Lunch (and Pinot Noir) with Mark McWilliams, Co-Owner Arista Winery


Very interesting lunch today with Mark McWilliams, co-owner with his brother Ben of Arista Winery, which his parents bought in 2002.

Perhaps the story best begins with his parents Al and Janis McWilliams of Texarkana, who loved the French culture and visited Sonoma so often they decided they’d like to start a winery and retire in the area.

Mark spent many summers in Sonoma in high school, working for various vineyards, so was ready to take an active role when his parents bought a property in 2004, one incorporating four distinct types of soil and a variety of exposures — all perfect for the production of Pinot Noir.

Our lunch today was at the Carlyle, an elegant restaurant inside one of the most prestigious hotels in the city. As Mark greets me I see five bottles of Pinot Noir on the table, primed and ready for our tasting.

Mark is an affable, laid-back gentlemen in his thirties who’s spent most of his life in the vineyards. Though he’s studied wine in school, he readily admits most of his knowledge comes from personal experience in the vineyard and winery.

Before the tasting, we discuss the Arista Winery … though the previous winery had a gorgeous topography with great stones and a Japanese garden with koi ponds, the family kicked it up a notch, giving the winery its own warm, welcoming feel.

Perhaps the most significant change – and something unusual even in this hospitality-driven area – is the guided tours offered of the vineyard in one of the winery’s custom built “mini=humvees.”

The winery also opened their previously exclusive (mailing list only) food and wine pairing program to outside guests. From Mark’s description, it is a fabulous value, with guests receiving a 45 minute tour of the winery as well as the fresh organic vegetable garden, and then enjoying a five course food and wine pairing lunch with the winery’s executive chef CIA graduate William Allen.

“Guests enjoy visiting the garden with William before lunch, and the opportunity to pull a carrot out of the ground or collect eggs from the hen house,” says Mark.  Along with organic produce, the winery also raises goats and other animals. Lunch at present is a very reasonable $65.

The winery makes 14 different Pinot Noirs, all small lots from different terroirs. Yet we start our tasting with the 2010 dry Gerwurztraminer from the prized Ferrington vineyard, which is located in Mendocino County. The wine is dry, crisp, with spice and a long finish. Very mineral driven.

“It’s designed to be crisp, tight, and clean in the tradition of Alsace,” says Mark, whose mother is passionate about French culture.

Next, we taste two wines side by side: the Sonoma Coast ’10 with its brandied cherry palate and perfumed nose, and the Russian River Valley ’10 with grapes from four vineyards — a plush, earthy wine with a darker fruit profile.

The next pair are both from the Russian River … the Bacigalupi ’10 with its perfumed cherry nose and delicate balance, and the Toboni ’10 which is more masculine, forceful, and full bodied.

Here is where the conversation gets interesting: “The Bacigalupi was planted with the Wente Clone,” says Mark, “while the Toboni is a mix of four clones, including 115, 667, 777, and Pommard.” What he’s trying to explain is the complexity that goes into the wines … something that one can literally feel on the mouth.

We end the tasting with a Pinot Noir ’10 from the Ferrington vineyard. It is delicious with a pronounced sense of terroir and incredible concentration.

The wines are all very high quality and by all accounts produced with passion. The decision to give vineyard tours and five-wine tastings was born out of the idea that visitors need to understand the terroir. “If they come all the way out here from Ohio, we don’t want to rush them through the tasting room. We want them to understand the experience of the winery and how it all fits together,” says Mark.

The property looks gorgeous and I can’t wait to visit. You can read more and sign up for their list at

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