There are no doubt certain wineries will use gimmick names in hopes of drawing attention to their wines.

In conjunction with unique labels, the end game is to get the consumer to purchase their product, sucking them in with the gimmick name.

Sometimes it works in a good wine where the product is high quality and a new fan of the wine is born. Other times, the wine is as bad as the gimmick, and we lament about the money spent as another bottle ends up in the “cooking wine” pile.

Then there are those special times when you think it’s a gimmick name, but the reality is the name is legitimate and the wine is every bit as special as the name.

Such is the case with Hook & Ladder, a winery located in Santa Rosa and one of the wineries in the wonderful Taste Route 116 collective.

The name might sound like a gimmick and may not be known to many, but that will continue to change as this story opens doors as to the genesis of Hook & Ladder.

In 1970, San Francisco firefighter Cecil De Loach, and his wife Christine, purchased the Barbieri Ranch in the Russian River Valley’s Olivet Road district.

During those early years, Cecil continued his “day job” as an SF firefighter while he and Christine delved into their new roles as grape growers. They took classes both at Santa Rosa Junior College and UC Davis, read everything they could get their hands on about grape growing and winemaking.

In 1973, the De Loach family became the first to plant Pinot Noir on Olivet Road when they purchased a second vineyard property not far from their Barbieri Ranch.

By the time De Loach Vineyards opened its doors in 1975, Cecil and Christine had emerged as leaders of the Russian River Valley movement and were among the first to use that designation on their labels.

After the sale of their acclaimed De Loach Vineyards in 2003 to French vintners Boisset Family Estates, Cecil and Christine continued to farm and make wines from the more than 148 acres of vineyard Russian River Valley – and moved on to their next winery project.

In 2003, they launched Hook & Ladder Winery on Olivet Road, just down the street from their original De Loach Vineyards. Named for Cecil’s 17-year career as a San Francisco firefighter, Hook & Ladder is helmed today by grandson Jason De Loach, an accomplished winemaker who joined the winery in 2006.

Hook & Ladder is an “estate” producer, specializing in small bottlings of Pinot Noir, “Old Vine” Zinfandel, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux-style blends sourced from the family’s sustainably-farmed vineyards in Russian River Valley and its sub-appellation, Chalk Hill.

The tasting room features banners from firefighters around the world that have visited the property. It adds to the vibe, helping pay tribute to these courageous first responders.

Once you visit, you get to experience the special touch the staff puts to each visitor.

How many times have you been to a tasting room and the person pouring the wines has left you with the feeling they’d rather be somewhere else?

They may be nice, but you can feel the insincerity. This happens regularly at many of the higher end wine houses but could not be further from the truth than Hook & Ladder. To me this is what sets aside the Taste Route 116 wineries.

We had the absolute joy of having Randy as our wine expert, with an assist from Taylor when Randy was on break.

The day we visited was the front end of the big atmospheric river that came through Northern California in late October and as a result we were seated in the barrel room as opposed to the picturesque garden tasting area.

Randy’s humor was evident from the beginning as he guided us through the portfolio of wines.

We started with the 2019 Russian River Valley Rose of Pinot Noir. It would be a wonderful wine on a nice hot day, which it wasn’t, but you could see how this would be refreshing on warm days.

That followed with the 2020 Olivet Ranch Sauvignon Blanc, a wine grown on the property, another that would be refreshing on a nice day.

The 2020 Spider Web Ranch Chardonnay was next. Randy explained the name of the wine came from a big spiderweb located at the grain silos on the ranch where the grapes were grown. Very citrus forward, the wine is yet another refreshing offering.

While most of our ACES’ wine tasting team enjoys white wines over red, once we reach the red portion of the tasting, it’s time for me to lead the way!

The 2018 Estate Russian River Valley Pinot was our first red offering. True to the region that produces some wonderful Pinto Noir, this wine that ages nine months in new French Oak did not disappoint.

Next up was the 2018 Estate Chalk Hill Sangiovese. The grapes are grown within nine miles of the tasting room, but in a climate which is 10 degrees hotter. The wine leaves a bit of dryness in the mouth which is right in my wheelhouse.

Our last tasting of the initial portfolio was the 2018 Los Amigos Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. This single vineyard wine is 100 percent Cabernet and is a blend of French and Missouri oak, producing a smooth, yet bold Cab.

Following the basic tasting experience, we had the chance to sample – and then buy – the 2017 Praeterea “Brunello Style” Sangiovese.

Aged for 20 months in 100 percent American oak with only 228 cases produced, this 97 percent Sangiovese and 3 percent Merlot wine was absolutely sensational.

It comes from the Tuscan Ridge Vineyard in the Chalk Hill region.

While we enjoyed all the wines we tasted, the Praeterea is the wine I would make the two-hour drive from my house regularly. Of course, some of these bottles left the winery in our possession and our now occupying space in our wine cellar.

I cannot emphasize enough how enjoyable the Taste Route 116 wineries are for a casual yet rewarding wine tasting experience. The wines and the vibe are both top notch and well worth repeated visits to the area.

After adding Hook & Ladder to our portfolio, we have now had the pleasure to experience Balletto Vineyards, Bowman Cellars, Dutton Estate Winery, and Russian River Vineyards.

Hook & Ladder fits perfectly into the experience.

It’s a region that has to be on your “must visit’” list and one you will be glad you visited.

By Dennis Miller