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Field notes: Joseph Swan and Jayson Woodbridge (Hundred Acre)

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It’s easy to make a splash in the wine biz in California if you have a few hundred million in spare change to invest in a fabulous winery designed by a famous architect, then hire a famous consulting winemaker, put out a $150 Cabernet that goes on to be the top lot at the Napa Valley Auction or Premier Napa Valley, and then hire a top of the line P.R. firm to spread the word about your fabulosity.

It’s hard to make a splash when your “winery” is a dumpy little wooden barn on “the wrong side of the hill”, you have no budget for P.R. or much of anything else, and you don’t even make Cabernet. But it can be done, and for proof you need look no further than Joseph Swan Vineyards.

I’ve been a Swan fan forever. I began tasting their wines (not for review, for sheer enjoyment) in the 1980s. I still remember a dinner at Chez Panisse at which Swan’s winemaker (and Joe Swan’s son-in-law), Rod Berglund, brought down a bunch of old wines for a tasting, for which Alice Waters prepared a magnificent meal (lamb, if I recall correctly). Those wines had aged perfectly even though some of them were 20 years old. (I covered the winery extensively in my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River.)

I reviewed a bunch of their latest releases yesterday and was again reminded just how good and authentic Swan wines are. Few wineries in California have such a good track record across so many varieties. I’ve given consistent high scores to Swan Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Syrah, Viognier, Chardonnay and even to a Tannat I loved last year. Can you name another winery that performs so well in so many kinds of wine? Off the top of my head, I can’t. The reason, I think, is because Swan is very careful to source their grapes only from the coolest parts of the Russian River Valley, and the best vineyards. It’s also because Rod is a hell of a winemaker. His Pinot Noirs are probably his best wines; I gave his the 2007 Trenton Estate 97 points, and at $52 it’s less than a lot of Pinots that aren’t even as good. You could call it Burgundian because it has such great acidity and a mushroomy thing going on that’s obviously pure terroir, but I think I’m going to stop referencing wines as “Burgundian” because, after all, the correct word to use is “Russian River Valley-an” or “Trentonian” or some other word that’s about our terroir, not theirs.

So kudos to Joseph Swan Vineyards and Rod Berglund. They’re still going strong after all these years.

* * *

I’m headed up to Napa later this morning to hang with Jayson Woodbridge, the owner/winemaker at Hundred Acre, Layer Cake and Cherry Pie. I want to see how his vintage is coming along (and to see him, too. Fascinating guy). We chatted briefly on the phone the other day and he was excited. Now, vintners are always “excited” about the latest vintage, or so they claim when talking with ink-stained wretches like me. I think they’d find something positive to say if an asteroid hit Napa Valley right in the middle of harvest. “The Asteroid Vintage of the Century!” But I agree with Jayson’s take. The rainfall of the first and second weeks of October was a drag and everybody was scared witless by as much as 4 inches that drenched Sonoma and Napa. But they’re dancing in the cellars over the weather that followed: two weeks of absolutely gorgeous, drop dead beautiful weather, dry, sunny and warm. No big heat at all, just mild, breezy conditions that will dry out the ground and the leaves and grapes still on the vine. I think this could be a tough vintage for the coolest coastal locations (Sonoma Coast Chardonnay, for example), where growers could experience mold and unripeness, in addition to severely short crops. But the star of the vintage might just well be Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and Meritages, although the best will be produced in miniscule quantities because of this low-yielding year.


Finding the perfect context for wine appreciation

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Of all the things I’ve done over the last 30 years to understand wine–reading countless books, tasting 100,000 wines, interviewing hundreds of winemakers and growers–nothing has so “filled me with the spirit” of wine as when I wrote my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, which was published in 2005 (but reissued, with a new introduction, last year by University of California Press).

That effort took the better part of two years. I saturated myself in wine, not literally, of course (I just had an image of me taking a bath in Pinot Noir), but in the sense that, for almost every day in 2003-2004, I awoke on a day that began precisely where the previous one had left off: immersed in this book. I thought about it constantly, edited myself all the time, dreamed about it at night, worked out the conceptual structure as I drove my car, came up with new ideas in the shower, and spent every minute I could traveling along the Russian River, by every conceivable mode of transportation, having adventures and meeting people, exploring vineyards, eating and drinking on the river, and even, on one unhappy but memorable occasion, almost drowning in water so cold in winter snowmelt, it gave me a case of hypothermia that permanently discombobulated my internal thermostat. I was trapped in whitewater rapids, hanging on for dear life to a “strainer,” a fallen tree whose gnarled limbs looked ominously like wizened fingers, clutched in a death grip to which I clung lest the angry current sweep me away.

In retrospect, it was the perfect metaphor for the way I conducted my research: when someone says they plunged themselves into their work, I can say I did it literally! One of the things I was proudest of in that book was that it contained no wine reviews. I might have filled it with formal notes, but decided not to, because I wanted to write a book that would stand the test of time and be interesting and relevant to future readers. And there’s nothing staler or duller than old wine reviews.

The culture of wine always has appealed to me at least as much as its science, or even as much as tasting. By “culture” I mean the places, the natural formations (rivers, cliffs, mountains, fields, marshes, streams, landslides, forests, wildflowers, gullies, estuaries) that are indigenous to every wine region. The animals too: snakes, deer, wildcats, winery dogs and cats. And the people! The wine industry is never devoid of characters, that’s for sure. There’s a context to every wine that’s important to comprehend, if you’re to fully experience a wine in its fullness. To drink a glass of Robert Mondavi Tokalon Fume Blanc in that vineyard, with Tim Mondavi: that’s context. To witness the Rochioli Vineyard, the source of so many great wines I’ve had over the years, at various times of the year–in the full bloom of harvest, completely underwater during a ferocious winter storm–to have climbed up its bank, as the gravelly dirt slid out from under my feet, is to have given my next experience of a Rochioli wine added depth and imagery. To have known the Rochiolis, Joe, Jr. and Tom, further compounds my appreciation of their wines. To have been present at the creation of Williams Selyem’s estate vineyard [formerly Litton Estate], as the bulldozers broke ground and pulled mountains of rocks out–to have been there the day an arborist warned Bob Cabral he’d better pull out some century-old trees before a storm blew them down on somebody’s head, only to have Bob decide that, No, he couldn’t do it, and instead to persuade his boss to save the trees, with all the expense that implied–and then, years later, to have tasted the Estate Pinot Noir and be able to give it 100 points–and, after that, to see the magnificent new winery building erected on the very spot that had been a wasteland of mud and stone, just seven years earlier–that is context. That is continuity. That is experiencing a wine in its fullness. I have griped before, and often, about how I wish certain winemakers would not insist on having me come to the winery to taste their wine (hello Dalla Valle, Alban, Staglin, Screaming Eagle and all you others!), instead of sending it to me at home, like most wineries do. But the truth is, I totally understand. They wish for me to know their wine in the very context I have described, and I can’t blame them for that. Were I a winemaker, I’d probably do the same thing.


Time to sub-appellate the Russian River Valley?

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It’s a big appellation whose 96,000 acres run all the way from Occidental in the southwest to Healdsburg in the northeast, from Guerneville on the river southward nearly to downtown Santa Rosa.

Criss-cross it on any given summer day and one minute you have to turn on the windshield wipers, headlights and turn up the heat, then the next minute you’re in blazing sunshine with the AC on high.

It’s obviously not just one place, particularly when we’re talking about its most famous grape and wine, Pinot Noir. And given the rise to prominence of Pinot Noir in general, this may be the time to have a serious discussion about sub-appellating this broad swathe of land.

One of the chief difficulties in defining and isolating different terroirs in the Russian River Valley is that, no matter what natural distinctions there may be, winemakers are constantly changing their techniques. Beyond experimenting with yeasts, barrels, stem inclusion and other technologies, they tinker with their vineyards, to the extent it’s financially possible, altering row orientations and spacing, changing clones and rootstocks, and playing around with canopy regimes. In general–and I’m hardly the first or only one to point this out–we’re seeing alcohol levels in Pinot Noir (if not in Cabernet Sauvignon) falling. Right before our eyes–mine, anyway–I’m drinking Pinot Noirs that you can actually see through clearly in the glass, instead of being so inky they might as well be from the Rhône. I’m seeing alcohol levels in the 13s–how about that?–and low 14s. And I’m tasting Pinots that are so transparent, they offer tastes and feelings of the earth in which they were grown.

But that’s the good news: with lower alcohol levels, terroir can shine through, which makes sub-appellating the Russian River Valley make even more sense.

I’ve carried around certain generalities in my head for years. Here are a few: Westside Road and The Middle Reach being warmer, the Pinots are riper and fuller-bodied. Green Valley being cooler, the wines are acidic and dry, but spicy. The area south of River Road, being open to the Petaluma Gap, seems to produce wines of firm tannic structure. But these are, admittedly, generalities.

What matters in the greater Russian River Valley are three things: distance from the Pacific Ocean (or San Pablo Bay), conduits of cold air that allow maritime influences to penetrate inland, and elevation. The first two are obvious; we tend to ignore the influence of elevation in the Russian River Valley, but in, say, the Green Valley it is significant: Pinot Noir planted at lower elevations, Zinfandel on ridgetops where it is sunnier and warmer. Soil, in my mind, plays less of a role than climate. As long as the soil is well-drained, it is suitable (and I say that despite the Goldridgers who attest to the superiority of that soil type).

How many sub-AVAs might there be in a reconfiguration, and what would their names be? I have already mentioned The Middle Reach. A case can be made for the Santa Rosa Plain, which is sort of a northerly extension of the Petaluma Gap. Some people speak of Windsor as an AVA. Laguna Ridges, which comprises the area south of River Road wherein Dehlinger, Lynmar, Joseph Swan and others are situated, can be thought of as a part of the Santa Rosa Plain, but its more westerly location argues for a unique status. All of these regions are considerably cooler than The Middle Reach. Joe Rochioli, Jr. used to deride the Laguna area as “swampland” more suitable for Gravenstein apples than the Pinot Noir he was growing on Westside Road.

Winemakers have been talking, on and off for years, about sub-appellations in the valley. So far as I know, at this time there are no serious discussions (and if there are, I’m sure someone will let me know). But there should be. It will take lots of scientific evidence from weather stations and soil analysis, and there are historical factors to be reckoned with, but better understanding the Russian River Valley is something we need to tackle.


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