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Little Family Winery plays its own tune

Thursday, November 17th, 2011 | Posted by

A rare moment of pause for the Little family.

By SUZIE RODRIGUEZ/Sonoma Valley Correspondent

At Glen Ellen’s 1,600-case Little Vineyards Family Winery, three family members share the principal duties.

Joan Little takes care of administration, runs the wine club, and handles the tasting room. Ted Coleman, Joan’s brother, is the winemaker. Rich Little manages the vineyards and marketing, and permeates the property with music.

It seems to work. They’ve been winning awards since their first vintage, and at this year’s Sonoma County Harvest Fair, won Gold Medal and Best of Class awards with their 2009 Band Blend, which also was a contender for the Sweepstakes award.

“We’ve collected a few medals over the years,” noted Coleman.

Among the many factors that influence the wines, two stand out: the musicality of the property and the hot springs that run beneath the vineyard, creating an unusual thermal quality.

The property, and much of the surrounding area, once belonged to George and Phoebe Hearst (the Littles have remodeled the Hearsts’ 1898 farmhouse for their home). Rich and Joan Little bought the land in 1996 from Janet Hanford, who had lived there almost 40 years. She and her husband had raised a family there and become vineyardists, selling their grapes to the Benziger family.

They had been living in Petaluma, where Joan stayed home to raise their young children while Rich worked as a systems engineer in San Francisco’s Financial District.

“I left home at 5 every morning,” he said, “and got home at 7 in the evening. We realized we had to make a big life change.”

Both had grown up in Modesto and dreamed of growing grapes. They moved to Sonoma and eventually discovered the 25-acre parcel at the end of a country lane that winds behind the B. R. Cohn Winery and slopes down to Sonoma Creek.

It is backdropped by Sonoma Mountain on one side and fronted by the Mayacamas on the other. The soil is gravelly and affords good drainage, but sits atop hot springs.

“The hot springs are definitely an influence,” said Coleman. “It’s a nice warm area, prime red territory. The combination of soil and other influences give the wine layering, texture, minerality, a unique complexity.Whe

The Littles left the property’s old vine zinfandel grapes in place and planted more reds, intending to grow and sell wine grapes.

Into the soil went “Zin, a little Syrah and a little Cab,” said Coleman, followed by other varietals, including the “spice rack:” Malbec, Cab Franc, Petite Syrah, eight different Syrah clones, Monti and Primitivo.

Over time the idea evolved, with friends enjoying the wine from their grapes. Said Joan, “Sometime around the turn of the millennium, we thought, ‘Maybe we could make wine professionally.’”

Putting in and tending vines, selling grape contracts, raising young kids, remodeling an ancient farmhouse and making wine was a lot of work. But, spurred on by Rich, they always found time for music.

Rich had been playing music since the age of 5, when he had been given his first guitar. He says he came by his musical tendencies naturally. His mother, Jacqueline, played bass for the San Francisco Symphony, and his grandmother, Opal Ralston, was a professional jazz piano player.

After buying the Glen Ellen property, almost the first thing Rich did was to transform an old shed into a practice studio.

“Right at the winery’s beginning,” he said, “back when we were still up in the garage and crushing with garbage cans, music drove us. It was always playing when we were making wine. Still is.”

Not surprisingly, the Little’s four children also are musical. Oldest son Josh, 24, now lives in Los Angeles and is forging a career as a jazz singer. Jessica, 22, used to play violin but now concentrates on electric bass. Jacqueline, 20, “is glued to the piano,” said Joan, and 10-year-old Julia plays piano and guitar. Both Joan and her brother Ted also play the piano.

In­ Sonoma­Valley, the Rich Little Band is well known for performing on behalf of charitable fund-raising events. CDs by the band and Josh are for sale in the winery’s tasting room, where music is almost always playing and where it’s not unusual to find Rich entertaining on his Chapman Stick.

Music is so important at Little Vineyards that after all this time it seems built into the wine itself. And why not?

“A good wine is like a music wave,” says Coleman. “Each wine has its own sound, its own tune.”

Learn more about Little Vineyards at littlevineyards.com. Listen to the Rich Little Band at richlittleband.com, and to Josh Little at bandblend.com.

Writer Spotlight

Dianne Reber Hart is our Sonoma correspondent.

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