Londer Vineyards

Londer Vineyards: From Eye Doc to Winemaker

Wine Notes by Heidi Cusick Dickerson

When Larry and Shirlee Londer decided to make a midlife move into winemaking they developed a business plan. They soon discovered that the best plans can be sidelined by unexpected circumstances.

After moving from New Mexico to Anderson Valley a fortuitous meeting with the perfect consultant meant moving up their timeline and plan. It also meant sourcing grapes where they could and using a custom crush facility in Sonoma County. Their first harvest was on September 11, 2001, a tragic and fateful day that will never be forgotten.

Originally from Denver, Larry and Shirlee Londer came to Anderson Valley from Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he was an ophthalmologist for 27 years, and Shirlee ran the optical shop. Wine had been a fascination of Larry’s since he worked in a liquor/wine store while going to medical school. In Albuquerque they took wine appreciation classes, started collecting wine and had a small cellar.

When the Londers became chairs of a wine auction benefiting the New Mexico Symphony, they made trips to Napa Valley “begging for wine donations” for the auction. They met Dan Duckhorn of Duckhorn Vineyards (and also Goldeneye in Anderson Valley) and other top name winery owners during their search for auction items. The auction took off, and is now 17 years old. It raises between $250,000 and $500,000 each year for the symphony.

On their travels to the wine country, “We kept saying ‘this is heaven and maybe we should retire here,’” remembers Larry, who is slim and dapper with a trim beard and engaging manner. They started looking at property. They considered Lazy Creek when it first came on the market. Then an attorney helping them called to say he found another property near Lazy Creek. Larry and Shirlee flew right out and walked the 55 acres which was known then as Nesgram Farms. It had a five-acre organic garden, and the property was landscaped and deer fenced. Then they looked at the house. When Shirlee saw the red kitchen she looked at Larry and said, “We’re buying this.” Larry agreed they could work with it and they moved in on May 1, 2000.

“We didn’t know a soul here,” says Shirlee, with short dark hair and an easy go-getter outlook. “We knew we’d have friends,” says Larry, noting that Anderson Valley is made up of people who came from somewhere else. “We loved that there were so many fascinating people to get to know.”

Their original business plan included planting a vineyard in 2001 and making their first wine in 2004. In the meantime Shirlee went to work at Pacific Echo (now Scharffenberger) tasting room. One fateful day Greg LaFollette, renowned winemaker at the time for Flowers winery, walked in and they got to talking. He was striking out on his own as a consultant and agreed to take a look at the Londers’ property and business plan.

Within weeks the Londers were on board with LaFollette. His contacts and expertise were the catalyst that moved their project forward at lightning speed. “We scrambled to buy fruit in 2001,” says Larry. “At the time we were new. Fortunately for us there were a few vineyards willing to work with us.”

Londer Vineyards was launched with 700 cases of Pinot Noir, Gewurztraminer and Chardonnay. Since then, in addition to planting their own Pinot Noir grapes and Gewurztraminer, they have been able to source fruit from more Anderson Valley Vineyards. In the beginning Larry and Shirlee went door to door trying to sell their wine. “Eventually, because of Shirlee’s tenacity along with La Follette’s contacts, Shirlee got us into over 100 places in the Bay Area,” says Larry.

Then around 2004 the movie Sideways came out and the Wine Spectator named Londer Vineyards Anderson Valley Pinot Noir “wine of the issue.” Londer Vineyards has steadily increased production to about 5500 cases for the 2006 vintage. The Londers now sell wine in 20 states and have 400 people in their wine club. They have fifteen acres of their own Pinot Noir and one acre of Gewurztraminer grapes.

When Londer’s Pinot Noir estate won the only double gold at the Mendocino County Fair competition in 2007, “we had to pinch ourselves”, says Shirlee. She said that the accolades have helped keep us going.” .

Magical was my first thought after turning onto their driveway, traversing the dark woods of winter and being blinded by the sunlit opening setting the rows of pruned vines aglow. At the Londers’ house, high ceilings and a stone fireplace in the living room lend a designer feel on the way to the kitchen with red enameled wood cabinets. A couple is at the counter tasting Londer Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Gewurztraminer with Shirlee. Tasting is by appointment. In addition to wine you can buy the best raspberry jam I’ve ever had, which is made by Shirlee who also cures olives and makes great tomato soup, all from produce grown on their estate.

“We’ve had to learn things like marketing and sales, winery compliance and bookkeeping,” says Shirlee, wearing a black t-shirt with Pinot Noir emblazoned in sparkly glitter and sequins. She is on the Mendocino Winegrowers and Winegrape Commission’s Public Relations committee and the board of the Anderson Valley Winegrower Association. She and Larry spearheaded the addition of a silent auction to benefit local nonprofits at the annual Anderson Valley Pinot Noir Festival. “It’s the obligation of the wine industry to help the community and the services that help our employees,” says Larry.

“The wine business is all about relationships with our customers, our distributors, our colleagues and our community,” says Shirlee. Larry adds that, “We’ve learned what it means to build a brand from the ground up.” Hard work and perseverance has turned this project into what Larry calls an adventure that has continued for nine years.

TASTING NOTES: Londer Vineyards 2007 Dry Gewurztraminer is a classic. With subtle aromas of spice (from which its name Gewurz derives in German) and citrus and a perfectly crisp and full bodied mouthfeel, it went nicely with an Alasatian Onion Tart on a stormy evening.

For more information on Londer Vineyards contact the Mendocino Winegrape and Wine Commission at www.truemendocinowine.com, www.londervineyards.com.

Heidi Cusick Dickerson writes Wine Notes for the Ukiah Daily Journal on behalf of the Mendocino County Winegrape and Wine Commission.

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