Anyone who makes 2,500 cases of 19 different wines using 18 kinds of grapes might be thought of as, well, pretty kooky. So be it, Neil Collins at Lone Madrone is a kook. Though he may be a bit mental he is also one of the most adventurous, audacious and able wine makers in California today who has the ability to take even obscure varietals that are far from their native regions and turn them into beautiful wines.
“Neil just doesn't know how to say no,” explained Shannon Coleman of the winery. “Whenever someone offers Neil exceptional fruit he takes it and makes more wine.” Even when he takes less-common to California stuff like Tannat or Nebbiolo, Alvarinho or Picpoul Blanc his wines turn out, according to Coleman, “Bold and elegant.”
Clockwise from top left: Shannon Coleman, one of the many chickens at the winery, new labels, tree house at the winery, early label, one of two mini goats at the winery.
Bristol-born Neil and his sister Jackie Meisinger started Lone Madrone in 1996 with their business partner Tom Vaughan who passed away in 2006. The impetus for the project was Neil’s desire to work with any farmer who grew exceptional fruit and farmed sustainably. Responsible stewardship of the land is performed by certain kinds of farmers, Collins believes. “I won’t buy fruit from anyone I wouldn’t have to my house for dinner.” says Collins.
The wines of Lone Madorne are inextricably tied to the Central Coast. Fruit is sourced from not just Paso Robles but from nearby Cambria and Templeton where the fogs that seep through the renowned Templeton Gap enable the rare-to-North America Albaranio grapes of Dawson Creek (nothing to do with the sorely missed prime-time teen soap opera of old) to slowly ripen.
Next to the tasting room are the certified organic vineyards where Lone Madrone sources their Viognier and Syrah. This vineyard, along with the tasting room, were formerly owned by Randall Graham of Bonny Doon. From this vineyard came Bonny Doon Roussane -- which wasn’t Roussane at all but Viognier. Somehow a few vines made their way into the country from the Rhône bypassing customs and their variety was mistaken. Thousands of these mis-identified vines were sold in California as Rousanne. A lot of money was wasted on lawyers. The misidentification became a great source of grief to Graham who had bottled and mislabeled the entire vintage.
When a winemaker uses so many different grapes from so many different places it’s tough to keep events like harvest manageable. For example, the 2009 harvest hit Collins, as he said, “Like a ton of bricks/brix.” Eight separate varieties from seven different vineyards reached optimal ripeness simultaneously. Bringing in so much fruit, sorting, stemming, crushing and fermenting is a stiff undertaking regardless of the facilities one works in.
There is an anomaly when it comes to Lone Madorne wines. It is the approach of the winemaker. Neil is strictly hands off and firm in his belief that the fruit will speak for itself yet he still manages to make distinctive wines. This is especially evident in the wines Collins makes for Tablas Creek where he is the head wine maker. Both labels produce wines identifiable as Neil Collins wine.
Lone Madrone wines we thought to be good examples of this winemaker's style:
2007 Points West White— A white Rhône blend with Roussane from three different vineyards. Balanced, rich, mildly spicy and slightly bitter.
2008 La Mezcla— A Garnaca Blanca and Albariño blend. Classic Spanish white style -- dry and bright.
2003 Il Toyon Nebbiolo— One of those uncommon instances when an Italian variety performs well far from home. Given the wines age it had softened (more than a heartier Italian Barolo might) but still had great structure, fruit and earthiness.
2006 Syrah— Very much a northern Rhône style wine. You get a whiff of that distinctive Côte Rotie bacon fat smell though more fruity than its Old World relation.