Off to Willamette Valley today, my first trip there in many years. This is to check out some of Jackson Family Wines’ vineyard holdings. Yesterday, after a brief meeting at JFW in Santa Rosa, I zoomed back to Oakland to get to BART to go to San Francisco for a greatly anticipated meeting with California Lieutenant-Governor Gavin Newsom. I’ll be doing a Q&A with him on the blog early next week, when I get a chance to transcribe our long interview. Then, on Thursday, it’s the final baseball game of the year, Giants versus Dodgers, with old pal Jose Diaz. On Friday, another tasting with my JFW family, this time of Santa Rita Hills Chardonnays. So it’s been and will be a busy week.
I will offer this little peek into my conversation with Governor Newsom. (“Governor” actually is the proper honorific; not “Lieutenant-Governor.”) He is very optimistic about the future of the wine, food and entertainment industries in California, which is why his PlumpJack Group of companies is rapidly expanding.
People, especially younger ones, want to enjoy the good life, and in coastal California, the good life is all about eating and drinking well, with friends, in a companionable atmosphere. Throw in a little music and dancing, and that’s it! I remember when I moved to San Francisco, longer ago than I care to remember. I was young, happy, and had a little money. There was nothing better than being with pals, out on the town at night, laughing and having a great time. Of course, the problem now is that, in the late Seventies and Eighties, you didn’t need a lot of money to have fun in San Francisco. Now, you do. Even so, I knew people at that time who remembered the San Francisco of the 1950s and 1960s, and who complained that the City was changing too fast, was becoming too expensive, etc. etc.
So some things never change. San Francisco always is in the process of becoming. People move there, fall in love with it, and want it to stay exactly the same as it was in their glory days. Not going to happen. Nothing stays the same. I’ll venture a prediction: Twenty years from now, that technie who’s now in his 20s is going to gripe about how the San Francisco of the 2030s isn’t the same as it used to be! But San Francisco, whenever you move there, always retains its charm, its hold on you, its power to mesmerize you into thinking it’s the center of the Universe. Well, of the West Coast, anyway.
Anyhow, I’m looking forward to my visit to Willamette Valley. In our Pinot Noir tastings, the Willamette Pinot Noirs really dazzled me. If I had to choose a favorite, from all the appellations that we blind-tasted over six months, I’d have to say that Anderson Valley and Willamette were the standouts. I think it was because, as the most northerly in latitude, both of those regions offered earthy, mushroom and forest complexities to the fruit. They were the most “intellectual” Pinot Noirs. I always feel funny using that word, because it suggests that you have to think about the wines, not just enjoy them. Nothing could be further from the truth. But if you’re the sort of wine drinker who enjoys thinking about the wines you’re drinking, because they have so much going on, then they’re for you.
Have a great day!
At our weekly tastings at Jackson Family Wines, we’ve now finished with West Coast Pinot Noir and are ready to tackle Chardonnay.
I started Pinot many months ago with a roundup of wines from Santa Maria Valley. After that, in order going northward, came Santa Rita Hills, San Luis Obispo (Edna and Arroyo Grande valleys), Monterey County, the Santa Lucia Highlands and Chalone, the Santa Cruz Mountains, Carneros (both Napa and Sonoma), Russian River Valley, the “true” Sonoma Coast, Anderson Valley and, finally, Willamette Valley.
What did I find after this intensive tour de force?
All West Coast Pinot Noir is more alike than not. This is not to discount variations in alcohol level, ripeness and so forth; merely to ascertain that Pinot Noir, made competently in California and Oregon, has a character of delicacy, soft tannins, bright acidity and a juicy berry-ness that persists through changes in terroir and winemaking technique.
Still, there are broad differences. To me, Santa Maria Pinot Noir is characterized by black and blue fruits, brown spices, acidity and minerality. Santa Rita Pinot is balanced and complex, also with acidity but somehow more generous when young. San Luis Obispo Pinot can be variable: Edna Valley has varietal purity, Arroyo Grande ageability, in the best cases. Monterey County-appellated Pinots are simple but can be good values. Santa Lucia also is variable, depending on north or south; the wines are full-bodied and dense. Of Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir, it is difficult for me to judge, since there is so little, and what there is is scattered over vast differences of terroir. Carneros Pinot Noir is earthy and minerally and sometimes soft; newer plantings are helping to increase quality. Russian River Pinot Noir is another case study in difficulty of specificity, since the appellation is so broad. In general, it is rich and balanced, often veering towards cola, sassafras and winter fruits (persimmons and pomegranates), and the best are classic. Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir is just beginning to declare an identity, and what a glorious one it is: wild, feral and intricate, and, at the top levels, spectacular. Anderson Valley possibly triumphs over all its southern neighbors in sheer balance and harmony, especially in great vintages, like 2012 and 2013; but there is so little of it, quantity-wise. Up in Oregon, Willamette Valley Pinot, equally as vintage-driven as Anderson Valley, is the most “Burgundian” of American Pinot Noirs, with earthy, mushroom and tea notes. My most recent tasting of them blew me away. Anyway, what an exciting six months this has been for us tasting freaks!
And now here comes Chardonnay. I’ll round the wines up in the same south-to-north geographic order, starting again with Santa Maria Valley. How do I chose which wines to include in our tastings? It’s purely arbitrary, although there is a method to my madness. Since I can’t have every wine from each appellation, I have to pick and choose. My first parameter for choosing is my own experience: I select wines I’ve reviewed for many years and have given good scores to. I’m also interested in wines I haven’t tasted (at all, or recently), if a publication I regard gives them good scores. For example, the October 2015 issue of Wine & Spirits has a “Year’s Best Chardonnay” section that will give me some guidance. Many of these wines are not available on the current market, but I keep my fingers crossed and hope that, when I call the winery and identify myself, I have just enough name recognition remaining (after being largely out of circulation for 1-1/2 years) to wangle myself a bottle.
Since I’ve been doing a lot of phone and website ordering of wines lately, I’ve encountered an aspect of the direct-to-consumer experience that I wasn’t very familiar with. Critics mainly depend on tasting samples being sent to us, which means we don’t have to hit the telephone and the Internet the way “ordinary” consumers do to buy wine. I must say that, by and large, the DTC system works quite well. Most wineries seem to use the same software (shopping carts, proceed to checkout, etc.), and it’s really easy and intuitive to use. The main problem is wineries who, deliberately or through ignorance, make it almost impossible to get in touch with them. There have been one or two instances where the phone tag got so severe that I gave up trying to obtain the wine. Why would a winery make it so hard for me to buy their wine? It is a mystery.
One other frustration: The rules concerning sending wine, even in-state here in California, are confusing when it comes to the details of how UPS, FedEx, GSO and other shippers work. I’m sometimes told that FedEx and GSO will not deliver wine to me at my local UPS Store—even though they have been doing just that for years. Some wineries tell me they’re not allowed to send wine overnight. What’s up with that, if I’m willing to pay for it? These rigidities all are the residue of Prohibition, that stupid “experiment” when alcoholic beverages were considered “demons” and their transport within the country was made almost impossible.
Anyhow, on to Chardonnay, still #1 in America after all these years. There’s a rumor going ‘round that says vintners are making it more “balanced.” That means, I suppose, picking it less ripe. That’s fine, but the risk is turning Chardonnay into a lean, green machine, instead of the opulent wine I, and most other people, like. As usual, it’s a balancing act.
TO ALL OUR FRIENDS WHO ARE SUFFERING FROM THE VALLEY FIRE: This is truly awful. Our hearts and prayers go out to you.
I must confess how much I looked forward to our tasting last week of Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs. I exclusively reviewed California wines for a long time, and Oregon was a bit of a mystery to me. Of course, I’d had my share of Willamette Valley Pinot (and other varieties), but never really sat down for a focused, concentrated tasting. So this was a big deal for me.
It was our final tasting of West Coast Pinot Noir. We started in Santa Maria Valley, then worked our way north: Santa Rita Hills, San Luis Obispo County, Monterey County, Santa Lucia Highlands (with Chalone and Calera for good measure), Santa Cruz Mountains, Carneros, Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast, and Anderson Valley. So you can’t really get any further north than Willamette Valley.
With the results of those tastings fresh in my memory, I was eager to see if there really was a “Willamette Valley” character that’s distinct and non-Californian. A few thoughts: for one, this was the best of all our tastings, and that’s saying a lot, for in each tasting, I bought the very best wines—certainly the ones that the critics (including me) have given the highest scores to. Each of our tastings was brilliant, but this Willamette Valley flight was the most impressive, in terms of the sheer balance, complexity and consistency of all the wines.
Were they “earthier” than California Pinot Noir? I suppose, by some stretch of the imagination, they were: I frequently found mushroom and tea notes. But I also did in many of the California wines. I felt that the Oregon Pinots, however, were more Californian than I expected. This may be due to two factors: First, the vintages we explored—2012 and 2013—both were fine. My friends at Wine Enthusiast rated the former at 96 points and the latter at 92 points. Warm vintages = riper fruit = more Californian in style. Then, too, I had the impression that the Oregonians are letting their grapes hang longer than they used to. Although the alcohol levels were somewhat lower, on average, than the California Pinot Noirs, they weren’t that low. So maybe, taking advantage of two good vintages, the Oregonians decided to go for a more opulent, lusher style. At any rate, as I said, these wines were wonderfully balanced despite their richness.
Here are my results, from the lowest-scored to the highest.
The Eyrie Vineyards 2012 Original Vines Estate (Dundee Hills). $85, alc. 13.0%. A disappointment. I found it clumsy and jammy, with some herbaceousness. Score: 87.
Domaine Drouhin 2012 Edition Limitée (Dundee Hills). $85, alc. 14.1%. Very ripe, with lots of cherry pie and cocoa flavors, but a little heavy, and some sharpness. Score: 88.
Domaine Serene 2012 Evanstad Reserve (Dundee and Eola Hills). $70, alc. 14.3%. Could just be too young, but the wine was showing oak, rich fruit and some heat. Score: 89.
Ponzi 2012 Aurora Vineyard (Willamette Valley). $100, alc. 13.9%. We all found this wine candied, but I loved the earthiness. The acidity was quite searing. Score: 90.
Styring 2012 (Ribbon Ridge). $45, alc. 14.7%. The most Russian River-like of the flight. Masses of red fruits, cola, prosciutto. Flamboyant, a crowd-pleaser. Score: 91.
Ken Wright 2012 Shea Vineyard (Yamhil-Carlton). $57, alc. 14.0%. One of the darker wines, earthy and rich in mushrooms, persimmons and red licorice, with some thick tannins to shed. An ager. Score: 92.
Elk Cove 2012 Reserve (Willamette Valley). $85, alc. 14.0%. Another dark wine. Took a while to open up, then turned voluptuous, although the alcohol and oak showed. Score: 92.
Shea Wine Cellars 2012 Shea Vineyard “Homer” (Willamette Valley). $86, alc. 14.6%. Distinctly earthy, with coffee, dark chocolate and black cherry flavors, brightened with brisk acidity. Will age. Score: 94.
Adelsheim 2012 Temperance Hill (Eola-Amity Hills). $75, alc. 13.5%. Another dark, earthy-mushroomy wine, with cherry-berry fruit and good acidity. Just a baby, though, but fabulous. Score: 94, could go higher with age.
La Crema 2013 (Willamette Valley). $30, 13.5%. I had this wine a few months back and thought so highly of it I congratulated Elizabeth Grant-Douglas, the winemaker, which is not something I often do. On this occasion, it continued to dazzle. Raspberry fruit, prosciutto, orange zest, spice, toast, in a delicate framework. A feminine wine, but very intense and polished. Score: 95.
Gran Moraine 2013 (Yamhill-Carlton). $45, alc. 13.0%. What a beauty. Pale in color, delicate in the mouth, but super-intense, with strawberry, raspberry, cinnamon-clove and smoke flavors. Finely-ground tannins, bright acidity, very fine and wholesome. An intellectual wine. Score: 95.
Beaux Freres 2013 The Beaux Freres Vineyard (Ribbon Ridge). $90, alc. 13.0%. This beauty needed time to breathe, but when it opened up, wow. A floral wine, with hints of raspberry tea, cola, cinnamon toast and cherry pie. Great persistence and intensity. A bit of mushroom and earth. I wrote “a wine to talk about.” Spectacular. An ager. Score: 96.
Evening Land 2012 Seven Springs Vineyard (Eola-Amity Hills). $55, alc. 13.9%. One of the greatest Pinots I’ve had in a while. Gorgeous perfume of toasted tobacco, prosciutto, raspberries, cinnamon toast, and I even thought of waffles with butter and maple syrup. Intense, spicy, beautiful acidity. Bone dry, smooth, elegant, classic, simply brilliant. This may be an underscore. Score: 97.
A final word: La Crema and Gran Moraine are owned by Jackson Family Wines. This flight was tasted under absolutely blind (single-blind) conditions. Neither I, nor anyone else in the tasting, knew what the wines were until they were revealed. I’m sure that there are trolls out there who will question my integrity. They are few in number and miniscule in influence.
I’m tempted to say, pace Justice Stewart, that I can’t define “classic” wine, but I know one when I taste it, except that I can’t say that, either, because it’s not always true. I do know a classic wine when you tell me its name.
You: “Here’s Chateau Lafite-Rothschild.”
Me: “Oh, that’s a classic wine.”
But this gets us into the territory of blind tasting, and I’m tired of writing about that (I will again, but not now). However, this notion of “classic wines” is endlessly fascinating, because it involves, not just wine, tasting and judgment, but linguistic processes which, as a Stanford professor points out, “are pervasive in most fundamental domains of thought, unconsciously shaping us from the nuts and bolts of cognition and perception to our loftiest abstract notions…”.
This means, in brief, that the way we describe things—to ourselves and to others—shapes how we perceive them. This shouldn’t be surprising, in a post-Heisenberg world. But it would not have surprised our grandmothers, either, who understood the commonsense validity of “Where you stand depends on where you sit.”
Anyhow, bravo to Wine & Spirits for their Fall 2015 issue, which examines the question of what is a classic wine? It’s a spirited romp through the world of fine wine and, even if we’re no closer to defining “classic wine” at the end, getting there is a hell of a lot of fun.
One of the articles, by Luke Sykora, seeks to determine what are the classics of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Few surprises there from the past: For the 1960s and 1970s, Luke lists five: Charles Krug Vintage Selection, Beaulieu Georges de Latour, Freemark Abbey Bosché, Robert Mondavi Reserve and Heitz Martha’s Vineyard. (Luke also referenced specific vintages, but I am omitting them for convenience.)
Now, one could, theoretically, add others to the list, but lists, like undergarments, are best kept brief. Luke seems to have been influenced in his selection of yesteryear’s classics by Gerald Asher, who participated in a tasting with him; and certainly there is no living wine writer better equipped to pronounce on Napa Valley Cabernet from that era than Gerald. In him, we see one parameter of defining “classics” that is sometimes overlooked: authority, which means that the situation has been codified by some person or panel of the utmost esteem. (Indeed, the 1855 Classification itself possessed authority only because its drafters were so respected.) In other words, if Gerald says that these five Cabs are classic (and this statement is in accord with our general understanding), then we are inclined to agree.
So much for the 1960s and 1970s. We now move forward to today. What are the new classics? To answer this, Luke’s group, which included Gerald, tasted a dozen wines from the 2012 vintage. Luke didn’t identify the complete lineup, but listed three that “seemed destined to show life and typicity in 20 to 30 years’ time,” meaning that ageworthiness is one of the qualities Luke’s group associates with a classic Cab. The chosen three wines were Dominus, Spottswoode and Robert Mondavi Tokalon Reserve.
So we have implicitly implicated three qualities that constitute the definition of “classic”: authority, typicity and ageworthiness. All are big, weighty, dense but, as we shall see, problematic constructs. Authority presupposes a writer/critic of longstanding reputation, a person of good will and trustworthiness, whose intellectual capacities cannot be doubted. We always have had such individuals: Thomas Jefferson, André Simon, Professor Saintsbury, Michael Broadbent, Hugh Johnson. In more modern times we move to more controversial choices, Robert Parker being the obvious candidate; but everything in our morally discombobulated world these days is controversial. If we continue the arc of time into the future, things seem destined to grow more and more controversial, meaning that we may (sooner than we think) run out of authority figures, which will call into question the notion of “authority” itself. If there are no authority figures, who will tell us what wines are classic?
But wait, there’s more: the second quality that defined “classic” was typicity. But here, too, we are in profoundly murky waters. “Typicity” as we’ve known it is melting faster than the Arctic icecaps. In Burgundy and Chablis, typicity almost no longer exists, as producers do things their grandfathers would have found appalling. Global warming also undoes typicity. Besides, who—in this welter of controversial topics—is to decide what is “typical” and what is “atypical” anyway? And if something happens to be “atypical” who’s to say it’s not the “new typical”? You see how complicated this can be.
And then there’s the third thing that underlies classic wine: ageworthiness. But if we’re prepared to accept Luke’s contention that ageworthiness can only be determined after “20 to 30 years,” then we may not be able to arrive at a conclusion about which Napa Cabs are classic today until the year 2035, at least. This is not a very satisfactory solution for those of us who want to know now. Nor will it take into account those wineries that (a) do not exist today, or (b) are not part of the tastings by which we will determine ageworthiness, since such tastings always have an arbitrariness to the selection process.
What are we to do? My answer is to do away with the notion of “classic” wines. “Classic” is a word. As the Stanford professor warned, language “unconsciously shap[es] us from the nuts and bolts of cognition and perception to our loftiest abstract notions.” Surely defining “classic” wines is a lofty abstract notion, but it’s also a fundamentally unfair one that skews our perceptions into outright bias against other wines that are not so deemed.
Besides, what of Pinot Noir? We have no such comparable historical examples of it in California, the way we do with Cabernet Sauvignon. During Gerald Asher’s 1960s and 1970s, who were the equivalent names in Pinot Noir to Charles Krug and Beaulieu? There were none, even though some wineries (including Beaulieu) had tinkered with Pinot. Therefore, there are no “classic” Pinot Noirs from the 1960s and 1970s. What, then, would be considered “classic” Pinot Noir today? Bold is the critic who would dare to declaim that list. Should Rochioli and Williams Selyem be on it due to their historical placement? The early bird doth not necessarily a classic wine make. Is Sanford, which has undergone more transformations than Caitlyn Jenner, classic? I will not even mention Chalone. The problem is that there are so many great Pinot houses, with seemingly more popping up all the time, that to attempt to construct a list of “classics” is sheer folly, even if it makes for entertaining journalism.
So let’s be done with this notion of “classic” wines. It’s one more yoke of the past we can safely jettison.
And what a fabulous tasting it was. This was really one of the most interesting sessions I’ve been to in years. For one thing, the level of wineries was exceptionally high, as it tend to be in this sprawling appellation. We’re also dealing with two very good years, 2012 and 2103.
As usual—and as we saw in our tasting of Russian River Valley Pinots last week—two styles of wine emerged: one paler in color and generally lower in alcohol, and the other darker and more full-bodied. It was quite impossible to rule one style or the other out: both succeeded. Of the fifteen wines we tasted, I scored each at 91 points or higher.
Here are my notes, from highest on down. They generally accorded with the group’s findings. All the wines were tasted blind during our 2-1/2 hour session, which included plenty of spirited conversation.
Williams Selyem 2012 Precious Mountain, $94, 13.6%. Over my years at Wine Enthusiast, this bottling became my favorite of the winery’s many vineyard designations. Once again, it didn’t disappoint. Gives off a tremendous perfume of aromatics: spices, sandalwood, toast, persimmon, sassafras. In the mouth, delicate but intense, bone dry, with masses of sweet fruit and a long, spicy finish. Such sophistication, so high-toned. A real beauty, and will age. Score: 97.
Hirsch 2012 Block 8, $85, 13.4%. The official appellation beginning with the 2013 will be Fort Ross-Seaview. The wine has a beautifully clear, prismatic translucence. It is delicately perfumed with strawberry and pomegranate jam, black tea, rose petal, smoke and dusty spices. Rich, spicy, complex, bone dry, with great acidity. Shows the wild, feral quality you often find in these Fort Ross Pinot Noirs. An intellectual wine, with mystery; feminine. Score: 96.
Hartford Court 2012 Seascape, $70, 14.4%. The vineyard is west of Occidental. The wine is young and fruity, with tons of raspberry jam, wild mushroom, root beer, black tea and exotic spice notes. Shows smooth, complex tannins and great balancing acidity. A dramatic, compelling wine, with a very long finish. Will certainly age. From Jackson Family. Score: 95.
Wild Ridge 2012, price unknown, 14.5%. A brilliant translucent ruby color. Absolutely luscious. Delicate and silky, with fabulous spices and raspberry-cherry fruit, cocoa powder, mushrooms, forest floor earthiness. Great acidity. This is a Jackson Family Wines brand that I wasn’t all that familiar with. The vineyard is in Annapolis, at an elevation of 900 feet. Score: 95.
DuMol 2012 Eoin, $79, 14.1%. This was the only wine in our tasting that was grown east of the 101 Freeway. The vineyard is east of Petaluma, influenced by the Petaluma Wind Gap. The aroma began with oak, and the first impression was of a jammy wine, with persimmons, blackberries, cherries, root beer and orange zest. Smooth tannins, great acidity. Later, a peat moss tang emerged. A lovely wine for holding until 2018, at least. Score: 95.
Littorai 2013 The Pivot, $70, 13.1%. The estate vineyard is between Sebastopol and Freestone. The wine is very dry and tart with acids, with some floral notes. The lowish alcohol shows in the light, delicate mouthfeel. Very pretty and supple, with complex rose petal, tart strawberry, black tea and brown spice notes. I couldn’t help but think of charcuterie with this wine. Give it another 5 years. Score: 95.
Joseph Phelps 2012 Quarter Moon Vineyard, $75, 13.8%. A darker color suggesting greater extract. Tremendous fruit, almost sappy: raspberries, cherries, cola, sassafras, cocoa dust. Showed an iodine, peat note, like an Islay Scotch. Tons of spices: clove, star anise, pepper. Rich, heady, dramatic, full-bodied. A great overall impression The vineyard is in Freestone, at 500 feel in elevation. Score: 95.
Hartford 2012 Far Coast, $70, 14.8%. The vineyard is up near Annapolis. This was a substantial wine, darker in color and full-bodied. Erupted in freshly ripe cherries and persimmons, with an earthy, mushroomy note. Feels rich and harmonious, with fine tannins and brisk acidity. Certainly a wine that needs time to evolve. Best after 2018. Score: 94.
Siduri 2013 Hirsch Vineyard, price unknown, 14.1%. One of the more delicate entries, and quite similar to the Hirsch Block 8, although of course the vintage is different. Lots of black tea, licorice, sweet raspberry, rhubarb and even some leather flavors. Exotic and savory. Feels elegant, spicy, complex, but needs time. 2018 and beyond. Another Jackson Family Wines wine. Score: 94.
Martinelli 2012 Blue Slide Ridge, $95, 15.2%. Good ruby color, with tremendous aromatics: violets, rose petals, raspberries, cola, black tea, cinnamon, clove and cumin spice. Lots of charm, with zesty acidity and rich tannins. Fancy and complex, but I found a touch of heat in the finish, which must have come from the relatively high alcohol. Still, Score: 93.
Lynmar 2013 Terra de Pormissio, $70, 14.3%. A darker wine, made from grapes purchased from this well-known Petaluma Wind Gap vineyard. Big, rich and full-bodied, but a little heavy, with extracted, jammy raspberry fruit and some meaty bacon. Delicious, but could be defter and more delicate. Almost like Grenache. Hold until 2018 and see. Score: 93.
Wayfarer 2012 Wayfarer Vineyard, $90, 14.5%. One of the darkest wines in the flight. At first, the aroma was muted. It took a while for the black cherries, black tea and persimmons to emerge. Quite full-bodied and tannic, a bigger, bolder style that needs time to develop. Despite the power, there’s plenty of harmony. From Jayson Pahlmeyer. Score: 93.
Hartford 2013 Land’s Edge, $50, 15%. The wine is a blend of the Far Coast and Seascape vineyards. I found some heat from alcohol, but otherwise, the wine is rich and exotic, with sassafras, raspberry, gingerbread cookie, cinnamon and clove aromas and flavors. Some sweet glycerine around the edges. I would certainly love this with a grilled steak. Score: 92.
Peay 2013 Pomarium Estate, $56, 13.5%. From way up near Sea Ranch, in Annapolis. I called it a “pretty” wine. Tons of sweet red fruit and berries, very spicy, with nice oak application. Some earthy herbs add interest. Polish, supple, easy to drink, with great harmony. I may have missed something; others liked it more than I did. Score: 91.
* * *
Last week I blogged at my disappointment by the S.F. Chronicle’s wine coverage, or lack thereof. I got an email from the newspaper’s managing editor, who felt that I had done The Chron a disservice. She wrote that her team is “doubling down on our wine coverage, have a new critic/writer starting next week and plan several new publications around our wine and spirits journalism.” The new wine writer, whom I do not know, previously was at Wine Spectator.
Well, as Donald Rumsfeld famously observed, there are unknown unknowns in life. I did not know that the Chron is planning on this greatly-expanded new wine coverage, because how could I? I subscribe, I read the paper every day, and I saw nothing to alert us readers to these new realities. I welcome them: As I wrote, the Chron is Northern California’s biggest newspaper, at the gateway to wine country. I’ve read it daily for close to 40 years. No one can be more pleased than I that they are once again going to cover wine.
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.