On the Pacific

A Visit to Chalk Hill Winery

Chalk Hill Winery
Chalk Hill Estate & Winery

Part 3 in our Series: Wine Tasting in Sonoma Valley

Inspired by some fabulous wine dinners that we attended in the Midwest, this trip was a joy to take!   Join us as we travel to the vineyards, taste the wines first-hand, and learn more about winemaking! In this leg of our journey, we’re visiting Chalk Hill Winery!

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chalk hill grape vines

Appellations, Vineyards & Vines

There are a dozen or so appellations (name of an area – such as a region or vineyard – under which a winegrower is authorized to identify and market wine) in the Sonoma Valley. Chalk Hill Estate is one of those special appellations. in the fading light yesterday, we had taken notice. But today, as we turned east onto Chalk Hill Road, the scenery and topography were even more obvious.

Vineyards and vines stretched as far as the eye could see. I am certain that the sight is even more impressive when the vines are green and bursting with fruit. A winding and narrow road led us to the imposing gates of the Chalk Hill Estate Vineyards and Winery in Healdsburg, California.

chalk hill winery signChalk Hill Estate

A guard was stationed at the gate. A drive up a long road and through a beautiful valley ended at the tasting room.  At the top of a hill were more indications that this would not be an ordinary tasting. But then again, I was already aware that Chalk Hill did not produce ordinary wines.

Our guide for this morning was Estate Tasting Room Concierge, Neal Coats. Neal seemed a veritable youngster for the amount of knowledge that he possessed… It was clear, however, that he had enjoyed every minute of his education in viticulture. What impressed me most was that he smiled constantly as he spoke, alive with the joy of what he had learned and proud to be a part of the Chalk Hill Winery.

Never once did I feel as if Neal were talking down to us (I am really a rookie when it comes to wines and wine tasting). Neal answered every one of our questions simply but professionally, with ease and with passion.

Lawyer-Viticulturist Fred Furth

Owned by San Francisco antitrust attorney Fred Furth, the winery is a wonderful example of a family-owned business that truly pays attention to detail. Here’s a quote from the Chalk Hill website: “Fred’s own preference is ‘to be the best, not the biggest’“. The quote aptly describes the results of his efforts. Born in Harvey, Illinois, the lawyer-viticulturist spotted what was later to become the Chalk Hill Winery when he flew over the rugged hillside in 1972.

Liking what he saw, Furth purchased 242 of what is now close to 1500 acres of the estate. Less than 400 of these will ever be devoted to growing grapes. But the planting methods, care with which the grapes are grown, and attention to detail, make the wines produced by Chalk Hill some of the finest that you will ever taste.

Terroir & Tour of the Estate

The organic garden at Chalk Hill Estate – Photo by Yvonne Carpenter-Ross

Broken into 60 distinct blocks that are all tended laboriously, meticulously, and lovingly by hand, the vineyards have the ability to produce small yet very distinct batches of wine. These small batches express the individual characteristics of a particular terroir. (Terroir is a French term denoting the geographic characteristics such as soil type, weather conditions, etc.).

We had the opportunity to tour the estate with Neal on that beautiful California morning. It was easy to see how Mr. Furth had fallen in love with the land. Every turn in the road and every hill and valley provided different views, different breezes, and different inspirations. These certainly different conditions were well-suited for the different varietals growing there.

On our tour of the estate, Neal proudly called our attention to the peak of the hill that inspired the Chalk Hill logo. Ponds, pastures, and endless open space in peaceful harmonic coexistence. There was even a large organic garden that supplied fresh and seasonable vegetables used by Estate Chef Didier Ageorges in preparing unique dining experiences with a custom menu. It was all designed to be paired with Chalk Hill Estate wines. I was now looking eagerly forward to tasting a few of those wines!


Back at the tasting room, Neal opened for us:

  • a buttery 2005 Estate Bottled Chardonnay with a hint of oak (a cool growing season in ’05 created the essences of “ripe stone fruit—apricot, peach and pear—along with tropical notes of deliciously ripe banana and pineapple” ),
  • a crisp, clean and spicy 2005 Estate Bottled Sauvignon Blanc (much of it aged in French Oak, the flavors were of lush, tropical fruit and the finish was long and deep),
  • a wonderfully smooth 2003 Merlot that was big on spice and dark fruit,
  • a 2003 Estate bottled Cabernet Sauvignon with slowly opening multiple layers of flavor, hints of chocolate and a touch of tannin and lastly,
  • a superior 2005 Chalk Hill Chairman’s Club Semillon (a botrytised semillon that had the richness and smooth sweetness of honey – and from the winemaker’s notes on this wine: “Sipping this wine brings to mind liquid ambrosia “).

Note: This amazing Semillon wine is made from grapes affected by a beneficial mold that concentrates the sugars in the Semillon grapes, resulting in an intensely flavored and sweet white wine.

Neal literally glowed when he opened and tasted this wine, and after tasting it myself, it was easy to see why… This was an incredibly superb example of a wine made from late-harvest grapes!

After this visit, it is very easy to offer a world of thanks to Mr. Fred Furth for creating the opportunity for Chalk Hill to provide its truly excellent wines and also to Neal Coats for an informative, fun tour and tasting!

See you at Sonoma Cutrer…

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