The Russian River Valley
It all began millions of years ago when the Russian River Valley was a shallow inland sea that slowly tilted and drained into the ocean. The older geology of this area looks like a patchwork quilt of varying soils, a mixture of ocean floor rocks faulted together as the Pacific Ocean Plate slid eastward under the edge of the North American Plate along the California coastline. The unique geography of Sonoma County is just the beginning of the story.
Historic Hallberg Ranch
In the early 1900’s, there were 40,000 acres of wine grapes and 256 wineries in Sonoma County. Even then, the combination of the cool climate, the rolling hills and well-drained Goldridge soils of the area produced a large portion of Sonoma County’s most desirable wine grapes. With the enactment of Prohibition in 1920 came the removal of most of the area’s vineyards; apples and prunes took their place, and Sebastopol became widely recognized as the capital of America’s finest apple production.
By the time Prohibition ended in 1933, four years before the completion of the Golden Gate Bridge, most California vineyards had been replanted with other agricultural goods such as apples, walnuts, cherries, and peaches. Hallberg Ranch looked very different back then.
1. Aerial view of the O. A. Hallberg Orchards in Graton and Green Valley area along Gravenstein Highway north, circa 1940s
2. Hallberg apple orchard in bloom with a man and woman standing in road 1955
3. Marcia Hallberg with boxes of apples at the entrance to the Hallberg Apple Farm roadside stand, 1982
4. Hallberg Apple Farm fruit stand and bakery sign with rainbow background 1983
By the mid-1990s, vineyards had largely supplanted apples once more as the highest and best use of the county’s finest orchard land. Around this time, pioneering vintner Brice Cutrer Jones and his friend and Vineyard Manager Kirk Lokka became transfixed by the idea of growing Pinot Noir on the 115-acre Hallberg Ranch.
With its size, perfect soil and cool climate, it is an extraordinary piece of land. Truly great vineyard land is a rarity, and even back then, most of it had already been planted. Kirk and I understood that Hallberg had all of the qualities necessary to be a grand cru-caliber vineyard.
—Brice Cutrer Jones, Founder
1999 was the landmark year that Brice closed on the purchase of Don and Marcia Hallberg’s prime apple orchard in the heart of the Russian River Valley, and Emeritus was born.
Our Founding Team
Brice founded Sonoma–Cutrer Vineyards in 1972. Focusing exclusively on Chardonnay, Brice was an early pioneer in the white wine boom that quickly reshaped the American wine landscape.
In 1982 Brice hired Kirk, who quickly earned a promotion from foreman to vineyard manager. Over the next quarter century, Brice, Kirk and their team established more than 1,000 acres of Chardonnay and built Sonoma–Cutrer into one of America’s most acclaimed wineries. Brice also developed enduring friendships with some of the most esteemed vintners in Burgundy, and in 1999 he was inducted into the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin at a special ceremony at Clos de Vougeot.
Brice and Kirk began approaching the Hallberg family in 1992 about buying their apple orchard to plant Pinot Noir. The 115–acre parcel, Hallberg Ranch, is located two miles north of Sebastopol, on both sides of the Gravenstein Highway and directly on the Gold Ridge—a ten-mile long ridge that bears the name of the predominant soils of the area. Both Brice and Kirk would stop by weekly to buy apples and pies from their roadside stand just to check-in. There were big name wineries eyeing and bidding on the property; Brice told the Hallberg’s he would match anyone’s offer.
In 1998, Brice purchased a plot of land on the far reaches of the Sonoma Coast as a gift for his eldest son, Victor. This particular land attracted Brice for the same reason he courted the Hallbergs for over five years: the marine influence and Goldridge sandy loam soil. This beautiful plot in the remote town of Annapolis rested on a small outcropping of Goldridge soil that Brice knew would be perfect for Pinot Noir vineyards. It was later developed into a vineyard named after Brice’s father, William Wesley Jones, an Air Force Colonel and loving grandfather.
It wasn’t until 1999 that Don and Marcia Hallberg decided to sell their ranch. The timing was fortuitous—Brice sold Sonoma–Cutrer Vineyards that same week, after more than twenty-five years of building it into one of California’s most revered producers of Chardonnay. Though the Hallbergs had more lucrative offers from other bidders, they chose to sell their historic ranch to Brice, embracing his vision. For Brice, this vision was clear, though not easy to achieve: he wanted to take everything he had learned about growing grapes and making wine, and apply it to the goal of making the finest Pinot Noirs in California.
In 2004, the final piece of the puzzle fell into place: Brice finally convinced longtime Pinotphile and Burgundy–trained winemaker Don Blackburn to join the team. Don came aboard the day before the first harvest of the William Wesley Vineyard and established the hallmark elegant and charming style of Emeritus.
The Dawn of Emeritus
After acquiring the Hallberg property in 1999, Emeritus began planting vineyards and outfitting the Hallberg barn with fermentation vats, barrels, and environmental controls. Brice formed a team of talented individuals, including Kirk Lokka, who he had spent decades working alongside at Sonoma–Cutrer. They were people who shared his exacting vision for quality, and his desire to create a new benchmark for New World Pinot Noir. Together, this team spent three years preparing and planting Hallberg Ranch. Around the same time, Victor took a crew up to Annapolis to begin developing the William Wesley vineyard.
New wineries and new vineyards emerge constantly in California, but few have the heritage that Emeritus Vineyards can claim. Because of its size, its cool climate and its classic Goldridge soils (mineral-rich sandy loam), this ‘extraordinary piece of land’ captured the imagination of Brice Cutrer Jones. He purchased Hallberg Ranch and with his friend and now vineyard manager, Kirk Lokka, set out on his mission to make Pinot Noir that would rival California’s finest.
—Mary Ewing-Mulligan, Wine Review Online (Jan 2019)
Profoundly influenced by relationships formed with some the most respected vintners in Burgundy, Brice and Kirk planted Hallberg Ranch inspired by the best vineyards in Burgundy, with “close spacing” and vines primarily trained and pruned according to the AOC Guyot model. To create a diverse tapestry of fruit from which to blend, Kirk selected eleven clones to plant, including two field selections he took from iconic vineyards in the Côte de Nuits, and a selection from Brice’s friend, and famed vintner, Aubert de Villaine.
Emeritus Pinot Noir’s debut came in 2004, but sadly a warehouse fire destroyed the entire vintage. However, wine connoisseurs immediately recognized the follow-up 2005 vintage for its grace, complexity, and terroir-driven character.
In 2007 and on Aubert’s recommendation, Brice and Kirk committed themselves to a unique path that would further cement their vision of making terroir-driven wines: they began dry farming. This practice is uncommon in California, but Hallberg Ranch has a deposit of clay loam underneath its Goldridge soil that allows the vines to dig deep into the earth for the water stored in the clay. (Learn more about our farming practices here.)
That same year, Emeritus acquired a smaller estate property named Pinot Hill, nestled in the Sebastopol Hills eight miles from Hallberg Ranch. This former llama farm in the cool southern reaches of Sebastopol has a similar soil profile, Goldridge soil underlain with Los Osos clay. (Learn more about this vineyard here.)
As we slowly weaned the vines in Hallberg Ranch off irrigation the overall vineyard yield went down, but we stuck with it. Once the roots stretched down to the clay layer, over 20 feet down in some areas, we saw a huge payoff. The vines were able to find moisture and nutrients stored deep in the soil, gradually becoming healthier and more in balance and attuned to the land and climate. This created a new profile for Emeritus wines that is even more expressive of the terroir.
Today Emeritus Vineyards consists of two estate properties (the William Wesley vineyard having been sold in 2015): Hallberg Ranch and Pinot Hill. These two vineyards combine to give Emeritus almost 150 acres of Pinot Noir, making Emeritus the largest dry farmed Pinot Noir estate in Sonoma County, and possibly in all of California.
Don Blackburn passed away after the 2008 harvest, but his protégé, Nicolas Cantacuzene, stepped into his shoes and continued his quest until 2017. Today, our winemaker is David Lattin. A veteran of such acclaimed wineries as Merus, Kuleto Estate and Acacia, he brings 32 vintages of winemaking experience to his role at Emeritus. David supports everything we believe in, from our sustainable dry farming practices to the quest for the highest quality wines, and continues the visionary approach to winemaking established by Don Blackburn with a focus on crafting wines of purity, elegance and uncommon aging potential.
Brice’s daughter Mari Jones joined the company full time in 2012. Among other initiatives, she had full creative control over designing our current tasting room, which opened in 2015. Since Emeritus Vineyards’ 20th anniversary celebration in 2019, Mari has taken over the role of President.
As Emeritus’s dynamic president, Mari brings a fresh perspective and a forward-looking enthusiasm and energy to the family-run winery, while working alongside Brice, Kirk, Dave, and the rest of the winery’s talented team to guide the evolution of Emeritus.
Emeritus is the work of a team dedicated to their craft. From planting and growing the vineyard, coaxing grapes into wine to sharing our wines and our stories with customers, everyone here is passionate about what we do, and many bring decades of experience. I’ve known many of the people I work with my whole life. My role is to continue to innovate and make Emeritus the most sustainable company we can be. That means taking care of our people and our land so we can make the best wine possible from our vineyards. The fact that we love what we do is part of the essence of our wines.
– Mari Jones, President (of Fun)
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