There is nothing better than an oaky buttery glass of chardonnay at the top of the cocktail hour, well that is unless it’s something bubbly. While working on an article about BraytonHughes Design Studios I discovered they had done design work for La Crema and it inspired me to pull a bottle of their Chardonnay into my rotation. Wow!” had I forgotten how much I enjoy their wine. It was clear that I needed to go behind the scenes and find out makes La Crema tick. Craig McAllister, Head Winemaker at La Crema was kind enough to speak with me about their winemaking philosophy and approach to developing their incredible varietals. He initially summed it up saying, “La Crema seeks to express the essence of the terroir in each bottle of wine, capturing the unique personality and flavor profiles of the appellations and vineyards.” He was direct and to the point about his work and we didn’t veer far from the wine trail. Although I did learn, he loves Orangutans and made a special trip to Borneo to see them in the wild. Let’s peek behind the curtain shall we…

La Crema Saralee Vineyards

La Crema Team, the Secret Ingredient

It is clear after our interview that La Crema’s secret to success is the winemaking team. Their winemakers have a depth of experience in the Russian River Valley and from around the world. Craig McAllister, a New-Zealand native, is the Head Winemaker for La Crema. He joined the winery in 2007 and was key in developing the Monterey program and worked extensively on the Sonoma Coast Chardonnay. Jen Walsh joined the La Crema team as Winemaker in 2017, and was previously the Associate Winemaker at Benovia Winery in the Russian River Valley, where she worked with myriad heritage Pinot Noir clones from different terroirs to craft distinctive single vineyard wines. Her passion has always led her to wineries that focus on expressive, cool-climate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

The pedigree of the winemaking team is only one half of the magic. They’re equally influenced by the wine regions they’re farming in. La Crema is widely known for its handcrafted Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Since 1979, the family-owned and operated winery has focused exclusively on cool-climate coastal appellations. Craig says, “The ocean winds and fog allow grapes to ripen slowly on the vine, developing complex flavors and aromas, while retaining firm acid structure. We use time-intensive techniques to produce distinctively balanced and elegant wines from the Russian River Valley to Carneros, Anderson Valley to Monterey and Willamette Valley, always seeking to create wines with distinctive balance.”

La Crema

La Crema’s home is in the heart of the Russian River Valley and they are perhaps best known for wines from that region as well as the Sonoma Coast Appellations (AVAs). Craig’s insight on why this is so important to their success, “Each of these AVAs produce distinctive and sought-after wines. The Russian River AVA sits within the more expansive Sonoma Coast AVA, both are defined by cooling fog and gentle breezes from the Pacific Ocean that moderate daily temperatures. What differentiates to two AVA’s is that the Sonoma Coast which stretches from Los Carneros in southern Sonoma to Mendocino County in the North has a vast array of soil types, temperature gradients and oceanic influences, it gives the winemaker a broad palette of color and flavor to assemble a wine from. In contrast the Russian River gives us defined wines that are distinctively Russian River. It may be best summed up as a macro view (Sonoma Coast) versus a micro view (Russian River) for grape sourcing and winemaking options.”

Winemaking Challenges

Winemakers strive for consistency in their wines from year to year and even with the most careful planning Mother Nature often brings the greatest challenges. Craig agrees, “Mostly it’s things we cannot control—like the weather. It means that we need to be nimble and ready to change our game plan at short notice. This of course is a challenge during a good season, how do they cope in a down season? He says, There are certainly years where we are presented with challenges, be they in the vineyard during the growing season or during harvest. Ultimately, this challenges the winemaking team to create the best wines possible, regardless of the circumstances. Thankfully bad growing seasons are very rare in California, it tends to be these years that we learn the most from and when we call on the collective experience of our winemaking team to help overcome the challenges and make every year a good year.”

La Crema

Sipping the Competition

It makes sense that winemakers invest time “sipping” on the competitors vino. This is an integral part of how the La Crema team learns and grows. Craig says it’s very important to do so. “We stand to learn so much by tasting wines made by the competition, our peers or friends and one of the wonderful things about the wine industry is that there are few secrets, we all are making wine to a pretty similar set of rules and practices. That being said, each winemaker will have slight differences or nuances to their winemaking that ultimately differentiates their wine from neighbors, it may be as simple as the timing of the pick or the type of barrels they use. Tasting these wines helps us develop our palates and gain an understanding for a vineyard or appellation and what possibilities exist for our own wines. We do tend to share our ideas, successes and failures — there is something of a culture of camaraderie and the shared belief that a rising tide floats all boats.”

La Crema Estate at Saralee's

La Crema’s Limited Edition Nine Barrel Wines

La Crema’s Nine Barrel wines include a Nine Barrel Chardonnay and a Nine Barrel Pinot Noir. The extremely limited Nine Barrel series are La Crema’s rarest, most acclaimed selections. “In 1999 our winemaking team decided to put their years of experience working with incredible Russian River Valley fruit to the test.” said Craig. Their challenge was to craft a wine that profiles the distinctive vintage expression of this remarkable region. They carefully tasted and selected 10 truly exceptional barrels that offered various components to assemble the “ultimate” Chardonnay blend. They searched for specific qualities including concentration, complexity, balance, layered flavors and, perhaps most importantly, the individual essence of the vintage. They blended…and debated, and then blended again. By the time they were satisfied, they were down to just nine barrels of wine, and the first Nine Barrel Chardonnay was born. “In the spirit of this first quest, every year we meticulously select nine barrels of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, each displaying a specific characteristic, to compose this layered, expressive Russian River Valley blend.”

Saralee’s Tasting Vineyard TourSaralee’s Tasting Vineyard Tour

Head Winemakers Favorite La Crema Varietal

Craig says selecting just one of La Crema’s wines a favorite would be like, “…choosing your favorite child.” With that said, he did say that they make several single vineyard and appellation based wines, but “it’s hard to look past our Sonoma Coast wines because these are often the first La Crema wine that many people taste and hopefully encourage the buyer to try our other more exclusive or hedonistic offerings.” He says, that a dry Riesling with a spicy pizza is a favorite unexpected pairing, “It has a good acid backbone helps cut through the spice.” And after a hard day at the vineyard you can find him drinking a beer or a gin and tonic.

La Crema Estate at Saralee's

La Crema Farm to Table

The La Crema team is all encompassing. Their winemakers are the best of the best and they do farm to table in style. Chef Tracey Shepos Cemani is the resident Chef & Cheese Specialist, Jackson Family Wines. Pairing wine and food can be a luxurious experience when done properly. Tracey’s strategy for wine and food pairing is simple and can be summed up in one word, balance. “Too much of any strong flavor like, spicy, sweet or acidic can be overpowering to not only the wine but also overbearing on your palate as a whole. Play off the flavors and texture of the wine, think lobster with oaky, buttery Chardonnay and don’t be afraid to try something new!”

Chef Tracey’s Blow-Your-Mind Cheese and Wine Pairing

La Crema Pinot Noir with bacon almonds and Valley Ford Estero Gold cheese.

La Crema, A Class Act

Over the years I’ve done many interviews with winemakers from around the world, all impressive in their own way. La Crema will be celebrating 40 years of winemaking in 2019 and it’s clear they have got it together. A regal team producing incredible product year after year. Looking forward to seeing how they continue to grow over the next 40 years. Cheers!

La Crema Tastings

With tasting experiences ranging $15-$150, La Crema offers many unique tasting experiences for all budgets. Visitors can experience a unique private tasting led by a personal concierge as part of Saralee’s Tasting Vineyard Tour, an experience which allows guests to tour the estate via golf cart. Visitors have the chance to taste each vineyard-designated wine La Crema produces from the site, including Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Gewürztraminer and Rosé. For an elevated experience add on a picnic basket lunch or wine and cheese paring. Open daily to the public from 10am-5pm. To learn more visit https://www.lacrema.com/russian-river-estate/.

Saralee’s Tasting Vineyard Tour

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