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William Price's Wines are Right

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It's that kind of California story. Man does well in business, co-founding his own private equity firm in the 1990s. Eventually his company gets interested in wineries: first Beringer, then Chateau St. Jean. Turns out the man even has a great origin story. (His dad, who was born in France, treated him to wine cut with water when he was a kid.) He decides to move into the wine business full-time, buying ownership interest in acclaimed Kistler, and nearly sacred Sonoma vineyards like Durrell and Gap's Crown.

The man is William Price III, and the winery that's most dear to him, Three Sticks, gets its name from his nickname. Turns out his peers were so taken by that "III" at the end of his name, they called him Three Sticks.

Three Sticks, along with another of Price's wine projects, Lutum, were featured at a recent tasting at Wine + Beer in the Santa Barbara Public Market (Price is an investor in the market, too). Tasting the six wines offered some marked contrasts, for Price spares no price to work with the best winemakers in the business.

Lutum (which means soil) is his project with Gavin Chanin (who has been featured on KCET Food for his own label Chanin Wines). For Three Sticks, Price originally worked with Don Van Staaveren, a Chateau St. Jean winemaker who scored big with his 1996 Chateau St. Jean Cinq Cépages. It was the first Sonoma wine to receive Wine Spectator's "Wine of the Year" accolade.

As of the beginning of this year, Van Staaveren moved up the ranks to become Three Sticks' winemaker emeritus, overseeing the cabernet sauvignon. But in typical Price manner, Three Sticks landed Bob Cabral to make its pinot noirs and chardonnays. Cabral just finished a successful run at Sonoma legend Williams Selyem, one of the standard-bearers for pinot in California. It will be fascinating to see what happens with Price's terrific grapes at the hands of his talented staff.

The differences between Lutum and Three Sticks are striking, to say the least, proving that Price lets his gifted hires do what they know so well to do. Chanin, ever after vineyard expression, tends to produce lighter style wines while still keeping a fine fruit balance. The two pinots from Sta. Rita Hills in Santa Barbara, a 2013 La Riconada and a 2012 Sanford and Benedict, were delicious and clearly made for the long haul. As winery rep Hayden Schmitter put it, "Gavin wants to lay them down, but when you start the project in 2011, you don't have much choice to sell what you have."

The Three Sticks wines, all still created by Van Staaveren, tended to be a bit more gloves-off while not hitting anywhere near too hard. While Three Sticks makes wine from Santa Barbara properties and Lutum makes wine from Sonoma vineyards, it's not just an issue of location and temperature. This tasting offered only Santa Barbara from Lutum and Sonoma from Three Sticks as if to draw sharper delineations.

And nothing stood out more than the 2007 Three Sticks cabernet sauvignon. While it has a Sonoma Valley designation, it's actually from Moon Mountain at 2,000 feet elevation, giving the grapes all that depth people want in a cab and often think they can only get from Napa.

But it's pretty simple: you should never bet against Bill Price.

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