Anyone who has ever taken piano lessons is familiar with the etude. In classical music, an etude is a composition, usually short and quite difficult, with a technical focus that allows the musician to practice a particular technique.
Chopin piano etudes are notoriously difficult but sublimely beautiful—perfect examples of the practiced craft transformed to art.
Similarly, Etude wines are the product of deliberate concentration on the instructive variables of the winemaking craft. The “end game” is not edification alone, but rather the wine itself as a source of enjoyment.
What began a quarter-century ago as a philosophical state of mind is now a state-of-the-art facility in the Carneros area of California’s North Coast, where the ancient art of winemaking is pursued with a singular passion.
ldquo;There’s no better vehicle with which to study or practice the craft of winemaking than Pinot Noir,” says Etude founder and self-described “winegrower” Tony Soter. “It is the most challenging, unforgiving and quixotic of all wine grapes, and yet the most delicate and transparent.
ldquo;It is a humbling pursuit,” Soter adds, “but when it’s right, Pinot Noir is a glorious and moving thing. It is in the pursuit of that experience that we all work.”
The “we” in the Etude composition includes current winemaker Jon Priest and viticulturalist Franci Ashton. They transform the very finest Carneros and Napa Valley grapes into world-class wines that are highly sought after.
In addition to its widely-acclaimed Carneros Pinot Noir and legendary Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Etude also has developed a loyal following for Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Merlot.
Notes Priest: “Etude was founded on the philosophy that winemaking begins in the vineyard long before the harvest, and that superior grape growing diminishes the need for intervention by the winemaker, resulting in authentic varietal expression. This remains our approach today as we continue to build the Etude legacy.”
Etude’s estate winery is tucked away in the far northwest corner of the Carneros appellation. It’s a rambling tract of grazing land bisected by the Rodgers Creek Fault Line at the southern toe of Sonoma Mountain.
Unlike typical Carneros acreage, which is largely uplifted bay bottoms with soils composed of clay, the soils on the Etude estate site are variations of volcanic origin, well drained and rocky. Combining these soils with the extreme western location, closer to the Pacific Ocean, makes the site a decidedly distinct destination.
The vineyard blocks were customized to conform to the various soil types and the changing contours of the topography. Individual blocks average just 8 acres in size. The spacing is dense to ensure low per vine yields of fully concentrated fruit.
Mindful of their roles as stewards of this special property, the Etude team adheres to strict sustainable practices that enable them to farm in concert with the surrounding environment. Native flora and naturally occurring wetlands have been protected, and creeks are being restored. Wildlife has been afforded safe passageways through the vineyards.
Nearly 20 Pinot Noir clones, including 10 low-yielding heirloom varieties, have been planted in Etude’s estate vineyard. As the grapes approach harvest, they are protected from hungry starlings by a falconer and a team of trained falcons. This low-impact method of crop protection is another example of Etude’s commitment to natural and sustainable winegrowing methods.
Etude welcomes guests daily. A regular tasting costs $15, while a Reserve tasting is priced at $25. The winery also offers private tastings three times each day in its Heirloom Room for $35 per person. On weekends, guests can sample a flight of six Etude wines, paired with three savory “bites,” for $35. Reservations are strongly suggested for the Heirloom Room and food-and-wine tastings.
Etude has established a widespread reputation for quality, and Tony Soter believes the best is yet to come.
“Inspired grape growing diminishes the need for winemaking intervention,” he suggests. “I am confident that the quality of our vineyard is so superior and distinct, it will set us apart from all other Carneros sources.”
That should be music to any wine lover’s ears.