We swirled, sniffed, and sipped with a small-batch winemaker from Sonoma County.

By Kelly Vaughan
May 21, 2019

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California wine is known for being bold and particularly oaky, which is why the test kitchen loved tasting two wines from Sonoma County that completely defied their expectations. Freeman Winery is a small winery owned by wife and husband team Akiko and Ken Freeman. Akiko, who is originally from Tokyo, wanted to create wines that were refined in body and flavor. The delicate nature of her wines are inspired by the Japanese cuisine she grew up with: "Japanese flavors are really subtle and it helped me to identify the nuances of different flavors and not overdo things. My philosophy is to just grow the best grapes and let them speak."

Akiko and Ken purchased a vineyard in Sebastopol, California, in 2001. Within two years, their wine had made it into some of the finest restaurants in California, including Thomas Keller's The French Laundry Kitchen. By 2010, Akiko had become lead grower and winemaker. She shared with us two of her newest wines, 2017 Hawk Hill Vineyard Chardonnay and 2016 Akiko's Cuvée Pinot Noir. "It tastes like Christmas," said test kitchen manager Kavita Thirupuvanam, who picked up on notes of cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves in the pinot noir. The cuvée blend is the cream of the crop; Akiko chooses exactly which grapes she wants and crafts a wine to reflect the very best flavors, each year is different.

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Deputy Food Editor Greg Lofts noted happily that Freeman 2017 Hawk Hill Vineyard Chardonnay tasted nothing like buttery, rich California chardonnays. "The thing I find frustrating about California wines is that they can be heavy handed. This is really beautiful. It's so fruit-forward, very lean, and has nice acidity," he said.

The test kitchen editors talked about how someone may taste a particularly creamy California chardonnay, be turned off by its boldness, and never want to try a chardonnay ever again. Others may exclusively want to drink full-bodied whites. "Quite a few wine critics love that style so in order to get a good score from them, you have to make that style, but we just wanted to make the kind of wine that we like to drink," explains Akiko.

While Freeman ages their wine in oak, Akiko said they use only 10-12 percent new oak in the barrels, which means that signature oaky flavor will be much less prominent. "Oak to wine is like a girl with cosmetics; if it's naturally beautiful, you don't have to cover up, just touch up to make it prettier," says Akiko. We think Freeman wine is as beautiful and complex as a Sonoma sunset.

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