Cline Family Cellars

Navigating to the Cline Family Cellars property at the southern end of Sonoma Valley couldn’t be simpler, as it requires no more than two turns from Highway 101 heading north out of San Francisco. A quick jog to the east, then a turn to the north at the somewhat anachronistically sited Sonoma Raceway of NASCAR fame. A few more miles of travel will take you over a small rise with the wetlands of San Pablo Bay to your right, and the first proper vineyards of Sonoma cropping up on your left. The 350-acre Cline estate property, in turn a retired dairy, horse ranch, and carp farm, now primarily planted to the cool weather loving Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Merlot, is an excellent entry to the valley, in more ways than one. 

Fred and Nancy Cline acquired the property in 1989, just a few years after founding their eponymous winery in 1982. One of the Rhone Rangers of California, Fred was an early proponent of Syrah, Viognier, Marsanne, and Roussanne, a focus that continues today with a number of varietal bottlings. He began working early in his career with original 1880s plantings in Contra Costa County, directly across the bay from Sonoma. These incredible heritage vineyards find their way into the “Ancient Vines” selections of Mourvedre, Zinfandel, and Carignane, released annually at a shockingly low price. 

This winery slowly grew over the recent decades at a steady pace, farming more vineyards, including visionary sites in the recently named Petaluma Gap AVA to the west and further north in Mendocino. The roster of grapes and unique bottlings at this property is impressive, but each one comes from a carefully selected and responsibly farmed property. In this day, where every proprietor wants to remake his image as that of the vigneron, or at the very least, the farmer in the field every sunrise and sunset, Fred Cline walks the part honestly. His dedication has earned him all the certifications one would expect - Sonoma County Sustainable, Certified California Sustainable - and one that matters just a little more than the others: Green String Certified.

The magic that Alice Waters brought to Chez Panisse was giving her farmers clear billing on the nightly menu. This might seem commonplace now, 50 years on, but that is the lasting impact of the revolution in California Cuisine from the 70s and 80s. One of those early farmers was Bob Cannard, another longtime Sonoma resident and true pioneer of organics and regenerative practices. Now farming alongside his sons, the produce from the Cannard farm is of otherworldly quality. In the early 2000s, Cannard and Cline partnered to start the Green String Farm, formerly a training institute for young farmers. One part system of farming and one part land ethic of which Wisconsin’s own Aldo Leopold would approve, the Green String method moves far beyond organics in the direction of biodynamics, just short of some of the more esoteric practices.  

Important components include the integration of animals in the farm and vineyard properties - Clines famed “Wooly Weeders,” sheep and goats that will thin out the vigorous leaf growth, and naturally fertilize the soil without compaction; use of cover crops - no bare, Roundup-damaged earth between rows here; use of compost and compost teas; and application of minerals in the form of crushed volcanic rock to bolster the available micronutrient content of the soil. Even from a car cruising by the vineyards at 55 mph, it is often painfully clear which vineyards are managed by the Clines and which are not. 

The family includes seven children, many of whom have rejoined the family business. Megan Cline and Hilary Cline, notably, have founded Gust Wines to explore site specificity in Petaluma Gap AVA, while their sister Emma is likely off writing her third bestseller. If this second generation continues to exhibit even a fraction of the sustainability-minded dedication of Fred and Nancy (no doubts here, truthfully), the family business will continue to grow and thrive for years. 

Cline is not a small winery. They are not a behemoth like Gallo, but their reach is hard-earned and impressive, with dozens of bottlings offered to satisfy the demands of diverse customers. They distribute in all 50 states and in major export markets, carried by grocers, retailers big and small, and a range of on-premise accounts, with wines from just over $10 to close to $100. 

Why do we think of only the smallest places as capable of creating the highest quality? The boutique winery, producing something like 100 cases of wine, or ideally just less than we can actually get our hands on. The single seating per night omakase restaurant, booked a year in advance. The handbag, for which you need an introduction to purchase. It's the simplest mode of the luxury business, that exclusivity is synonymous with quality. 

A case should be made for the places that get it right, over and over, and do it at scale. Like Balthazar in NYC, or Yank Sing in San Francisco (or insert your favorite banquet-hall sized buzzing dim sum eatery here), or Morton’s in Chicago where the line cooks are putting out hundreds of plates every single night with an incredibly low error rate. Isn't it harder to be asked to execute this high level of craftsmanship at volume than to do it just a few times? There is something captivating about the pace and energy of these places, an energy that Cline shares in abundance. 

Seek out the Ancient Vines line for your new favorite under $20 bottle (often under $15) and taste the fruit of 140+ year old vines. Seek out the Small Berry Single Vineyard Mourvedre for an intense, focused, and age-worthy expression that shows an old-world charm. Let Cline Family Cellars be your go-to choice for familiar grapes like Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, or Chardonnay, or an entry point for grapes that you might have never tried before. And be at ease with any of those purchases, knowing you will have a classic, varietally true expression to enjoy.