As winemakers go, Ralf Holdenried is a bit of an anomaly – born and trained in Germany. It isn’t unusual to find California winemakers with roots in France and Australia – but Germany, where the white wines are sweet and the red wines are rare?

Call it serendipitous.

Ralf took to his family farm chores in Reinhessen like kids take to mowing the lawn. He had no intentions of pursuing wine when he broke his foot playing soccer just before he started his mandatory military service. Of no use to the military, he spent a year working as an intern at a winery, which eventually stretched into a stint in California and a viticulture and winemaking education back at the University of Geisenheim.

After continuing his studies at the University of California at Davis in 1996, he began to apply his knowledge to jobs at Fransican, Louis Martini and now William Hill on the Silverado Trail.

We met up with Ralf as he was introducing his first William Hill vintage.

William Hill is one of those Napa Valley wineries that had a meteoric rise when its founder launched its first chardonnays in the late ’70s and early ’80s. The wines made in the 1990s were inconsistent and never achieved the acclaim of earlier vintages. “Quality was all over the board,” Holdenried confessed.

Although the wines were adequate, they never soared to new levels. Gallo purchased William Hill from Beam Wine Estates in 2007 and transferred Holdenried from its Louis Martini operation.

Holdenried established some small-lot red wine at Louis Martini and is now focused on raising the bar at William Hill.

The 2007 chardonnays we tasted reminded us of the old William Hill we once liked. The Bench Blend chardonnay especially was a very good wine with popular appeal, evidence that Holdenried is on track to revitalize its reputation. It was a perfect match to Maryland crab cakes.

“William Hill enjoyed dry, lean and French-inspired chardonnay. We want to make it more California-like with a touch of oak, good viscosity, more approachable – more flamboyant,” he said.

We were the first wine critics to taste the 2007 William Hill meritage that won’t be publicly released until late summer. Priced at $100, it is Holdenried’s introduction to the challenging premium red wine market. It is also a gamble that critics will determine if he’s ready for prime time.

Meanwhile, these well-priced wines demonstrate that William Hill is turning a corner:

William Hill Napa Valley Chardonnay 2007 ($25). Holdenried says he has added fruit from St. Helena to the Carneros chardonnay for refined acidity. It has good intensity with pit-fruit aromas and ripe tropical fruit flavors. The long oak aging and barrel fermentative gives the wine a delicious vanilla finish.

William Hill Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 ($30). Holdenried inherited this wine while it was still in barrels but not yet blended. He dropped some of the barrels from the blend to improve the quality of the wine. It has blackberry aromas with layered ripe raspberry and blueberry flavors, fine tannins and a touch of chocolate. Long finish. William Hill’s Bench Blend ($100) is a nice step up in complexity, but only 1,500 cases were made.

CHARDONNAY FINDS

Hess Chardonnay Napa valley Su’Skol Vineyard Estate 2007 ($27). Toast, smoke, candied pineapple and lemon in this complex nose that yields rich tropical and citrus fruit in the mouth. A beautiful mouth-filling experience and a nice creamy finish, that lasts.
Chateau St. Jean Chardonnay Reserve Sonoma County 2006 ($36). Lovely toast and tropical fruit nose. Very ripe tropical fruit and citrus flavors. Good acidity, and a long fruity finish. Elegant.

La Crema Chardonnay Sonoma Coast 2008 ($20). Beautiful apple and toast nose. Very elegant and classy, with apple and citrus flavors. A terrific package.

Rochioli Chardonnay 2008 ($50). If you like your chardonnays big and bold, this rich one from northern California is guaranteed to please. Full bodied, it has copious apple and spice flavors and good acidity.

Santa Barbara Chardonnay 2008 ($18). Very nice and simple chardonnay with citrus, peach flavors and tropical fruit aromas. Good acidity makes it a good food match for a decent price.

Domaine Serene Clos du Soliel Chardonnay 2007 ($40). It has been a long time since a chardonnay impressed us as much as this stunner from Oregon. The Dundee Hills grapes using Dijon clones produce a complex, well-balanced wine with intense citrus and tropical fruit notes and a touch of oak.

Acre Chardonnay 2008 ($16). We loved this Central Coast chardonnay for its supple texture and balance. Rich tropical frit notes with a dash of toasted oak and lemon. Very good.

Tom Marquardt and Patrick Darr have visited vineyards all over the world and have been writing a newspaper wine column for more than 20 years. Contact them at:
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