The Hunt for Don Baumhefner
The hunt for Don Baumhefner and his elusive Chateau Beaux Hauts bubbly
As I knock on the door of Don and Kay Baumhefner’s Petaluma home, I have the strange sensation that I am about to solve a mystery.
Ever since I first learned of him, the legend of Don Baumhefner and his Chateau Beaux Hauts — a short-lived sparkling wine project two decades ago — has haunted me, the way I imagine it must feel to seek out a lost bootleg recording of a legendary basement concert.
The specter first appeared to me in 2014 when I was having dinner at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans. Wine director Dan Davis was offering a 1992 Chateau Beaux Hauts “En Tirage” Extra Brut by the glass.
What was this? A 22-year-old Sonoma sparkling wine that no one had heard of? It had been disgorged — that is, the yeast removed from the bottle — in 2010, after an unheard-of 18 years en tirage (resting, in contact with the yeast). It tasted uniquely bizarre, and I liked it: smoky and nutty, the color of dark rust.
Registering my confusion, Davis suggested I look up Beaux Hauts on YouTube. When I did, I found a video of Michael Broadbent, one of the world’s foremost wine experts, tasting the wine and appearing astonished — insofar as an 85-year-old British wine expert can express astonishment. His son Bartholomew is filming. “Tastes like an old Bollinger,” exclaims Broadbent, sniffing furiously. “A Bollinger R.D.” He’s referring to the late-disgorged bottling from that famous Champagne house.
Yet the Internet yielded little information about Beaux Hauts. There was donbaumhefner.com, made on a low-tech blogging platform the winemaker once used; but I could find no reviews, no articles, no discussion forums. It seemed that this fellow Don Baumhefner had stopped making sparkling wine after 1992. What led him to make such an anomalous wine? And why had he stopped? Why had he left it en tirage for two decades? What was he doing now?
I found an email address for Baumhefner and wrote to him. Several months later, he replied. And that’s how I ended up at his home, 2½ years after first tasting Beaux Hauts in New Orleans.
As I approach the door, my imagination runs wild. Would I find a Boo Radley character, reclusive and complicated? Might he have some interminable magnum opus up his sleeve, some unfinished life’s work he’s hiding in the cellar?
The reality is not so dramatic. I spend the morning with Baumhefner and his wife, Kay, listening to them recount the last few decades of their lives in food and wine, and it becomes clear to me that the real story I’m uncovering is not the story I expected to find here at all.
Photo: Liz Hafalia, The Chronicle
Turns out, the Chateau Beaux Hauts sparkling wine is one of many brief, brilliant projects that Don and Kay, now in their 60s, undertook over their long and varied careers. He’s a winemaker, she’s a chef. Mostly. They’re also farmers, artists, teachers and entrepreneurs. And they have been a kind of behind-the-scenes presence in Sonoma County since they arrived here in the 1970s, helping to propel the movements that have come to define this place: back to the land, artisan winemaking, farm to table.
Don and Kay met in the eighth grade in Los Altos, which was then apricot country. In 1974, they got jobs teaching Montessori preschool in Santa Rosa and moved to a farm in Forestville. “We were all trying to get back to real food,” says Kay. “Our generation was disgusted by how big business had wrecked our food.” If you wanted organic produce, you had to grow it yourself.
Like many of their friends, the Baumhefners kept chickens and milking goats. They made their own cheese. They flocked to Alice Waters’ summer produce tasting every year. They helped friends make garage wine, which is how Don Baumhefner came to work for the “salty old Swede” (his words) Joseph Swan, Russian River Pinot pioneer. That partnership lasted until Swan’s death in 1989.
When Don and Kay were hired to resurrect the Russian River Vineyards winery and restaurant, in 1977, they tapped their friend Merry Edwards — whom they’d met as undergraduates at UC Berkeley, and who was then working for Mount Eden winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains — to be the winemaker. They convinced John Ash to be the chef. “We envisioned a more relaxed, French-style dining experience taking advantage of local products,” says Don. He put Domaine de la Romanee-Conti Montrachet on the list for $40. (The 2010 vintage of that Chardonnay is $3,000 retail.)
But the enterprise barely got off the ground: “We never got paid our promised salaries by the man, whom it turned out had misrepresented himself as the owner,” Don recalls. He felt awful that he’d enticed Edwards to move to Sonoma for the job, but Edwards ended up joining forces with a new friend in Bennett Valley, Sandra Steiner (now MacIver), and together the women launched Matanzas Creek Winery. The rest of Merry Edwards’ career, of course, is history.
That sort of serendipitous turn is typical of the Baumhefners’ story. They watched Raiders games with Alice Waters; they sold Swan’s earliest vintages to Kermit Lynch and Darrell Corti. Listening to them, I experience a similar thrill of recognition at historical events and influential figures that I get when watching “Forrest Gump.”
For example: With John Ash, in 1980, they opened John Ash & Co. in Santa Rosa; Don was the sommelier, Kay the pastry chef. There, they hired Dan Kosta and Michael Browne, who would later found Kosta Browne winery together.
The Baumhefner web stretches beyond restaurants. In addition to planting the Copeland Creek Vineyard on Sonoma Mountain (which later became the source for his short-lived Copeland Creek wine label), Baumhefner helped plant the now-famous Gap’s Crown Vineyard in the Petaluma Gap, supplying cuttings from the Joseph Swan estate.
Meanwhile, Kay earned high praise as the chef of the Opera House Café in Petaluma. In a 1987 review, then-Chronicle food editor Jane Benet captured Kay’s culinary ethos: “Home-cooked like almost no home cooks prepare any more. … She believes that good food should be fresh, cooked to perfection and served only in season.”
It was in 1983 that Baumhefner first experimented with sparkling wine. Swan had done some late-summer fruit thinning, “cutting off hundreds of beautiful red bunches of Pinot Noir, so as to concentrate the energy of the vines into fewer bunches as he had seen them do in Burgundy,” Baumhefner recalls. “I asked him if I could gather up the bunches and do something with them.” Since the grapes were still unripe, the obvious recourse was to make sparkling wine.
The 1983 Joseph Swan Estate bubbly turned out well, and so the next year Baumhefner sought out Pinot Meunier grapes — a major grape in Champagne, scarcely planted here — from his friend Bob Hopkins’ vineyard on Healdsburg’s Eastside Road. The Hopkins vineyard eventually became the source for the Beaux Hauts wines, which Baumhefner made commercially starting in 1988. Some years the wine turned out a rosé, other years a blanc de noirs. He released the sparkling wines haphazardly, as he felt they were ready. His 1988 bubbly, released after three years en tirage, was on the wine list at Chez Panisse. The 1991 edition, released in 1994, became Plumpjack’s private-label sparkling wine.
But the 1990 and 1992 Beaux Hauts vintages showed the most promise, and Baumhefner held them back even longer. Inspired by his favorite Champagne, the late-disgorged Bollinger R.D., Baumhefner decided to see what would happen if he left those two vintages on the yeast longer. He tasted them monthly; every year, he thought maybe this would be the year to disgorge. But he didn’t feel they were ready until 2011. To emphasize their extended aging, he labeled them “En Tirage.”
By then, Baumhefner’s frenetic wine-industry activity had quieted. The 1992 sparkling, which he released first, received little attention, save the Broadbent YouTube video in 2012. That didn’t bother him and Kay. “En Tirage was always more an experiment than a deliberately commercial enterprise,” she says.
But why, I press, did he stop making it after 1992? Baumhefner shrugs. Other projects came along.
And it’s a good thing he stopped when he did, he says. “It was an unsustainable business practice to make wine, age it for 20 years and then begin to sell it.”
Yet thanks mostly to the Broadbent video, the En Tirage became the object of obsessive search for a few of us, including Dan Davis — who waited two years for Baumhefner to return his initial email — and me.
Photo: Liz Hafalia, The Chronicle
The 1992 En Tirage has sold out, and Baumhefner’s current release is the 1990. Desmond Echavarrie, of local distributor Scale Wine (and another obsessive searcher of En Tirage), has picked it up. The 1990 is currently on the wine lists at Michael Mina ($176) and Epic Steak ($170) in San Francisco, as well as Kenzo in Napa. About 50 cases remain.
Near the end of my visit with the Baumhefners, we open a bottle of the 1990 En Tirage. It’s oxidative, for sure — an extreme rendering of nutty, autolytic character. Umami detonates from the glass: bacon, soy sauce, that same smoky quality I remember from New Orleans and tense, exhilarating acid. Then Kay presents a bottle of the 1990 that she’d opened three hours earlier. With a little breathing time, it has transformed — now mellow and creamy, plump with brioche and apricot marmalade.
But my pleasure is suddenly interrupted by guilt at having prompted Don and Kay to open two of the last remaining bottles of this final vintage. Have I coerced them to hasten the extinction of the species?
Don and Kay laugh. They’re happy to have both open for dinner tonight, they say. I’m struck by how unconcerned they seem with the preciousness of the commodity — an unusual posture for a winemaker, so often attached to his creations as if they were his children. But then again, the Baumhefners have lived through enough finales by now to have a different sort of perspective.
I remember one last question as I’m about to leave.
“Beautiful heights?” I ask. “What’s the meaning of ‘Chateau Beaux Hauts’?”
It’s an inside joke, Kay explains. “Beaux Hauts” is a homonym for “bozo,” a nickname she gave to her goofy husband.
After all, says Don, in those early days of Northern California winemaking, “many self-proclaimed wine snobs would only drink French wines. Even as fellow Francophiles, we found that all very funny.”