Women of Wine
Ellie Price and Durell– Metamorphosis of a winery woman (From the 2011 Fall issue of SONOMA)
Ellie Price rides her adopted mustang Dunstan through Durell Vineyards.
You might be asking yourself, what is a 50-year-old mother of two, a respected member of the winemaking community, co-owner of what is probably the most revered vineyard in the Sonoma Valley, as well as a national leader in the campaign to protect wild horses, doing not-quite naked in an old bathtub filled with grapes?
Ellie Phipps Price, proprietor of Dunstan wines and the prized Durell Vineyards, got into that bathtub with 65 pounds of Chilean table grapes because we asked. We thought it would make a clever cover. To be perfectly honest, we were just short of astounded when she said yes. We were even more surprised with her willingness to patiently pose for hours in the clammy embrace of all that unheated fruit, especially when the evening wind began to blow through the Petaluma Gap.
Now that we know Ellie a little better (and honestly, she barely looks 40), the surprise has evolved into respect and admiration for a woman as willing to take risks as she is committed to the stewardship of an extraordinary piece of land from which some of the best wine you will ever taste is made.
How good is Durell Vineyards? When Ellie was in the early stages of her metamorphosis into a winery woman she took a bottle of her Durell pinot noir to the French Laundry and they snapped it up on the spot, placing it at the top of their pinot
But great wine isn’t the only reason we put Ellie in that tub. A man, let’s face it, would have looked silly, even a man as good-looking as Ellie’s partner, Chris Towt. And we wanted to explore a hypothetical question. What are the differences, if any, that women bring to the production of wine in an industry and a profession dominated for centuries by men? Are there variations in temperament and taste that can be detected in the vintages vended by women? Is there some unique distinction in distaff winemaking tastes?
Ellie is quick to point out that her expertise is in media marketing, she is not a winemaker, her knowledge of the math and science of winemaking is a work in progress, and the alchemy that transforms great grapes into great wine is still something of a mystery. Nevertheless, she takes the question seriously.
“I have seen women winemakers,” she says, “ with whom I don’t see any difference between how they approach the process of making wine and how men do. But I think a man who makes wine needs to be in touch with his feminine side, and maybe, for a woman who makes wine, you need to be in touch with the masculine side.”
Being in touch with the technical side of winemaking, she says, “is a good thing for someone like me. I’m a liberal arts, English major. So, the math and science has always been intimidating to me.”
But making wine wasn’t part of the plan when she and her then-husband Bill Price decided to look for what was supposed to be “a little house in the country.” They couldn’t find an appropriate one, but Bill, one of the founders of Texas Pacific Group (now TPG Capital–among the world’s largest private equity investment firms–had invested in Beringer Vineyards and Beringer bought grapes from Durell, which is how he heard the property was for sale.
“Taking on the whole vineyard part of it made it seem more workable,” Ellie explains, as if buying Durell required any excuse. “It didn’t seem so much like an extravagance. I think at that point, growing grapes wasn’t a calling, it was more like a practical consideration. And because it was such a beautiful vineyard and the grapes were at that point already known, we felt like it would be a good opportunity.”
Saying that the grapes were already known is a fabulous understatement. They end up in more than 20 award-winning labels, and they were planned and planted, nurtured and nourished by Steve Hill, one of the top vineyard managers in the business and a man about whom Ellie Price can not say enough nice things. “Steve knows every inch of the property, he knows where the water is, where the bodies are buried, and he’s just impeccably conscientious, and knowledgeable and wonderful to work with.”
Ed Durell, a San Francisco food broker who bought the property in 1977, didn’t have grapes in mind then either. He was going to make it a cattle ranch, but somehow grapes won out, he hired lifelong friend Hill and they began selling to Sonoma County wineries in 1982, with almost instant success.
The conditions that make Durell special have everything to do with that overworked wine word, “terroir,” the special qualities of geology, geography and climate that characterize a vineyard. Durell sits on almost 400 acres with about half of it in vineyards, mostly pinot noir and chardonnay. It has a multiplicity of climates, three separate watersheds, one vineyard planted in sandy soil, others in rocky clay loam. There are three distinct winds that converge on the rolling contours of Durell’s hillsides from three different directions, the accompanying fog cuts off summer heat by mid-afternoon, prolonging the growing season and stretching the hang time so the grapes are able to extract the maximum amount of flavor and minerality from the soil.
This eclectic blend of growing conditions is spread over three separate appellations–the Carneros, Sonoma Coast and Sonoma Valley AVAs.
Besides growing great grapes, Durell encompasses a natural space of transcendent beauty, studded with majestic oaks, hilltop vistas stretching across San Pablo Bay to Mount Diablo, pockets of forested wildness, an abundance of deer and so much scenic tranquility that you feel bathed in an aura of peace just looking at it.
There are also a fair number of horses, several of them–at any given time–wild mustangs rescued from the Bureau of Land Management whose population control policies Ellie finds abhorrent. Riding since she was 5 or 6, she carries a deep equine passion around with her at all times, and she has made the fate of mustangs one of her life’s missions.
“There are now more wild horses in government holding pens than are free on the range,” says Ellie. Once numbering as high as 2 million, current estimates place the total number of mustangs at about 50,000. Only about 6 percent of horses in government pens are ever adopted, she says. And last summer she bought 170 mustangs headed for slaughter. So far 70 have been placed and she has three yearlings at the ranch, ready for adoption.
Ellie insists the helicopter roundups used to corral the horses are inhumane and hugely expensive.
“This is the horse we rode in on,” she says. “Paul Revere rode a mustang. Our cavalry rode mustangs. Our country was built on the backs of these horses. We owe them their dignity, we owe them their lives to live free.”
She says the National Academies of Science are conducting an in-depth study on the wild horse issue that should be completed by 2013. Working with The American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign (wildhorsepreservation.org), Ellie is trying to stall future roundups until the study is released.
It delights her, she says, to “use the Durell reputation, and people’s interest and knowledge of this vineyard, to raise awareness about the wild horse issue.”
Saving wild horses seems to be one part of a continuum of care that extends all over the ranch, and Ellie is clearly conscious of her role as custodian for something rare, special, nearly unique.
“I want to protect the creeks and the trees and the animals that live here,” she says. “I want our farming processes to be respectful of the environment, of the natural balances here, not just in the vineyards that have been planted but in all the areas around those vineyards. I really enjoy sharing it with people, hosting events, donating tastings.”
In 2002 there were two Durell landmarks: First, it was the year that Bill and Ellie made their first wine, and second, it was the year that they separated. “We both wanted to stay involved with Durell, so he started his winery and I started mine, but we shared the vineyard.”
They still do and, until recently, they also shared the same rock-star winemaker, Don van Staaveren, whose wife, Margo, succeeded him as winemaker at Chateau St. Jean.
The split shifted the trajectory of Ellie’s life in numerous ways, not the least of which was mastering the equation of being a single mom with two kids while running a winery.
Along the way she met Chris Towt during a Colorado fox hunt. Chris owned an Internet service provider, had a degree in computer science and a deep vein of entrepreneurial energy. Ellie describes herself as technically challenged–“I was the last one in California to do email.”–and Chris brought not only some technical clarity into her life but a burst of business energy.
Their relationship ripened and, since she was “tied down and less flexible,” he moved to California. It was a timely decision, because Ellie had a liquid fortune in exceptional wine languishing in her cellar.
“So there I was, really busy, single mom, two kids, and I learned, Oh, I got to sell it too? That was a shocking conclusion.”
Chris went to work selling the wine, selling the brand, getting it into new markets, taking the business seriously.
“I mean, you can’t just have your friends and family buy it every year,” Ellie ruefully concluded. “Nobody knew we existed. Between my mother and my 20 best friends, we sold it all pretty quickly. But I wasn’t really approaching it as a business, and I wasn’t really paying attention to it, honestly. Chris really has treated it much more like a business, and that makes us pay more attention to the wine, which makes it more interesting as a project and makes the whole thing work.”
As part of this new focus, Chris and Ellie launched the Dunstan label, named for the blacksmith of legend, and later saint, who made the devil vow never to enter a home with a horseshoe over the door. When a large, rusty horseshoe was found in the vineyard, Chris and Ellie adopted the image for their label and placed the horseshoe over the door of the old farmhouse they restored.
The Dunstan wines have already collected insider accolades and seem to reflect the direction Ellie says she wants to take the winery. “I want to make wines that people want to buy, of course, but I also want to make wines, make a Dunstan, that captures Durell. To me, the highest compliment would be if someone said, ‘You know, this captures the essence of Durell.’”
Ellie is focused on pinot noir and chardonnay, she says, both because Durell is perfectly suited for those varietals, but also because, “those are my two favorite kinds of wines…and now I feel like I understand those two varieties pretty well. I love how pinot noir can be so many different things, it can be so complicated and so layered, it’s tricky to make, there are more variables. It’s a challenging grape, and a delicate grape, and I know it better than other wines and so I like it more. If you know something it becomes more interesting.”
While Ellie lays no claim to making wine, she does love to blend it. “I love the fact that grapes are essentially themselves, this irrefutable factor. You can farm with a certain intention, but ultimately, a certain field is going to produce a certain kind of grape. I like that known factor. You can give two artists three cans each of the same paint and they can come up with two completely different things, of different quality, of different vision. But that grape is going to be what it’s going to be.”
Five years into her new life, Ellie Price knows how good she has it.
“How I got here was by making a choice to buy a property. That doesn’t make me a genius. It just means I’m really, really lucky. I feel that. I know I have a big
responsibility because I’ve been really lucky, you know? I have beautiful children, I have a great life.”
(From the 2011 Fall issue of SONOMA)