To my generation, the name ‘Fred MacMurray’ will never quite free-associate with Barbara Stanwyck or any indemnity, double or otherwise. He’ll never be Lieutenant Keefer with a glass of wine tossed in his face after the Caine gobs mutinied. He won’t even be the flubber-flipping flunky Professor Brainard.
To us, Fred MacMurray will always be (and will only be) the name that popped out between a triad of leg sets—the eastern-most of which featured a steadily-tapping, oxford-clad toe belonging to Mike, the eldest of His Three Sons, just prior to poor Mike getting the kiss-off.
That’s Fred, and that’s the way it is, Mr. and Mrs. Gallo. Nothing personal—Leonard Nimoy will never be Vincent Van Gogh, either.
I mention Gallo because it is MacMurray’s name on the bottle of Gallo-helmed pinot noir whose cork just eased itself from the bottle with a swansdown sigh. MacMurray Ranch, specifically, but it does indeed refer to Fred on the back label, who owned and nurtured this particular property for fifty years, though with his sights set more toward beef than barriques. Of course, the man of flesh, the good Steve Douglas himself, who was everything you wished your dad could be plus handsomer, took his final out-of-town trip in 1991, and on some pretty serious business. Five years later, Gallo purchased the land from his family, and began to transform what had been a working, 1500 acre cattle ranch (no grapes) into what is now a working, achingly beautiful winery chockablock with grapes. Fully restored to what the homestead probably looked like 150 years ago, when it was pre-MacMurrays new, Gallo has about five hundred acres of pinot noir and pinot gris planted on either side of the Russian River—which is, incidentally, one of a handful of places in the world where the right combination of soil (sandy loam) and climate (maritime) combine to produce ideal conditions for growing pinot noir.
“We’ve been extremely fortunate with the quality of Pinot Noir fruit that we get from the Sonoma Coast, just to the southwest of us,” says MacMurray’s winemaker’s, Susan Doyle.
So, with all that groovy Russian River pinot growing on the doorsteps, why would Doyle look elsewhere for grapes? Undoubtedly, it’s partly her vintner’s wanderlust, partly her curiosity to see what the neighbor’s fruit can do, but a lot of it is likely down to her employer’s wish to keep a decent bottle of pinot noir under twenty dollars. All things being equal (they’re not), pinot noir from the Russian River AVA, where land averages a hundred large per acre, is a top-dollar proposition. By releasing blends from the more-affordable Central Coast and the sprawling Sonoma Coast appellation under the MacMurray imprint, Doyle has nailed down the alchemy, producing ripe, soft and sweet pinot noirs retailing for around sixteen dollars. Those MacMurray bottlings stamped ‘Russian River’ command upward of thirty-five.
If Gallo was guilty of linking Fred MacMurray’s memory to a wine label simply because they shared a bathroom, they’d be considered a touch mercenary, even macabre. Not them, not so; in fact there’s a MacMurray on the payroll—Kate MacMurray, daughter of Fred and June Haver, who grew up on the ranch and as a Russian River child was involved in all those Future Farmers of America distractions like 4-H Club and harrowing the bottom forty. Today, she’s a itinerant spokesperson for the winery, traveling and hawking as eloquently as her Hollywood screenwriting pedigree would suggest:
“There’s a saying that you only get encores on stage, not in life, but every harvest here is a renewal for us, a promise kept and a new promise made in the wine itself.”
Along with their pixels, Fred’s Three Sons have long since dissolved into the annals of yesteryear, but Fred’s One Daughter is carrying forward Fred MacMurray’s memory, the MacMurray Ranch story, and—if you can catch her when she’s in town—can offer a first-hand glimpse of the convoluted and fascinating history of Sonoma over a bang-up glass of MacMurray pinot noir.
If it helps with the connection, just imagine that this particular glass is the one that José Ferrer threw in her father’s face.
MacMurray Ranch, Pinot Gris, Sonoma Coast, 2009, about $20: Estate grown, whole-cluster pressed, cold-settled and sur lies aged–a bunch of words that add up to a top-notch California pinot gris, pinot grigio’s muscular makeover. This luscious, pear and Gravenstein apple scented wine follows through with flavor notes of white grapefruit and lime.
MacMurray Ranch, Pinot Noir, Central Coast, 2009, about $16: Grapes from the Olson Ranch (despite our motif, it’s not owned by Mary Kate and Ashley) in the Santa Lucia Highlands contributed to the final blend of this wine, adding minerality to the backbone, which otherwise supports a framework of dusty black cherry and cassis with notes of dry tea leaf, cola and pie spice. Nothing pretentious; nicely chewy, nicely briary; a characteristic Central Coast pinot meant to be enjoyed with dinner tonight, not dinner next decade.
MacMurray Ranch, Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, 2008, about $17: A lively, lighter-styled wine typical of the cool, thin-soiled Sonoma Coast climate; there’s an elegance here that’s sometimes missing in heavy-handed Russian River pinots. The vintage is one of the best ever for Sonoma pinot and all the elements are present and accounted for: brisk, foresty flavors capped by boysenberry, strawberry, dried herbs (marjoram, thyme), maybe some sandalwood and mocha. Finish is alive with bright cherry acidity and an echo of smoke.
MacMurray Ranch, Pinot Noir, Russian River, 2008, about $35: A ruby/topaz jewel scented with dark cherry, rich plum and chocolate. Further development in the glass reveals accents of licorice, vanilla bean and spicy oak. Thanks to a couple of rounds of severe frost in late March and mid–April that surprised even veteran growers, 2008 was a tough year in the Russian River, but MacMurray’s bottling offers supple tannins (giving the wines an early approachability) and highlights balance and elegance.