Lawer Family Wines: Scents and Sensibility from a Small Family Estate

By Glen Frederiksen

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The 1980s saw a boom in the California wine industry, especially in the North Coast regions of the Napa and Sonoma Valleys. A few hundred family-owned wineries and vineyards there had trebled to a thousand, and there appeared to be no end in sight. The land rush for vineyard properties was not unlike the state’s Gold Rush of the 1850s, or Alaska’s Gold Rush at the turn of the 20th century.

Sadly, things change. People’s thirst for higher-end wine often mirrors the ebb and flow of a nation’s economy. During the good times of the mid-’80s, mid-’90s, and mid-2000s, the prices for fine wines skyrocketed. At the end of each decade, economic downturns caused inventories of wine to languish in warehouses, and prices to plummet. Since the most recent economic downturn that began in 2007, many well-known winery institutions in Napa and Sonoma have either gone belly-up or sold, pennies on the dollar, to large winery consortiums.

Sasha Lawer, Director of Marketing for Lawer Family Wines

Sasha Lawer, Director of Marketing for Lawer Family Wines

The wine world is not for the faint-hearted. Fortunes can be won or (more likely) lost as those bitten by the Wine Muse heed her call.

For Betsy and David Lawer, diverse backgrounds — he is a lawyer and weekend chef, she is a financial tour de force who manages the largest state-based bank in Alaska — led them to inevitably take the plunge and buy vineyard acreage in Knights Valley, straddling the Napa and Sonoma County line just northwest of Calistoga. For years, Napa Valley had been a vacation destination for them, and they decided to develop a property that could serve as a gathering place for family and friends.

With hallowed neighbors like Peter Michael and the Beringer empire, there was no doubt that the land purchased could produce world-class wines. Establishing a winery in 2002, the first few vintages were mostly for personal consumption and the enjoyment of those close to them. The Lawers loved the laid-back, genteel feel of the North Coast wine country, and began spending considerable time there when not in Alaska, their home state.

Rather than produce over-extracted, cult-style wines that are the darlings of the wine press, the sensibility born from three generations of living in Alaska drove them to seek a style that was balanced and food-friendly.

They hired John Pina as their vineyard manager. With 44 years of experience in Napa and Sonoma vineyards, he knew the land and the types of grapes that would thrive there. Today, the acreage owned by the Lawer family is planted with Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Zinfandel, Chardonnay and Viognier.

In 2006, they brought on board Larry Levin to make the wine. When Levin took the helm at Dry Creek Vineyard at age 22, he was the youngest winemaker in the United States. Since then, he has worked with a number of wineries and industry icons around the world. His wines have graced the cover of Wine Spectator and have been regularly featured in the magazine’s annual “Top 100 Wines” list.

Lawer Family Wines

Now pushing a production of 3,000 cases annually, and with expectations of moderate growth in the near-future, the Lawers are going commercial. They currently have three label designations: Three Coins, Duck Shack and Hooker. Each celebrates a milestone in their history.

Three Coins is a tip of the hat to Betsy Lawer’s father, who worked as a gold prospector in the foothills of Alaska’s Mt. McKinley. To ensure that he didn’t have too much water pressure while sluicing payload from the hillside, he would toss three coins onto the area to be worked that day. If the coins didn’t show up in the bottom of the sluice box, it meant that the pressure had been too great, and the coins, along with gold, had been washed into the tailing pile.

Coming from avid outdoors-people stock, Betsy recalled the many nights she and her three sisters spent at the family duck shack. The men were there to hunt, but there also were the magical nights, looking up at the star-filled sky and occasionally glimpsing the Aurora Borealis. The Duck Shack label is a nod to this childhood memory.

The third label, Hooker, stems from the family history of playing rugby. Betsy’s father had been a rugby player during his days attending Stanford University, where he played the position of Hooker. When Betsy was a student at Duke, she was smitten by a young man with curly blond hair and steely blue eyes who was a standout Hooker on the Duke rugby team. Despite Dad’s protestations that she shouldn’t date hooligans from the rugby team, Betsy and David married, and the union has lasted some 40 years (and counting).

All in all, the Lawer Family Winery is a reflection of the principal owners. The wines are made in a ready-to-drink style, with enough acidity and balance to be food friendly, yet structured for years of graceful aging.

Check out our reviews of the latest Lawer wines here.

There are plans on the drawing board to build a tasting room for the public, and the three houses on the property are available for rent for visitors coming to the North Coast wine country. Additional information about the winery, favorite recipes, and ways to order wine can be found on the Lawer website.

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