Grape Escape: Nathan Kandler’s Talent Takes Precedent
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Grape Escape: Nathan Kandler’s Talent Takes Precedent

May 04, 2024

April 21, 2023 – Winemaker Nathan Kandler, the quiet genius behind Thomas Fogarty wines, has also been making wine under his own label, Precedent.

He got started with a 2006 Pinot Noir from a friend’s vineyard in Marin, but after things got really busy at Fogarty, especially with the advent of the new Lexington brand, Kandler stepped back.

“I didn’t want to make wines from the ‘normal’ grapes that everyone associates with California today,” he says. “I was not interested in going in the direction of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet. I decided to focus on the grapes that were most widely planted before the Burgundy and Bordeaux varieties took over, starting in the 1960s.”

So he began seeking out old vines and old varieties like Chenin Blanc, Riesling and Zinfandel, along with Carignane and Mataro.

These are the grapes that intrigue him, and the idea of working with a vineyard that might be ripped out before next year is both thrilling and bittersweet. You could say his goal is to help preserve the heritage vineyards and varietals that were the backbone of California winemaking from the beginning of the state’s viticultural history. Zinfandel and Chenin Blanc figure very prominently in that tale.

Kandler is writing the next chapter for these vines and varieties in a personal, old-school way. He’s dipping a quill in an ancient inkwell, filled with the most beautiful shade of indigo, and with the detail and flourish that only cursive can render, he pens odes to the past for us to savor.

His labels are strong and stalwart: the word “Precedent” conveys the kind of gravitas you’d want for a TV series on the history of the law. On the side of each bottle, as on the spine of a book, the vineyard name is written, along with its soil type, vintage history and planting date. This is key. Some of these vineyards are well over 120 years old, and they are located in San Benito County, Antioch, the eastern reaches of Lodi and the Santa Clara Valley, places beyond the mainstream of modern grape culture.

Some are new, which speaks volumes about the reverence growers feel for these oft dismissed grapes, or perhaps they are listening to the wisdom of viticulturists who understand that the longevity of these varieties means they’ve already adapted to well over a century of climate change, and are apt to be well suited to more extremes going forward.

Surveying the lineup of wines in the Precedent portfolio gave me an appreciation for the scope of the historical preservation task he has taken on. Being familiar with some of the vineyards, touching each bottle was like picking up a familiar old favorite from someone else’s library shelf, realizing you have a common bond.

We began with the 2020 Chenin Blanc from the Handley Vineyard planted in 2016 in Watsonville—technically part of the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA.

“There are not many Chenin Blanc vineyards left anymore,” says Kandler. “Most were ripped out in the 1980s when the popularity of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc started to grow.”

The owner of this property, which is on an alluvial fan, was going to plant Chardonnay, but was talked into Chenin. Kandler picked the grapes in October and processed them in neutral 500 liter puncheons on the lees for 10 months, then put the wine in stainless for 4 months. It is redolent of lemon, lime, hyacinth and honeysuckle, and shows slate, cantaloupe, peach and mango on the finish. It’s just 12% alcohol, and $22/bottle.

The 2021 Chenin Blanc from the same vineyard exhibits a bigger, richer mouthfeel, with a very floral nose, evoking hyacinth and comice pear. Rimmed with the richness of coconut and shortbread, this is exciting stuff, with high energy and a linear delivery of acidity all across the svelte, engaging palate that finishes with kumquats and freshly dried apricot. It’s 13.5%, and $25.

Next we delved into the 2019 Wirz Vineyard Riesling, which had just been bottled, after resting in a 10HL foudre (1k gallon oak oval) for 40 months. Who does that? Not someone driven by commercial schedules or the demands of a tasting room, that’s for sure. Kandler is giving the gift of time to these old vineyards. It’s the least he can do.

Plus, this is the way some producers in Australia make Riesling: they leave it in neutral vessels for 5 years. One whiff and the petrol takes you away to the old world, but no, this is San Benito, from a vineyard that feels like it came right out of the bible.

Some of the original Carignan, Zinfandel and Mourvèdre go back to 1904. The Riesling vines, planted in 1963, are head trained, dry-farmed and own-rooted in Salinian granite and limestone. Their concentrated hard borne fruit that is dazzling with intensity, like the gleam in the eyes of an old man recalling the time he taught his daughter to ride a bicycle. Aromas of exotic key and kefir lime, plus tangelo and blood orange, are tantalizing, and the palate oozes salinity from the soils. Unlike the wines of Mosel, this whips your tongue with its freshness, like a gale blowing in another atmospheric river. Kandler wants to keep it for 6 months in bottle before releasing it. Probably wise, as this wine definitely has spunk to spare. So good! This is his 8th vintage from this vineyard for Precedent. The alcohol is 13.5%, and it’s not for sale just yet.

Kandler shared a story about the first time he visited Wirz Vineyard with founding Fogarty winemaker Michael Martella, and met owner and grower Pat Wirz. “It was 2011, and he was freaked out by dealing with larger wineries who were penalizing him for delivering grapes that were not 24 Brix. He kept explaining that the grapes get to 21 and they just stop. That’s it. No more.”

The fruit from this vineyard went into Pacific Rim Riesling until Randall Grahm sold the brand. Suddenly, Wirz was dealing with big wineries that simply weren’t appreciative of the unique properties of the fruit. Dealing with smaller wineries presented another challenge, but Wirz certainly appreciates the attention to detail his current buyers—like Stirm, Ser and Kobza—take with his precious fruit. For Kandler, this is just the kind of site he wants to preserve and showcase.

Next up was an exception that Kandler made to his “no Chard/Pinot” rule. In 2021, he got a ton of the Martini clone Pinot Noir from the Kings Mountain Vineyard in Woodside. He vinified it in older French barriques, using one-third whole cluster, with native yeast and performing two punchdowns per day. The purity of fruit from this shiny little patch of vineyard ringed by redwoods, shows through with aromas of forest floor, fir, raspberry and vivid and red currant, and the palate surges with cranberry, blood orange, mushrooms and pinon incense. The tannins are just lovely, and it finishes with a hint of mint and tarragon. What a transparent snapshot of this little gem.

We’ll get to the amazing lineup of reds from Precedent another time, to do justice to each amazing vineyard.

But I wanted to share a snippet of the conversation I had with Brad Friedman, winemaker for Ghostnote wines, who works with Kandler in the cellar at Fogarty, and with whom I was tasting the Precedent wines with Nathan. As he pondered the Precedent Wirz Riesling in his glass, with a tone a mix of reverence and excitement, he put the glass down and said, “Aren’t these wines just extraordinary? I mean, the level of care and respect that goes into each of them is incredible.” I couldn’t have agreed more. It was a moment like picking up a favorite book.

As much as these wines are snapshots that preserve their ancestry, their precision and detail makes them more like the painstakingly, and lovingly rendered pen and ink drawings you find in living rooms and parlors of gorgeous old homes that are museums of themselves. With well-endowed bookshelves, heavy on the history.

Laura Ness is a longtime wine journalist, columnist and judge who contributes regularly to Edible Monterey Bay, Spirited, WineOh.Tv, Los Gatos Magazine and Wine Industry Network, and a variety of consumer publications. Her passion is telling stories about the intriguing characters who inhabit the fascinating world of wine and food.