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Boutique Producer Gives Voice to the Rustic Elegance of Alexander Valley
An Interview with the Proprietor Winemakers of Garden Creek Vineyards
When we think of a garden, we're likely to imagine a small plot of land that's meticulously tended to and lovingly cared for — a testament, really, to the connection between person and plant. Albeit on a slightly larger scale, it's with similar attention to detail and devotion to nurturing that Karin and Justin Miller look after their own garden: the vineyards of Alexander Valley's Garden Creek Ranch and Winery. I'd first met Justin at Sonoma County's Best of the Boutiques wine tasting event, where I was immediately struck with a palpable sense of his passion for the land and dedication to articulating its message through the handcrafting of superpremium wines with spellbinding depth and seductive complexity. Some time thereafter, I sat down with the couple over lunch in the comfortable and candelit interior of their ranch house to talk about their vines and wines, and in doing so, discovered a singularity in their approach not only to winemaking but to living life as a whole.
Engaging the Millers in person, surveying the lay of their land, tasting the fruit they produce from it — I found one common thread running though it all: serenity. As individuals, both Karin and Justin exude a gentle composure and disarming ease, which I quickly learned also extends into the tending of their vines and crafting of their wines. Arising from a deep sense of respect, even reverence, they hold for the complexity and interconnection of nature's patterns and processes is a keen understanding they seem to have with the land under their care. It's one that acknowledges that we, as humans, share the environment and its resources with the flora and fauna around us. In practical terms, it's this very belief system that underpins their conscientious implementation of organic and sustainable practices — but to a holistic degree seen rarely among their peers. The end result is an approach that imparts their vines with balance and harmony, and instills their wines with grace and elegance. In talking with them I learned how it all began and how it manages to sustain its magic and allure.
Harmonizing the Terrestrial and Ethereal
NM: Garden Creek began with your dad. Can you talk about his vision for the winery, what you've continued from his legacy, and how you've changed direction from that?
JM: My father was in school down at Cal [Berkeley], studying landscape architecture back in the late '50s. And that was when he started coming up to Sonoma County, poking around, because he knew he wanted to buy a piece of land somewhere. He visited this particular property here, Garden Creek, in 1958 and fell in love with it. His friends at school thought he was nuts for coming up here, because this was old-cowboy country; there was really nothing happening here to put it on the map yet. But he decided to purchase the property and make a go of it. He was running sheep and cattle at the time on the upper ranch, while on the lower ranch, he had prunes, and I think there was maybe about three or four acres of Zinfandel and some Grenache down there that went to Simi [Winery]. So that was how he got his feet wet with the whole wine thing. Although [people from Simi] came out and pruned and picked it, he had a little bit of a hand in growing the grapes. Then in about 1962, Robert Young and my dad had been talking about planting grapes, after learning of the research going on at [University of California] Davis, figuring they could make a little more money than growing just prune trees. So, he started planting Cabernet Sauvignon on this [upper] ranch, and then slowly converted all the prune trees into vineyards on the rest of his property. By the early '70s, we had 20 acres of Pinot Noir and 20 acres of Gewurtztraminer down on the lower ranch. But the upper ranch has always been Cabernet because this is a good site for it.