Story Chris Sawyer
There are a lot of ways to measure success in the wine industry, but in less than four months Bill Price III has nailed two of them.
In May, his Three Sticks 2017 Price Family Estates Pinot Noir was named one of the Top 50 Best Wines of the World at the Decanter World Wine Awards in London. And now, Three Sticks pinot appears on the October cover of Wine Spectator, the American equivalent of Decanter, to highlight the magazine’s focus on California pinot noir.
That’s the kind of recognition money can’t buy—it only comes with really good wine.
To put the Decanter honor in perspective, it’s important to note that it’s the largest wine competition in the world. As a result, Price’s special blend was just one of over 16,500 wines that were judged by 280 esteemed wine professionals, and one of only 50 that made it to the final round over a rigorous two-week process.
In the end, the Three Sticks wine received 97 points and joined the Cornerstone Cellars 2015 Benchlands Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley as the only two wines from Northern California to receive Best of Show honors and a hallowed spot on the prestigious Top 50 list.
It seemed fitting that the winning vintage also represents the 20-year anniversary of the date Bill Price III and his family purchased the Durell Vineyard, an iconic winegrowing site located at the southwestern edge of Sonoma Valley, and the eventual birthplace of the Three Sticks brand in 2002.
Stretching from the rocky base of Sonoma Mountain, off Felder Road, to the rolling hillsides overlooking Sonoma, the historic site is known for its unique mixture of volcanic and loamy clay soils and a multitude of microclimates highlighted by warm daytime temperatures, tempered by strong maritime winds and dense fog that blows in from San Pablo Bay to the south and the Pacific Ocean to the west. As a result, the estate falls into three sub-appellations of Sonoma County: Sonoma Mountain, Carneros, and Sonoma Coast.
When Ed Durell planted the original vines there in 1979, the interest in chardonnay was just starting to rise, while pinot noir was still relatively unknown to most consumers. But thanks to these ideal, cool-climate conditions, over the course of decades Durrell fruit went into an impressive series of vineyard-designate wines by luxury brands that included Kistler, Kendall-Jackson, Patz & Hall, and Chateau St. Jean. All of which helped define the vineyard’s pedigree and established these varieties as being critical to the success of Sonoma County for decades to come.
Price’s path to world-class winemaker began when Texas Pacific Group, a company he co-founded, purchased Beringer winery from Nestlé Corporation in 1996. That introduced him to the complex flavor profiles of wines made with grapes grown at the Durell property by veteran winemaker Don Von Staaveren, who had been making wine at Chateau St. Jean with Durell fruit since the early 1990s.
After purchasing the property in 1997, Price spent the first few years selling the grapes and learning more about the distinct characteristics of each vineyard block to ensure the high quality of fruit and the health of the vines for future generations. He hired Rob Harris as the new director of vineyard operations and worked with longtime vineyard manager Steve Hill to convert the 135 acres of vines currently planted on the property to sustainable farming practices.
When the winery started in 2002, Price borrowed from his nickname, “Billy Three Sticks,” given to him by surfer pals in Hawaii in reference to the three Roman numerals at the end of his name. Two years later, he hired Von Staaveren as head winemaker. And once early releases of the chardonnay and pinot noir from Durell hit the marketplace, there was no looking back. The Three Sticks wine on the cover of Wine Spectator is the 2016 Durell Vineyard Pinot Noir.
Price says it’s been a learning process each step of the way. “As a boutique winery, I think we’ll always try to keep it very small. The goal of the winery is to create small-lot, artisan-style wines that have a true sense of place. Realistically, Durell is all about hand-selected lots and matching great fruit with specific winemaking techniques—whether it’s our style or that of Kistler, Patz & Hall or other producers that source fruit from the vineyard. We should take advantage of what it offers for each vintage.”
After establishing Classic Wines LLC and Price Family Vineyards LLC, Price and his team expanded the vineyard-designate program by purchasing, developing, and managing an impressive selection of dynamic new estate sites in the cooler climate areas of the Sonoma Coast.
Bob Cabral, current director of winemaking, and Winemaker/Assistant General Manager Ryan Prichard, came to the winery after working together for Russian River pinot pioneer William Selyem. In addition to enhancing the winery’s popular small-batch, single-vineyard-designate wines, they have also helped develop a more robust series of Appellation Wines, a special series of annual releases that offer the hallmark styles of balance, power, and finesse targeted to capture the personalities of multiple estate vineyards and the soul of the region inside one bottle.
In the case of the award-winning 2017 Price Family Estates from Sonoma Coast, the core of the fruit is from the most extreme site they work with, the Walala Vineyard. Located only a few miles from the Pacific Ocean in the far northwestern section of Sonoma County, this 17-acre site is surrounded by a dense redwood forest and hovers above the fog line at 1,600 feet. Cabral calls the fruit from the vineyard the classic “west of the west,” Sonoma County-style. He describes it as, “Deep, rich, ripe fruits with notes of boysenberry, cardamom, wild mushroom, and earth.”
To layer these flavors, other portions of the blend are from various points on Sonoma Mountain. The first is the Gap’s Crown Vineyard, which the team purchased in January of 2013. As part of the newly established Petaluma Gap appellation, this dynamic vineyard is located on the western slope of the mountain and receives warm daytime temperatures before being pummeled by wind and fog in the latter half of the afternoon. In contrast, the One Sky vineyard is near the top of the ridge, and the Durell vineyard portion is on the eastern side of the mountain. Together, these three sites provide fragrant aromas, mixed with expressive flavors of red and black fruits, natural verve, layers of spice, and plenty of structure. The end result is a very complex wine with great depth, purity, and balance in every sip.
While this was a magnificent achievement for the Three Sticks team, the wine also represents an important milestone for pinot noir offerings, made with fruit from cool-climate regions of Sonoma County, and now rank along with other top wines made in Burgundy, Oregon’s Willamette Valley, and other special regions around the globe.
Retailing at $65 per bottle, there were just 865 cases of the 2017 vintage, so it’s easy to understand why the wine sold out immediately after its late spring release to wine club members and guests lucky enough to find it in Three Sticks tasting room, The Adobe on West Spain Street in Sonoma.
Not to worry, the Three Sticks future promises more great wine in the future.