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Raised in the World of Wine — This Dynamic Winemaker Got Started as a Curious 10-Year-Old Girl

We're Talking Grapes With Erica Stancliff

BY // 03.22.21

love to talk about wine with people who share my passion for it. We open bottles, we trade stories about travel and soil types, terroir and residual sugar, and we talk of taste and food and restaurants. We recommend wines to one another, we drink, and we learn a lot.

In Wine Talk, I introduce you to friends, acquaintances, and people I meet as I make my way around the world, individuals who love wine as much as I do, who live to taste, who farm and make wine. You’ll appreciate their insight, and I hope you’ll learn something from them as well. 

A few days ago, I tasted two wines that impressed me: A chardonnay and a pinot noir, both from Pfendler Vineyards. They mark the first releases for Erica Stancliff as Pfendler’s head winemaker, and if you like your chardonnay with defined notes of spice, try this one. I tasted it again last night, and it held up — this time the apple and citrus notes were more pronounced.

Regarding the pinot noir, buy a few, because you’ll want to cellar some of these for, let’s say, five years or so — at least. It’s drinking well now, but — as Stancliff concurs — this one promises to enjoy the aging process. Total production was 200 cases, so best not tarry.

I’ll have full reviews of these wines soon, but this Wine Talk serves to introduce you to Stancliff, whose background and pedigree are intriguing. She was raised in a family whose existence revolved around food (I can identify with and approve of that). Her mother is Rickey Trombetta, of Trombetta Family Wines, and one look at the family’s website will make you hungry — and thirsty.

Stancliff has been the Trombetta Family winemaker since 2014, and she’s also served as the president of the Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Alliance since 2019. Her journey in the wine world can be said to have begun when she was 10. Paul Hobbs, who would become her mentor, was dining with the Trombetta family one evening and was impressed by Stancliff’s palate. He encouraged her to learn more about wine, and introduced her to vineyards in Sonoma and Napa.

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She graduated in 2010 from Cal State Fresno with a degree in enology, and flew to an internship in Mendoza, at Viña Cobos (a Hobbs property), then worked the 2011 harvest at Rudd Estate. Enartis Vinquiry was next. She was there for two and a half years. Then,  Stancliff moved to CrossBarn and Trombetta. In 2019, she added Pfendler to her CV.

I look forward to tasting what Stancliff does going forward at Pfendler, and a visit to Trombetta Family Wines is now on my post-COVID agenda.

Now, Erica Stancliff tells us more.

James Brock: How has COVID-19 changed your work and life?

Erica Stancliff: COVID has changed my everyday life in many ways. From wearing a mask everywhere I go (even in the middle of harvest doing punchdowns or walking to vineyards) to having my own personal hand sanitizer with me at all times. Interacting with people is a new adventure every time because you want to be respectful of everyone’s level of caution. And yet, some people aren’t cautious at all.

JB: Tell us about three wines you think are drinking well at the moment. What makes them worthwhile? How about a food pairing for each one?

ES: I’m a sucker for a killer carignan, so I’m drinking the Delve 2018 Carignan, which I didn’t make, but good friends did. This is my feel-good wine that I usually have with chicken and mushrooms or a big salad. You can purchase it from the winery website for $27.

Stancliff likes this Carignan with chicken and mushrooms.

The 2019 Pfendler Chardonnay is so approachable early on — I like to pair that with seafood (tuna tartar or baked salmon) or lemon risotto. The wine is available from Pfendler’s website for $45.

The third wine that is drinking well at the moment is the 2015 Trombetta Gap’s Crown Pinot Noir Petaluma Gap. 2015 was a low-yield vintage in Sonoma County, which made the wines much more concentrated than normal, so after six years I think this wine is just starting to hit its stride. It pairs well with grilled salmon or pork. You can purchase it from the winery for $65.

JB: If cost was no consideration, tell us the one bottle you would add to your personal collection, and why.

ES: This is a hard one. If cost was no consideration, give me a Joseph Drouhin Musigny Grand Cru 1988, France, Burgundy, Côte de Nuits pinot noir. I love the producer and it’s my birth year.

JB: What is your favorite grape, and why?

ES: I will say as a winemaker my favorite variety to make is chardonnay, and here is why. Chardonnay can be a blank canvas for a winemaker to impart their style on. The nuances of the grape and subtleties are what make it a challenge. Too much oak, too much acid … anything can throw the end wine out of balance or create a perception of heavy-handedness.

JB: How about one bottle that our readers should buy now to cellar for 10 years, to celebrate a birth, anniversary, or other red-letter day? 

ES: The 2019 Pfendler Petaluma Gap pinot is going to be just hitting its stride in 10 years, and I would highly recommend keeping one bottle aside for a special occasion.

JB: Where is your go-to place when you want to have a glass or bottle (outside of your home and workplace)?

ES: The Barlow, in Sebastopol, has a great wine bar called Region. It has a ton of local Sonoma County producers and you can buy a taste or full bottle to enjoy on their patio.

JB: If there was one thing you wish everyone would keep in mind when buying and drinking wine, what is it?

ES: The beautiful thing about wine is that there is one for every taste and palate. It doesn’t matter about price or producer, as long as you enjoy it. That’s the purpose of what winemakers do. We want you to enjoy our wines.

JB: What is your “wine eureka moment,” the incident/taste/encounter that put you and wine on an intimate plane forever?

ES: My mentor is Paul Hobbs, whom I have known since my childhood. My biggest lightbulb moment was when we were walking a vineyard together when I was in high school right before harvest in Sebastopol. Watching his attention, care and passion in the vineyard and asking him questions about harvest made the lightbulb go off for me when I learned about how much passion went into making something with your hands.

Paul Hobbs, mentor extraordinaire (Courtesy PaulHobbs.com)

JB: What has been the strangest moment/incident involving wine that you have experienced in your career?

ES: I have a few, but let’s go with this one. Harvest 2011, someone dropped their cellphone in a tank of fermenting malbec. Twenty days later, when we emptied it, the phone still worked. It was the weirdest thing. . .

JB: Your favorite wine reference in a work of literature?

ES: “In wine there is wisdom, in beer there is freedom, in water there is bacteria.” — Benjamin Franklin

For more wine, travel and other stories from James Brock, check out Mise en Place.

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