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Toast: The Patrón of Winterhawk

This was first published in the June 19, 2012 edition of the Vacaville Reporter, in my column "Toast."

They call him Patrón. "That’s Spanish for Boss Man," explains Martha Gustafsson, the winemaker at Winterhawk Winery. If Patrón conjures up a mustachioed Mexican, think again, this Boss Man is a blue- eyed Swede from Michigan.

The Patrón of Winterhawk Winery is Don Johnson, who found his way to growing grapes in Suisun Valley by way of the army and a career in accounting. He grew up on a dairy farm where he milked cows by
hand, three times a day. Every day. No vacations. “I swore I’d never get into farming again. But it’s night and day between a small family dairy farm in Michigan and growing grapes in California.”

Johnson still works every day but on weekends he’s joined by a community he has built around the Winterhawk Winery trifecta: wine, pizza and live music, all for $7.

The deal is this. For seven bucks you can taste all the Winterhawk wines on the menu, there are eleven of them, then you are poured a glass. Once you decide on your favorite you are poured a glass. Only a wine geek could find time to taste them all because the music is irresistible. It makes a turn on the dance floor, in the shade of the winery shed, almost mandatory. When you catch your breath you can
fortify yourself with a piece of pizza.

The pizza comes from an oven Johnson ordered when he was touring Italy. When it arrived he was shocked by how big it was. "I wasn’t sure what to do with it. I don’t have that many friends," he joked. Well, now he does.

Winterhawk Winery hosts hundreds of people each weekend, many of whom are regulars, without any marketing outside a Facebook page and an email list of 3000. Last year he expanded his regular Saturday get-togethers to include Community Service Sundays, when 20% of the proceeds go to a different non-profit each week. Johnson is happy to wave off questions about wine to Gustafsson, but when talk turns to music, his eyes light up. It’s obvious that entertaining in the middle of his vineyard is what sends him.

The music may be what makes his blue eyes shine, but Johnson is no slouch about his wine. He’s proud of Gustafsson’s U.C. Davis credentials. On the day I visited she was working with cellar master Steve Eaton to ensure that their Pinot Gris was stable under cold conditions. The frosty tank was about the last thing I expected to see on a 95 degree day. Chilling the wine to 27 degrees forces tiny crystals out of the wine before it is filtered and bottled. Gustafsson’s explanations are littered with chemical jargon but it’s the flavors that brought her to winemaking, "What it comes down to is flavor. I think you have to really like the wine you’re making." She enjoys the challenge of eleven different wines. "Each vintage is a story. The weather that year, the rainfall, new farming techniques. Don gives us a lot of autonomy."

All the wines are under $20, three to try:

Refreshing as a sea breeze on a hot day, the 2011 Albarino was bright and crisp with a touch of minerality.

The 2010 Winterhawk Red packed such an aromatic wallop that I could smell it a couple feet away as the glass sat on a table beside me. The raspberry flavors gave way to hints of cocoa, pepper and black cherry on the finish. This would taste great with some Brie and French bread or a grilled cheese sandwich.

Eaton made the late harvest Sauvingon Blanc from grapes picked about a month after the regular harvest. I usually associate “late harvest” with desert but you could drink this with a meal. The apple and lime notes are delicious, if a wine can taste like a margarita, this is it.

Fitting, I suppose, for wine that comes from a man they call Patrón.


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