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It’s hard to believe Richard Arrowood has been making wine in Sonoma County for 50 years.

At a small, private tasting the other day at the home he and his wife Alis share high atop a Moon Mountain property, above Sonoma Valley, Arrowood served 60 wines from many of his past affiliations, and he reflected on his life and his legacy.

For those who are more aware of the latest iconic brands and recent flashy, upscale wines from more hyped projects, Richard Arrowood has remained out of the limelight.

Yet he represents Sonoma County wine-making as well as anyone. And his latest venture pays homage to the soils of the county perhaps even better than he did decades ago.

Almost forgotten over the decades is the fact that Arrowood was one of the first to emphasize vineyard designation on wine labels. The 1970s were a time when few valued the vineyards’ uniquenesses and the efforts of farmers to provide distinctive raw material, out of which he could craft classic wines that differed from one another.

After stints at Korbel and Rodney Strong, Arrowood was hired as the first winemaker for Chateau St. Jean in Sonoma Valley, which soon became one of the county’s classic jewels, and which remains a stellar producer of fabulous wines.

Arrowood long realized that Sonoma County had broad opportunities to make distinctly different styles of Chardonnay from different regions. To prove the theory, in 1975 he made seven different Chardonnays, a radical notion for the time.

Six were from special vineyard sites, including Belle Terre and Robert Young (Alexander Valley) and Beltane Ranch (Sonoma Valley). One was a Sonoma County blend. The wines were all priced differently, based on Arrowood’s perception of their quality.

He also made a unique Sauvignon Blanc from Russian River Valley fruit (the La Petite Etoile Vineyard), and many times over the years used fruit from the famed Russian River farm of the late, beloved grower Saralee Kunde.

He later added a series of late-harvest Rieslings to the St. Jean portfolio that became some of the finest dessert wines ever made in this country. And his Cabernet Sauvignons revolutionized how red wine was perceived in Sonoma County.

Tasting through the various wines Arrowood made over the years, first at St. Jean and later at his own Arrowood winery, there was a distinctiveness that showed the man’s attention to the winemaking expertise he learned at Fresno State University and later honed at his other wineries.

In most cases, the precision these wines displayed are testament to his theory that the vineyard must show through the winemaker’s vision. Along the way, he paid broad compliments to two other St. Jean winemakers with whom he worked – his longtime assistant at St. Jean, Don Van Staaveren, and Don’s wife, Margo, who is now head winemaker at St. Jean.

Both were at the tasting as were Mike Berthoud, who worked with at Arrowood as Dick’s main winemaker; Erich Bradley, who worked at Arrowood and now makes wine for both Sojourn as well as Repris wines; Arrowood’s longtime viticultural expert, Barney Fernandez; Milla Handley, who worked at St. Jean for Dick and later founded Handley Cellars in Anderson Valley; Heidi von der Mehden, former associate winemaker at Arrowood, now at Merry Edwards, and Micah Zuorski, who now works in the cellar for Dick and Alis at their newest venture.

That is Amapola Creek, which is dedicated to the special fruit grown on Moon Mountain — a new Sonoma County appellation high up near the famed Monte Rosso Vineyard, long a property of Louis M. Martini Winery and now owned by E&J Gallo.

The Amapola Creek wines displayed at the tasting were fascinating, mainly the Zinfandels from Monte Rosso. Arrowood is one of the few wineries to continue to buy Monte Rosso fruit.

So in love with this vineyard are Dick and Alis that they acquired a 150-acre property that abuts it and is graced with oak, madrone, and other wild foliage. Here they planted an estate vineyard, and built both a home and a winery.

Arrowood has always been an outspoken supporter of Sonoma County’s vinous greatness and his impact on the county cannot be dismissed. Wines from his latest venture are made in limited amounts, but worth seeking out.

Wine of the Week: 2010 Amapola Creek Zinfandel, Monte Rosso Vineyard, Viñas Antiguas ($42): The aroma is racy with strawberry jam, wild cherry, subtle spices, and has loads of mid-palate fruit to match well with wild game or even pizza. A sensational Zin.

Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at winenut@gmail.com.

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