Kalin Cellars – The Story Of Excellence

2nd March 2023

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“Produce No Wine With Less Character than Yourself” – The Kalin Credo

Kalin Cellars is a winery in California’s bedroom community of Novato, Marin County just north of San Francisco. In 1986, when I first learned of Terrance Leighton’s Kalin Cellars winery recommended by the Winewrights newsletter (an analogue newsletter from postal days when deliveries were all important), it was a newsletter featuring premium wine recommendations, and was THE LINK for wine enthusiasts discovering California’s boutique vineyards, and their wineries. The man behind the Kalin Cellars concept is Terrance Leighton PhD., Children’s Hospital Senior microbiologist for the University of Berkeley, California. His university research work fulfilled his career, however as he planned his retirement partnering with his wife Frances, in their vinous activities. Together they explored California seeking terroir vineyards that met or exceeded their specifications. Founding Kalin Cellars in 1977, the Leightons obtained the old vines Semillon grape contract from Livermore’s Wente Vineyards (in Alameda county, the southeastern San Francisco/Bay Area vineyards), the original Semillon vine cuttings drawn from Château d’Yquem that Charles Wetmore personally planted in 1882, at what was then Cresta Blanca vineyards.

Leighton fashions a sumptuous dry wine using traditional 19th century barrel fermented technique, with minimal to zero sulfur additions, or nutrient fermentation proteins, yet Kalin wine’s complex flavors and age worthiness is showcased via his microbiology meticulousness. His inspiration came from the vineyard flavors of Europe, and was delivered by the local Californian terroir.

His microbiology training is Kalin Cellars’ leg up in making brilliant and professional, if misunderstood, wines that age like their European counterparts, would be an understatement. Contemporary California wine drinkers are marketed to enjoy young and fresh conventionally oaky wine, and oftentimes these commercial wines popularly display intrusively buttery flavors. Leighton always uses French new oak barrels, often only from one producer, Tonnellerie Billon, labeled under Kalin Cellars ‘Stealth Cuvée’, a premium bottled selection. Leighton’s wines wear the oak framing supporting Kalin Cellars as unobtrusively and complementary as original wine art. He invested Kalin Cellars in researched vineyards, and his experience with microbiology to divine the vineyards’ terroir identity. The man has an eidetic memory, and wine tasting recollection. He is a true genius, a modern day Renaissance man equivalent of Leonardo da Vinci.

I am in awe of his companionship, although he never spoke of his accomplishments. Humbly, he allowed his vineyard collaborations, and the resulting wine’s excellence to speak for itself. If wine drinkers understood the Kalin Cellars wine’s taste expressions, then the drinkers got it, and were hooked for life. He would not release his wine’s until ready to drink (in Leighton’s opinion), most often with a decade or more aging. In the Kalin Cellars, “every bottle of Kalin is a library release!” Terry Leighton’s wines are a guarantee of vineyard provenance, and impeccable research anticipated the wine barrels wood toasting, fermentation regimes, and the unfiltered wine racking clarifications.

Conventional winery’s winemaking requires wine marketing to propel their wine business forward, Leighton requires only an audience’s suitably well informed taste. If that sounds wine elitist, then so be it. Leighton is not an elitist, he’s a man who understands the natural world, and wine’s importance in it.

I was promoted to Sommelier Director of the CMDC Hospitality (Capitol Management District of Columbia) in 1986 when I first tried Kalin Cellars in1987. I recognized Kalin Cellars from the Winewrights newsletter; eagerly I requested Kalin Cellars samples. My salesman presented the two currently stocked wines: a 1981 Chardonnay Cuvée W.D.-Sonoma (Warren Dutton’s Russian River Valley ranch), and the 1979 Cabernet Sauvignon Potter Valley-Mendocino (a dead-ringer for Margaux), both Northern California vineyards featuring a striking Francophile resemblance that still haunt my recollections. Leighton expressed the vineyards terroir identity nuances, that was frequently missing in bottles of commercial wines.

Hugh Johnson released his ‘World Atlas of Wine 2nd Edition’ in 1975, which included the lauded Sanford & Benedict newly planted initial vineyard (rumored to be pedigreed Vosne-Romanée prestige vine cutting’s, from suitcase smuggled vines into the USA). The vineyard was planted in the cooler Santa Rita Hills of California’s Central Coast Pacific region from which Leighton had already pre-subscribed a grape harvest contract for Kalin’s 1980 Pinot Noir bottling. When I tried the wine in 1989 it simply removed any doubt in my mind of Leighton’s genius, the wine was staggering in its complexity! Of the 1980 Kalin Cellars Sanford & Benedict vineyard Pinot Noir when tasted in 2019, Rajat Parr quoted: “I have tasted the greatest California Pinot Noir in my lifetime!” This accolade was for a 39 year old California Pinot Noir grown from young vines in the Santa Rita Hills Central Coast.

I have known Raj for over 30 years, and he is not prone to hyperbolic praise. I’ll allow the reader to research the heaps of wine accolades and professional awards bestowed on Rajat Parr.

In 1989 I relocated to California to work a harvest with Lambert Bridge winery in Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma. The 1989 grape harvest was a brutal introduction to the cruel fickleness of Mother Nature, an equal amount of torrential rain, with long hours on the fermenting tank’s crush pad, and in the wine cellar. Fortunately, I had restaurant work training that gave me the impetus to withstand the 18 hour daily harvest regimen. It was a humbling experience, and I slept well each evening. By November, my stint in the wine country was completed. I vowed to rarely openly criticize any wine fault I came in contact with, now knowing that the responsible wine team did their best job crafting their wine with the delivered grapes.

Some years later, as I drove through Marin I remembered Kalin Cellars in Novato, and made a mental note to call Terry and reacquaint myself. He remembered me, naturally, where we last dined in DC (Jean-Louis at Watergate), and what wine we enjoyed with dinner (1970 Jamet Côte-Roti). I was encouraged I had made such a positive solid impression. Two weeks later we agreed to reconvene at Kalin’s neat, tidy winery, and he explained Kalin’s workings, and the future cuvée releases. My mind was reeling with his ability to track Kalin’s wines (11+ different barrel fermentations, and cuvée bottlings) with he and his wife, Frances, Kalin Cellars lean crew, the only professionals I saw. He also spoke of a Marin vineyard overlooking the Pacific Ocean (the rare Pasternak vineyard which Marcassin Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines made famous) was bearing fruit, he was in the process to release Kalin’s first sparkling wine from the Pasternak vineyard. Marin County in the 1960s until today has been Northern California’s most expensive land and housing market. A vineyard planted to vines, and not relegated to housing barons was a certain boast of “I’ve more money than sense”, a challenging concept for work a day, mere mortals to comprehend.

Micheal Bonaccorsi had recently been awarded a Master Sommelier certificate, and was on the market for a better hospitality position. 1998 was when Wolfgang Puck snapped up Bonaccorsi’s Sommelier talent for the Michelin Starred Spago-Beverly Hills, Los Angeles location. Micheal was a genuine hospitality wine man, simply honest with an impeccable tasting memory, and a gift for making social situations seem effortless. Spago, under Bonaccorsi’s direction obtained the 1988 Kalin Cellars Cuvèe Rosé Reserve, yet another feather in Leighton’s cap recognized for making California‘s finest sparkling wine!

Kalin Cellars Cuvèe Rosé Reserve is an unfiltered 40% Chardonnay and 60% Pinot Noir blend, and fermented in seasoned French barrels, the wines 1988 vintage is held in the bottle on the lees (sur latte) for 11 years, and the release is hand disgorged (á la volée in 1999) to individual order, with no additional sugar dosage – a Brut Zero.

Kalin Cellars 1988 Cuvèe Rosé Reserve sparkling wine displays a restrained red fruit elegance, and an appetizing umami gracefulness in the Champagne tradition. A wine that has incredible density, with length of flavor, and a profound finish. The 1988 Pasternak vineyard harvest yields were under 20 hectoliters per hectare, I’ve heard of parsimonious yields from Burgundian Grand Cru vineyards, but never purposely in California!

Also produced is the vintage Kalin Cellars Cuvèe Blanche (a seasoned barrel fermented Chardonnay sparkling wine from Lorenzo’s vineyard in the Russian River Valley-Sonoma – also a Brut Zero, bottled with no dosage). Featuring a razor-like acidity in the finest Salon Champagne tradition, with bottomless depths of white flower and hazelnut flavors, and a laser focused minerality supplied by the Russian River Valley’s vineyards Goldridge soils.

All that matters to Terrance & Frances Leighton are the grapes’ provenance, and superior quality: That’s it! Dr.’s Leighton’s wines can not be stopped!

Regrettably, Dr. Terrance Leighton passed away on February 6th, 2023.

Dr. Leighton’s brilliant contributions to California wines’ will be sorely missed, however, Dr. Frances Leighton ably continues to helm Kalin Cellars course!

RIP, Terry

Post 2003 (16 years after we had met) Dr Frances Leighton, Terry’s loyal wife and business partner, passed away. Terry was a private man not wishing spotlight on him and didn’t disclose this fact to but an inner circle of comrades, one of whom we had shared a common allegiance: the LA sommelier star George Skorka, reading my Kalin Cellars – Terrance Leighton eulogy article was kind enough to gently correct my error. Although I am suitably embarrassed by my faux pas, I am eternally grateful to George Skorka for his correctly helping me, right a wrong. I do know that Kalin Cellars future wines are no more. Buy, if you are able the current stocks, you will be tasting California history!
Cheer’s George!

Image Credit: CaliforniaVineyard

Peter Birmingham

Restaurant General Manager, Corporate Beverage Director, & Hospitality Consultant, with these qualities he represents a Triple Threat: a culinary tableside historian, an accomplished wine taster with the casual ability to make flavor relationships and beverage quality value accessible.