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Establishing the Sonoma Coast AVA

Stephen Brook offers some style notes on the vineyards of this exclusive enclave...

There’s a distinct whiff of fashionability in the mountain air along California’s Sonoma Coast.

The geographical appellation Sonoma Coast covers the western half of California, from the southern border with Marin County north to Mendocino County. It also darts inland to embrace supposedly cool regions, notably Russian River Valley.

The Sonoma Coast AVA came into existence after lobbying by Brice Cutrer Jones of the once renowned Chardonnay estate of Sonoma-Cutrer, who made sure that all his vineyards were within the new appellation. This explains its bizarre shape, but when cognoscenti speak of Sonoma Coast they are usually referring instead to the 14 vineyards on the coastal highlands near the Pacific Ocean. These are very cool sites that are, it’s hoped, ideally suited to the production of high quality Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

There are some 202 hectares under vine, but access is down twisting dirt roads and it can be a 20-minute drive or more from one to another. This is mountain viticulture with a vengeance. Shortly before setting off for these lofty vineyards, I happened to be sitting next to Jess Jackson (recently retired proprietor of Kendall-Jackson) at lunch. Kendall-Jackson owns or controls more than 5,000ha of vineyards in California and is the principal developer of these highland sites. When I mentioned my project, Jackson pointed out that the only sensible way to see these estates is from the air.

Which explains why, 10 days later, I was clutching my safety straps as Mr Jackson’s helicopter lurched upwards. We whirred over the vineyards of the Russian River Valley, past DeLoach and Dehlinger (cool sites but not cool enough) and on into Green Valley, where Marimar Torres and Iron Horse have their vineyards, and then upwards into the forested mountains. Soon I could see fog banks in the distance, about a mile off the Pacific shore, and below there were patches of vines, some bright green and undulating, others a sandy-brown, indicating cleared land recently planted with vines too tiny to be seen from any height.

A day later I visited perhaps the best known of the highlands vineyards, the 9ha Camp Meeting Ridge, the property of Walt and Joan Flowers. It was a hell of drive, but due to the beauty of these high ridges and the seductive quality of the wines, it was well worth it. Camp Meeting Ridge was planted in 1991 at between 1,100 and 1,400 feet. There is no cooling influence from maritime fog, since the vineyards are above the fog line, but the proximity to the ocean and the height keep summer temperatures in the 70–80˚C range which, in California, is very cool indeed.

The vineyard owners like to say that there are some vintages when it’s hard to get the grapes to ripen at all but, although this climatic marginality may occasionally be an issue, it is hard to reconcile with wines that often carry well over 14 degrees of alcohol. The Flowers report annual yields of between 1.2 and 1.7 tonnes, so it’s no wonder that the wines are expensive as well as powerful.

Pioneer spirit

Walt and Joan are by no means pioneers up here, but as the first vineyard owners to vinify their own crop rather than sell it to fashionable wineries such as Kistler, they are better known than most.

From their terrace you can see vineyards, quite small in hectarage, scattered across the neighbouring ridges. The Bohan Ranch (the true pioneers in 1971), the Charles Ranch (1974) and the Hirsch Vineyard are all visible. Each has a different microclimate depending on its distance from the ocean, elevation and exposure. There are even a few where Merlot can ripen, but every one of them obtains an intensity of aroma and complexity on the palate from Burgundian varieties that are truly rare in California.

Every year more land is being bought up with a view to planting vineyards. Sir Peter Michael, based in Knights Valley, has bought some 16ha close to Camp Meeting Ridge; Jayson Pahlmeyer of Napa plans to put in some vines in 2001; Bill Smith of La Jota has Pinot Noir slightly further inland; and Ehren Jordan of Nevers Winery and winemaker for Larry Turley has a few hectares of Syrah here; while the first lady of consultant winemakers, Helen Turley, has her celebrated Marcassin Vineyard nearby.

However, the biggest player, of course, is Kendall-Jackson and Jess Jackson has planted 40 acres of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay at his Seascape vineyard, plus a further 148 acres, almost all Pinot Noir along with a little Syrah, at the slightly warmer Annapolis vineyard, which is not yet in production.

Despite this frenzy of planting, it is actually very difficult to taste wines from these highlands vineyards. With sought-after producers such as Marcassin, William-Selyem and Kistler buying much of the best fruit, and with their wines only available through fully subscribed mailing lists, the best chance to taste them is at top California restaurants. At present there are only two functioning wineries in the highlands: Sea Ridge, which is very small and also buys in fruit from other sources, and Flowers.

Most of the Flowers’ Chardonnay is whole-cluster pressed and the wine from Camp Meeting Ridge is aged in about two-thirds new oak. Pinot Noir is fermented in open-top vats and aged for about 11 months in a similar proportion of new oak. The wines are kept for two years before release, as they benefit from bottle-ageing. The Chardonnay shows good acidity, yet the textures are lush. These are opulent wines, more Meursault than Chablis, and the 1998 Camp Meeting Ridge is especially impressive.

The first Flowers’ Pinots were made at Kistler and still have a harsh tannic edge, which Walt attributes to the retention of stems, a practice the Flowers winemakers, Greg LaFollette and Hugh Chapelle, have ended.

The wines significantly improve from 1996. The aromatic qualities vary from vintage to vintage, with the 1998 showing lean minty aromas, while the 1996 Moon Select (the reserve bottling) has a complex nose of cloves and cinnamon. The wines are voluptuous, with silky textures and wonderful concentration. The fruit exhibits more cherry and plum flavours than classic Pinot raspberry, but the wines are still recognisably Pinot, if in a very Californian mould.

Burgundian revival

Two wineries that form part of the Kendall-Jackson empire, La Crema and Hartford Court, also use coastal highlands fruit. Hartford Court has been producing a Seascape Chardonnay since 1996 and the 1998 has a sherbert and lemon-drop nose and fierce acidity on the palate. Hard to judge now, it must be tasted again in two years to see whether it has calmed down.

The winemaking here, as at Flowers, is what you might call ‘Burgundian revival’.

Mike Sullivan, the winemaker, uses whole-cluster pressing for Chardonnay and ferments in open-top vats for Pinot. The wines are vinified with indigenous yeasts and tend to be bottled without filtration. New oak varies from 40% to 70%. The fine Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir draws heavily on the Hirsch Vineyard and the 1996 is a gorgeous wine, with smokey raspberry aromas, supple lush cherry and raspberry fruit on the palate, and a good tannic bite on the finish. These wines are made in tiny quantities and range in price from $30 to $75, so they’re not easy to find.

The La Crema wines are made in larger volumes – about 30,000 cases for the Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir – and are blends from many vineyards. Here Sonoma Coast on the label implies inclusion of fruit from Russian River and Green Valleys as well as a small amount from the highlands, notably the Nobles Vineyard.

Winemaker Jeff Stewart makes the wines in the same artisanal way as those from Hartford Court. He says: ‘This is probably the largest investment anywhere in California in open-top fermenters. Unlike sealed tanks, which can be used for storage or blending, open-top vats have no other use – except as giant hot tubs!’ The Sonoma Coast Pinot is a good buy at $18, but the more costly Russian River Valley Pinot is more elegant.

Ted Lemon is one of the few California winemakers with experience gained in Burgundy, and he has been one of the pioneers of what can be loosely termed the ‘Burgundian revival’ styles of vinification. Although his winery is on Howell Mountain above Napa Valley, his fruit is drawn from sources including the Thieriot vineyard in the more southerly part of the coastal highlands. The Littorai wines, too, are made in small lots, so are quite hard to get hold of. Lemon’s version of Hirsch Pinot Noir is slightly more austere and reined in than Kistler’s, whose 1995 bottling from this site remains the most exquisite and complex Californian Pinot Noir I have ever tasted.

Sharp-eyed wine enthusiasts with deep pockets may also encounter Sonoma Coast highlands bottlings from chic wineries such as Martinelli, Siduri, La Jota and Marcassin. These are certainly worth looking out for, but some may question the price-tags, which can equal those of grand cru Burgundy.

There is, as yet, no clearly defined style for the Sonoma Coast. The Flowers vineyards, for example, are distinctly cooler than many others along the coastal band and, with varied microclimates, soils and exposures, stylistic inconsistency is scarcely surprising. But almost all the wines share aromatic finesse, supple textures, intensity of fruit, a rich toastiness that is probably an oak more than a fruit character, and a solid underlying acidity that gives impressive length of flavour. Not bad for just a few vintages – and the best is surely yet to come.

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