Pioneering Sonoma’s ‘West County’ Winegrowing Area

After graduating from the University of California at Davis in 1987, Bill Hunter spent time working at Rombauer Winery in St. Helena, Calif., and Bonny Doon Winery in Santa Cruz, Calif. — estates that are owned and operated by vintners with big personalities.

In 1989, he began making wine for Chauffe-Eau Cellars in Geyserville, Calif. After building up a bank of experience with a number of varieties in a handful of appellations, Hunter wanted to be able to express his own style — his own personality.

So, in 1994, he began making his own wine on the side. He made two barrels of Chardonnay from Sonoma County’s Dutton Ranch, and a single barrel of Pinot Noir from Carneros-grown grapes. Unfortunately, someone had already registered the brand “Hunter,” so he opted to use the brand name “Chasseur” — which is French for Hunter.

His wines sold out locally almost overnight thanks to their character, personality and overall quality.

Each year thereafter, Hunter would scour Sonoma County for fruit that met his demanding criteria for quality. This allowed for slow growth that reached 2,500 cases from the 2001 harvest.

Seeing the potential of west Sonoma County, his dream was to work with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and to own a winery in the region where he would work for himself, focusing solely on making small lots of top-quality wine.

That’s what Chasseur Wines is all about — dedicated to small-lot, handcrafted wines in the old French tradition, with emphasis on vineyard designates.

“Our small size — presently about 2,700 cases — allows complete control over the winemaking process, enabling us to produce the finest wines the fruit has to offer,” Hunter explains. “We are pursuing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay’s final and possibly finest frontier, Sonoma’s ‘West County.’

“Still in its renaissance, this area is composed of the western edge of the Russian River Valley and beyond, known as the true Sonoma Coast appellation. We refer to this area as the ‘West County Triangle,’ the area between and around Sebastopol, Freestone and Occidental.”

Hunter says his goal is to be among the pioneers in developing the potential of this area, and that’s why he works with the area’s top vineyards, including Sand Hill Ranch, Green Acres Hill, Lorenzo Vineyard, Umino Vineyard and others.

The facility used for wine production is a retired apple processing plant in Sebastopol, long known as the North Coast’s “apple country.” Dedicated to substance over style, the winery is likened to a lower Manhattan loft.

Ideal for wine processing, the compartmentalized nature of the space provides a room for every function. Harvest operations are performed in the main winery room. An interior room with natural insulation is chilled to cellar temperature and humidified for barrel storage. Wines going through malolactic fermentation are kept in a room that can be heated in the cold winter months — hence, the “warm room.”

All the equipment and processing techniques were chosen for maximum extraction of the fruit, but with attention to gentle handling. At harvest, the Chardonnays go through a long, slow, gentle press before going to barrel for fermentation. The Pinot Noir lots are fermented in small one-ton fermenters, and go through a submerged cap regime to increase extraction and limit maceration of the skins. The barreled wines are racked with argon, an inert gas, and then filled by gravity. The finished wines are typically bottled without fining or filtration.

Chasseur is open to visitors by appointment, but typically is closed from Labor Day through New Year’s Day because of the activities associated with the harvest and the holidays.

Posted in Wineries of Distinction
Members-only Wine sampler specials delivered straight to your inbox via our Cyber Circle newsletter.

%d bloggers like this: