During a rare chilly and rainy, late-spring day, a friend and I stopped to taste the highly rated wines at Lula Cellars, a small producer in the cooler and foggier “Deep End” of Anderson Valley in Mendocino County. Lula’s tasting room is the last one before entering Navarro River Redwoods State Park. We approached the modest, unassuming estate, not knowing what to expect. The reward was an easygoing, comfortable tasting experience with our host, Kim Badenhop, proprietor Ken Avery, and a portfolio of wines exemplifying world-class winemaking and winegrowing.
Lula is a young winery – or as Avery likes to call it – a startup. His involvement is an example of happenchance. A college friend of his wife’s, Doug Ott, was friends with Jeff Hansen, a winemaker who had left Napa Valley to make Anderson Valley Pinot Noir. Ott introduced Avery to Hansen, and they hit it off. “In 2010, Jeff and I became partners. Without Doug, I would not have met Jeff and gotten involved,” shared Avery. They decided to name the winery Lula after Hansen’s maternal grandmother.
Avery – who has had a lengthy career in accounting – jumped at the opportunity to get back into the wine business. “I had put myself through college working at a winery in the Napa Valley and had always thought getting into the wine business would be fun,” he said. “I have always loved Pinot Noir and it was an opportunity to break into an AVA – Anderson Valley – that was just starting to really make a name for itself.”
Initially Lula was a ‘virtual winery’ – they sourced grapes, made the wine at McNabb Ridge in Ukiah, and had a tasting room in Philo. In 2012, they bought the estate and converted an existing building on the property into a joint tasting, retail, and office space. The estate is around 22 acres with 15 acres planted to grapes, 14 acres of Pinot Noir and one acre of Gewurztraminer. “We make premium wines – with a focus on Pinot Noir – that are elegant and approachable. Our outdoor tasting room experience is both fun and educational in a relaxed, pet-friendly environment,” added Avery.
In 2017, Matt Parish joined the team as winemaker when Hansen retired after 30 years in the wine industry. Parish brought with him decades of experience in the production and business sides of winemaking – having held leadership positions at international brands like Constellation and Treasury – and he had just launched his consulting business, Vinture, in 2016. With Parish’s arrival came many advancements. “We completely revamped the vineyard and how we grow and manage the vines. We also moved production into a modern facility that is better equipped for handling delicate Pinot grapes,” said Avery. “We also added a new French oak barrel program and redesigned our labels and packaging.”
Parish has an elevated winemaking style that has improved the quality of the wines. He currently makes a variety of Pinots, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay, a Rosé of Pinot Noir, a non-vintage red blend named Guntly, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Zinfandel, which we tasted during our visit.
Lula is especially known for their single-vineyard Pinots from the estate – Anderson Valley, Lula Vineyard, and Rescue Block – and other notable vineyards like Costa and Peterson. Parish also makes Founders Cuvée, a blend of 25% Costa, 25% Peterson and 50% Lula Estate.
From the 2021 harvest, Lula will be adding two new Pinots, one from Maggy Hawk Vineyard in the Anderson Valley and another from the estate called CVR, from vines they planted in 2017. CVR stands for Chambertin Vosne Romanée, the two Pinot clones. “This inaugural bottling will give us insight into how good we believe these will be in the future,” added Parish.
In 2022, Parish will make another Pinot from a well-known vineyard close to Boonville. “The plan is to have at least six Pinot Noir bottlings annually in addition to our core offerings – Anderson Valley, Lula, and Rescue Block,” said Parish. “While our estate vineyard is youthful – approaching the 10-year mark– the quality has been exceptional and the potential for the future is extremely exciting. This will be a classic case of ‘why didn’t I buy this when it was $50 a bottle, instead of $300.’” Recent mid-90s critic scores reaffirm the quality of Parish’s winemaking and the outstanding estate and Anderson Valley fruit.
While Lula excels at Pinot Noir, their other offerings also have notable pedigree. The Gewurztraminer is from the estate. They source the Pinot for their Rosé from Dry Ranch Vineyard – that dates to 1976 – and Chardonnay from Valley Foothills Vineyard in the heart of Anderson Valley. Lula’s Zinfandel comes from the Fashauer Vineyard in the Mendocino Ridge AVA, above the fog line. They source Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc from Pine Mountain Vineyard in the Pine Mountain-Cloverdale Peak AVA. Another addition from the 2021 harvest will be a premium Chardonnay from Sky Crest Vineyard behind Boonville.
As to customer favorite wines, Lula has a very loyal wine club managed by Avery’s wife, Joni. They consistently choose their members-only Rescue Block Pinot Noir, which Avery describes as “rich purple in color with aromas of cherry, plum, earth, and spice.”
Avery’s favorite is time and situation specific. “At the end of a long day I will typically reach for the Rosé or Sauvignon Blanc, something floral and cool with bright acidity,” he shared. “Later in the day, I switch to red. While the Rescue Block and Lula Vineyard Pinots are exceptional, day in and out I favor the Anderson Valley. It is approachable, smooth, and pairs well with about any dinner Joni makes.”
After 12 years – including challenges like wildfires and the pandemic – what inspires Avery, Parish, and the Lula team to continue is the excitement of change and opportunity. “Lula is not static, we are growing. Every year, we add a new vineyard and variety to our mix. Being small, it allows for us to experiment both in the vineyard and the winery which is a lot of fun.”