The first in my small series on microwineries, Sheldon Wines of Santa Rosa, California is the perfect example of the adventurous spirit required to make wine! Meet husband-wife team Tobe and Dylan Sheldon, in the middle of their adventure of a lifetime. These stories will focus on wine, but will also focus on the stories behind the wine…on the people making wine happen.
Size Matters: Big Adventures in Wine Country--Sheldon Wines
To say wine making came naturally to Dylan Sheldon would be an understatement.
At the tender age of seven, he harvested his first grapes.
Deciding he was a bit cash poor, he picked red and white grapes along the side of the road. Keeping the reds separate from the whites, Dylan crushed the grapes. Tasting the juice, he thought it was incredibly tart. He added sugar and left the juice to ferment. He did some research at the grocery store and found the proper spelling for the wine words he wanted: Burgundy and Chablis.
He went back home to check on his product before its release. Dylan’s roadside wine stand had “Burgundy” and “Chablis” for sale at twenty-five cents a glass.
His first customer rolled up to the stand, stepped out of his car, and started chuckling pleasantly. Curious if Dylan’s parents (who weren’t big wine drinkers at the time) put the boy up to this, the customer laughed even harder at Dylan’s honest no. The response was a full dollar for the glass of wine and a lasting impression in Dylan’s mind that people who drank wine were nice.
Dylan’s "official" wine-making adventure started in 2003, the year he and his equally daring wife Tobe made their first wine under the Sheldon label. This was a match set in wine-making heaven, as Tobe and Dylan found their own passion for life, and wine, reflected in each other.
Tobe explained their relationship best: “We leap into business ventures with the same enthusiasm that we leap out of airplanes or off cliffs. For good or ill, Dylan and I are very passionate people, we are inspired to create; be it wine, food, music, prose, or a new tool that will aid production. We are makers and doers.”
At first, the two split their business responsibilities almost fifty-fifty—doing nearly equal work making and marketing their wine. However, each individual’s prowess began to show through.
Today, Dylan does more of the wine making part of Sheldon Wines. As proven with that first vintage at age seven, Dylan is a very intuitive winemaker. Being very scent and taste driven, he remembers nearly everything he has tasted. This gives him a very unique way to connect the vineyard to the barrel to the bottle.
He listens to each vintage and knows what those yearly differences will mean in the cellar. He adjusts to these changes so he can “coax the best possible” wine out of his fruit. Dylan embraces the dynamic nature of wine as part of the adventure, and instead of fighting it, he adapts to it and uses it to his advantage, which is, perhaps, one of the most important talents in the wine business.
While Dylan is channeling his passion into the grapes, Tobe does more of the winery operation and marketing of Sheldon wines. Her talents lie in artistic ventures like writing. She welcomes guests to the tasting room while focusing on sales…not to mention the piles, and piles, and piles of state and federal paperwork to sell wines in both in-state and out-of-state markets.
Together, they believe that good wine making starts in the vineyard by doing the right thing, “or maybe even before that with the intention of the owner, grower…a synergistic desire for balance and integrity.”
They source fruits from vineyards to which they are attracted based on several factors. The first focus is sustainability, shown through organic farming. Next is the site itself; it must be unique in its soil, slope, and sun. Then, the vineyard must be exciting to the Sheldons. Finally, the people connected to the vineyard must be “good” people.
Dylan and Tobe work with small vineyards, usually just one to two acres. They have full control over how the vineyards are treated, from farming to harvest. Often times they do all of the work; other instances they may just consult on the site but never actually “get dirty.” No matter the case, the only person who has more say in the final fruit than they do is Mother Nature.
These small vineyards have allowed Sheldon Wines to produce some very unique selections from equally unique grapes. Sheldon and Tobe were influenced by their time in the southern Rhone Valley of France. They often make wines that have “high aromatics, acid, and sass.”
The list of wines past is quite long: old vine Chardonnay, Viognier, Rousanne, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc, Grenache rosé, Tempranillo, Tempranillo rosé, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Malbec, Merlot, and Gewurtztraminer.
Current wines in the bottle or barrel are equally as distinctive: Grenache Blanc, Grenache, Pinot Noir, Vinolocity (Grenache), Red Hat (Petite Sirah-Cabernet Sauvignon blend), Cabernet Sauvignon, Graciano, Syrah, Tempranillo, Brut Rosé (Tempranillo), Viognier, Mourvedre, and port (Syrah).
True to the microwinery label, all of these wines are small-lot productions. Some of them are part of Sheldons’ Lower 48 line, wines that only have 48 cases produced from two barrels. These all add up to between 400 and 500 cases a year, except 2005 when Dylan and Tobe made 1200 cases. (This number only includes the actual Sheldon Wines label. They often custom crush and/or consult on additional projects and labels for others as well.)
Many of the Sheldons’ wines are one-of-a-kind and exceptional, like the Graciano rose—a very rare grape find in California. Though Cabernets are not uncommon, the Sheldons' is. It is the complex, high-acid, sassy style for which they strive, one of the most unique Cabs in the area.
To continue to show Tobe and Sheldon’s diversity, they are currently making a traditional method sparkling wine from Tempranillo grapes. Even though the young vineyard’s grapes only spent fifteen minutes in contact with the skins, the must was slightly colored from the strength of the Tempranillo, leading to a beautiful shade of pink for the upcoming Brut Rosé.
All of this happens in Santa Rosa, Sonoma County. It is this “wonderland of microclimates” that allows the type of wine making for which Tobe and Dylan aim. Tobe loves the county for so many reasons. First, “It still retains its farmer soul.” It is filled with small wine producers who form a community of support to build others up by lending a hand whenever needed. They all work hard to craft delicious wines “with integrity” and celebrate others’ successes.
Tobe says it best when she states, “I am very proud and thankful for the gift of living here.”
At this point, Sheldon Wines is at a cross roads. Passion…adventure…these are what drive Dylan and Tobe, but they are not always what drive the operation of a winery. Making wine is an incredibly expensive endeavor. Making wine from small acreage plots and exceptional vineyards takes a lot of resources, both time and money. In order to make more money, Dylan and Tobe would have to make much more wine. However, to do this they would have to increase from their small lots, which is against what Sheldon Wines represents.
In order to preserve the passion and excitement the Sheldons feel for their craft, they have decided to stay at the current 500 case total production level. This means they are focusing on direct-to-consumer sales in the tasting room, on their website, and through the wine club. Off-site sales will happen at select restaurants and wine shops with “excellent, authentic customer service.”
Together, Tobe and Dylan see wine making as a calling, as part of life’s adventure. Every day they want to learn. To create. To experience. To never settle. “It [wine making] fulfills a need, and we will give it our all until it doesn't....and then a new adventure will make itself known and we will dive in.”
*All photos provided by Tobe Sheldon of Sheldon Wines with some photos by Will Bucquoy*