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Jim Ball Vineyards

February 19th, 2011

Jim Ball Vineyards: Attorney to Vintner.
Jim Ball talks about his venture in the wine world.

Jim Ball Vineyards: Attorney to Vintner

Originally Posted By:
Ukiah Daily Journal Staff
Updated:   02/19/2011 11:59:33 PM PST# Comments

Wine Notes by Heidi Cusick Dickerson

When Jim Ball passed the bar in Illinois in 1981 he celebrated by taking his first trip to the West Coast. "I visited Napa Valley and took a drive through here," he recalls, walking around his year-old winery on Highway 128 in Anderson Valley between Boonville and Philo. Mature oaks line the road in front of the winery. A neighbor's sheep graze in the vineyards as Jim Ball talks about his venture in the wine world.

For nearly 20 years, the memory of the Northern California wine country flickered while Ball practiced law with his right-hand assistant Tanya Wilber running the office and sharing the dream. "Tanya and I knew we wanted to own a vineyard," says Ball.

He grew up on a farm in Ohio and his dad made wine from table grapes. "He had been in Normandy after the carnage and was part of the liberation march to Paris. He stopped in more than a few wine cellars along the way developing a taste for good French wine," says Ball. "Dad wanted to make wine like the French." What he made was almost Port-like, says Ball. Wilber describes it as "knock your socks off."

With a degree in agriculture from Ohio State, Ball finished law school at Case Western Cleveland. He moved to Chicago, where he met Wilber and they opened the law office. They tried medical malpractice cases focused on brain damaged babies all over the United States. They still have cases in Chicago.
"After 25 years my goal was to wind it down and do this," he says.

Fast forward to 1999. Ball bought the 160- acre Middleridge Vineyard which is within sight of the property where he built the winery. In 2003, he planted 26 acres all in his favorite grape variety Pinot Noir at Middleridge. The first Jim Ball wine, a 2006 Middleridge Pinot, won double gold at the San Francisco Chronicle competition. A year later, his 2007 Pinot Noir received 93 points in the Wine Spectator magazine. At the time he was trucking the grapes from Anderson Valley to Sebastopol. He decided to build his own winery.

"We found this property which had been on the market for 13 years. It needed some loving care," says Ball. Part of the deal included the sellers moving out their collection of "vintage Mendocino stuff." Some of that stuff now decorates the tasting room.

In 2008, Ball planted 19 acres of Pinot Noir and two acres of Chardonnay at the property adjacent to Highway 128 across from Goldeneye Vineyards and Lula Cellars. "Everything is planted organically," he says. He started building the winery.

Ball had this vision of his new life. "We were going to live in the wine country, get a camper and go fly fishing," he laughs. He did buy a camper. It's on a knoll overlooking the winery and is where he lives. It hasn't been moved yet for a fishing trip.

It couldn't have been a more inopportune time to get in the wine business. Their first year was the year of a record frost spell in April. In June, hundreds of lightning strike fires filled the valley with smoke which tainted the grapes that were left after the frost damage. Then the bottom fell out of the economy.

"The economy took the wind out of our sails and we had to delay construction for a year," he says, adding, "there were at least 10 times I said we aren't going to make it."

"I always responded with yes you will," says Wilber.

With all relatively new vineyards and figuring out the barrel matrix Ball has three labels representing different styles of his Pinot Noir, which is made by Phil Baxter, who lives and makes Baxter wines on Greenwood Ridge.

Les Pintades is lightly oaked and has a feminine appeal. It is named for the pair of resident guinea hens that came with the property. "They are fun to watch because they are dog-like and notice everything around them," says Ball. He and Wilber have since raised more guinea hens which live securely in a pen. He suggests drinking Les Pintades with cheeses and fowl dishes, even guinea fowl.

Jim Ball's Boonville wine is fruity and big with high alcohol and the use of new oak. He calls it a "big fat juicy Pinot." Ball recommends it with lamb, duck rillettes and a cassoulet-like pork, white beans and duck fat dish he just had at the Boonville Hotel. "That was one of the best meals I've had in a long time," he says.

Jim Ball Signature Pinot Noir has a flavor profile in the middle of the other two. Ball describes it as beautiful, elegant and gracefully "kissed with oak and fruit." A good sipping wine, it goes well with many flavors and is especially good with salmon, French Epoisse and Morbier cheeses and aged creamy Gouda Wilber's favorite.

The winery is now 90 percent finished. The architecture resembles the old barns in Anderson Valley. "I wanted something that fits in Mendocino County and looks like it belongs," he says. Stained brown, the bat and board redwood winery has cupolas on the top and solar panels on the steep pitched roof. The thick concrete walls are covered with a Styrofoam coating that helps maintain the temperature to about 50 degrees.

To mitigate the summer heat, fans kick in in the evening to pull in the cool night air. Barrels are stacked on racks and the huge facility is not to capacity. Ball does a little custom crush and has room for more customers and his growing inventory. Glycol units in the cement floor allow for "temperature tweaking," says Ball.

Jim Ball's tasting room is spacious with displays of found artifacts from the property, including a fence section mounted on a warm ochre colored wall. A hutch full of metal and other farm artifacts is in the tasting room. A wall of photos shows the evolution from the old apple farm to the winery. Strings of lights drape throughout the room giving a muted light. An old rolling iron industry rack holds a wine display. The tasting room is open Friday through Sunday in December and January and the rest of the year seven days a week from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m.

Outside, the massive paved crush pad is planned to be used for events. Ball envisions dinner parties in the cellar as he loves to entertain. He has a smoker that will hold enough pork ribs for 250 people. To cook them he uses a dry rub seasoning and smokes meaty ribs with part of the loin meat still attached over local apple wood for four hours.

Someone recently brought him some pork bellies which he rubbed with dry seasoning and truffle honey and grilled them over apple wood for six hours. He used the leftovers for a pre-wedding event at the winery. He cut them into lardon-sized chunks, grilled and served them in a lettuce leaf with a little kimchee cabbage.

"Jim is a fantastic cook," says Wilber, who ran Ball's law firm and now runs the winery and tasting rom.

Ball says the winery is a destination and encourages people to bring a picnic. Tables with red umbrellas are interspersed between the tasting room and the winery. During crush the big doors to the winery are open so people can bring their glass to have a sip of the fresh and fermenting juice from the tanks. "They can taste it in different stages of fermentation--a practice that is already becoming a tradition," says Ball.

Low key and easy going in his new role, it's hard to imagine Ball as the high-powered attorney from Chicago. "It's been a struggle but a good struggle," he says. And he continues to reap the rewards for his excellent Pinot Noir. He just received an email from Wine & Spirits magazine that Jim Ball Pinot Noir was selected to be in the "best buy" section in the April issue.

And he finally went fly fishing last October.

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