Brian Zalaznick, Angel Camp Vineyards, and an Indomitable Spirit

"My love of wine is really connected to my love for great food."
05/09/2014 02:56 pm ET Updated Jul 09, 2014

Life has many strange twists and turns. I grew up in the same town as the Zalaznick family. Dana was a beauty, and very bright, a year older than me. Ed was one of the most gifted people I knew, and he was a year behind me in school. Brian was a couple of years behind me in school, and he too was bright, and talented, and well-rounded. Time passed, and our lives went in separate directions. Then came the unspeakable.

Ed had married a wonderful French woman, and had started to raise a family in Paris. He, his wife Isabelle, their three sons, and five other members of her family perished along with all others on board a flight on January 3, 2004, when their plane crashed into the Red Sea. News traveled quickly to our town, and to the wide array of people who were touched by Ed and Isabelle's lives. I remember the shock and sadness I felt, but I didn't really know what I could do.

Dana and I are Facebook friends, and she was very encouraging about a blog I had written about a small Sonoma wine producer. She asked me to speak with her brother Brian. I did. Speaking with him felt natural and easy. He sent me samples of Angel Camp. At first, I was a little reluctant, but I read a bit more about Angel Camp and became intrigued.

On the front page of his website, was a beautiful quote from Albert Camus, that spoke to his inner strength, "In the depth of winter, I finally learned within me lay an incredible summer..."

I asked Brian about his background: What motivated him to start in wine?

"My love of wine is really connected to my love for great food. In college I worked as a waiter over the summers at Chillingsworth on Cape Cod. It was my first interaction with a sommelier and the interplay between haute cuisine and fine wine. My world was never the same after that summer."

Who were your mentors?

"I am not sure I would call them mentors or co-conspirators. My brother Edward was a huge influence in many dimensions of my life. He married a great French woman named Isabelle, whose family was originally from Dijon. Isabelle's uncle was the famed vigneron Pierre Bertheau from Chabolle-Musigny. Through his family connection I was introduced to the greatest wine region in the world, and Pinot Noir."

What was the condition of the vineyard land when you purchased it?

"The land was in serious disrepair when I purchased it in 2005. Most of the property was cluttered with the remnants of an overgrown Christmas tree farm that had not been cultivated in years. The first year was spent clearing the property, building a 13-acre foot pond and amending soils with vital nutrients."

How did you get Paul Ardzrooni to be your Vineyard Manager?

"Paul is widely regarded as the 'go to' vineyard manager in Anderson Valley. He farms for many venerable winemakers including Ted Lemon at Littorai and Wells Guthrie at Copain. I was lucky to get him to sign on the Angel Camp project given our small size at 12 acres planted. I think Paul will tell you that Angel Camp is now one of the prized properties in his customer portfolio. The demand for our grapes is 5 or 6 times greater than what we are able to sell."

Who do you currently sell your grapes to?

Currently, we only take 25 percent of our grape production for the Angel Camp label. The remaining grapes are split between Donum and Dutton Goldfield, both of whom make an Angel Camp designated Pinot Noir under their respective labels. Anne Moller-Racke and Dan Goldfield are close friends and two people that I greatly respect in the California wine making community.

Sustainable vineyard management vs organic or biodynamic.

"It may be clichᅢᄅ, but it remains true that great wines are grown in the vineyard. That is why I love the term 'wine grower.' To that end, we have moved away from all pesticides and non-organic treatments in the vineyard. Beyond the realm of organic is biodynamics which combines spirituality, ethics and ecology into the farming practice. There is a big movement in Anderson Valley toward biodynamics which I believe is a win-win for the wine consumer and the environment."

What are your aims, stylistically, with your white, rose, and red?

"While my palate is largely informed by the wines of Burgundy, Rhone, and Provence, I always come back to the concept of terroir. Angel Camp is a very special property in the colder 'deep end' of Anderson Valley perched on a 300-foot knoll above the Navarro River, approximately 10 miles from the Pacific Ocean. My goal has been to reveal the story that the vineyard wants to tell. To this end, I strive for wines that are streamlined and refined versus over ripe and oaked. We typically pick at 23-24 brixs which results in lower alcohol (13 percent) and bright acidity. We have historically used 40 percent new oak however, I think this will migrate lower as we continue to experiment with whole cluster fermentations as a more natural way of gaining tannic structure.

The wines

The wines; a white, Pinot Noir Blanc, Vin Gris of Pinot Noir, and a Pinot Noir were not just good... they were fantastic... amongst the elite of what I have tasted from California. The white and the Vin Gris had a common element; a textural grip with beautiful floral and mineral components, of wines that you might find in Marsannay, although still has something flatteringly Californian. The Pinot Noir is another great example of why Anderson Valley needs to be considered amongst the top growing areas for Pinot Noir in California. The flavors -- cranberry, lemon, with some floral elements and minerality. Angel Camp produces special wine, and is made by a special person... and a few tears in heaven.

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