If I’d been asked to find a winery called Occidental Wines without a Google Maps assist, I’d have been lost in the hills.
But if I’d been shown a picture of the property’s old ranch house, which has been a Bodega Highway landmark for countless trips to the coast, I’d have put my finger on a map with a slim margin of error. Somewhat southwest of the actual town of Occidental, the vineyards and winery perch on a hill, about five miles from the Pacific Ocean.
Unlike many touted Sonoma Coast vineyards, this site doesn’t escape above the fog.
“No, never,” confirms Catherine Kistler with a laugh, adding that some days, it’d be nice to see a little sun. This gray afternoon in early December isn’t too different from what’s typical in August. But the gloomy conditions suit Pinot Noir just fine, on this 250-acre former sheep ranch that Catherine’s father purchased around 2008. Steve Kistler cofounded Kistler Vineyards, which gained cult status in the ’80s with wine critic Robert Parker’s high-score blessings. “Back in the day, that was all you needed,” Catherine says, “and you were off to the races.”
Sporting a minimalist “shed” aesthetic, in concrete, glass, and wood, Occidental has a pricey and exclusive look, but surprises with a down-to-earth vibe. Steve Kistler sold his stake in the Kistler brand, and in 2017 stepped away to focus on Occidental, with daughter Catherine as his apprentice.
The winemaking regime is meticulous, yet uncomplicated. They add no yeast, punchdowns are usually few and far between and wines simply rest until bottling.
“We’re very hands-on, to be hands-off,” Catherine explains in the bunker-like cellar. The winery hoes vineyards by hand or machine, and sprays no Roundup.
The 2017 Bodega Headlands Vineyard Cuvée Elizabeth is savory and spicy—think potpourri, dried berries, black tea and dried orange peel. The 2017 Running Fence Vineyard Cuvée Catherine has a smoky aroma, and a tinge of gravel to weight the plum fruit-leather flavor. The 2017 Occidental Station Vineyard, hailing from the far east, at Occidental Road and Highway 116, is more floral, with whiffs of raspberry pastille and roasted green tea.
These wines, which aren’t yet for sale ($65–$100, by mailing list only), should interest anyone charmed by Pinot Noir’s dark-fruited, savory side, expressed without undue tannins, or sweetness. And although the pH is quite low, instead of smacking merely of tangy acidity, a unique taste—which Catherine calls a briny salinity, “Like when the tide goes out”—propels them forward.
Occidental Wines, 14715 Bodega Hwy., Bodega. Tastings by request only. occidentalwines.com.