Talbott: Setting the Standard on California’s Central Coast

“Too cold.”

That was one of the comments Robb Talbott heard about his desire to plant a vineyard on a mountaintop in California’s Carmel Valley.

“Too difficult to plant,” was another.

“Too challenging to grow on.”

The truth is that the site Talbott had selected was cold, not to mention very windy. He listened to the comments, then he went ahead and planted his Diamond T Estate, determined to prove that conventional wisdom isn’t always so wise.

“It all began with my first taste of a great Burgundy,” Talbott recalls. “That experience profoundly shaped my palate, and as I grew older, I knew that I wanted to create unique and exceptional Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs—wines that took their inspiration from the traditions of Burgundy, but had their roots in California’s soils.”

To achieve this goal, Talbott established one of the Central Coast’s most esteemed estate programs, featuring two of Monterey County’s “grand cru” sites: the original Diamond T Estate, and the legendary Sleepy Hollow Vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands.

Located about 18 miles apart, the two vineyards yield rich and distinctive Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs that embody their unique terroirs.

At its heart, the history of Talbott Vineyards is the story of one family’s determined focus and commitment to excellence. In 1950, Robert Talbott Sr., his wife Audrey, and their son Robb moved to Carmel, Calif., where they started a luxury tie company.

Audrey sewed the ties by hand. Robert sold them up and down the California coast. During silk-buying trips to Europe, the Talbotts visited French and Italian vineyards and became interested in fine wine. As their interest grew, they aspired to produce their own California wines, using the Burgundian techniques that they had become passionate about.

In 1982, Robb planted Diamond T, and the Talbotts built their original winery in idyllic Carmel Valley. For his first plantings, Robb selected the storied Corton-Charlemagne Chardonnay clone, planting it in Diamond T’s almost soil-free chalky shale. He understood that the vines would have to struggle to survive there—and that was a key aspect of the plan. With miniscule yields, the wines promised to be quite intense and expressive.

In 1994, after years of working with fruit from Sleepy Hollow Vineyard, the Talbotts achieved another milestone when they were able to acquire the property. This made Talbott an all-estate winery.

Featuring blocks of old Wente clone vines planted in 1972, Sleepy Hollow has earned a reputation for producing wines of great depth and voluptuousness. Today, the vineyard’s River Road block is home to the winery’s state-of-the-art winemaking facility, where Robb Talbott and renowned winemaker Dan Karlsen guide Talbott’s benchmark Chardonnay and Pinot Noir programs.

Karlsen is a Chardonnay and Pinot Noir specialist, who brings three decades of winemaking and viticultural experience to his role at Talbott Vineyards.

Guiding the winery’s dedicated team, he champions a meticulous approach to farming, intended to coax the full potential from Talbott’s estate vineyards. In the winery, he combines technical skill and know-how with intuitiveness and artisan techniques to create benchmark Monterey County wines.

The son of a college professor, Karlsen moved to Sonoma when he was 12. Living in the countryside and surrounded by wilderness, he learned to appreciate the natural world at an early age, which inspired him to earn a degree in marine biology from Sonoma State.

To put himself through school, he worked as a plumber, carpenter and electrician. At the same time, he developed an interest in home brewing. After graduation, he worked briefly for the Oregon Forest Service, then returned to California and joined David Stare’s team at Dry Creek Vineyard. Karlsen started as a maintenance mechanic but quickly fell in love with winemaking, and soon became an integral part of the winery’s operations.

After four years with Dry Creek, he joined Dehlinger Winery as assistant winemaker. While there, he honed his skills making Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, while also affirming his belief in the importance of working with estate vineyards.

In 1988, Karlsen joined the newly founded Domaine Carneros, helping guide the winery’s acclaimed sparkling wine portfolio while also playing a pivotal role in establishing Pinot Noir. In 1998, he was named winemaker and general manager for Monterey County’s Chalone Winery, where he helped revitalize the winery’s Pinot Noir program and further elevated the status of its Chardonnays.

As the winemaker for Talbott, Karlsen’s passion for estate viticulture has helped to usher in a new era for the family’s legendary vineyards. From his belief in sustainable practices to a focus on meticulous pruning and vine homogeneity, Karlsen champions a vineyard-first approach to winemaking.

It’s an approach that’s at the very heart of the winery’s heritage and success.

Posted in Wineries of Distinction
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