There’s one type of article I write here on Vinography that produces equal parts exhilaration and anxiety: when I decide to review some of my favorite wines that very few people have ever heard of.

The temptation to keep these under-the-radar wines under my hat, so to speak, is significant. Invariably these wineries produce minuscule amounts of wine, and without trying to overstate my influence as a writer, it is nonetheless likely that by writing about them I will make them harder for me and anyone else to get ahold of.

But the pleasure of telling readers about truly fantastic wines always triumphs over any self-serving hesitancy I might have. So it is with great delight that I introduce you to what I think are some of the best Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays being made on the western Sonoma Coast, not to mention California as a whole.

Driving in the Fast Lane

I’ve been trying to remember when I first met Carroll Kemp and tasted his Red Car wines. It was likely at one of the earliest In Pursuit of Balance wine tasting events around 2012. While I don’t remember the specific occasion, I do remember how impressed I was with the chiseled acidity, bright flavors, and, yes, impeccable balance of his wines. In particular, I was a huge fan of Kemp’s Pinot Noir rosé, which debuted in 2013 and for several years was my go-to bottle of pink.

Carroll Kemp preparing to bottle his sparkling rosé.

I wasn’t the only one who noticed those wines. Quite deservedly, Red Car quickly became very successful and began to grow rapidly.

It was during this period of significant growth that Kemp met an entrepreneur named Jan Holtermann who wanted to start a boutique, cool-climate Pinot Noir label, and who hired Kemp as his winemaker. They decided to call the project Alma Fria (literally “cold soul” or “soul of the cold” in Spanish). Starting small with their first vintage in 2012, they slowly grew it to a few hundred cases over the next few years.

Alma Fria started just as a side gig for Kemp, and one that offered a certain level of calm compared to the frenzied chaos of Red Car’s success.

The Deal that Wasn’t

When a winery grows quickly, it invariably needs to take on investment (and/or debt), and Red Car brought on a set of investors during that time. This is a tricky time for most winery founders, who are used to having complete control of their small businesses. When investors come on board, they become (often outspoken) stakeholders in future decisions.

And when wineries are successful, opportunities come knocking that are sometimes hard to ignore.

Without getting into the details of private business dealings, suffice it to say that an opportunity came along to sell Red Car that was too good to pass up, but for various reasons, the transaction was not consummated.

Kemp got over his disappointment pretty quickly, as it would have likely turned his world upside down in a fairly significant way, but his investors and fellow shareholders decided that the growth plan put forward by their potential acquirer was the right strategy to pursue even in the absence of a sale.

“I knew we didn’t really have the capacity to do that on our own,” says Kemp, “and I told them so.”

But his investors couldn’t be swayed.

“Finally I said, ‘I don’t want to stop you, but I cannot execute this. If you want to do this I would rather take a buyout and make space for you to do what you want to do,’” says Kemp.

Cold Comfort

In some ways, Kemp’s amicable exit from Red Car was fortuitous timing.

“I was going through a divorce after 20 years of marriage,” says Kemp candidly, “and cash is a lot easier to divide than an asset called a business.”

At the same time, his partner Holtermann, who had increasingly relied upon Kemp to not only make the wine but also run the business, moved back to his home country of Costa Rica and was happy to transition his own role to one of passive investor.

I don’t want to say one thing and do another. We’re always saying let the vineyard make the wine but I said to myself, ‘what would it really mean to do that?’

“Alma Fria was the perfect landing pad,” says Kemp. “I had made every wine since its inception, I had personally leased the Holtermann vineyard to farm for it, and I could go from having 40 employees to having 1.”

The Holtermann Vineyard

Choices that Matter

As the newly single, sole proprietor of a tiny wine brand, Kemp found himself reflecting on what he really wanted from his career as a winemaker and from life in general, and found that he could forge the answers to both sets of questions in the bottle.

It’s a bit like walking down the street naked. The underlying material can’t be too bad. You don’t want to look horrible.

“I think one of the things that bothers me the most in life,” says Kemp, “is deceit. When people say one thing, but do another. In our industry people think of marketing not as truth but as what it takes to sell their shit. My aversion to this eventually started to seep into my winemaking. I don’t want to say one thing and do another. We’re always saying let the vineyard make the wine but I said to myself, ‘what would it really mean to do that?’”

Kemp finally decided that he wanted to practice a sort of strict personal integrity when it came to his winemaking.

“What I eventually came around to was simply to make no additions, no alterations, no changes in the cellar whatsoever,” says Kemp. “It’s a bit like walking down the street naked. The underlying material can’t be too bad. You don’t want to look horrible.”

Fog over the hills of Annapolis

Kemp feels like after 17 years or so of an intense focus on the western reaches of the Sonoma Coast that he truly knows what some places taste like.

“Not what the wines taste like,” he makes a point of saying, “but the place.”

His winemaking regimen at Alma Fria is designed to preserve a transparency of place. This means picking early, and not being overly extractive in the winemaking. The Pinots ferment to dryness with a little bit of stem inclusion and are pressed when dry. The Chardonnays are whole-cluster pressed, settled, and then go into barrels. Kemp uses only a little bit of new oak, lets the wine naturally go through malo, and never adds any yeast, water, or acid along the way.

“I add a little bit of sulfur after malo,” says Kemp, who takes pains to make it clear he’s not trying to make natural wines.

“The wines aren’t natural, they’re just good,” he says. “The fruit flavors that the American palate might be trained to focus on aren’t the first things you taste in the wine. They’re there, but you don’t get blown over by fruit. You taste other things.”

Artwork from Obi Kaufman, who designed the Alma Fria wine labels.

One Step At a Time

Alma Fria is the culmination of roughly 20 years of Kemp’s study of the western reaches of the Sonoma Coast, and his deepening understanding and conviction over the same time period for what really matters when it comes to farming.

“Ultimately, if it’s not organic, I won’t be doing it long term,” he says with finality. The Holtermann Vineyard has been farmed organically since 2013 and Kemp utilizes some biodynamic preparations and techniques there, and has been working hard with his other growers to move them towards organic certification.

The Alma Fria wines are made at the Grand Cru Custom Crush facility, which Kemp describes as nothing short of fantastic—”it’s like living at my rich uncle’s house.”

Sunset over the Sonoma Coast

In 2019, Kemp made just shy of 1000 cases of wine. In 2000, due to the fires he opted not to buy additional fruit, and so his production will drop to about 500 cases.

My goal is to maybe be 3000 cases of the absolute best Pinot and Chardonnay, and frankly, that’s the rest of my life as a winemaker.

“I picked the [Holtermann] Pinot a couple of days before the fires started, and the Chardonnay a week or so later,” says Kemp, “and all the lab tests are clean.”

The lineup of wines has been shifting over the last few years, as Kemp’s options for fruit contracts (outside of his long-term lease of the Holtermann Vineyard) are subject to competition and changes by growers.

“I don’t want to get too big, too quick,” says Kemp, and it’s hard not to hear the echoes of his experience at Red Car in those words. “My goal is to maybe be 3000 cases of the absolute best Pinot and Chardonnay, and frankly, that’s the rest of my life as a winemaker.”

While he may have a little ways to go in terms of volume, in my estimation, Kemp is pretty damn close to his goal when it comes to quality. The Alma Fria wines are frankly some of the most dynamic and delicious wines being made in the Western Sonoma Coast today, and can easily hold their own among the most sought-after Pinot Noirs in the state, some of which cost nearly double what Kemp is charging. His “Plural” wines, which involve various purchased fruit sources and include grater percentages of press fractions are so good it’s almost impossible to think of them as entry-level or second-tier wines, despite costing merely $35-$40 per bottle.

But Also Some Bubbles

Kemp has also started a tiny traditional-method sparkling rosé project, whose first release, the 2020 vintage, I review below.

“I didn’t feel like I could make a straight rosé without competing with the Red Car rosé, which I didn’t want to do out of the gate,” he says.

In addition (shhhh, this is seriously insider info here) there will be another sparkling wine in the lineup eventually. It turns out Kemp has been building a solera of Chardonnay base wine for 7 out of the last 10 vintages in old oak barrels.

“I’m thinking it will be probably 2/3 solera, 1/3 new vintage, non-dosage, and I hope to keep it on the lees for 18 months at first, and then eventually for 2 years,” says Kemp, “but I gotta work up to that. In the meantime, I gotta feed my kids.”

So now we all have something to look forward to in 2023.

In the meantime, however, we’ve got the opportunity to drink some of California’s best Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, by a guy who has finally figured out what matters to him and decided to bottle it for us to experience.

Tasting Notes

2016 Alma Fria “Plural” Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast, California
Yellow gold in the glass, this wine smells of butterscotch and lemon curd. In the mouth, flavors of lemon curd, butterscotch, pineapple, and white flowers have a wonderful brightness to them thanks to excellent acidity. There’s also a pretty, stony minerality underneath that lingers in the finish along with citrus pith. Fermented with native yeasts, no fining or filtering. 13.2% alcohol. 195 cases made. Score: around 9. Cost: $35. click to buy.

2016 Alma Fria “Campbell Ranch Vineyard” Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast, California
Light yellow-gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon curd, white flowers, and cold cream. In the mouth, silky flavors of cold cream, lemon curd, and a hint of pastry cream have a lovely filigreed acidity and crystalline purity. Gorgeous, and sensual, this wine lingers with a mouthwatering saline note on the palate. The Campbell Ranch Vineyard sits in the hills above the Pacific near the town of Annapolis, at an elevation of 750 feet. Fermented after a bit of skin contact with native yeasts and aged in 10% new French oak. No fining or filtering. 13.3% alcohol. 115 cases made Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $50. click to buy.

2016 Alma Fria “Plural” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Medium ruby in color, this wine smells of red apple skin, cedar, cranberry, and dried flowers. In the mouth, cranberry, raspberry, and dried floral flavors are surrounded by an ethereal cloud of dusty tannins that only makes a ghostly impression on the palate. Gorgeous acidity accompanies notes of citrus peel and dried herbs in the finish. Fermented with native yeasts. No fining or filtering. 13.2% alcohol. 280 cases made. Score: around 9. Cost: $40. click to buy.

2016 Alma Fria “Doña Margarita Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Medium ruby in the glass, this wine smells of forest floor, mulling spices, and raspberries. In the mouth, raspberries, redcurrant, and citrus peel flavors are positively mouthwatering thanks to incredible juicy acidity and a faint saline quality that makes this wine very hard to spit out. Faint tannins are all but imperceptible along the edges of the palate, as redcurrant and citrus linger for a long time in the finish. Outstanding. The Doña Margarita Vineyard is outside the town of Freestone at an elevation of around 550 feet. The wine is fermented with about 15% whole cluster with native yeasts, and then ages in 30% new French oak. No fining or filtering. 13% alcohol. 145 cases made. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $70. click to buy.

Alma Fria Holtermann Vineyard Pinot Noir 2015 — Wired For Wine

2016 Alma Fria “Holtermann Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Medium ruby in the glass with hints of garnet, this wine smells of raspberry, flowers, and crushed stones. In the mouth, beautifully crystalline flavors of raspberries, redcurrant, and floral notes are juicy with fantastic acidity. Gorgeous minerality and a touch of earth underlie the very pretty, very fragrant fruit that lingers with citrus-peel brightness in the finish. The Holtermann Vineyard is near the town of Annapolis in the hills above the Pacific at an elevation of around 750 feet above sea level. This wine ferments (about 15% whole cluster) with native yeasts and ages in 25% new French Oak. No fining or filtering. 13.3% alcohol. 140 cases made. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $70. click to buy.

2017 Alma Fria “Plural” Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast, California
Light yellow-gold in the glass, this wine smells of white flowers, lemon curd, and candied grapefruit. In the mouth, gorgeously bright lemon curd, lemon pith, and grapefruit flavors also have the sweet white floral notes of honeysuckle as lemon pith and grapefruit juice linger in the finish with the barest hint of toasted bread and seawater. Mouthwatering and delicious. Fermented with native yeasts, and no fining or filtering. 13.3% alcohol. 175 cases made. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $35. click to buy.

2017 Alma Fria “Campbell Ranch Vineyard” Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast, California
Light yellow gold in color, this wine smells of lemon blossom and lemon oil with a hint of grapefruit. In the mouth, silky lemon curd and lemon pith flavors are shot through with white flowers, cold cream, and grapefruit juice. Pithy saline notes linger in the finish. Mouthwatering and delicious with fantastic acidity and wet stone minerality. The Campbell Ranch Vineyard sits in the hills above the Pacific near the town of Annapolis, at an elevation of 750 feet. Fermented with native yeasts and aged in 25% new French oak. No fining or filtering. 13.1% alcohol. 100 cases made Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $50. click to buy.

2017 Alma Fria “Plural” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of forest floor along with cranberry and raspberry fruit. In the mouth, bright flavors of raspberry, cranberry and the herbal tones of raspberry leaf mix with a touch of cedar and earth. Notes of citrus peel and redcurrant linger in a mouthwatering finish. Excellent. 13.5% alcohol. No fining or filtering. 250 cases made. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $40. click to buy.

2017 Alma Fria “Doc’s Ranch” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of cherries and cranberry and a touch of dusty road. In the mouth, bright cherry and raspberry fruit have a citrus brightness thanks to excellent acidity. Notes of cedar and chopped herbs accompany the citrus peel through the finish. Mouthwatering and juicy. Doc’s Ranch is near the town of Occidental, and sits at an elevation of 850 to 1000 feet above sea level. The wine is fermented with native yeasts and ages in 10% new French oak. About 10% of the wine is fermented with whole clusters. No fining or filtering. 13.4% alcohol. 195 cases made. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $70.

2017 Alma Fria “Holtermann Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Medium ruby in the glass, this wine smells of incredible floral notes along with raspberry, forest floor, and a touch of peeled willow bark. In the mouth, silky, gorgeous floral flavors mix with raspberries and a wet chalkboard minerality that is quite compelling. Fantastic acidity and a faint salinity make this particularly mouthwatering. Subtle, complex, and compelling. The Holtermann Vineyard is near the town of Annapolis in the hills above the Pacific at an elevation of around 750 feet above sea level. This wine ferments (about 15% whole cluster) with native yeasts and ages in 30% new French Oak. 13.5% alcohol. No fining or filtering. 185 cases made. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $70. click to buy.

2018 Alma Fria “Plural” Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast, California
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon pith, lemon blossoms, and lemon curd. In the mouth, Meyer lemon juice and pith mix with grapefruit and a touch of white flowers all layered over a crackling mineral backbone and fantastic acidity. Hints of lemon pith linger in the finish along with the freshness of melted snow. No fining or filtering. 13.3% alcohol. 150 cases made Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $35. click to buy.

2018 Alma Fria “Campbell Ranch Vineyard” Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast, California
Pale greenish-gold in color, this wine smells of lemon pith, lemon blossoms, and grapefruit pith. In the mouth, gorgeously saline flavors of lemon pith, lemon juice, and grapefruit have a fantastic crystalline quality that is gorgeous and alluring. Notes of grapefruit pith linger in the finish. Outstanding acidity and balance, and impressive intensity for only 13% alcohol. The Campbell Ranch Vineyard sits in the hills above the Pacific near the town of Annapolis, at an elevation of 750 feet. Fermented with native yeasts and aged in 25% new French oak. No fining or filtering. 110 cases made Score: around 9.5. Cost: $50. click to buy.

2018 Alma Fria “Plural” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of raspberries, chopped herbs, and flowers. In the mouth, gorgeously bright raspberry and herb flavors mix with a touch of earth and redcurrant tang as the wine finishes with a hint of citrus peel. Excellent acidity and a faint salinity make for a mouthwatering package. 13.3% alcohol. 415 cases made. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $40. click to buy.  

2018 Alma Fria “Doña Margarita Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of bright raspberry pastilles and wildflowers. In the mouth, raspberry, redcurrant, and cranberry flavors swirl with a mouthwatering salinity across the palate. Gorgeous citrus peel and cedar notes emerge through the long finish. Fantastic acidity, sensual texture, and only the faintest kiss of tannin texture along the edges of the mouth. Outstanding. The Doña Margarita Vineyard is outside the town of Freestone at an elevation of around 550 feet. The wine is fermented with about 15% whole cluster with native yeasts, and then ages in 25% new French oak. No fining or filtering. 13.1% alcohol. 60 cases made. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $70. click to buy.

2018 Alma Fria “Holtermann Vineyard” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
Medium ruby in color, this wine smells of floral notes and bright raspberry fruit. In the mouth, gorgeous raspberry and forest floor flavors mix with floral notes and dried herbs. Fantastic acidity and a touch of salinity make the mouth water as citrus peel and flowers linger in the finish. Positively stunning. The Holtermann Vineyard is near the town of Annapolis in the hills above the Pacific at an elevation of around 750 feet above sea level. This wine ferments (about 15% whole cluster) with native yeasts and ages in 20% new French Oak. No fining or filtering. 13.2% alcohol. 100 cases made. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $70. click to buy.

2020 Alma Fria Sparkling Rosé of Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, California
A pale peachy color in the glass with very fine bubbles, this wine smells of citrus peel, berries, and a hint of stone fruit. In the mouth, gorgeous citrus, berry, and floral flavors are borne on a light mousse across the palate. Excellent acidity and a tangy sour cherry and citrus note linger in the finish that turns a bit towards egg cream at the last. Delicious. Fermented using native yeasts to dryness and goes through malolactic conversion in an old oak barrel. The sparkling fermentation took place in bottle, with aging on the lees for a short 6 weeks before disgorgement, and was on sale a few weeks later. Zero dosage added before a final seal with a crown cap (though future vintages may see a more traditional cork and cage closure). Think of this as a nouveau sparkler, in some ways, but without the funk and fuss of pet-nat. 11.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $35. Sold out.

Artwork for the label of the sparkling rose by Obi Kaufman

The wines above were received as press samples. Images courtesy of Carroll Kemp.