SANTA MARIA, California – Middle-of-the-night emergency phone calls are going to be a thing of the past.
At least for Foxen Director of Marketing and Sales Jenny Williamson Doré. The team that made Foxen into a force in pinot noir from the Santa Maria Valley is nearing the point where they turn the reins over to their children to shepherd the winery into the future.
That means someone else will have to pick up the phone, turn on the sprinklers at 2 a.m. or deal with a stalled shipment of equipment. Even if her husband and founder and Director of Sales Dick Doré always will find his place on a tractor or tinkering around in the vineyard, the time has come.
“We’ve taken concrete steps we began a few years ago for the next generation,” said Williamson Doré, whose daughter will become the director of sales and marketing next year. She came from working with distributors, but now she’s got to make the boys sound grammatically correct in the newsletter.”
Bill Wathen, the founder and director of winemaking, and his wife, CFO Becky Barieau Wathen, also have two children who eventually will step into leadership roles at the winery. Their son Bingo is working as assistant winemaker, and has worked in both France and Australia. Their daughter Briley eventually will succeed to Becky’s role. At Foxen, Williamson Doré said “continuity is important.”
“Dick and I realized we will always be involved, but we want to get to more ambassadorial roles than day-to-day,” Williamson Doré said. “We’ll always be a part of it. You’ll have to drag Billy out of the vineyard. We decided to make a more concerted plan just to make sure the tactics match the strategy. It’s a gradual thing, we aren’t going anywhere, we’d just like to take some more vacation time. I’d like to avoid the daily phone calls about things like a truck being stuck and can’t get a shipment here.”
We sat together on a sunny and warm Easter Saturday on Foxen’s beautiful outdoor patio and tasted our way through their entire lineup of wines.
The Foxen Chenin Blanc Ernesto Wickenden Vineyard 2020 ($26) started things out with its stone fruit and green note on the finish. The 3.5-acre vineyard was planted by Dick Doré's great uncle in 1966. “It’s truly old vines,” she said as one of the knotted knuckles of one crawls up a screen in the outdoor tasting room.
After whetting our palates with a white, we got into Foxen’s serious pinot noir.
The Foxen Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir 2018 ($36) is one of the best deals in California pinot. As an appellation blend, it paints a total picture of the vintage and all the vineyards from which fruit is sourced.
There are five different clones in the blend: the Pommard, Mt. Eden Swan, 2A and the Dijon 115 and 667, which were available in 1999. The result is the pretty red fruit, with strawberry and cherry combining with just enough forest floor, pine needle, leather and fall leaves to add nuance.
Because the wine is aged in used French oak, the soft texture of fruit from Bien Nacido and Riverbench vineyards is able to be showcased.
“The Pommard clone always has the leathery, sandalwood note,” Williamson Doré said. “I call it the new saddle.”
From the westernmost vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley, the closest site to the famously scenic Highway 101, the Foxen Solomon Hills 2018 ($63) is from a very cool site with sandy soil, its characteristics softening every aspect of the wine.
“Those soils make a softer tannin structure for the wine,” Williamson Doré said. “There’s more femininity to it. More tart cherry and cranberry fruit with distinct savory notes.”
Foxen Bien Nacido Vineyard Block 43 2019 ($66) has the flashy 667 and 777 Dijon clones. The newer clones offer layer after layer of flavors. Dark fruit, cherry liquor, tobacco pipe, loamy earth, sandalwood and a crispy layer of chocolate mint.
Change is on the horizon for the Foxen Bien Nacido Vineyard Block 8 Pinot Noir. The site is made up of the 113 and 115 Dijon clones, and was planted in 1996. The 2018 Block 8 ($65) had raspberry, loamy earth and Chinese 5 Spice flavors. There’s a streamlined melding of the flavors as they linger on during a long finish.
When her husband, Dick, opened a 2002, she said it “blew her away.”
“There was a lot more earthiness,” Williamson Doré said. “Little flavors started to come out, the savory notes, then more fruit and there’s some tannin.”
Recently, the Foxen team met with the Miller Family, owners of the fabled property, because their 25-year contract is about to expire.
“We’ll do some replanting,” Williamson Doré said. “There’s some red leaf (virus) coming in and mealy bug issues. You actually pull out blocks to prevent them from spreading. With global warming, we are finding the Pommard clone and older clones do better with heat. So we are looking at older clones.”
As the climate continues to change, Williamson Doré said they’ve seen a degree or two increase across their properties, mostly from the lack of a diurnal shift. The nights don’t cool off quite as much as they used to, and the swings are more wild. The variation is what drives “farmers crazy.”
“Our biggest concern with heat spikes is plants shoot up quickly, they’re tender and very susceptible at that time,” Williamson Doré said. “Back in ’08, we had 100-degree weather followed by a cold snap which bottomed out the dew point. The temperature got down to 29 degrees for four hours, and the Williamson Doré syrah vineyard (at their home ranch) was wiped out totally.”
It was planted in 1998, and Williamson Doré said she always felt like the site was like caring for a newborn. The threat of a spring frost always would wake up either her or Dick and send them scurrying for the irrigation. Just a thin layer of water could protect baby vines.
But the ’08 episode was the last time she’s had a middle-of-the-night wake-up call. The good news is the wines haven’t suffered. Winemakers and wine growers will experiment with new clones that are more drought and heat tolerant.
And the next generation gradually will take their turn to continue the Foxen legacy.
• James Nokes has been tasting, touring and collecting in the wine world for several years. Email him at email@example.com.