The Winery Report – Baxter Winery, Mendocino, California

The Winery Report: Baxter Winery

By Lauren Mowery

Phil Jr. at the “wine-cabin in the woods”

Who: Baxter Winery.  A small, family affair. Phil Baxter Sr. heads up vineyard management and finances, having been in the biz since ’69, which includes a 10-year gig as head winemaker for Rutherford Hill.  Phil Baxter Jr., Baxter winemaker, earned his winemaking creds first from UC Davis; then later in Burgundy at Domaine de La Vougeraie, Domaine Raymond Launay and several spots in Napa.  His wife, Claire Baxter is the marketing brains behind the team, with seven years PR experience.

Wine: Small-production, single-vineyard Pinot, with a Rosé, Carignan and Zinfandel to round out the portfolio. Their top of the line Pinot is expensive at $60, but quality is high and only 150 cases of the Oppenlander were produced.

When: Founded in 2002.

Where: Mendocino, California. The winery is perched on a ridge-top above the Anderson Valley, a glorious 4-mile stretch from the Pacific Ocean.  Grapes are sourced from vineyards throughout the region including Oppenlander, Run Dog, Langly and Caballo Blanco.

Why: Winemaking is their life, their trade. They are the antithesis of the uber-rich who scoop up land to erect temples and bottle egos.   They live where they work, and are humble, young and cool. They are having fun, but take their wine seriously, and they care for their wines as much as their neighbors whom they depend upon to grow much of their fruit. They prove multi-million dollar facilities aren’t required. They make it a pleasure to drink wine because it is pure and simple and good.

How (to visit and buy): The winery isn’t open to the public. Call for an appointment.  Wines can be purchased online or through their Club Baxter Membership.

The Comedy Cellar with Phil Jr.! Two shows a day, folks. Except during harvest.

The Visit:

Driving along Greenwood Road in Mendocino County, the path lifts us higher into the dense and lofty redwoods; sunlight periodically glimmers through breaks in the trees, stamping holes through the veil of shadows. I finally spot glimpses of the ridge’s famous clouds, pooled between the mountain valleys, creating islands out of peaks.  Although we are mere miles from the pounding surf of the Pacific, the drive feels like a scene from Twilight.  Yet we are on a hunt for wine, not RPatz (or his action figure), and we’ve been told to follow this path.

I called Phil and Claire Baxter about a visit, having heard through the proverbial grapevine that they were making some special juice, tucked away in a “cabin in the woods.”  Their wines, not surprisingly, if they are in fact made in a cabin, are produced in small amounts with limited distribution. I hadn’t come across them on the East Coast, so I wanted to sample them while in the region.

When we arrived, I was bemused to be greeted by a young, married couple, maybe late 20’s (I have been in NCY too long), who seemed fit, happy and smiling—these weren’t your typical Napa/Sonoma vintners. Their home nearby was a 120 year old farmhouse, and their winery was a converted redwood building (cabin!), once a cabinet maker’s shop.  Their set-up was a recluse’s dream, yet they were outgoing and eager to share their story. I thought that I should like to BBQ with these guys.

Phil Jr. had been in the business about 10 years, and his time making Pinot in France helped solidify his winemaking style: “don’t mess with it.” The couple was working with Phil’s dad, Phil Sr., who came to Baxter with 40 years of experience.  Together, they bought the property on the Greenwood Ridge—about 24 acres—and founded the winery before they even had a grapevine planted.  Their mutual winemaking philosophy was low-intervention: allow native yeast fermentation, use neutral oak barrels, no fining or filtering of the wines, and let the grape and terroir speak louder than the winemaker.

Their winemaking philosophy certainly felt on point after tasting the wines.  The fruit was fresh and vibrant, tannins soft and silky.  We went through their current releases, some barrel samples and an off-the-books Syrah I hope to see bottled.  Baxter is a keeper in my opinion, and one to seek out if you are in the region. The drive to the winery is worth the trip, let alone the outstanding wines and the chance to recreate your Team Edward fantasies among the trees.

Nearby redwoods. They don’t live THAT deep in the woods!

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