Pfendler Vineyards is a widely recognized artisanal producer in Sonoma Coast’s Petaluma Gap. They have 25 years of grape growing history in the area and have long maintained that no other region in California offers the terroir that is ideal for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir like Petaluma Gap. Pfendler wines offer a combination of elegance, power and freshness.
Peter Pfendler was a pioneer in the Petaluma Gap. He planted vineyards in 1992 and then continued to plant throughout the region including the site now known as the “Gap’s Crown.” After Peter’s passing, his wife Kimberly Pfendler establish a winery in honor of his legacy.
in 2019, Kimberly brought on Erica Stancliff as winemaker. Erica is one of California’s rising stars. She brings with her pedigree and passion. She is deeply rooted in the Petaluma Gap and has served as President of the Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Alliance since 2019. In addition, she also makes Petaluma Gap wines for her family winery, Trombetta Family Wines.
From a very early age, Erica was intrigued by wine. At the age of ten a family friend, Paul Hobbs discovered that Erica had a very polished and refined palate for wine. Over the years, Paul Hobbs nurtured Erica’s interest in wine. Erica went on to earn her Bachelor of Science degree in Enology at CSU Fresno. She then completed internships at Viña Cobos in Mendoza, Argentina, Rudd Estate in Oakville and at Crossbarn Winery in Sebastopol. Erica worked as a technical enologist at Enartis Vinquiry for over two years, consulting with winemaking clients, and traveling around the world.
Here you will find an exclusive interview with the very talented Erica Stancliff. She shares her journey, her philosophy, her passion and her background that lead her to make some of the best Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs in California.
Erica Stancliff – Pfendler Vineyards Winemaker
Erica, you have been raised in a home that was focused on food and wine. Tell us about your first experience with wine and what impact it had on you.
When I was a child, I remember my parents and their home winemaking group getting together on weekends and harvesting grapes. Randomly, my parents would have me taste the wine they made at dinner, and I was encouraged to observe and describe the aromas. I never looked at it as anything special back then. It wasn’t until meeting Paul Hobbs that I realized wine was something truly unique and special.
Having grown up in Sonoma and being immersed in wine country, when did you realize that you wanted to become a winemaker?
I was walking a vineyard with my mentor, Paul, when I was still in high school. He was checking the Chardonnay to see how close it was to ripeness for the harvest. It was then that I saw how attentive he was, and he started describing harvest to me that the light bulb went off. Being able to make something with my hands was a labor of love- it sold me!
You have worked in two different hemispheres and with several prominent wine brands. Tell us about your first experience in winemaking? What were your biggest challenges?
I loved working in Argentina, it was an amazing place to do my first internship after graduating from Fresno State. The challenges there were the wind, a large vintage and making sure everything happened in a timely manner. The people were amazing, the grape quality was great, but it was a large and long harvest.
Tell us more about Pfendler Winery. How was Pfendler Winery founded?
Pfendler Vineyards was founded by Kimberly Pfendler in 2007 with the goal of producing world-class, elegant Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from her family’s mountain property in the Petaluma Gap, where three vineyards are planted. Kimberly’s late husband, Peter Pfendler, had planted many of the first vines throughout the Petaluma Gap since 1992 and was actually the first to plant the vineyard which is now Gap’s Crown. Kimberly has always been a strong proponent of the potential in the Petaluma Gap and its ability to produce elegant Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, which is something that we share.
Kimberly actually first started in the film industry, working alongside high-profile producer Jon Peters at Warner Brothers on films such as “Wild Wild West” and “The Money Train” and later transitioning to work alongside producer David Hoberman at Hyde Park Entertainment at MGM studios. However, she was drawn to Sonoma and moved to the area to start a family. When she began building Pfendler Vineyards from the ground up, her background in creating and executing large entertainment productions also helped her thrive in the wine industry.
What drew you to work with Pfendler Wines?
I met Kimberly at a blending for the 2018 Petaluma Gap barrel auction lot for the Sonoma County Vintners. We bonded over Petaluma Gap and the philosophy of making elegant and balanced Pinots. She also believes in allowing the vineyards to speak through the bottle. It’s an incredible experience to be able to work with her three mountain vineyards, which are each distinct with their own elevations and plantings.
What is your winemaking style and philosophy? What factors influence your winemaking decisions at Pfendler?
I always say I want to give the sites a voice, my winemaking is about preserving all of the work we did in the vineyard and translating that to wine.
Petaluma Gap is an exciting wine region nestled on the Sonoma Coast. What do you most admire about the winemaking culture of this region?
The long growing season is a dream for winemakers! We really can focus on ripeness and the best balance of flavor/acid/sugar instead of rushing to pick the fruit. Phenolics develop better this way and the vine’s reaction to the wind is to create thicker skins with more color and tannin.
You initially started working with Bordeaux varieties, what shifted your focus to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir?
Chardonnay is a blank slate. I love working with it because it is the easiest way for a winemaker to express their style. Pinot is all about finding the appropriate flavor and ripeness of the grape and the acidity.
Paul Hobbs has played an influential role in your life. How has he shaped your winemaking style?
Paul taught me many things, but mostly to keep learning and to work hard. Wine is ever-evolving and we are ever learning with it.
You have a family history of winemaking. For those considering becoming winemakers, is formal education necessary?
It depends on what you would like to do. For winemaking, my formal education has been extremely valuable. The amount of Chemistry that I had to take, has really helped with making informed decisions, timing and understanding the fundamentals of reactions in winemaking. For example- understanding nutrient levels in the vineyard, how the vines will absorb and what else they will need. For production- I believe the best way to learn is by doing, and for many, that means working a harvest!
What words of wisdom or advice do you have for those looking to start a career in wine?
Work a harvest, jump in! There are great programs through UC Davis and numerous other JCs or Universities where you can take a lot of the winemaking classes to get the basics down as well. The whole point is just to go for it!