The usual quip to anyone thinking of starting a winery is, ‘If you want to make a small fortune in a winery, be sure to start with a large one’. Against all odds, Andrew Tow, long-time Pound Ridge resident, has succeeded in not only starting a successful California winery but in winning critical acclaim and numerous awards for his wines.
On a recent sunny Sunday in the Tow’s beautifully landscaped gardens, I met with Andrew and his wife Kathleen, to find out how he’s managed to live at his life-long home with his family (the Tow’s three adult children are now out of the house) at the same time as he manages to run a growing Sonoma Valley winery…and to get to taste some of his recent releases to see if they warrant the accolades of past vintages.
Q. Before we get into a discussion of the winery, I have a few questions about your connection to the local community. As I gather, you’re still living in your childhood house in Pound Ridge?
A. Yes. Although I was born in Brooklyn, my family had this house as a weekend retreat. We moved here permanently when I was 12, and I attended Fox Lane Middle School and High School.
Q. Any particular notable memories from growing up here?
A. Well, I’m in love with nature, so I spent a lot of time with friends in the Ward Pound Ridge Reservation, fishing in local ponds and streams, and looking for critters in the woods. And I remember the many activities that my parents always had going on at this house. My mother was involved with the local garden club and ambulance corps and liked to have her fellow volunteers over to where we’re sitting right now. I’m still close with a few friends from middle and high school and we reminisce often.
Q. What are some of your favorite local restaurants or other hangouts?
A. We go to or grab take out from the Inn at Pound Ridge, Elm, South End, North Star and DiNardo’s. All have generously supported The Withers.
Q. What was your reason for starting the winery and how has it gone?
A. Although my parents weren’t into wine, I’ve always enjoyed it. About 18 years ago we met winemaker David Low, of Anthill Farms, whose wines I really liked. We became friends, and in exchange for me teaching him to fly fish – one of my passions – he taught me how to make wine. I made about 1,000 bottles at David’s winery, purely for personal consumption and to give to friends. Everyone really liked it, so I eventually took it around to a few local and New York City wine shops and asked them what they thought. Everyone was positive, including wine distributor Michael Skurnik. So, in 2013, with Low and another friend, Tyson Freeman, who sources the grapes and assists Low making the wine, I launched The Withers. I got some financing from a few early partners, including friends from my life spent loving music, Derek Trucks, Susan Tedeschi and all three Followill brothers, who are the Kings of Leon. They are all wine lovers and big supporters of our label.
The wines are made using grapes carefully selected from premier vineyards in high elevation, cool climate sites in Anderson and Green Valleys, Mendocino County, the Sierra Foothills and the Sonoma Coast. We strive to make wines that are food-friendly, understated, low alcohol, yet deeply flavored.
We accomplish this through minimal intervention in the cellar, allowing native yeast fermentations that include whole clusters, and then age the wine almost exclusively in neutral oak so as not to manipulate flavors or aromas. We bottle without fining or filtering, again preferring to avoid altering the wines in any way.
We were “discovered” when the Wall Street Journal proclaimed our debut Rosé as one of the best of the year just after we launched in 2014, which put us on the map almost immediately. Other highly regarded critics then found, and started writing about, our wines as well, culminating with The Withers being named one of the Top 100 Wineries. More recently, The Wall Street Journal wrote a feature on me and our story, and then named our Rosé #1 in the U.S. just a few months ago. We now produce about 5,000 cases a year and are distributed in 31 states and 3 other countries. We have a robust wine club and website on which anyone can purchase our wines. I don’t have any employees, so I split my time between Pound Ridge, California, and visits to all the states in which we distribute.
Q. How do you manage to live here and run the winery in California?
A. Kathleen really deserves all the credit. Her support has made it possible for me to devote so much time and attention to my personal passion, which ultimately became my full time occupation. It wouldn’t have been possible without her encouragement.
Q. And what does the name of the winery and drawings of a horse on all the labels signify?
A. The withers are the point on a horse’s body from which their height is measured. I loved the lyrical sound of the term, but also the connection to measurement, and the aspiration for height in both winemaking and equestrian pursuits.
Q. How have coronavirus and the recent spate of California wildfires affected winery operations?
A. Before the advent of coronavirus most of our sales were to the wholesale market for restaurants and wine shops, with the remainder coming from website sales and wine club memberships. As you can imagine, this year has been a real challenge due to widespread restaurant closures and limited in person retail shopping. Thankfully, we have a loyal and growing base of customers purchasing wine directly from the winery, and this saved us during the pandemic. We have had wildfires near our vineyards and winemaking cooperative three out of the last four years, but luckily we’ve been spared, and all our grapes have come in safely and looking perfect.
Great, now let’s taste a few of your current releases!
2019 El Dorado Estate Rosé ($21)
Reminiscent of a French Bandol wine, it shows a bouquet and taste of ripe peaches and watermelon with a lemony acidity in its long finish. More than just for sipping, this wine mates well with fish, like tuna and swordfish.
2018 English Hill Pinot Sonoma Coast Noir ($51)
It has a floral bouquet and full, rich taste of cranberries, plums and notes of herbs in its smooth finish. Great with a wide range of fare, from turkey and chicken, to steak and lamb.
2016 Claire’s Vineyard Mendocino County Pinot Noir ($47)
This powerful wine, named in honor of Andrew’s mother and because he felt it was a one-of-a-kind special vintage from a great vineyard, shows a bouquet and taste of ripe black cherries with hints of rosemary. Serve it with grilled fish, baked chicken and even pork chops.
2017 Mr. Burges – El Dorado ($43)
A Syrah Blend made in the style of French Northern Rhône wines, it has a bouquet and taste of cassis and cherry, with undertones of ripe raspberry, in its dry, smooth finish. Perfect to marry with pasta with red sauce, duck and lamb.
2017 In Hand Mouvèdre – El Dorado ($24)
This is a second label from The Withers. It’s a very fruity wine, with flavors of strawberry, raspberry and ripe plums, that makes a great accompaniment to pizza, hamburgers, ribs and even Buffalo wings.
2018 Peters Vineyard Sonoma Coast Chardonnay ($41)
Made in the style of a great white Burgundy, this wine shows a bouquet and taste of ripe apples and lemons, and has a lively finish that will pair well with sushi, salmon and shrimp.
These wines are a great value and, most important, a pleasure to drink. They’re relatively low alcohol, yet full of flavor, and each is truly representative of the varietals they’re made from. In general, they mate well with a wide variety of fare, and have a long-lasting, pleasant finish. In particular, I found the Rosé and English Hill Pinot Noir both bursting with flavor that last and lasts. The Withers should please the novice looking for a great bottle with dinner and the seasoned enthusiast alike – without severely denting the wallet.
Prices are the suggested retail price for 750ml bottles. The Withers wines can be found direct from the winery at www.thewithers.com and locally at Pound Ridge Wine & Spirits, Wine Connection, Stewart’s Wine & Spirits. Siemer’s, Wine Geeks, Harry’s, Greens Farms Wine & Spirits, Bedford Wine Merchants, Fine Wine Company of Westport, Rye Brook Wine & Spirits, Westchester Wine Warehouse, Zachy’s Wine and Liquor, Inc, Village Wine and Spirits Sleepy Hollow, Grapes the Wine Company, Balducci’s, Putnam and Vine, and Citarella Wines & Spirits among others.