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Cris Cherry knows everyone in Paso. Or seems to. Cris and his wife JoAnn moved to Paso Robles in 1996 to open their locally oriented, farm-to-table restaurant called Villa Creek. Inspired by the burgeoning Paso wine scene, the Cherry’s decided to try their hands at winemaking. In 2001, they produced their first vintage under the same name, Villa Creek Cellars. Over the years Cris has honed his craft: earlier harvests, more stem inclusion, and less oak usage. He is hands on in every aspect and even stomps the grapes with his own two feet. The result is a flight of wines that present structure and depth, plus lip-smacking deliciousness. These are wines with muscle and class—bodybuilders who can ballroom dance.
In 2003, the Cherry’s purchased 60 acres in West Paso that bears remarkable resemblance to some of the great Southern Rhone estates. The estate, known as the Maha Estate, contains an extreme topography of south and west facing slopes that climb to 1,800 feet. The Cherry’s home and 3,000-square-foot winery are on this same property. In spring of 2012, the Cherry’s planted their first grapevines—four acres of biodynamically farmed Garnacha, planted on the calcareous and siliceous shale hillsides surrounding the tasting room. Every other row is tilled to keep biodiversity. Sheep help mow and fertilize. Cris uses a goblet-head pruning system instead of a more orderly trellising, so that the Spanish Garnacha can create its own open canopy for shade. Conversion to dry farming is the eventual plan. They expect their first estate wines, under the Maha label, to be online in three to five years.
They continue to purchase grapes from the region's most esteemed vineyards: Denner, James Berry, and Luna Matta. All are organically and sustainably farmed. West Paso accounts for 90% of the grapes purchased. Per acre leases ensure that the grapes are harvested from the same special blocks each vintage. These contracts also allow Villa Creek to influence certain farming practices such as how many clusters will hang on each vine and when to pick.
"The biggest challenge in the recent drought years is “obviously, getting as much finesse out of such concentrated fruit”, Cris Cherry told me. But that’s always a concern in a hot region, he added, noting that he thinks that raising his wines in large format, low-impact vessels, especially concrete tanks, allows for slower and gentler extraction and more delicate character in the final wines. In addition, he has been upping his use of whole clusters, “when it’s appropriate”, in an effort to impart greater aromatic complexity and spiciness to his wines. There’s no question that recent vintages here have seen a steady rise in quality as well as energy and I’d confidently place this winery among the upper tier of the Central Coast. Of particular interest to Cherry these days is working with his new, estate-grown Clairette, the southern Rhône variety that’s the backbone of many of the best examples of Châteauneuf-du-Pape blanc. Look for interesting things to happen here soon as his vines come further into maturity. By the way, this summer Cherry closed his ever-popular and excellent Villa Creek restaurant, which was a long-time haunt for visitors to the region, as he wants to devote all of his energy to his vineyard and winery.
Wine Advocate 8/2016
"Winemaker Chris Cherry continues to produce a bevy of unique wines from his estate high up off of Peachy Canyon Road. The wines have shifted in style over the past decade, and today they're much more savory and stem-dominated (most are fermented with 100% whole cluster and aged in a good portion of concrete) than in the past. I suspect the majority of these new releases will benefit from short term cellaring to let the stems integrate."
"This year's releases from Cris Cherry represent the most complex and refined wines that I have yet tasted from Villa Creek, a fact that Cherry simply attributes to "more time in the vines and more time in the cellar." Cherry notes that he is trying to fine-tune and focus his farming and winemaking by delegating more of his responsibilities at his iconic (and consistently excellent) Paso Robles restaurant, also called Villa Creek, so that he can devote as much energy as possible to wine-growing. Based on his more recent wines I think that the positive results are becoming clear.
Wine Advocate 8/2014
"Winemaker Cris Cherry continues to push the whole cluster and savory style in his wines, while not losing the core of fruit that the region is known for. These new releases all have rich, tannic profiles that benefit from air, and will be even better in another year or two."
"Proprietor Cris Cherry describes 2012 as similar to 2010, but riper than 2011 and less challenging than 2013 in terms of managing alcohols and sugars. Cherry is among the many producers who have backed off the ripeness levels of years past, while increasing the use of whole clusters and neutral oak, all of which allow the wines to express gorgeous varietal and site-specific nuance. Villa Creek doesn't get as much attention as some of the higher-profile properties in town, but the wines are as good as anything coming out of Paso Robles these days. Readers who haven't tasted these wines in a few years are missing out."
The Wine Advocate 8/2013
"Cris Cherry’s Villa Creek is located on the western side of Paso Robles, high up off Peachy Canyon Road. He continues to experiment with Rhone and increasingly Spanish (think Rioja and Priorat) varieties, as well as with varying amount of whole-cluster inclusion. The wines offer singular, unique profiles, with loads of flavor and character."