For us, it began in 1978, when founder, George R. Davis, purchased the Estate. The property had young Pinot Noir vines, some of which are still producing today at 45 years old. Davis first improved the existing vineyards and then planted the remaining plantable acreage. Finally he was able to get one of the old barns on the property bonded for wine production in 1982. This was a very exciting and formative time for Pinot Noir in the Russian River Valley. It was in 1983 that the Russian River Valley became a recognized American Viticultural Area, and there were just a handful of us betting our livelihood on Pinot Noir. Pinot Noir was so underappreciated at that time that George was actually forced to plant more Chardonnay and less Pinot Noir than he wanted to by his banker and farm advisor, who saw no future in Pinot Noir is the Russian River Valley!
George was self-taught winemaker for the most part. As an avid reader, he studied every book he could find on subjects ranging from winemaking technical information to Burgundian winegrower’s philosophy. He had lots of conversations with other local winemakers and then ended up renting part of his winery to other winemakers and learned from them. (Sometimes it was leaning what not to do!)
While George was quite proud of his achievements, he saw the value in formal winemaking training and had a longing for the depth in the Pinot Noirs that he tasted from Burgundy. To that end, he encouraged his son Alex to study winemaking on a university level and then go on to work multiple vintages in Burgundy.
Alex Davis grew up rolling barrels, driving tractors and tending vines as George’s chief “gopher.” At that stage, he was not drawn towards academics, although he did come home with first place in the FFA California statewide grapevine-pruning contest. His interest grew as he studied with peers at Santa Rosa Junior College and Fresno State University.
While attending Fresno State, Alex worked summers locally at Sonoma Cutrer where he was introduced to Monsieur Feuillat, the director of the Oenologie program at the Université de Bourgogne in Dijon France. Monsieur Feuillat was kind enough to connect Alex with a harvest job with Christophe Roumier, who is by almost all accounts considered to be one of the greatest winemakers in Burgundy. It was there that Alex gained a deeper appreciation for the benefit smaller scale estate winegrowing, which is the extremely close relationship between the farming in vineyard and the final product. Learning under a master, Alex gained an understanding of how winemaking is adapted from vineyard to vineyard as well as from year to year. Plus Alex enjoyed seeing a willingness to “throw the book out” at times when academic training might inhibit a wine’s full development.
After this experience, Alex was excited and wanted more. So he reconnected with Monsieur Feuillat and enrolled in a one year program at the Université de Bourgogne, studying both Viticulture and Enology. Just before the school year, Alex fit in another harvest in Burgundy, this time working predominantly with Chardonnay with Michelot-Mestre families in Meursault.
While at the university in Dijon, Alex met students from winegrowing regions all over France and even a few other international students. Often the students would get together, bringing wines from each person’s region or where they had worked, and then long conversations would ensue late into the night discussing the relative merits of each growing region and its winemaking approach.
One of the friends that Alex made in Dijon, was Philippe Guigal from the northern Rhone Valley, and he eventually ended up working yet another harvest season with his family at Domain E. Guigal as their first foreign intern. Before the harvesting began, Alex’s job was hiking up and down some of the steepest vineyards in the world, taking grape samples with Marcel Guigal, and then working side by side with his experienced cellar crew until the last wine was in barrel.
In early 1997, Alex fit a fourth harvest abroad in South Africa. He then came back to Porter Creek on a full time basis that year. After “just a little” negotiating, George eventually let go of the winemaking role and retained his management role in the vineyards. Alex continued with his father’s quest to produce delicate, nuanced wines, even though the trend du jour, was going towards richer, heavier wines. In the first year, Alex converted all of the fermentations to native yeast, and wanted to convert the vineyards to organic farming. Initially concerned about the extra cost that this would incur, George did his own research and had his own revelations. In the end he decided to go even further and convert the vineyards to Biodynamic Farming. By 2003 our estate vineyards were Demeter Certified Biodynamic, well before it was as popular as it is today.
Today George is still active in some of the administrative aspects of the business, but spends most of his time split between his life long passion of boating and as Vice President of the California Farmers Union and the State Organization on the Board of the National Farmers Union (a non-partisan lobbying group that advocates for small farmers and responsible farming).
Taking the example from his mentors in Burgundy, Alex has worked really hard to remain on the ground level with his staff in the vineyards and winery to create truly hands-on, hand-crafted wines.