Press and accolades

Wine Enthusiast : 7 Napa and Sonoma Producers Bringing Out the Best in Chardonnay by Virginie Boone

Stéphane Vivier, Vivier Wines
Finding Precision in California Terroir

Born and raised in Burgundy, in 2002, Stéphane Vivier became the winemaker for Hyde de Villaine, a Chardonnay-producing partnership between Aubert de Villaine of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in France and grapegrower Larry Hyde of California.

In 2009, he founded his own brand, Vivier. He began with Pinot Noir and then added Chardonnay to the portfolio with the 2018 vintage. In 2020, he made a Gap’s Crown Chardonnay; in 2021, he made the first from Hyde Vineyards since his Hyde de Villaine days.

Vivier makes wines of place, precision and focus, with the ability to taste great upon release but also age. He looks for vineyards that show minerality, salinity and acidity, with stony, rocky character, finding much of that within the Petaluma Gap appellation, where elevation, cooling winds and rocky soils abound.

“The air conditioning factor of the Petaluma Gap slows ripening, especially the last two weeks before picking,” he says. “You get more complexity and layers; you have more time to sample and make pick decisions. Finding phenolic texture in slow-ripening vineyards is easier.”

Vivier 2019 Gap's Crown Vineyard Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast) 94 Points, Wine Enthusiast

Vivier Wine 94 Points
Feral, herbal and savory in forest and slate, this wine offers a freshness of raspberry, rose and white pepper, the structure complex and well integrated in terms of oak and tannin. Despite its light, elegant touch, it offers balanced weight and length. — Virginie Boone

Feral, herbal and savory in forest and slate, this wine offers a freshness of raspberry, rose and white pepper, the structure complex and well integrated in terms of oak and tannin. Despite its light, elegant touch, it offers balanced weight and length. —Virginie Boone

All tastings reported in the Buying Guide are performed blind. Typically, products are tasted in peer-group flights of from 5-8
samples. Reviewers may know general information about a flight to provide context—vintage, variety or appellation—but never the producer or retail price of any given selection. When possible, products considered flawed or uncustomary are retasted.

Let the Grapes Speak:

“Stéphane Vivier did a great job capturing everything 2018 had to offer,” says Wine Advocate’s 94-point review

We can’t think of a California winemaker with a more sterling pedigree than Stéphane Vivier: Consider that Aubert de Villaine of Burgundy’s Domaine de la Romanée-Conti—which makes the world’s most precious Pinot Noir, priced from $1,200 to $13,000 (really)—chose him to head up his California outpost Hyde de Villaine, which you can scarcely find for less than $120 per bottle.

Today, we’ve got Vivier’s passion project for just $37 per bottle. With its 94-point score from Wine Advocate, this bottle landed in the same exact score range as the bottles he crafts at world-famous Hyde de Villaine—it just costs 1/3 as much. In fact, no other Pinot Noir in the world scored higher below $39.

“Stéphane Vivier did a great job capturing everything 2018 had to offer,” says Wine Advocate’s 94-point review—a massive compliment, considering that 2018 was a spectacular vintage, and one whose unusually long, cool growing season was well-suited to Vivier’s Burgundian roots.

Steeped with Old World mineral elegance, this bottle is where classic Burgundian restraint meets the raw potential of California fruit. Aromas of cherry, violets, rhubarb, and freshly turned earth lead to enticing cherry and raspberry dusted with cinnamon, cedar, and orange pekoe tea. Multilayered, structured by vivacious acid, and finishing with refined tannins, this is a first-class Pinot that’s drinking beautifully now, but will cellar for another decade.

Stéphane Vivier was truly a winemaking prodigy, and always had a precocious nose. He grew up in a small village in Burgundy, and at the age of five, he’d guess what his mother was making for lunch just from the aromas that floated from the kitchen. He had his first taste of Pinot Noir at age ten, and followed the sensory path in life, eventually accompanying Domaine de la Romanée-Conti co-director Aubert de Villaine to Hyde de Villaine, his celebrated Napa partnership with Larry Hyde.

Vivier is still at Hyde de Villaine, but his personal project is where he really shows his roots and passion: He and his wife Dana funded the 2009 launch of their eponymous label with credit cards, and started with 30 cases of wine. That number has grown only by a few hundred, even as demand has grown to a fever pitch in recent years, after the Viviers’ Pinots were claimed by Master Sommelier-curated Bay Area institutions like French Laundry and Compline.

The character that won those institutions over is apparent in the gorgeous 2018, of which 85% is sourced from the Flocchini Vineyard in the prestigious Petaluma Gap AVA. Aged in seasoned French oak, it’s perfectly spiced, beautifully balanced, and the kind of wine for which Pinot lovers don’t mind paying a mint. Luckily, today you don’t have to.

Wine Access tasting Notes:

Medium ruby color. Aromas of cherry, violets, rhubarb and freshly turned earth rise from the glass. A sip brings life to the aromas of fresh cherries joined by zingy raspberries, spiked with cinnamon, cedar, and orange pekoe tea. It’s all framed by subtle tannins, and kept taut by vivacious acidity. Simply beautiful. Drink now - 2030.

94 pts
Wine Advocate
Medium ruby, the 2018 Pinot Noir explodes with a multilayered perfume of violets, blood orange peel, fragrant earth, raspberry jam and blueberries. The palate is medium-bodied and silky, offering gorgeous layers of fruits and spices. It has a fine grain and great freshness, finishing long and full of flavor. Stéphane Vivier did a great job capturing everything 2018 had to offer with this Sonoma Coast bottlin

“This Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir walks the tightrope right between the
plush aromatics of New-World Pinot and the savory, floral restraint of
our favorite Burgundies. The level of quality it delivers at this price
is simply astounding!”
—Ian Cauble, Master Sommelier

Vivier, Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast, California 2017

Today marks the return of an extremely serious cool-climate Pinot Noir with one of the most incongruous price tags we’ve seen. Look at the cork in Stéphane Vivier’s marvelous Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir and you’ll see he describes his eponymous label as “American wines made by a lazy French winemaker.” Whether that’s a remark on the power of great terroir—which the Sonoma Coast undoubtedly is—or faux modesty, there’s nothing lazy about this exquisitely detailed Pinot Noir, which out-performs wines costing twice as much.

Maybe the better word would be “effortless,” as in, a great terroir and an outsized talent producing greatness seemingly effortlessly. Vivier consults for several high-profile California wineries, including Hyde de Villaine, the combined effort of California’s Hyde family and Aubert de Villaine of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Aubert hand-picked Stéphane to impart the strictest French techniques on their Californian wines, and for all its whimsy, Stéphane clearly holds his personal wines to the same standards. Most importantly, his wine is priced for the discerning collector; you can afford to buy in larger quantities and follow the evolution of this wine over the next decade-plus. You won’t be surprised to learn that we jumped at the opportunity to acquire another batch of this ’17—and if history is any guide, you’d be wise to act quickly before it disappears!

Stéphane Vivier’s path to winemaking has been anything but traditional. He and his brother played soccer every afternoon in the town of Beaune, in the heart of Burgundy’s Côte d’Or. Their neighbor owned vineyards and a particularly fine set of terracotta planters that the Vivier boys kept breaking with their soccer ball. Stéphane’s first brush with viticulture was to pay off the broken flower pots. He enjoyed those afternoons in the vineyard enough to continue working for his neighbor—first for the pocket money, and the tan, but then for the beauty of the viticulture itself. Stéphane’s fascination with the vineyard eventually led to a masters in biochemistry quickly followed by a second masters in viticulture and enology.

At the heart of this bottle lies a mystery. The vines were propagated from old Burgundian cuttings planted in the mid-1980s. These weren’t “suitcase cuttings”—stolen pieces of vine smuggled into the US—they were actually given as presents to the American vineyard owners visiting France at the time. This is the process of massale selection, the oldest way of growing vineyards with extraordinary pedigrees. There are a lot of rumors as to which Burgundian village the vines originally belonged to; my nose tells me Chambolle-Musigny or even Vosne-Romanée, but the secret is too well-guarded to get an official answer. Close your eyes, take a sip, and you’re standing right in Premier/Grand Cru Côtes de Nuits real estate for a New World Pinot price tag. Simply incredible.

What we do know is that those mysterious cuttings are growing in the Petaluma Gap region on the Sonoma Coast. The vines are farmed sustainably on shallow, sandy clay without the use of herbicides. Stéphane has been dry-farming for the past six years, resulting in tiny berries with extreme intensity and freshness. His Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir is a blend of the best characteristics of several different plots to create a layered whole. The wine is aged in seasoned French oak and bottled without fining or filtration. Stéphane might joke about being a “lazy” winemaker but his approach is hands-off for a very good reason. With fruit this elegant, any heavy-handed winemaking would eclipse the nuance and perfect natural balance of the wine.

The wine is a deep, dusty rose with a lighter pink rim. Decant it for an hour and pour into Burgundy stems at 60-65 degrees. The first thing you notice is a truly extraordinary perfume rising up to meet your nose. It’s at once earthy and sweet: black cherry, spicy California bay leaves, wet earth, and sticky balsamic. The flavor profile is similarly sophisticated, with an intoxicating top-note of candied blood orange and white pepper enlivening an otherwise earth-driven palate. The wine feels smooth as a pebble; tightly knit tannins give it shape without weight, generous and fresh at the same time.

And with food? I won’t lie. I drank this with carnitas tacos from my favorite local truck and it was a revelation. But try a slab of slow-roasted king salmon with fresh cherry tomatoes, or get really fancy and put grilled duck hearts on dense country bread with a smear of pepper jelly. The wine will cellar beautifully for another six to nine years, but it’s going to be impossible to wait that long. Jump on this!

“This Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir walks the tightrope right between the plush aromatics of New-World Pinot and the savory, floral restraint of our favorite Burgundies. The level of quality it delivers at this price is simply astounding!”
—Ian Cauble, Master Sommelier

What do Hyde Vineyards, Stephane Vivier, and DRC Have in Common?

Jordana Giovannoni

"In Burgundy," Stephane Vivier says, "you have to drive to Pomerol for Merlot." On Hyde property, he continued, "in one step you're from Chardonnay to Merlot. . . We have a lot of cool weather. It keeps the freshness -- opulent but fresh. The Napa river is a mile and a half away. A lot of wind. Pick early, a lot of minerality. We basically dry farm. There is minimal irrigation."

The Hyde property in Carneros was bought in 1979. HdV's first vintage was 2000. 2009 was the first vintage for both Larry Hyde and Sons and Stephane Vivier, however, Stephane sources the grapes for his wines from another property in Sonoma and one in the Willamette, Oregon. Vivier is Pinot Noir focused.

"The main difference is the philosophy and the heart," Stephane says in his thick French accent which sometimes is hard to hear exactly, "you have to adapt yourself to the grapes, not vice-versa. People here want white or black. I try to integrate everything, walking the vineyards everyday -- gives me input. The painting will full up with time. What you want to do, where you want to go -- trying to understand your site "

Under his Vivier label, Stephane makes two Pinot Noir appellation wines in Sonoma coast: Gap's Crown and Sun Chase ( two single vineyards in the Petaluma Gap), and one Pinot Noir from Willamette appellation wines in Sonoma coast: Gap's Crown and Sun Chase ( two single vineyards in the Petaluma Gap), and one Pinot Noir from Willamette Valley, Oregon. His rose, which I describe as dangerously good, is a rose of Pinot Noir as well. Lastly he makes a dessert wine in homage to his grandmother, in the style of a Pineau des Charentes. It is fortified with very high-end brandy. With his Vivier label, Stephane seeks to bridge his upbringing in Burgundy with the energy of a young California Vineyard. The style of each Pinot is indeed unique, the one from Willamette being the furthest apart from the other two Pinots in Sonoma -- "Naturally," Vivier describes the Willamette terroir, "you get earthiness, mushroom. . . I focus on the fruit. I use only whole berries. Everything is de-stemmed. Grapes are picked cold in the morning and a refrigerated truck drives 18-24 hrs. A little bit of juice I use for the rose." The Willamette sees 12 months of used oak. The Gap's Crown Pinot Noir from Sonoma sees 18 months of 5% new oak; and the Sun Chase Pinot Noir from Sonoma sees 18 months of all 1 yr old oak. In Gap's Crown 25% is de-stemmed. "It tends to be fruitier," Vivier says. "Sun Chase is all de-stemmed. There is more minerality." Of course we had to ask the French man from Burgundy to compare his Pinots to those from France. "The Willamette -- probably a Beaune Rouge, Beaune Greve -- something with high acidity; Gap's Crown -- Chambertin, bigger; Sun Chase -- Musigny, fruitier and feminie."

Return to California 3: Vivier Wines, Stéphane Vivier

I’m allergic to shellfish. The trouble is, I don’t know which shellfish I’m allergic to and when the allergy appears it’s threatening and uncomfortable. So, by now I simply avoid all shellfish. Today, however, I was lucky enough to share lunch with Stéphane Vivier and two of his Pinot Noir based wines–a rosé, and a single vineyard red. We met at an excellent, ultra fresh oyster house to taste his wines outside, and after a while to share lunch. MORE

Hawk Wakawaka

The Lazy Winemaker: Patience, Terroir, and Vine Age, a conversation with Stéphane Vivier

Stéphane and Dana Vivier started their Pinot Noir, and Rosé of Pinot Noir label, Vivier, in 2009 with credit cards, and 30 cases of wine. By 2011, they jumped to 150 cases. Their wines draw on small lots from vineyards in Sonoma County, each of which Stéphane works with hands on. Originally from Burgundy, Stéphane has also served as winemaker for HdV for 12 years. I fell in love with Vivier Pinots last summer, and was lucky enough to meet with Stéphane multiple times to discuss his winemaking philosophy, which he describes as “being a lazy winemaker.” Following is a transcript of his story from our conversations.


“My wine, Dana, and I married in 2009. I was already with HdV but my wife suggested I make Pinot Noir. She thought I was missing something. I grew up in Burgundy on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. She said to me, “to be complete, there is something else you need here. You need to make Pinot Noir.” I asked her, “where will the money come from.” She told me, “don’t worry. This is America.”

“I grew up with rosé of Pinot Noir in Burgundy. I would come home and sit outside with my parents. My mom would bring in things from the garden, and my dad MORE