A wine label for the people with roots in surfing culture has two great values.
Head High is part of the Bill Price III portfolio of wines, which also includes Three Sticks and some of the top vineyard sites in all of Sonoma County. But, for winemaker Britt Richards, it’s not a second label. It’s more than the kind of afterthought project to which leftovers are relegated after the flagship has made its wines.
Instead, Head High, which takes its name from a surfing term to describe the ideal size of a wave, has its own autonomy, and supports environmentally conscious causes. Driven by Price’s love of surfing, Head High has donated to Sustainable Surf and Duke’s Oceanfest.
The running tally on the Head High website as of Wednesday afternoon was $96,148.
“I looked for a project to inspire me, and this fit,” Richards said. “I’ve always wanted to make an approachable pinot and chardonnay. A pinot for the people brand at a price point my friends and family could afford.”
While the Three Sticks project has made awesome wines, and with the Adobe, has one of the most fascinating tasting rooms in Sonoma, as a brand, Head High stands on its own. It’s not a cheap imitation of Three Sticks; it’s just affordable, tasty wine.
“I think of it like the underdog to a bigger brand under the Bill Price umbrella,” Richards said. “But we are built as a separate entity under that umbrella. We didn’t want it to be a second tier, but rather its own brand. "
To further drive home the practice, Three Sticks and Head High have their own dedicated winemakers and facilities. Richards was emphatic that Head High wasn’t simply the “dredges” of what didn’t go into Three Sticks.
That showed with the Head High Sonoma County Chardonnay 2020 ($22) with its peach, melon, pineapple and mango flavors. Because it’s so congenial, chardonnay is one of Richards’ favorite varietals to both work with and drink.
“The thing I really like about chardonnay is it’s just a delicious grape,” Richards said. “Whatever stage it’s in, it tastes great all the way through. It is the underdog of wines. I know everybody either says I like it or hate it. I wanted to make a wine that was very naked or pure, with nothing to hide behind.”
Because she likes to capture flavors that are lemony with bright acidity, honeysuckle and in the orange-tropical realm of fruit, Richards targets the pick date. She’s focused on the transitional moment when it seems like the aforementioned traits are all still present and one has yet to dominate the flavor profile, that’s where she finds the right balance of acidity and aromatics.
Pursuing a cold ferment at 55 degrees, she said the yeasts are “chomping at the bit,” but are restrained and thus retain the aromatics. With no oak or malolactic fermentation, there’s a collection of bright tropical fruit flavors.
Even though the Head High Sonoma County Pinot Noir 2019 ($25) is one of the best deals in the pinot category, where prices continue to skyrocket, it had red fruit flavors and a series of secondary flavors that included earth, gunmetal, potpourri and iron shavings.
Richards has seen pinot and its many phases before, and knows not to panic if it’s not showing its best.
“With chardonnay, I enjoy it from grape to bottle,” Richards said. “The whole process is so delightful and delicious. When a chard fermentation is happening, it tastes good everyday. Pinot can be ugly during fermentation. It’s finicky, but the challenge is to see through the drapes as it comes back around. I’ve learned to look past some of the things in fermentation that are different with pinot. I really love making it though because of that challenge. Not every step is as pretty, and that’s the fun behind it.
“Throughout the fermentation process, pinot can have some uglier notes as far as smell goes,” she said. “The key is to be able to decipher if it’s the fermentation or part of the wine. Overall, it’s being able to find a tannin and color balance. There are colleagues of mine that always say pinot is like a teenager, where it’s at a stage that’s just a little awkward at the end of fermentation.”
With two offerings already on shelves, and the project nearing $100,000 in donations, Head High still has ambitions. A Sonoma County zinfandel is set to be released next summer. There’s a stereotype associated with zin, and Richards has her own vision for how the varietal will show best.
Sourced from Durell, Gap’s Crown and a few other sites in their portfolio, this is cool-climate zinfandel that will tear down preconceived notions.
“We want to break the barrier that California zin is this big, hefty, juicy and jammy wine,” Richards said. “We made a pure, clean zinfandel.”
• James Nokes has been tasting, touring and collecting in the wine world for several years. Email him at email@example.com.