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Sonoma in the crucible

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Had a call yesterday from Oded Shakked, the proprietor of Longboard Vineyards, inviting me up to his place for a tasting of nine vintages of the Cabernet Sauvignon he’s made since 1999 from grapes grown in the Rochioli Vineyard.

I met Oded around 2001 when I was writing my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, in which he figures prominantly–and he even has his own photo (taken by moi). I not only was interested in Oded’s fascinating story (how he went from being an Israeli fighting soldier to a Russian River Valley winemaker), but because he had some interesting insights into a strange area of central Sonoma County that falls inbetween some far more famous appellations.

This would be the region around Healdsburg that isn’t really Russian River Valley, Alexander Valley or Chalk Hill, but falls near the nexus of them all. When I was writing “Journey,” I was in the process of articulating my understanding of what grape varieties or families of varieties grow best in Sonoma’s various AVAs. With Russian River Valley a cool area, it was obvious the answer was Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (with a nod to Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Sauvignon Blanc and a few others). With Chalk Hill and Alexander Valley–warmer regions–it was clear the stars were Bordeaux varieties (and, of course, Alexander’s exquisite Chardonnays and Zins). But what of that funny area around Healdsburg?

I already had written the part of Journey where I called the Russian River’s crazy loops around Healdsburg–loops that result eventually in its drastic turn westward to the sea, the only major California river to do so–“crucial.” Thus, when I asked Oded his views on that area, and he replied by calling it “The Crucible,” I was stunned. “Crucial” and “crucible” both trace their etymological roots to some very old terms: the Latin word for “cross”, and with connotations of a melting furnace.

I concluded then (and Oded already had arrived at the same conclusion independently) that this no-man’s land was (and is) probably good for Syrah, being neither too cool nor too warm. But now I need to pick up the story of Oded’s Rochioli Cabernet Sauvignon.

Why exactly the Rochiolis planted Cabernet in their famous vineyard on Westside Road always has eluded me. I’m sure I asked Tom Rochioli at some point, and have forgotten what he said. Probably they just wanted to see what it would do, so they put in a small patch. The Rochiolis themselves weren’t interested in vinifying it; they didn’t seem to think very much about it. Anyhow, they had a relationship with Oded, and so he got the grapes and made the wine. But it always was a curiosity to have a Cabernet Sauvignon with a Rochioli Vineyard designation.

At any rate, Oded told me yesterday (I don’t think I’d known, or, if I had, I’d forgotten) that the Rocholis finally budded over the Cabernet portion of their vineyard to, predictably, Pinot Noir, in 2007. So the ‘07 was the last vintage Oded, or anyone else, will ever make a Cabernet from the Rochioli Vineyard. It seems likely to Oded, and I agree, that there may be virtually no more Cabernet Sauvignon growing in the Russian River Valley. (I’m sure someone will set me straight on this.)

Then Oded added that he’s thinking of finding a new source of Cabernet, and he’s looking–you guessed it–somewhere in The Crucible. He added that he’d thought of planting it in his own little vineyard, which also is on Westside Road but further north, and thus warmer, than Rochioli (and where he also grows his Syrah and Merlot). But he still worries the area might not be suitable for Cabernet Sauvignon.

It always was hard to figure out why Longboard’s Rochioli Vineyard Cabernet was so good. I never rated it less than 90 points. In theory, Rochioli Vineyard is too chilly to ripen Cabernet. Yet somehow it worked. Maybe it was because the Cabernet vines were planted (in 1974) on the north side of Westside Road, in a warmer region of the large vineyard than down by the Russian River, where Rochioli’s classic Pinot Noir blocks (West, East, Riverblock, Three Corner) were situated. Maybe it was Joe, Jr.’s impeccable viticulture. Probably a combination of both, with Oded’s skill and a little mystery thrown in.

All this reverts back to an issue that appears with some regularity here at steveheimoff.com; namely, the relationship between wine type, AVA, consumer and critical perception, scores, pricing and marketability. In other words, everything. Oded may find a fine Cabernet Sauvignon source somewhere in The Crucible; he may make a fine wine from it, and offer it at a decent price; but will it sell? We all have become a little too dependent on associating varieties with appellations, instead of letting the wine speak for itself. That’s not a healthy development, as it inhibits innovation. I’ll miss Oded’s Rochioli Cabernet, but I’m looking forward to whenever he starts making one again, no matter where it comes from.

  1. Bob Smith says:

    Steve,

    Rochioli bottled and sold their “Neoma’s Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon to their mailing list customers for a number of years. Don’t know what the first vintage was but the last was the 1997. Always liked that Cab and was sorry when they stopped bottleing it.

    Another producer of Russian River Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is Tom Dehlinger. I’ve got Dehlinger Cabs going back to 1996 and they’re great values for solid, age worthy cabs.

    Bob Smith

  2. Steve sez:
    “I concluded then (and Oded already had arrived at the same conclusion independently) that this no-man’s land was (and is) probably good for Syrah, being neither too cool nor too warm.”
    May or may not be true, Steve. As best I can tell, there’s not a whole lot of Syrah planted there. The few from this area I’ve had have been underwhelming. My general impression is where good Pinot is grown, you can also grow good Syrah. Wish we’d have more examples from “The Crucible” to try.
    Tom

  3. TomHill, you’re right in that there’s not much good Syrah from that area, near as I can tell. But a lot of the reason is because the Syrah market has declined, and producers are reluctant to sink resources into it. And of course you’re also right that where you can grow good Pinot you can grow good cool-climate Syrah.

  4. Steve,
    Thanks for the mention, glad our talk inspired a blog entry. For the slight correction department: Neoma’s / Rochioli came from two small blocks of Cabernet planted on St George rootstock. As far as I know they were planted in the late 60′s or early 70′s but I may be wrong. By the time I got to make this wine, yields were about 3/4 ton per acre. I think Joe let me make this wine just because he had an emotional attachement to the vines, it sure was not a money-making proposition. In 2007, the vineyard was replaced (replanted), not budded over to Pinot. I still think the grapes and resulting wine were as classy as the people who grew them; understated, solid and just a touch acidic… makes for great ageing!

    The vineyard that will be replacing this wine is planted in Chalk Hill, on a similar south facing slope of a rocky hill, and is also planted to St George rootstock (it produces really small berries, almost blueberry size).

  5. Frane at Sunce bottled a Hedin Vineyard Cab until 2005 or 2006. It was from the RRV. Apparantly, the cabernet vines were replaced with pinot noir…BUMMER!

  6. Longboard’s “Da Kine Vineyard” Syrah is one of my favorites each year.

    Plus, Oded is a super guy. Although the “front lawn” at the tasting room is a bit small for volleyball games. =)

    Great post Steve.

  7. Over the years there have been numerous cool climate cabs but I have found it to be a year to year thing. Maybe the greatest wine Buena Vista Winery ever made was their 1979 Reserve Cab Sauv which was from Carneros. That wine at the time of release (1983 to 84ish) was the most awarded Cabernet of its time in the 8 or 9 wine competitions that existed then. Competitions were way more important than the few writers (except Jerry Mead who was the big power name) or publications in those times.
    I owned a couple of cases of that wine (I think I still have a couple of bottles around, I hope) and drank it thru the years. Geyser Peak made a terrific Reserve Cab Sauv from of all places Santa Barbara in the late 70′s. I need to look to see if I still have one of those also. While I don’t have any of Oded’s cab I do have some of the Cab that Rochioli for themselves in that last decade.

  8. Steve,

    Great article. I live in Healdsburg and I think your book is a great depiction of the area, it is actually one of my favortie wine reads. Oded’s Rochioli Cab and Merlot are stellar. I was at Lonboard’s tasting room last month and the host was gracious enough to let everyone at the bar taste the 2007 Rochioli Cabernet. Rochioli also has Gamay planted which I heard is sold to V. Sattui.

  9. There are more plantings of Cabernet along westside road that I know of, a large vineyard overlooking Rocholi in fact, along with Syrah. As Mitch says, cool climate Cab can be a year-to-year proposition but with the right exposure and well drained soils you can produce nice wines. I was Viitculturist and Vineyard Manager at Buena Vista for a number of years and we had our challenges. Between outdated infrastructure and ailing vines, quality in CS suffered. However there were several cobble filled blocks on uplifted river bed with southern exposure that produced some great wines. New plantings of CS had potential, but after the winery sold three or four times, new management budded everything over to Pinot or Chard as far as I know. Cuvaison also produced some nice Cabs from thier plantings on Duhig Road in the same area. Carneros is noted for the cooling influence of the bay and the fog, but if you spend a few years growing there you come to realize that it’s not THAT cool!

  10. Dear D.Mil, thanks for the kind words about my book.

  11. Steve
    I haven’t had the Rochioli Vyd CS, but maybe the reason it was good was because it wasn’t over-ripe, with cooked fruit, drying tannin, too much alcohol, and a bunch of chemical-plant acid addded from a bag. Just a hunch.

  12. Tara Bella is producing EXCLUSIVELY Cabernet Sauvignon from their Estate in the heart of the RRV. Some of the most layered, complex and elegant Cab around. You should look into them if you love old world Cab. Did I mention they’re in the Russian River valley?

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