Welcome Fort Ross-Seaview
I’m personally very glad the Tax and Trade Bureau finally approved the new Fort Ross-Seaview American Viticultural Area. [See my reporting here in Wine Enthusiast.]
I’ve been following this story for what seems like forever. Even by California standards for getting new AVAs approved, this one took a really long time, and seemed particularly divisive. I wasn’t privy to all the infighting, but enough of it to know that there was plenty.
Back last March, I wrote:
For me, the Fort Ross-Seaview area is the best understood sub-region of the true Sonoma Coast, although it will be at least another 50 years before it can be understood as well as, say, Oakville. It needs its own appellation, badly.
Even as long ago as 2005, when my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River was published (and keep in mind, I did the writing and research for it even earlier, in 2003-2004), I wrote that “I…was amazed at how contentious [the Fort Ross-Seaview appellation process] was, although perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised…Winery owners and grape growers, with all they have invested in their projects, both finances and egos, can be as fractious as lawyers, which many of them are. Different people had different opinions about where the new lines should be drawn and what the new AVA’s name should be.” This conclusion was based on numerous interviews with folks who had an interest in the subject, who told me of the bickering.
The reason the new AVA was always needed was, obviously, that the existing Sonoma Coast never made much sense. Its godfather, Brice Cutrer Jones, conceded to me he’d “gerrymandered” the boundaries, but at the same time, he insisted it was “an honest appellation” because the maritime influence was omnipresent. That was weird to me at the time, because I’d heard people in Temecula, Lodi and all places inbetween tell me about “the maritime influence” that cooled off their regions, and it seemed to me you need more than some sea breezes to merit appellation status.
Lots of the locals up in those remote hills around Fort Ross dismissed Jones’ successful effort. “It’s the screwiest damned thing,” complained Wild Hog’s owner, Daniel Schoenfeld. Others, including Ehren Jordan, who at that time was establishing his Failla project, began referring to the “true Sonoma Coast” to distinguish it from places like Carneros and Windsor, which were included in the official Sonoma Coast AVA. The essence of the Fort Ross area, I was given to believe, was in both its distance from the Pacific–just about 4 or 5 miles wide, taking in the first two coastal ridges and the west-facing slope of the third ridge–and also its elevation. With boundary lines above 920 feet, that meant daytime temperatures during the summer could be quite high (if you’ve ever driven up Bohan Dillon Road from Route 1, you know how you emerge from a dense, dank fogbank around 600 feet into bright, blazing sunshine). But nighttime temperatures, the diurnal effect, fall off rapidly. The result is that the grapes get very ripe, yet maintain crucial balancing acidity.
I’ve often found the Pinot Noirs from the Fort Ross-Seaview area to have what I call a “feral” note. This is hard to describe in English; the French word “sauvage” (from which the word Sauvignon derives) suggests some, but not all, of its qualities. Here’s the way I used the term in my review of Failla’s 2006 Vivien Pinot Noir: “…showcases the wild, feral and lonely personality of this winery’s extreme coastal mountain location.” I frequently find aromas of foresty things, like balsam or pine cones; the old Burgundian term “forest floor” might be analogous. It’s interesting that, when I was trying [back in 2003-2004] to determine on my own where the eastern boundary might lie for Fort Ross-Seaview [wherever it was, it would be where the cool climate yielded to a hotter one, as evidenced by the transition from Douglas fir and coast redwood to gray pine], I found that the absence of reliable weather measuring devices in those hills was the reason why it was so difficult. I called those ridges, hollows and arroyos of north-central Sonoma County “isolated [and] lonely,” which perhaps are terms that might describe the Pinot Noirs of true Fort Ross-Seaview producers: Failla, Fort Ross, Scherrer, Hirsch among others. There is something haunting and elusive about them, like the creatures that prowl the mountains at night.
The next thing the producers in this exciting new region should turn to is creating their own little Fort Ross-Seaview Winery Association. Then they should assemble all the wines from the various producers and have a media tasting. I hereby donate my services, including the use of this space, to assist in that effort. Feel free to contact me.