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Wine to me is passion. It's family and friends. It's warmth of heart and generosity of spirit. Wine is art. It's culture. It's the essence of civilization and the art of living. - Robert Mondavi

Hamel Family - The hottest new wine family since the Mondavi’s

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Have you ever tried to dress casual chic only to find that it’s a lot more difficult than putting on a formal suit or dress? It may be because it’s hard to find just the right balance between comfortable and elegant, chic and unpretentious. Hamel Family Wines has perfected this art like no other winery in Sonoma, somehow managing to make you feel like you’ve been invited to someone’s warm, private residence, but leaving you with such an elevated experience that you realize a large amount of thought and care went into every detail that made you feel just that comfortable.  Hamel’s limited production premium wines are fantastic and keep getting better; no surprise given the Hamel Ranch location at 15401 Sonoma Highway, nestled at the base of the beautiful Mayacamas Mountain range in the region that is known for producing the most coveted Sonoma Valley blends. The property was acquired by the family, George, Jr. and Pam Hamel and their sons, George III and John Hamel in 2010, but the property had a history of being family owned for over 100 years (the Hearst family was a previous owner).  This family element is a common theme in the Hamels’ vision of creating a winery that is like a  home to its loyal customers and treasured guests.

The wines (Sauvignon Blanc, Rose (made from Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre), Zinfandel and a Bordeaux style Cabernet blend) are all high quality and beautiful wines, but they share the spotlight with the winery’s brand itself, elevated by the all-star team that reads like a who’s who of the industry’s finest. This includes consulting winemaker, Martha McClellan, whose credits include some of THE top tier Napa Valley cult wineries, Harlan Estate, Sloan Estate and Checkerboard Vineyards; organic viticulturist Phil Coturri, famed design genius, Ken Fulk, who manages branding and lifestyle events, which have included campfire concerts, an outdoor movie series, and vineyard dinners catered by Gary Danko. When it comes to hospitality, the Hamels have definitely invested in adding extra touches of luxury. George III (aka GIII) couldn’t rave more about Hamels’ hospitality director, Dawn Agnew, who was previously maitre d' at Gary Danko's. Dawn’s responsible for many of the personalized touches at Hamel, which include pashminas for visitors on chilly days and badger-shaped door mats let outside your car door to prevent any mud from getting inside when you depart.  The winery and estate were designed by Gould Evans, an award-winning architecture firm whose principals and associates are united around a common vision: to create environments that transform their surroundings, engage their occupants, and sustain their environment. This ethos shines through at every touchpoint. While the estate and winery are breathtaking, they are not ostentatious and blend in elegantly with the natural beauty of Sonoma Valley. Entering the winery, floor to ceiling glass draws all attention to the surrounding picturesque landscape. The color palette is muted and there are clean, modern lines to showcase the expansive views of the surrounding vineyards.  The walls lack expensive artwork, but the property's natural beauty captures your focus.

The interior design by Angela Free, is equally thoughtful, with detail that includes a variety of natural and reclaimed materials.  The rammed-earth wall that spans the length of the 6,875 Estate House was made from excavated earth from the development of the winery. The Hamel Family made sure that virtually nothing was carted away from the property and everything was put to use in some way.  The 12,000 sq. ft caves are made from excavated Monterey Riverbed and house 3 state of the art concrete eggs that are both decorative and functional. While they’ll be used for Sauvignon Blanc, they currently sit dramatically in front of 3 exposed earth walls that showcases the different the layers of terror that while made naturally, could easily have been mistaken for modern art. Personal touches abound, from the stately round dark wood table in the Winery’s Reserve room, sourced to resemble the family’s own dining room table, to the chandeliers in the Library that are made with differently shaped crystals, each piece of which is magnetically attached to the circular metal frames so that they can be adjusted if the “energy” of the room needs to be tweaked.
We visited Hamel Family twice - once on the official opening and again for a special visit for my father’s birthday. The first event was over the top fun with a “Camp Hamel” theme that carried through the event from the staff uniforms (that looked like girl and boy scouts), to the catered food selections (which included a tent for charcuterie and Zinfandel, a make your own trail mix bar, Delfina Pizza truck paired with Girl and the fig offerings, and much more) to the decor (With Ken Fulk’s team managing, it was perfection).  The second visit was intimate and charming. Tastings are scheduled by appointment only and though the property is large enough to host sizable events, as a rule they host only up to 4 parties at a time so that every guest gets a premium experience.  Every tasting is led by a personal ambassador and everything you could imagine wanting in a tasting has been anticipated. We were fortunate enough to enjoy a tour of the winery and caves with George Hamel III who is personable and jovial as he led us through the inner workings of the winery and provided some fun anecdotes. One thing is clear - this family is serious about hospitality and quality, but never lose sight of being playful and clearly enjoy what they are doing. 

They’re in the industry to promote a certain lifestyle experience and build a solid brand rather than to produce vast quantities and make a quick profit. When I inquired about future plans, GIII confirmed that the family winery will remain small production and doesn’t plan to produce more than 6,000 - 7,000 cases annually and these limited production wines will be distributed primarily to the wine club members.  What’s next for the winery? Continuing to build the wine library of vintage wines is in the plans. There is a new floor to ceiling wine cage, inspired by the great houses in Bordeaux, which will eventually hold many verticals of the Hamel wine. A new executive chef program is also in the works - GIII mentioned that the newest team member, Clinton Huntsman, hails from Bouchon restaurant and Calistoga Ranch and will be joining the team to add to the private dining experience at Hamel.  It’s clear that in this spectacular setting, with this armada of artists and gurus, Hamel Family is aligned for continued success.
In the winery, we checked out the Hamel’s winemaking in progress as the grapes were still fermenting in the tanks.  Hamel takes a delicate approach to winemaking, carefully sorting grapes and using primarily gravity flow to press the free-run juices.  Three types of vessels are used for winemaking: conical shaped stainless steel tanks, custom made in Burgundy, French Oak barrels made from four different French cooperages, and the concrete eggs. Each vessel adds spice and character to the grape juice that when blended together, making for a magical, well-integrated product.  The grapes themselves are predominantly grown on the Hamel Ranch estate, though they have a second vineyard,Tres Palmas Vineyard, located 7 miles northwest of Hamel Family Ranch in Sonoma Valley. Also in the works is a demo vineyard on the ranch close to the Tasting Center that showcases all the varietals grown on the ranch and will even be made into it’s own special cuvee.

The property is designed so that guests have a variety of tasting options and can select the location that suits their preference. This could be set up on comfortable cushioned chairs outside on the terrace overlooking the vineyards, in the dramatic Reserve Room in the caves, or enjoying a more refined experience in The Library. We were set up to taste in the beautiful library, and the table was set elegantly with pressed linen napkins, beautiful Holmegaard wine glasses, customized tasting menus, and the perfect artisanal charcuterie and cheese board.  Everything was customized to suit our preferences; Our ambassador, Stephen, initiated the tasting by making sure we had selected the music or our preference (jazz), and making sure the temperature was perfect.  The five wines we tasted were all beautiful and we had ample time to savor each before moving on to the next (see tasting notes below).  Even the “spittoons” for unfinished wine were custom sourced from Burgundy. When we reluctantly parted ways, the finishing touches were polished - a sign of true hospitality. Dawn Agnew insisted on making the call to our next winery herself to let them know we’d be slightly tardy (oops - too much fun at Hamel!), and we were sent on our way with artisanal bottled waters and gourmet sea-salt covered chocolate bars. When we reached our car, there was one final surprise, but you’ll have to visit yourself to experience it as well as hear for yourself the great story behind the Hamel Family mascot, the badger. Read more about the Badger or visit yourself: Hamel Family Wines, open 10:00 am - 5:00 pm. 15401 Sonoma Hwy., Sonoma Valley, (707) 996-5800.www.hamelfamilywines.com.

The Wines:

2013 Rose -  $28 per bottle: 519 cases produced.
in the glass, the rose exhibits a copper jewel-toned color, with aromas of ranier cherry, white peach, and strawberry set against a backdrop of fresh flowers and sage.  On the palate, the rose is clean and bright upon entry and smooth and round on the mid-palate and finish.  While retaining its brightness throughout, the carefully selected blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre, combined with time spent in oak sur lie, lend the wine a full concentration of flavor and a smooth mouth feel.

2013 Sauvignon Blanc - $40 per bottle: 228 cases produced
This golden wheat colored wine displays aromas of bright citrus, lemon brioche, and sliced green apple. Behind the initial fresh fruit characters are tones of flowers, wet stone and sea breeze.  A verve and vibrancy on the palate is balanced by a layered richness and complexity derived in part from the fermentation in French Oak and aging sur lie.  A prominent mineral tone is carried through to a long and rich finish.  

2012 Estate Zinfandel - $45 per bottle: 289 cases produced
This wine has a deep, dark ruby hue in the glass.  The aromatics show dark cherry, a hint of blackberry, and plum framed by floral and spice elements of violets, black peppercorn, anise and nutmeg.  The entry is rich with firm tannins and lush depth bridging the mid-palate and finish. This wine was bottled unfined and unfiltered. While this wine is approachable and powerful while young, it will gain complexity in the months and years to come.

2011 Isthmus - $80 per bottle: 273 cases produced
Deep ruby in its hue, the Isthmus displays pure aromas of dark cherry fruit, plum, and fresh earth, woven in with notes of vanilla, charcoal and lilan.  The brightness and freshness of the fruit carries over onto the palate.  Supple yet balanced, this wine juxtaposes a juice mid-palate with fine tannins and a firm, persistent finish.  Showing accessibility in its youth, this wine’s structure will keep developing over the next 10 years.

2010 Bordeaux Blend “Pamelita Reserve” -  $135 only 11 cases left

Made from 65% Cabernet, then Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Merlot, this wine shows the most complexity and ageability. Aromas of blackberry, red plum and cassis mingle with dark chocolate and baking spice. The palate is inviting and silky, with savory notes of earth and leather balanced by a backbone of acidity and a smooth tannin structure. This wine's layered finish makes it enjoyable now or cellar-worthy for years to come.


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