Meeting Winemaker Ralf Holdenried of William Hill Estate Winery


Ralf Holdenried facing camera

Does the name William Hill Estate Winery sound familiar? It should – it’s on hundreds of wine lists in America, and a popular wine to buy in wine shops as well.

In 1978, visionary vineyard developer William Hill saw the incredible potential of the Silverado Bench, where he built his namesake winery. More than three decades later, winemaker Ralf Holdenried – pictured above – is making modern wines that speak to the unique terroir of this virtually unknown area of southern Napa Valley.

Before Ralf got swallowed up by a sea of ladies, I had the golden opportunity to pull him aside and ask him many detailed, Master of Wine student questions about the things that make the winery unique.  “What’s the winery’s ‘unique selling position’ I asked.

Okay, here’s the overview.  There’s a confluence of characteristics makes the 140-acre estate an ideal vineyard. Set on a benchland – off the valley floor, but below the steeper slopes of the hills – with a southwestern exposure, the vines bask in abundant sunlight. The vineyard is close to the valley floor climatically, but the volcanic soil and the size and vigor of the vines means William Hill is more like a mountaintop vineyard. These elements translate to elegant, expressive red Bordeaux wines.

The wines were tasted at Betony, an elegant restaurant in New York, with each wine paired with specific dishes. The Napa Valley Chardonnay 2012 was served with canapes (the chickpea panissse was a standout). This was a rich delicious wine, with about 3 to 4 grams of residual sugar and a very balanced flavor with refreshing acidity.

The North Coast Chardonnay 2012 accompanied the elegant first course, marinated trout roe with puffed rice and cucumber.

The 2012 North Coast Chardonnay offers aromas of ripe fruit treat with hints of brown spice, citrus, and tropical fruit. According to Ralf, 2012 was an excellent vintage, with mild, moderate conditions through the growing season. The wine is 13.5 alcohol which makes it a great food wine, and retails for $14.

This wine also accompanied the  second course, a “grain salad” made from toasted grains of various kinds, with well-chosen chevre cheese and sprouts.

It was nice to see that the North Coast Chardonnay 2012 also was a perfect match with the third course of poached lobster with chestnuts and spiced lobster bisque. With the fourth course of roasted chicken and king trumpet mushrooms, we experienced the North Coast Cabernet Sauvignon 2012.  It was the inaugural vintage of this wine which had a rich palate of dark fruit flavors with subtle hints of caramel and cocoa, as well as blackberry and black cherry flavors. Though mostly Cabernet with a touch of Merlot, it is a wine that will develop more complex flavors over time.

We also enjoyed this wine with the last course of cheese and a honey crisp apple.

Ralf is a super nice guy, very friendly and a talented winermaker. He grew up in the Reinhessen, Germany, where after an internship at a boutique German winery he decided to devote his life to the vine. After graduating form the prestigious Geisenheim Germany, he worked in an assortment of wineries before studying fermentation science at the University of California at Davis. He joined E. and J. Gallo Winery’s Sonoma County winemaking team in 1998, received an MBA from UC Davis, became winemaking director at Louis M. Martini’s small lot wines (a job that helped him develop his mastery of small lot winemaking) and today he applies his talents to William Hill Estate.


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