In anticipation of our tasting this Friday of wines from the “true” Sonoma Coast, I’ve been going over in my mind my understanding of this American Viticultural Area, which was declared an A.V.A. in 1987.
That was 28 years ago, but I don’t recall the controversy surrounding it until sometime in the late 1990s, when people began to point out that, at 480,000 acres, and stretching from the Pacific beaches to the Napa County line, it was not only one of California’s larger appellations—bigger than Napa Valley or the Santa Cruz Mountains—but containing so many different climates that to call it a single appellation was senseless.
Conventional wisdom was that the Sonoma Coast A.V.A. was pushed through and largely paid for by a single individual, who wanted to be able to label his Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays with something other than Sonoma Valley. Although the Sonoma Valley A.V.A. extends right down to Carneros, the popular view is that it’s a warmish to hot place, which, northwest of Sonoma Town and along the Valley of the Moon highway, it is.
There have long been a handful of vintners, though, who chose to grow grapes along what eventually became known as the “true” Sonoma Coast: an area just a few miles inland from the beaches, encompassing the first two or three mountain ranges. The unrest caused by the gigantic Sonoma Coast A.V.A. eventually grew so fierce that, in 2012, the government was compelled to recognize Fort Ross-Seaview as a sub-appellation of Sonoma Coast. At a mere 27,500 acres, most of it wildland. Fort Ross-Seaview represented an intelligent approach to detailing Sonoma Coast, one that I entirely supported. When it was finally approved, I was hopeful that additional “true” Sonoma Coast appellations would follow. Annapolis, in the north, seems logical. So does Freestone in the south, and possibly Occidental, although who knows what the names will be, because these things require agreement amongst warring parties, and the names often are compromises reached through lawyerly negotiations.
For me, the question concerning the “true” Sonoma Coast is, What are the differences between, say, Annapolis in the north, the done deal of Fort Ross-Seaview, and points south, whatever they’re called? It can’t be as simple as temperature, because if anything, the south is cooler, being closer to the Golden Gate; and elevation plays a crucial role on the far coast, with vineyards in the north higher up in the mountains, and thus above the fogline and more exposed to the intense solar radiation.
It will take us many years to really figure out the “true” Sonoma Coast. I hated the original appellation because it was so huge and amorphous, but I will give it credit for sparking the imaginations of writers, many of whom thought the only credible place for Pinot Noir in Sonoma County was the Russian River Valley.
The far Sonoma Coast is, and always will be, a place only the wealthy can afford to plant vineyards. I think the days of pioneers like Daniel Schoenfeld (Wild Hog) and Ehren Jordan (Failla) are gone. But I also reject the contention that major players, like Joseph Phelps, Jackson Family and Jayson Pahlmeyer, cannot succeed, with diligent and thoughtful approaches. The far coast, more than any other Pinot Noir region in California, will be a testing-ground for winemakers who aspire to greatness and are willing to gamble with disappointment. This is grapegrowing at its extremities, where an off vintage, much less a winemaking mistake, can result in catastrophe.
There are very few common Pinot Noirs in the Russian River Valley. Certainly, given the number of producers (in the hundreds), the level of quality is extraordinarily high, especially when we have two vintages in a row—2012 and 2013—that both were very fine, although it looks like ’13 has the edge in terms of consistency.
This was brought home to me following the tasting of RRV Pinot Noirs I arranged last week. In general, I found two different types of wines: darker, more robust and fuller-bodied ones that also tend to be higher in alcohol, and paler, more delicate ones. And yet, some higher alcohol wines can be delicate, while some lower alcohol wines can be dark and heavy. In wine, as in life, beware of generalizations; and don’t go drawing conclusions based merely on alcohol level!
All the wines were tasted blind; identities weren’t revealed until the very end. (Note: I am currently paid by Jackson Family Wines, which owns Hartford Court and Siduri.) We had six or seven people, and the conversation was lively. Not everyone agreed on everything, but I think there was plenty of unanimity in the room, especially concerning the overall quality of these dozen fine wines.
Here are my notes, with scores:
Peirson Meyer 2012 Miller Vineyard. $40, 14.9%, 150 cases. Loved this wine. Complex nose of red cherries, cocoa, sandalwood, cola, persimmons, orange zest, cinnamon and clove. A little heat from alcohol, but not too much. Very high quality. The vineyard is south of Graton, at an elevation of 500 feet. The winemaker/co-owner, Robbie Meyer, has worked at Peter Michael, Lewis and Jericho Canyon. Good for a newish winery to score this well against far more famous veterans. Score: 93.
Paul Hobbs 2013 Ulises Valdez Vineyard. $70, 14.1%. Darker in color, richer and denser than A, despite lower alcohol. Go figure. A bit soft and over-extracted, with cherry pie, cocoa and pruney flavors. Ripe and voluptuous, but a bit too thick for my tastes, and some hard, bitter tannins in the finish. The vineyard is in the Green Valley, near Sebastopol. Score: 88.
Merry Edwards 2012 Meredith Estate. $57, 14.5%. Rich garnet-ruby color. Very aromatic, lots of crushed cherries, rose petal, tea, dried herbs, baking spices. Quite tannic at this time. Complex, layered, but very young. Give it at least six more years. The vineyard is in the Sebastopol Hills area. Score: 92.
Joseph Swan 2012 Trenton Estate. $59, 14.3%, 447 cases. Pale, translucent ruby color leading to delicate, complex aromas of golden tobacco, cranberries, persimmons, cola, cinnamon and clove, sandalwood. Feels delicate and silky, but quite intense in fruits and spices. Nice toast. Good finish. Gentle and lovely now. I thought it will age well, but others disagreed. Score: 93.
Siduri 2013 Keefer Ranch. $46, 14.2%. Pretty ruby color. Fine quality wine. Tasting a bit one-dimensional now, but it’s a pretty dimension. Classic Russian River Pinot: dry, silky, good acidity, nice cherry-cranberry fruit. Lovely to drink now. If I were teaching a class in Pinot Noir 101, I’d use this. Score: 91.
Rochioli 2013 Estate. $60, 14.5%. Good color. Jammy pie flavors (raspberries, cherries). Nice dusty tannins, good acidity, smooth finish. Somewhat oaky and a little rustic. A bit on the light side. This is Rochioli’s basic estate Pinot Noir, not the block bottlings which tend to be superior. Score: 89.
Hartford Court 2012 Fog Dance. $65, 14.7%. Big aromatics: baking spices, smoke, masses of cherries, raspberries, blackberries, plums, sweet vanilla, balsam, wild mushrooms. Ripe, flashy tannins, good acidity. A flamboyant, showy wine that drinks well now and will improve. Also, ironically, an intellectual wine: I kept coming back and finding more. Score: 94.
Failla 2013 Keefer Ranch. $45, 13.7%. A pretty wine, polished and supple. A little disconnected now in the mouth: the oak, raspberries, tannins, acidity and spices haven’t knit together yet. I suspect most people will drink it now, but you really should age it unti 2020. A few tasters found it a bit hollow, but not me. Score: 92.
Dutton-Goldfield 2012 Dutton Ranch Freestone Hill Vineyard. $58, 13.5%, 613 cases. Pretty dark. Feels big and full-bodied despite the lowish alcohol. Dense, glyceriney. Could be more delicate, but it could be an ager. Oodles of black cherries and blackberries, orange rind, cinnamon, smoke. Considerable oak is evident. Hold until 2020, when it could easily be a 93-94 point wine.
Gary Farrell 2012 Hallberg Vineyard. $39, 14.2%. Nice to see this venerable winery doing well despite all the ups and downs of ownership. Combines delicacy with power. Intense flavors, firm tannins, some minerality underneath the bitter cherry candy and mushroom flavors. Very complex and layered, but needs time. Best after 2020. The vineyard is in Green Valley, near Sebastopol. Score: 93.
Dehlinger 2012 Altamont. $70, 14.8%. Oak wood and spice notes dominate, along with strong tannins. Buried underneath is raspberry compote, sour cherry Lifesaver candy and exotic baking spices. Supple mouthfeel, very high class wine, noble, but young. Altamont is from a hilly section of the estate vineyard, which is south of River Road, in the cool, foggy Laguna Ridge section of the valley. Wait until 2020. Score: 94.
Hartford Court 2012 Hailey’s Vineyard. $65, 14.6%. A wonderful wine. At first I was suspicious of the tremendous extract (raspberries, black cherries, kirsch liqueur) and considerable oak (44% new French) but then the innate strength and elegance hit me. A flashy, sexy wine that grew complex as it breathed, giving off notes of balsam and tamari. There is a core of iron-driven firmness I associate with Gold Ridge soils. Very impressive for drinking now and will age. Score: 94.
My tasting yesterday of eight Carneros Pinot Noirs was enormously instructive to me, even after all these years. Afterwards, we tried to put together four attributes that linked all the wines, and they were:
- a “Burgundian” earthy, mushroomy thing
- nice, ripe California fruit
Of course, identifying regional typicity is possible only in high-end wines, preferably single vineyards but not necessarily. As it turned out, there were two fabulous wines that really captured Carneros: one on the Napa side, the other on the Sonoma side. But these boundaries are political fantasies: true terroir doesn’t follow county lines, which is why Carneros was properly recognized by the Feds as the first AVA that crossed counties, because it was defined by climate and soil.
Here are my notes, somewhat abbreviated.
Donum 2012 West Slope, $90. The first wine in the flight. It blew me away so much that I decided to return to it after the last wine. Sometimes the first wine of a flight (and of the day) can seem better than it inherently is. It showed the most wonderfully ripe, pure raspberries and cherries, with plenty of exotic Asian spices, smoky oak, great acidity and polished tannins. After an hour in the glass the oak emerged as a stronger force. There also was a rich, mulchy mushroominess. This is a fabulous wine with a future. Score: 94 points.
La Rochelle 2011 Donum Estate, $80. A real disappointment. It was bretty but also thin. Well, it’s 2011, after all. Score: 84 points.
Carneros Hills 2013 Estate, $36. I work for Jackson Family Wines, which owns this winery. The wine was okay. Nothing wrong with it, in fact a pretty good wine, but the best I could do was 87 points. I know that Carneros Hills is a work in progress and I expect better things from it in the future.
Hartford Court 2012 Sevens Bench Vineyard, $65. Another Jackson Family Wines wine, and another disappointment. It was too hot in alcohol—officially 15% but I think higher than that. I scored it at 87 points.
Cattleya 2012 Donum Vineyard, $85. This was one of the better wines in the flight: rich, fruity and young, but a little soft. I thought it might improve in 3-4 years and scored it at 90 points.
Paul Hobbs 2013 Hyde Vineyard, $75. A fabulous wine. Savory, rich, complex, complete. Raspberries, plums, cherries, great savoir faire. Right up there with the Donum West Slope. Score: 93 points.
Saintsbury 2012 Lee Vineyard, $54. We all frankly found this wine a little unassertive. Nothing particularly wrong with it, just lacking that extra oomph. Score: 87 points.
Stemmler 2012 Estate, $44. It was better than the Saintsbury but not even close to the Donum or Paul Hobbs. A good, sound, well-made Carneros Pinot Noir. Score: 89 points.
Some critics have claimed to find minerality in Carneros Pinot Noir. I did not—at least, not as much as you find in Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir.
The question arose as to whether we can assume that the Napa side of Carneros is warmer than the Sonoma side. I do think that’s true, overall: Sonoma Carneros is that much more open to the Petaluma Gap. But it differs with individual wineries: when they want to pick, how ripe they want the brix or flavors to get before they pick. And there are differences in climate even within Napa, which is why the question of Haut Carneros—approaching the Mayacamas foothills—and Bas Carneros—the muddy, sandy, silty flats along San Pablo Bay—continues to be a fascinating one. I don’t know about the Frenchisms, but I do think this process of further distinguishing Carneros’s terroirs would be further along if they’d allowed more small, creative wineries to do business there.
Carneros has lost much of its luster over the last twenty years. But the potential is there for Carneros to re-gain the reputation it once had, and again be a contender.
Nice, balanced treatment of the In Pursuit of Balance movement and those who think it’s silly by Bruce Schoenfeld in the New York Times magazine. The very fact that this phenomenon has hit the pages of the Gray Lady is indicative of how important IPOB has become in the weltanschauung of our wine conversation.
Let me get this out of the way immediately: I’ve thought since IPOB’s inception that they’re too ideological in declaring that some wines are “balanced” and some aren’t and that the dividing line is some ill-defined notion of alcoholic strength.
I don’t believe I’m one of the “invective-filled…partisans” who opposes IPOB, in Schoenfeld’s words; he catches the family quarrel well, but does tend to exaggerate the animosities a little bit—bringing in Robert Parker and his stinging critiques of IPOB (“jihadists,” “anti-pleasure,” “useless”) makes things sound worse than they are. For my part, I certainly wouldn’t use inflammatory language like that. But then, IPOB’s supporters haven’t gone after me the way they’ve gone after Parker. (I’m not important enough.)
If you believe IPOB you’d think that their members all make Pinot Noirs below 14%, but at the recent San Francisco tasting, there was Calera, whose wines can exceed 14.5%. For example, the 2007 Ryan I reviewed was 14.7%, and it was a very good wine I gave 93 points. But how do you explain Calera’s presence in IPOB? This is not a diss of Calera, whose wines I quite like, or of Josh Jensen, whom I respect, but it is a question posed to Raj Parr and Jasmine Hirsch. Why is Calera there? Are you saying that most other Pinot Noirs of that alcohol range are “unbalanced” but by some divine intervention, Calera isn’t? Enquiring minds want to know.
I give IPOB credit for sparking this conversation. Whether it’s a conversation that actually leads to any responsible conclusions, however, remains to be seen. Some years ago, the conversation in California was all about “food wines”—what they are, what they aren’t. Then, it was the application of oak that was at the heart of the chatter. This IPOB thing is a modern rendition of that discussion, which actually did have the positive result that it led to a renewed consideration of the proper application of oak to wine. There seems to be something self-regulating in the American wine industry—helped by social media and the chatty opinionizing that characterizes the wine industry—that perceives excesses almost as soon as they occur and tries to curtail them. This is a good thing.
But I suspect that IPOB will run its course in due time; other organizations will arise and fall, people’s attention will be diverted elsewhere, California’s climate will certainly play a role, and Raj, Jasmine and IPOB will go on to other, less contentious things. In the meantime, they’ve already succeeded in making wineries (which means winery owners) make, at the very least, contingency plans for what to do if, in fact, there is a serious consumer swing towards low-alcohol wines. I don’t think there is, yet, although if you read the wine press voraciously you might be forgiven for thinking it’s already happened. But this is how the media works nowadays: somebody stirs the pot, everybody starts talking about it, and the next thing you know, self-fulfilling prophecies pop up all over the place.
Have a great weekend!
Sauvignon Blanc is one of those grape varieties that seems to benefit from judicious blending from multiple sources in California. Cool-climate Sauvignon Blanc can be audacious and savory in gooseberries, with a touch of pyrazine that can be too green for many people. Warm-climate Sauvignon can have delicious tropical fruit flavors but be a little candied. Either, by itself, can have limitations, especially in an off-vintage; but blending them together seems to smooth out the divots. While it’s true that some of my highest-scoring Sauvignon Blancs ever were Mondavi Tokalons, this is a rare exception in California; Sauvignon Blanc in our state veers towards the ordinary, and it takes some great grape sourcing and careful blending to come up with a serious wine.
Pinot Noir, on the other hand, is considerably more interesting as a single-vineyard wine. I’m not sure why, other than to trot out the usual theories of site-specificity, thinner skins and terroir transparency. Perhaps psychically we’re more forgiving to a slightly flawed Pinot Noir from a vineyard. I used to wonder why a great Pinot Noir couldn’t be a blend of, say, Santa Rita Hills and Anderson Valley. It can in theory, of course, but while I’ve experienced many, many very beautiful blended Pinot Noirs, the wine always seems more interesting and complex when the grapes are from a single vineyard.
Then there’s Cabernet Sauvignon. I’m tempted to say it, too, wants to be from a single vineyard, but there are so many interesting, great Cabs that break that rule. I, personally, am a huge fan of Cardinale, which is a blend of various vineyards in Napa Valley. Yes, I work for Jackson Family Wines, but I didn’t when I gave the 2006 100 points, and I’ve never had a Cardinale I didn’t find dazzling. So I can’t say that Cabernet has to be from a single vineyard to be world class.
I think Zinfandel is probably best as a vineyard-designate, although it has to be a super-great vineyard, well-tended, and, if possible, old vines. As for Chardonnay, I’m divided on that one. It’s such a winemaker’s wine (barrels, malo, lees) that the sourcing doesn’t seem like it should matter, as long as it’s from a cool climate. And yet, as I look over my Wine Enthusiast reviews, I notice that my highest Chardonnay scores were reserved for single vineyard wines: Failla 2010 estate, Williams Selyem 2010 Allen Vineyard, Rochioli 2010 South River Vineyard, Dutton-Goldfield 2010 Dutton Ranch Rued Vineyard, Ramey 2012 Ritchie Vineyard, Flowers 2011 Moon Select, Shafer 2009 Red Shoulder Ranch.
There’s something intellectual about a single-vineyard wine, especially if you’ve been to the vineyard, walked it, had it explained to you by the winemaker or grapegrower. The Allen Vineyard, for instance, is such a distinctive place; every time I have an Allen Chardonnay or Pinot Noir, I imagine that particular place, the slight slope, the vineyard tucked up against the hills to the west, Westwide Road on the east, and the Russian River just on the other side of Rochioli. It’s a “sweet spot,” midway between the chill of the southern valley and the warmth of Dry Creek Valley, a lovely corner of the Russian River Valley that I hope will someday be appellated as The Middle Reach.
The market, of course, rewards single-vineyard wines. I can’t prove it with data, but I bet if someone crunched the numbers, they’d find that single-vineyard wines are more expensive, on average, than blended wines. I think that a winery that produces a single-vineyard wine as a very special bottling, superior in their view to their blended wines, is in the catbird’s seat, but you can’t simply assume that a vineyard-designated wine has special properties. I’ve had plenty of sad vineyard-designated wines; some have been horrible. So you never know; you have to taste the wine. Consumers want assurances, but there are none in wine. Every rule has an exception.
The most interesting quote in the Napa Valley Register’s article on the 30th birthday of the Carneros Wine Alliance is from David Graves. The co-founder of Saintsbury said, “There’s no ‘Napa of pinot noir.’ No one place dominates the market.”
Isn’t it interesting how the cultural evolution of the market has treated our two leading red wine types so differently? One, Cabernet Sauvignon, has become almost exclusively dominated, in the mind of the consumer, with a single appellation: Napa Valley. The other, Pinot Noir, resists being associated with a dominating region. Indeed, if you were to ask leading wine critics, What is California’s top Pinot Noir appellation, they would tell you the question makes no sense.
Beyond being merely of academic interest, this is a pocketbook issue. How much a winery gets for its wine (and how much, in turn, the consumer pays for it) are intimately linked with the wine’s origin. While the average statewide price for a ton of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes in 2013 was $1,339, in Napa Valley it was $5,469, a difference of 308 percent. Pragmatically, this is why the average bottle of Napa Valley Cabernet is many times higher that the average bottle of Cabernet from, say, Alexander Valley.
This is not true of Pinot Noir, whose price tends to be more consistent across all the top coastal growing areas. Here are some examples, all reflective of the price of a ton of grapes in 2013:
Santa Barbara/San Luis Obispo: $2,586
Indeed, as I have long suggested, when it comes to Pinot Noir, it is somewhat misleading to focus on individual growing regions. Instead, the way to look at things is that we have a single Pinot Noir terroir that stretches from Anderson Valley down to Santa Barbara County, extending inland perhaps 20 miles. No single A.V.A. within this vast stretch can plausibly pretend to supremacy because, in truth, all of them are roughly equal, although, of course, wine writers and critics make their livings discerning differences within the similarities.
In the case of Napa’s lopsided price for Cabernet, this cannot be credited to matters of terroir. Napa Valley demonstrably is not the best, only place to grow qualitatively significant Cabernet Sauvignon in California. Alexander Valley has equal precedence. So too do the Santa Cruz Mountains, Paso Robles, the easternmost parts of Santa Barbara, Lake County and other regions of Sonoma County, including Sonoma Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Knights Valley and Chalk Hill. (I refer, in all cases, to the top wines.) I don’t think any critic who’s being objective would object when I say that prime Cabernet growing areas in California are at least as widespread as those for prime Pinot Noir.
Why, then, the incredible price differential on behalf of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon? One reason and one reason only: perception. Napa Valley is perceived as being the best place to grow Cabernet. That perception clearly impacts the choice of consumers (and the restaurateurs and merchants who sell wine to them), but it also distorts the impressions of a surprisingly high number of critics, who do not taste blind and thus are subject to the biases within their own unconscious or subconscious minds.
Now that I’ve been “relieved” of the job of tasting many thousands of wines a year, I find I’m developing a refreshingly clearer sense concerning these matters of terroir. Perhaps it’s a form of now being able to see the forest for the trees. If one is looking for pleasure and complexity in wine (and what else would one look for?), then it’s simply astonishing how easy it is to find those qualities in California wine. This is not to suggest that quality differences do not exist, but it is my considered judgment that these differences are neither as vast as I once thought, nor as distinctive as consumers believe. This may be due, in part, to the 100-point system, which I long employed and for which I will never apologize. But I am glad that, when it came to very high scores for Cabernet, I always included Alexander Valley right up there with Napa Valley, for I was able to get past the “perception thing” and focus on the wine itself.
The history of California wine is replete with paradigm-shifting events, such as the Paris Tasting, the advent of the current era of Pinot Noir, replanting after phylloxera, and, if we go back far enough, to the use of French barriques and the creation of the Federal labeling laws. To these, I will predict a gradual shifting in the consumer’s perception, a widening of appreciation that great Cabernet Sauvignon can in fact come from many more places than only Napa Valley. When this will occur is open to question, but I have no doubt that it will.