what you don’t see — that’s just beneath us — the San Andreas Fault. It runs through our ranch – only we don’t get the rumbles. We’re right on the first ridge from the coast. We farm the vines in 60 different blocks because of those details. The geology and geography is exceptional where the vineyard is. The fault plates grinding and sliding, all of it brings us the complex soils and slopes that make our wines very unique. When it all conspires together at the exact time, it’s incredible. The rain, the movement, and the seabed — all of that combined is extreme and [yet] makes for a natural balance.
What has been your best year?
2007 had the most superb vintages. 1995 was good too. They were both cool weather years. The fruits were really able to develop completely. Everything conspired together perfectly – the weather, the good rainfall, the vines were able to take good care of themselves. That natural balance happened perfectly. 2004 was another very special year. It had tremendous focus. It is like a train in the night with one single piercing headlight. It was a low yield harvest though, so we only have a few cases left. Plus, I have drunk most of it! I like to keep it for myself!
What should people know about your wines?
Our wines are all very different each season because of the location. What they have in common is they come from the same place and same barrels. We embrace the complexity of our land. The fruit from each farming block is always different. We create from scratch and always based on the goal to make a serious wine for long-term aging. We make dramatic wines. I like to focus on the Three C’s: complexity, concentration, and clarity. That’s what was so great about the 2004. It all came naturally. You’ll never see three tubes meeting in a tank at our ranch.
What should we think about when tasting them?
Think about the place. Until recently, wine wasn’t shipped. It was drunk locally. So think about where the wine you are drinking is coming from. We are so lucky with the Sonoma Coast because we have these really great natural tannins. Most people add tannins with wood chips, but we don’t need to. We have natural tannins and our fruit has a tremendous amount of acidity that comes from long ripening. Our wines have excellent structure because of this. We don’t pump or filter. We don’t mask the wine from the site it’s from. We don’t manipulate what’s naturally there.
What aromas and hints will we likely detect?
In aroma you get bergamot. That is a signature taste we get. You have this forest cigar box cedar that is pleasant to taste too. Some Christmas spices too, which is unusual. We get hints [of] BBQ meats and roasted meats too. On the fruit side, you can get cherries all the way to prunes and other dark fruits.
What do you suggest pairing your pinots with?
Because of this cooler temperature and the fruit having so much acidity, you can pair it really well with raw fish and shellfish on down to cheeses. It’s great with a lamb roast or stew. Our neighbors have sheep still so we get a few from them and pair them wonderfully with the pinots. It also pairs nicely with the white sole my wife makes. People tend to drink Rieslings and Gewürztraminers with fish, but because of the acidity in our pinots, they act like those wines. It’s one of the few red wines that can do that.
Any tips for drinking your wines?
At the end of the day, don’t make a glass or a bottle more than it is. You don’t want to take yourself too seriously. It’s all about the Three P’s: the plants, the place and the people. It’s OK for a wine to be simple, but you don’t want it to be dumb. It should have structure. And the consumer is essential to the growing and production because you are who completes the chain of production. Think about where your wine came from and all the factors that make it taste the way it does. You are an integral part of the experience. It’s not just me pouring a wine.
Also, I suggest decanting our wines. Open them early in the day and let them breath all day and then drink them. The way the industry is, you are often served young wines. Remember to let them breath and open so you can really enjoy where they came from and their stor[ies].
Has anyone notable enjoyed a Hirsch wine that you know of?
The Obamas had a bottle of The Hirsch when they ate at Blue Hill. We’re good friends with the owners of Blue Hill and we do a blend special for the restaurant.
What did the President and the First Lady think of it?
I don’t know. We didn’t get wine notes from them yet!
Fun Fact: David’s wife designs the bottle labels, which are inspired by their cats, the scenery and their grandchildren.