Came across this blog post in the San Francisco edition of the Huffington Post on the wines of the Santa Cruz Mountains. It’s well written and makes some good points, but is a little incomplete, so I wanted to round out the picture.
The writer, Richard Jennings, correctly notes that “a few driven producers over the years have made some brilliant, minerally, complex, cool climate Pinot in these parts.” He refers particularly to Mount Eden and Rhys, whom he calls the “only two exceptional producers.” The others, he laments, “score from average to below average.”
I would add Thomas Fogarty (whom Jennings does not mention) and Clos LaChance (whom he does) to the list. Both produce very good Pinot Noirs, although they are vintage-driven. So does Bargetto, on occasion, and Cumbre of Vine Hill. I’ve also enjoyed good Pinots from Ghostwriter, Windy Oaks, Sonnet and Heart O’The Mountain.
The challenge of growing Pinot Noir in this sprawling appelllation (besides weather variation) is a lack of vineyard acreage. Although the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA covers 408,000 acres (making it the eight biggest in California), planted acreage, as Jennings points out, is only 1,500 acres, of which only 375 acres are planted to Pinot Noir. The reason for this paucity is mainly due to the fact that the region, which used to be a major wine-producing one, has sprouted suburban housing developments over the decades. There’s many a ranch house in Cupertino, Saratoga, Santa Cruz, Los Gatos and so on that sits on land that could produce incredible Pinot Noirs, but we’ll never know.
The other thing about the Santa Cruz Mountains is that it also produces some stellar Cabernet Sauvignons. A good example is Ridge’s Monte Bello vineyard. I’ve also been an admirer of Cabernets from Cinnabar, Cooper-Garrod, Martin Ray, Mount Eden [redux], Thomas Fogarty [again], La Honda and Black Ridge. Many of these wineries also produce good Chardonnay. And there’s always the interesting Syrah, from the likes of Beauregard and Kathryn Kennedy.
In general, Pinot Noir is grown on the western side of the ridges that are open to the maritime influence, while Cabernet thrives on the warmer, eastern flanks.
Lots of people don’t know that the Santa Cruz Mountains once was one of the best winegrowing regions in California. In fact, the most famous Cabernet Sauvignon of the late 19th and early 20th century, Rixford’s La Cuesta (variously Questa), was from Woodside. The vine cuttings had been taken from Chateau Margaux, and Martin Ray in turn used cuttings from those vines to start his own winery. The present day Woodside Vineyards is still on the old Rixford site.
I don’t know if anyone’s working on sub-appellating the Santa Cruz Mountains. It’s a good idea, given the Pinot Noir-Cabernet Sauvignon terroir split, but maybe not worth all the hassle, given the small acreage involved. In general, if you see a Santa Cruz Mountains origin on any wine, it’s more likely than not to be very good; and because the region doesn’t have the cachet of Napa Valley or some of the other Central Coast appellations, prices have remained moderate.
I love Wine Enthusiast’s database. It’s my brain, with memory: I can barely remember what I tasted 2 days ago, but that database remembers every wine I’ve reviewed since the 1990s. Not only does it remember them, it knows the date of my review, exactly what the score and text were, and–if I entered the data in the first place–what the alcohol was and even the case production.
Those are powerful tools to discern patterns and trends, which are different: A pattern might be, say, that Paso Robles had a particularly good year with Zinfandel in 2010. A trend would be for Paso Robles to have good Zinfandels year after year after year.
If I look at my top-scoring wines over many years, it’s evident that two varieties, clustered into growing regions, really define California at its greatest. Those would be Russian River Valley Pinot Noir (including the Sonoma Coast appellation) and Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon/Bordeaux blends, including all the valley’s sub-appellations.
It’s important for a wine region to have top exemplars. It sets the bar higher for all other varieties and regions, which is vital if a region is to advance, as not all do. Big scores also help to convince skeptics that the region is right up there with the world’s other top wine regions. And they affirm the efforts of those hard working zealots who have labored for so many years. Nobody likes to work hard and have their achievements go unrecognized.
Why Napa should produce such great Cabernets is easy to understand. They’ve been working at it for 150 years. Even if you discount the period during and immediately after Prohibition, when everything was on hiatus, Napa Valley really started getting serious about Cabernet in the 1960s. So they’ve had the better part of 60 years to work at it: figure out the best places to plant (and the inferior places not to), to analyze the soil (which can take decades to properly understand) and combine the right rootstocks and clones to the right blocks, to tinker with canopy management and cropping levels and figure out the most beneficial way to sort their fruit and get it to the winery. And that doesn’t even begin to address the improvements in enology.
Napa’s climate is ideal for the ripening of Bordeaux varieties. Being an extra mountain range (the Mayacamas) inland from the sea than Sonoma County, it has that extra bit of heat. But Napa also has what all inland California coastal valleys have: a pretty fierce diurnal temperature swing. That means that, regardless of how hot it gets during the day, nighttimes cool off rapidly. That’s what Cabernet (and Merlot and Cab Franc and Petit Verdot) need to maintain acidity.
That the Russian River Valley should be so hospitable to Pinot Noir is the surprise of a lifetime, I think, even to the pioneers (some of them no longer with us) who planted it there in the 1960s and 1970s. I mean folks like Joe Rochioli, Jr., Joe Swan, and a couple of others. I don’t think they really understood what they were doing. No disrespect, but they were working more with hopes and fingers crossed than with any foreknowledge of guarantee. But look what they did!
What’s so spectacular about Russian River Valley Pinot Noir is the breadth and depth that it’s achieved in only 40 years. The variety is now widely planted there, from Fort Ross way out (and up) on the coast, through the Goldridge soils of the southerly Laguna Ridges, all the way on up to near Healdsburg, in the northeast. We thus have a wide spectrum of terroirs, with enough wineries in each to make solid generalizations, mostly concerning temperature variations, soil being (IMHO) less important in the Russian River Valley than geographic location relative to the maritime influence.
(I’m still reading and enjoying Allen Meadows’ new book, The Pearl of the Côte, and if I had a dollar for every time he expresses irony or surprise that a particular vineyard performs well despite its soil [i.e. in unexpected, unstereotypical ways], I’d be a rich man. The point being that while much is made of soil and its effects, climate is a much more reliable predictor of wine style.)
No other Pinot region in California besides the Russian River Valley possesses these factors of widespread plantings over a wide region, with a density of producers and a history of production. Not Santa Rita Hills, not Santa Lucia Highlands, not even Carneros. Anderson Valley is beginning to, but it will take a few dozen more wineries to really let us figure it out, and that may never happen, given the peculiarities of doing business in that far-off region, so remote from San Francisco or any other population center.
I feel like Napa Valley and Russian River Valley are California’s Bordeaux and Burgundy. I don’t think that’s too far-fetched. We’re blessed to have such markers to calibrate everything else.
I’m sure it used to be true, in France, that there were major differences between the tastes of Bordeaux (mainly Cabernet Sauvignon), Burgundy (Pinot Noir) and Hermitage (Syrah). The old wine books, our only and most trusted sources of knowledge of the wines of 100 years ago, tell us so. That heritage–that each region specialized in a different variety or varietal family, and thus the wines they produced were loyaux et constants to their type (in the old jargon, as Allen Meadows reminds us in The Pearl of the Côte)–was handed down to the New World, and particularly to California, where most winemakers from the mid-20th century were devoted to the ideal of being as Europeanized as they could be.
Perhaps it might have been true, once, that California Cabernet, Pinot Noir and Syrah could have been as different from each other as were Bordeaux, Burgundy and Hermitage. If that had been the case, it would have occurred in an alternate universe. For historical reasons, only Cabernet Sauvignon has had enough time on the ground (roughly 150 years) to develop a true style, and that almost exclusively in Napa Valley (as it did in Bordeaux). Pinot Noir is getting there fast, in our accelerated society where everything happens at warp speed (except peace in the Middle East), while poor Syrah still scratches its head, wondering where it belongs, both stylistically and geographically (which may amount to the same thing). But then, in France, too, Syrah has an identity crisis.
I am thinking along these rather incoherent lines because I tasted a lot of wine, blind, on Friday at the Napa Valley Vintners. Although the whites and reds were in separate flights, they were all mixed up together, so that I did not know what variety I was tasting with any given wine. It was pretty easy to tell the Sauvignon Blancs from the Chardonnays, but the Viogniers were more difficult to identify; in some cases, they could have been either. Far more difficult, however, were the reds.
To begin with, they were all good. But the Cabernets, Pinots, Merlots and Syrahs were intermingled, and although I tried to ID what variety each was, I wouldn’t say I scored any better than a “B+” (all right, on the 100-point scale, I’d give myself an 87). Yes, it can be a little embarrassing, especially for a critic (even though I was alone and my blunders were unwitnessed), to unbag the bottle and see that the Merlot I’d liked so much was actually a Pinot Noir; or the Cabernet I found so rich and delicious was actually a Pinot Noir.
But then, this is 2012, not 1922. “We live in a wine world where, for the first time, there are wines that do taste like blackberry jam and are instantly intoxicating…I mean all the wines of the ‘Southern’ regions, the New Zealand Pinot Noirs and California Zinfandels and Australian Shirazes,” writes The New Yorker writer, Adam Gopnik, in his 2011 book, The Table Comes First. He might have added Cabernet, Merlot and Pinot Noir to his “California Zinfandels” that “all taste like blackberry jam” (although I think California Zinfandel is a lot more identifiable as Zinfandel than Cabernet or Merlot are as themselves). If you read into Gopnik’s remark a bit of a back-handed compliment, I don’t think he meant it that way. He was just making a point about the International Style. Still, there is a school of thought that criticizes New World wines for this very sameness that Gopnik describes.
I have never been part of that school, but having an experience like mine at the Napa Vintners does make you think. The fact is, California red wines are becoming more and more alike, across varieties. This is particularly true at the high price end (which is what I was tasting at Napa Vintners), because the alcohol levels tend to be higher (even with the Pinots), because the wines tend to be more extracted (by virtue of all the magic tricks vintners can apply) and because the quantity and quality of new, mainly French oak tends to be greater. Alcohol, extract and new oak: these mask inherent varietal character and push the wines toward one central point of richness and body.
My mentor, Harry Waugh, has perhaps the most famous quote in all of winedown. When asked, in his old age, over a long and illustrious career (among other things, he was on the board of Chateau Latour), if he had ever mistaken Bordeaux for Burgundy, he replied, “Not since lunch.” (Harry’s generation were heavy drinkers, starting early in the day and going all night. Don’t forget Winston’s Churchill’s penchant for brandy upon awakening.) This perhaps suggests that Burgundy and Bordeaux were not all that different even 80 years ago, as the writers said they were; but then, wine writers are trained, with the determination of Pavlov’s dogs, to point out differences between wine regions. At any rate, I always figured if old Harry could own up to confusing Burgundy with Bordeaux, so could I between Pinot Noir and Cabernet.
Nor does it bother me particularly that these red wines are conspiring toward a central point, as long as that point is so complex and delicious. We will, however, see if things are changing. If there is a trend toward lower alcohol wines (a product both of Mother Nature and conscious winemaking choices), then I might go to a Napa Vintners tasting in, say, the year 2018 and actually have my score for properly identifying varieties rise to 95 points. On the other hand, if global warming hits France as hard as it seems likely to, the differences between Bordeaux, Pinot Noir and Hermitage–whatever they used to be–will be further narrowed.
There’s so much misunderstanding out there concerning American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) that it’s important to have this conversation from time to time, just to set the record straight.
I’m pretty sure the vast majority of my readers know precisely what an AVA is and isn’t, but this blog does spill over into the non-industry world, which is where enlightenment is needed. Some people still believe that an AVA on a label guarantees something about the wine’s terroir. This is, as we’ll see, a mistake. It guarantees nothing except the origin of the grapes. And that, in turn, says little to nothing about the wine in the bottle.
Yet the myth persists that it does. Consider, for example, this report, from Yahoo news, on the recent legalization by the TTB of some new AVAs. The headline reads “Wine country in the US expands with designated ‘terroir’ areas.” Now, I don’t know why they put “terroir” inbetween apostrophes. Usually, a writer does so to suggest something suspect about the word in question–that the reader ought to take it with a grain of salt. In this case, though, it could just have been that the writer understood that “terroir” is a foreign term. Either way, the article goes on to state something untrue: “a bottle of champagne or Bordeaux wine is instantly recognizable by its place of origin in France, American wine growers are hoping to distinguish themselves from the competition with labels that denote their terroir — a taste profile specific to the area the product was made in, influenced by climate and soil conditions.”
First off, a bottle of Bordeaux is not “instantly recognizable by its place of origin.” There are thousands of individual Bordeaux brands and they have little in common except that they’re dry, fairly full-bodied and tannic. That describes half the red wines on earth, not just Bordeaux.
Now, the second part of that statement merits attention. “American wine growers are hoping to distinguish themselves from the competition with labels that denote their terroir,” defined as “a taste profile specific to the area the product was made in.” Yes, American growers and winemakers do hope to distinguish themselves from the competition, and the place of origin on the label is one way to do that. But what does that have to do with “a specific taste profile”? Very little. Does a “California”-appellated wine have a taste profile? Nope. Does a “Russian River Valley”-appellated wine have a taste profile? Well, what does a 15.7% RRV Zinfandel with residual sugar have in common with a 13.2%, dry Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir? Nothing. Therefore, “Russian River Valley” on the label tells the consumer nothing about the wine’s character, or its quality. The consumer may believe that a bottle of wine from “Russian River Valley” will be a good one, and generally, it will be. But the AVA itself is fairly meaningless.
The smaller AVAs get, the more meaning they tend to have. Russian River Valley is a big place, 96,000 acres on the Wine Institute’s website, although it’s probably a little bigger than that after its recent expansion south. It should in theory be a little easier to find a common “taste profile” in the Santa Lucia Highlands, at 22,000 acres. But is it? I could say SLH Pinot Noirs are ripe, juicy, big wines, often tannic, and dry, with a minerality rare in Russian River Valley, and who could argue with that? And yet that’s just a generalization: the actual wines are variations on this theme, some closer to it, others further away. Compare a Pisoni estate Pinot Noir with a Sleepy Hollow (say, Testarossa’s) and you’re really talking about two different places.
Then we get down to an even smaller appellation, Oakville. At only 5,760 acres, it’s compact enough for a hiker to walk its boundaries in a few hours. There is something “Oakville-ish” to the Cabernets, but again, the rule is more often than not thwarted by the exceptions. East Oakville Cabernets tend to be very ripe and sweet, with a roasted red berry taste. West Oakville Cabernets tend to be tighter, more tannic, veering to black and blue fruits. They’re both Oakville, but of two different species.
All right, you say, let’s get even smaller, and find an AVA that really does mean something. Searching the list, I see an AVA of 2,560 acres: Solano County-Green Valley. Does that mean anything? Not to me. I see a mere 1,300 acres for River Junction, but I couldn’t even tell you what county that’s in. Stags Leap District, at 2,700 acres, maybe comes closest to actually meaning something, but I’m not going to say it’s “an iron fist in a velvet glove” even though that old chestnut is hauled out by every budding wine writer. About the most I can say truthfully about a Stags Leap Cabernet is that it’s almost bound to be a distinguished wine, and ageable too, the way you might describe a Saint-Julien Bordeaux.
Don’t misunderstand me, I like having a system of appellations. It is helpful for consumers to know where the wine is from, and anybody who wants to is free to dig deeper into appellations, to expand their knowledge. But the entire process of wine education and evaluation consists in learning when the rules apply, and when they don’t. Wine is very complicated, very mysterious, very confounding stuff. Maybe it was simpler, in bygone times, but no more. Human intervention, the explosion of vineyard acreage, climate change, a huge diversity of material (from rootstocks to barrels) and a more internationalized winemaker community mean that, today more than ever, a bottle of wine refuses to be trapped into the straitjacket of an “appellation.”
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.
I’ll be bringing Gus with me today on the 5 hour drive down to Bien Nacido Vineyard, the first leg of my Santa Barbara trip. This will be Gus’s longest voyage yet, and I can only hope his car sickness issues have been resolved.
If I recall correctly, my first visit to Santa Barbara, for the purposes of writing about its wine industry, was to the Fess Parker Winery. It was a thrill to meet Fess himself. As a little kid, he’d been one of my heroes as Davy Crockett. I made my mom buy me a coonskin cap (as did millions of other little American boys). That fad, which mercifully didn’t last too long, probably sent the native raccoon population dangerously close to extinction. How Fess Parker went from being a T.V. and movie star to a winery proprietor, I never did find out. I think on that first trip I also visited with Richard Sanford–at the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard? Memory fails.
I like Santa Barbara, as a place and as an appellation. Perhaps because they developed their wine industry more slowly than the North Coast, their AVAs make a lot more sense than, say, Sonoma’s. There are only four of them: the Santa Maria Valley, the Santa Ynez Valley, Happy Canyon and the Santa Rita Hills. The latter used to be part of the Santa Ynez Valley, but wiser heads prevailed in determining that it should be its own appellation on the basis of weather patterns. The Valley is one of only two wine valleys in California (Santa Maria is the other) that lies east-west rather than southeast-northwest (as, for example, are Napa Valley and Alexander Valley). This so-called “transverse” orientation allows chilly maritime air to funnel in from the coast, at Lompoc, spilling over the Santa Rita Hills and cooling them down. By the time you get to the 101 Freeway, the coastal influence has dropped considerably; and at Happy Canyon, it’s virtually non-existent, although there must be a little of it, because otherwise Happy Canyon would be as hot as the Mojave Desert.
For years there’s been talk of adding a fifth AVA, Los Alamos, which sits kind of inbetween Santa Maria Valley and Santa Rita Hills. If they ever do that, I’m going to have to figure out what makes Los Alamos special, if anything. The American system of appellations always provides wine writers with endless fodder for intellectual speculation. Appellations are elusive things. At first, you think they make sense, and then, the more you look into them, the less sense they make. I wrote about the expanded Russian River Valley the other day, and that elicited several comments, among which was one from Charlie Olken, whose blog is always a good read. He said that the Russian River Valley is a really cumbersome appellation–too big, too varied–a view with which I largely agree. But there are plenty of other equally cumbersome appellations and nobody ever complains about them. The Santa Cruz Mountains doesn’t really make a lot of sense, because they grow their Pinot Noir on cooler west-facing slopes and the Cabernet Sauvignon on warmer east-facing slopes, and where’s the unity in that? Napa Valley is a crazy mixed up appellation, making terroir sense only in the most general way. (The real terroir of Napa Valley is money. Money, more than weather or soil, is what primarily influences all the wines of Napa Valley.) Then we have other nonsensical AVAs: San Francisco Bay, Sonoma Coast, Northern Sonoma.
But Santa Barbara County has got it about right. I imagine there will be opportunities for further subdivisions one of these days. Maybe the Santa Rita Hills can be broken up into northern and southern sections. They may decide to carve something out of the northern Santa Ynez Valley, in the Foxen Canyon area. But in these matters of appellations, my advice always is to go slow. No use rushing into legal things you’ll regret later.
Some of the things I’ll be doing in Santa Barbara, in addition to my big blind tasting on Thursday, will be seeing friends, both new and old. Among them are Nicholas Miller, Andrew Murray, Paul Lato, Chad Melville, John Falcone, Ryan Devolet, Dieter Cronje, Dan Gainey, Greg Brewer and Pierre LaBarge. If I run into Jim Clendenen, that will be the cherry on top of the whipped cream on the chocolate cake.