Ted Lemon's is the pensive face on the cover of Jon Bonné’s soon-to-be published book "The New California Wine." The man behind Sonoma Coast winery Littorai has never been a poster boy before, and would rather be elbow-deep in compost than posing for a photographer.
Indeed, the New York native has never coveted the limelight, preferring to be on the farm with his family. Yet, celebrity status has sought him out. After starting out at a Burgundy domaine, Lemon has become a respected name in the wine world as a result of putting his heart, soul and mind to his soils, vines and wines.
So, who is Ted Lemon?
In 1984, Lemon became the first American to head a Burgundy domaine. At the tender age of 25, he was put in charge of Meursault’s Guy Roulot. After three vintages he returned to the U.S. and worked in the Napa Valley, but other plans were taking root. In 1992, he and his wife Heidi set off on a road trip to find their own patch of dirt.
“We saw extraordinary pinot noir and chardonnay all over, but when you looked at untapped potential, it came down to Sonoma Coast and the Willamette [Valley],” Lemon recalls. He chose Sonoma Coast at a time when it was “totally unknown.” Napa Valley seemed a world away, despite the short drive separating the two. Since then, Lemon has been a leading proponent of the Russian River Valley’s Hirsch Vineyard and the Anderson Valley, among others.
Lemon has been a winemaker for most of his career, after a short stint as a care-home assistant while attempting unsuccessfully to pen a novel. Today, the title "farmer" could be added to his varied resumé. The 30-acre property outside of Sebastopol that is home to the Lemon family, the Littorai winery, and a few randy chickens, is not simply a vineyard. In fact, just three of the estate's 30 acres are under vine. Lemon calls the property a “model farm" – a term coined in the 19th century for a new system that researched recent agricultural techniques and took into consideration the welfare of its workers.
While Lemon is not alone in wanting to develop greater diversity in vineyards, his vision of wine production harks back to times past when poly-culture was the norm. In a speech at the Mornington Peninsula International Pinot Noir Celebration this year, Lemon warned: “Marlborough, the Russian River, Napa Valley, Monterrey County and other regions are mono-cultural wastelands. This must not continue.”
Lemon’s farm includes 14 acres of biodynamic pasture destined for cows to make the manure for his compost, eight acres of woods and streams that will never be developed, herb gardens for his compost teas, and a restoration project aimed at re-introducing native evergreen oak grasslands.
The poster boy with a cause
Lemon is one of the major characters in Bonné’s new book. The pair have a history going back to 2010, when the San Francisco Chronicle writer named him "Winemaker of the Year." Lemon “insisted on being photographed amid his compost pile,” remembers Bonné. When more pictures were needed for the book, he and his photographer returned to Sebastopol, where they snapped "great shots of Ted in the field, doing his best homage to 'American Gothic.'"
One of those images was a natural for the cover of Bonné's book, which is subtitled "A Guide to the Producers and Wines Behind a Revolution in Taste." Says Bonné: "When searching for a cover that would provide the needed intensity, my agent and I both scoured hundreds of images and came to the same conclusion independently: this was the shot for the cover."
How did Lemon react? “When I told Ted, he took it not so much as a tribute to him or an indulgence of ego – perhaps one of the first times that has happened with a California vintner – but as a chance to remind people of the importance of farming holistically and thoughtfully – something on which California wine doesn't have a great track record. I'd argue that's what the cover represents: the importance of, and dedication to, terrific work in the field. I guess that makes him a poster boy with a cause.”
In a fragrant outbuilding on the farm, herbs are drying and biodynamic preparations are ready to be made. It’s also here that Lemon houses examples of rocks from all of his vineyards, including those that are leased. The array of soil types – from loam to sandstone to volcanic rock – is enough to make visitors feel like a sit down and a nice cup of herbal tea. Lemon admits: “When you pay attention to the geology, Sonoma is a maze. The geological deck of cards has been shuffled on the northern coast.”
Lemon is happy to offer up his opinions, drawn from his experiences over the past 30 years. He’s well-read and thoughtful, and while you may not agree with everything he says on biodynamics and farming methods, his wines speak volumes.
Lemon believes it's nonsense to compare New World pinot noirs with Burgundy and southern hemisphere cabernet blends to Bordeaux, and at the Mornington Peninsula Celebration he let rip.
“Do not measure all things against the Old World,” he told the delegates. "And above all, do not see Burgundy as a measuring stick. We must be like Odysseus, lashing ourselves to the mast of the ship in order to resist the siren song of the maidens of Burgundy.”
I argue that benchmarking is a useful tool to give people a point of reference. As with history, a lack of back referencing means that consumers tasting new wines are left floating on a sea without a compass. Lemon responds that benchmarking "is a given, but at some point we have to leave that behind as a winemaker and as a wine – if there’s no originality, there’s no point. There’s no-one in Burgundy benchmarking against Central Otago and California.”
While some winemakers are qualified to call themselves Masters of Wine, in Burgundy, Lemon has his own noble title. Since his days at Guy Roulot, he is affectionately known around the lanes of the Côte de Beaune as Le Comte de Citron. You can call him Ted.
From making a manageable two wines 20 years ago, Lemon is now in charge of a mind-boggling 15 vineyard sites producing 17 bottlings. How did it mushroom?
“It’s grown organically with vineyards coming on year by year," he explains. "Outside of New York, San Francisco and private clients, you’ll only see a small selection." It makes for a long line-up but for terroir geeks, it’s a joyful trip through Californian pinot land.
The pinot noir vines on Lemon's home block, The Pivot vineyard, are still young and the wine is a playful, floral-edged wine with a grind of black pepper; Lemon claims that is a characteristic of Sonoma Coast pinot vines under 10 years old.
The 2010 Haven, from a five-acre, estate-farmed site, is showing its pedigree. Lemon explains it was a cooler vintage: “We didn’t have a summer. Almost every day, the windscreen wipers were on because of the fog.” Luckily, the sun started to shine at the end of July, but the wine reveals its cool origins giving fragrant floral and powerful violet-like characters on the nose, as well as plum and spice. In many of his wines, Lemon has captured a pixellated shot of the site: this wine is no different. There's finesse and precision on the mid-palate. It’s delicate and taut on the finish. 93/100
Put the Savoy Vineyard and Cerise Vineyard pinots side by side and they are two very different expressions of Anderson Valley. The 2010 Savoy is highly fragrant, elegant and fine, while the Cerise offers a much more expansive mouthfeel with greater weight and comparatively abundant tannin.
Meanwhile, Les Larmes from Anderson Valley is a good introduction to Littorai at a more affordable price point (average price on Wine-Searcher ex. sales tax: $46). The 2011 vintage is very pale in appearance, with red-cherry and floral aromas combined with light tannins and fresh acidity in a Valpolicella-like vein.
Prices worldwide for other Littorai wines listed on Wine-Searcher (US$, ex-tax, per 750-ml bottle):