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Why I didn’t include Sonoma County as part of California’s Golden Age

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I caught a little flack last week for leaving Sonoma County out of a blog on California’s Golden Age of Wine.

One person, Judi, commented, “not even a mention of Sonoma?” Another–actually, Hank Wetzel, from Alexander Valley Vineyards–wrote, “I was thinking, wow he did not mention Sonoma County, and then I saw Judi’s comment. I am sure living in a golden age. From cattle land my family and staff have created vineyards and a winery that are bountiful. Sonoma County is so complex, with diverse growing areas, each influenced in a unique way by soil and proximity to the Pacific ocean. This has helped to create an abundance of successful grape growers and wine producers that thrive.”

So I should probably clear this up.

To begin with, assessing the “golden ageworthiness” of a region is obviously a deeply subjective thing to do. There are no objective criteria by which to measure it; it has to do with one’s perceptions. In the case of California regions, my selection of Paso Robles and Monterey and (to a lesser extent) Santa Barbara as being in a golden age is because those regions had very little prior celebrity as wine regions. Paso Robles was long bashed as too hot, while Monterey was criticized as too cold! So for both of them to be producing such good wines, with such a groundswell of young energy, is worthy of note.

You can’t say that Sonoma County is suddenly producing great wine. You can’t argue that it came out of nowhere. Sonoma County is one of the historic birthplaces of California wine. The Russians planted grapes out at Fort Ross in the early 1800s, quickly followed by Spanish Franciscan missionaries. We all know about Haraszthy and the generations of immigrants who widely planted the county, beginning in the 1850s. Sonoma Valley was one of the earliest American Viticultural Areas to be approved (1982), and the astonishing advent of Pinot Noir in the Russian River Valley (approved in 1983) moved the county into the forefront of California wine. So it’s not as if Sonoma has been some kind of concealed secret.

Another part of the problem (not that it’s a problem, really–it’s something to celebrate) is that Sonoma is such a huge place, as Hank Wetzel stated. It’s so big and diverse that making any statement about it is like making a generality about France. I once read there are more soil types in Sonoma than in all of France. So many moving parts to Sonoma: how can a single statement connect them all? One might conceivably say this is a golden age for the [far] Sonoma Coast, I suppose, but that area remains too small (from a vineyard acreage point of view) to thus characterize it. Is this a golden age for the Chalk Hill appellation? For Rockpile? I don’t think so. That doesn’t mean that all of Sonoma’s 15 AVAs aren’t producing good wine. They are–as good in some instances as anywhere else in California. It’s just that, in my view, you can’t say that Sonoma County is currently enjoying a golden age.

I suppose that golden ages can occur more than once in the lifespan of a wine region, provided that region is old enough. Bordeaux’s original golden age, of the 18th century, was replicated in the 1980s. In that 200-year interregnum, Bordeaux experienced declines that nearly obliterated it, and that resulted in some very poor wines. No California wine region, however, is yet old enough to have experienced a second golden age. Sonoma County already has had its, in the 1970s and 1980s. Now, it’s the turn of regions to the south.


Alexander Valley, here I come!

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I’ve long had a soft spot for Alexander Valley, the AVA in Sonoma County that stretches up from Healdsburg to the Mendocino County line, at Cloverdale.

I came to know the valley especially well during the year I spent writing my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River. I got it into my head to describe how the Russian River first “turned on,” and found that a description of its physical beginnings had never been written–at least, so far as I could tell. So I spent a great deal of time on and along the River, and talked to a great many geologists (none of whom agreed with the others), and then came to my own conclusions, which you can read in the first chapter, “Out of the Pangaean Mists a River is Born.”

It’s one thing to get to know a region through books and maps. It’s quite another to trek it. And I did trek the Alexander Valley, in all seasons. I got drenched in winter rains, almost died capsizing a canoe on a whitewatery part of the river just outside Asti, sweated in summer heat on Rattlesnake Hill and Iron Horse’s old T-bar-T ranch, heard the hoarfrost crackle on the cold night ground while I lit a fire in an old cabin in Geyserville, ate lunch and drank wine on a sandbar, crawled through the prickly, poison ivy’d, spider-webby undergrowth of the river’s banks, tasted in my mouth the stones and dirt from Seghesio’s vineyard, climbed to the top of Squaw Rock and got dizzy looking down, met all manner of characters, visited the valley’s oldest burial ground, did tasting after tasting at as many wineries as I could, ate and drank immoderately and in general absorbed the valley into my genes (or maybe it absorbed me).

My feelings concerning Alexander Valley’s wines have not changed a great deal over the years. I always had respect and affection for them, even if the appellation seemed to be missing the excitement and glamour of, say, the Russian River Valley or the Sonoma Coast. Solid wines, you might call them, but the appellation’s boundary’s are stupid beyond recognition. They extend from the shore of the Russian River to 2,800 feet up into the Mayacamas Mountains. Surely we can do better.

There’s a conservatism about the Alexander Valley that is partly explained by its geographical location. Anyone who knows Sonoma County understands that it is divided culturally into east and west. West Sonoma is Sebastopol and Guerneville: hippies, pot, incense, environmentalists, Democrats, anarchists, the counter-culture. Inland Sonoma by contrast has long been the farming community, by nature less open to change. I don’t mean to make this distinction hard and fast–and certainly, the gentrification of places like Cloverdale, and the wine lifestyle that has changed Healdsburg so remarkably, are shifting things. But these generalizations, I think, hold true.

Alexander Valley knows what it does well, wine-wise; it’s done it for a long time, and it would be imprudent to expect it to change course mid-stream (or mid-river, as the case may be). This weekend (May 18-19), the valley hosts the annual Taste Alexander Valley event. Wineries open their doors, there’s plenty of food and laughter, and the weather will be sunny and warm. I’ll be there today and Friday, doing a couple pre-event seminars, and I hope to run into you.


What I’m drinking this winter

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We’re in the middle of winter now, and even though the rest of the country laughs at Californians when we complain about 40 degrees, to us, it feels really cold. When I have my first drink of the day, around 5 p.m., I might start with a sip of white wine, just to get myself comfortable. But these chilly nights call for red.

Red wine is warming, to the blood, the mind, the soul. There’s something about it that’s like a soft blanket you wrap yourself in that keeps you cozy. I suppose the relatively higher alcohol of red wine also helps with this warming process. I don’t like to put the heat on, even when my home is chilly, so I’ll often be wearing a sweatshirt and even a woolen cap to keep myself warm. But I always notice, after a glass or two of red wine, that my body temperature rises enough that I can take off the sweatshirt and cap and feel comfortable, even though the actual room temperature hasn’t changed. I like that feeling. It’s as though red wine boosts my body’s ability to balance itself to external conditions.

I love a good Pinot Noir, but on these really cold nights I want something with more body. Zinfandel is a full-bodied wine, but I find that even a good one palls on me after a glass. It’s too strong, too spicy, too briary, often overripe and hot. Even the best Zin doesn’t contain mysteries, which is what makes me want a second or third glass of wine–it contains subtleties that require repeated examination. I might dwell on a Merlot for a few glasses, but it would have to be a very good one: La Jota, Shafer, Rutherford Hill, Turnbull, Hunnicutt, all from Napa Valley. A new Napa winery that’s impressed me is Crosby Roamann; they have a Merlot from Oak Knoll that’s really good. There’s not much Merlot out there in California to challenge Napa Valley, although I recently enjoyed a Happy Canyon Vineyard 2007 “Barrack Brand” Merlot. That new Happy Canyon AVA is one to watch.

Syrah, for me, often has the same limitation as Zinfandel. That first sip can be deliriously delicious. But does it keep you coming back for more? A few do. Syrah, though, is one variety that Napa Valley doesn’t dominate. Since winter began, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Syrahs from Donelan (Cuvee Keltie), MacLaren (Judge Family Vineyard) and Del Dotto (Cinghiale Vineyard), all from Sonoma County. But it’s Santa Barbara County Syrah that’s really surprised me. Among the best are Andrew Murray, Brander, Rusack, Whitcraft, Larner, Margerum and La Fenetre. What is it about Santa Barbara that’s so hospitable to Syrah? Food for thought.

Still, when all is said and done, on those cold nights when I want to snuggle in with a red wine, it’s invariably Cabernet Sauvignon. It has the rich body I want, also the intrigue and complexity that make it so interesting as it breathes and changes. I suppose this is why they call Cabernet a “noble” variety, a word that’s hard to define, except to imply that it has layers you keep discovering, one by one, like the experience of great music or literature or painting.

Here are some great Cabs I’ve been drinking this winter: Goldschmidt, World’s End, Venge, Trefethen, Turnbull, B Cellars, Patland, PerryMoore, Hunnicutt, V. Sattui, Arger-Martucci, Altvs [the “v” is not a typo, it’s the way Bill Foley wants it), Antonio Patric, Tudal and Napa Angel by Montes. These are all from Napa Valley and its various sub-appellations, and most of them are single vineyard wines. Two vineyards show up repeatedly: Stagecoach and Beckstoffer To Kalon. When people say great wine is made in the vineyard, they’re talking about wines like these.


Giving Sonoma County its due

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I bring to your attention the 2012 Sonoma Wine Country Weekend, Aug. 31-Sept. 2. It’s a good time to take a few days off and hang out in beautiful wine country, at a time of the year when the weather’s almost bound to be perfect (unless we get one of those pesky Labor Day heat waves).

I’ve had a soft spot for Sonoma County as long as I can remember. It used to be the conventional wisdom that (a) Sonomans were jealous of “the other side of the hill” [i.e. Napa Valley], and (b) Napans barely recognized the existence of Sonoma County. I suppose there’s still some residue of truth to both statements, especially the latter; but Sonoma County now has plenty of well-deserved self-esteem. They realize they don’t have to compare themselves to anybody because, gosh darn it, they’re special!

And they are. But Sonomans are the first to concede they have marketing problems. People don’t understand the difference between “Sonoma Valley” and “Sonoma County.” They don’t know that Russian River Valley, for instance, is in Sonoma County. And then there’s the old joke of the consumer who asks, “What part of Napa Valley is Sonoma in?”

These misunderstandings were perhaps inevitable, given the realities on the ground. Sonoma’s decision, in the 1980s, to rush forward with as many appellations as they could ground out, giving the county a chaotic fractured-ness, made it hard for the average person to figure out just what “Sonoma County” meant. Napa Valley, by contrast, never had to compete with “Napa County” because almost no wines bear the latter on their label, so the public hasn’t had a chance to confuse the two. Also, Napa Valley was much slower in embracing sub-appellations than was Sonoma County; when Napa did so, it was slowly and carefully. Napa Valley, too, was helped by the fact that it’s less complicated a place, topographically speaking, than Sonoma County. In Napa, you have a compact little valley, surrounded on both sides by mountain ranges. The flatlands are named after their towns while the mountain appellations are named logically after their mountains. Sonoma County is much more widespread and sprawling and harder to understand. Indeed, I suspect that a generation from now, the Sonomans will still be working out these issues.

The wines, however, are very good, and at their best, Sonoma beats Napa easily in the variety of its products. There is no good Pinot Noir in Napa Valley (or, at best, very little), whereas Sonoma County obviously abounds in great Pinot. There is great Chardonnay in Napa, but not much, and when it does show up, it’s more the exception to the rule. To say that there’s great Chardonnay in Sonoma County is an understatement. From Alexander Valley through the Russian River and out to Fort Ross/Seaview, great Chardonnay is plentiful.

Zinfandel? Sonoma’s got it in spades, although I personally find a great Napa Valley Zinfandel slightly more elegant than a great Sonoma Zin. Sauvignon Blanc? Sonoma beats Napa almost all the time; just try Rochioli’s. Rhône varieties present a greater challenge. I am not a great fan of them, red or white, in California, so it’s hard for me to say that any particular region excels. But there are some very nice Syrahs from Sonoma County, particularly from Dry Creek Valley (where they have a warm-climate soft ripeness) and the Far Sonoma Coast, where, for instance, Failla’s stuns consistently. The one variety, or family of varieties, in which Sonoma fails to rival Napa Valley is Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux blends. I don’t think that gap will ever change. There are Cabs from Alexander Valley, and especially from the higher stretches of the Mayacamas, that rival the best of Napa, but their production is miniscule.

I always root for Sonoma County. They have their work cut out for them. Should a winery sell itself, its sub-appellation of the county-wide designation? These are tough questions. But there’s no doubt that Sonoma County, taken as a whole, is probably California’s most reliable and consistent producer.


Today’s post is all about wine!

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A reader griped the other day that I was writing  too much about social media and not enough about wine. So here goes!

These are my 5 top-scoring wines from three popular varieties over the past several months. (All reviews and scores have been published, either in Wine Enthusiast’s print Buying Guide, online, or both. I’ve scored other wines higher, but they haven’t been published yet.) Within each variety, I consider the commonalities that made the wines so great, to me.

Cabernet Sauvignon:
98 Goldschmidt 2006 PLUS Game Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon (Oakville); $150
97 Shafer 2007 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon (Stags Leap); $225
97 Cardinale 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley); $250
97 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 2008 Cask 23 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley); $195
97 Yao Ming 2009 Family Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley); $625

Commonalities:
1. expensive
2. from Napa Valley or its sub-appellations
3. relatively high in alcohol [minimum: 14.5%]
4. relatively low production
5. ageworthy
6. quality factors: richness, full-bodied, ripe, oaky, dense, appearance of sweetness, complexity

Pinot Noir:
98 Merry Edwards 2009 Klopp Ranch Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $57
97 Donum Estate 2009 West Slope Estate Pinot Noir (Carneros); $100
96 Rochioli 2010 West Block Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $100
96 Marimar Estate 2008 La Masia Don Miguel Vinyard Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $39
96 De Loach 2009 Pennacchio Vineyard Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $45

Commonalities:
1. All from Russian River Valley except Donum, which is on the Sonoma side of Carneros
2. alcohols within a narrow range [14.4-14.7]
3. production relatively low [maximum: Marimar Estate, 3,300 cases]
4. all show oak, but balanced
5. quality factors: juicy in acidity, medium-bodied [not too light or too heavy], rich in fruits [generally red stone and berry], dry, spicy, silky, elegant, approachable

Chardonnay:
99 Failla 2010 Estate Chardonnay (Sonoma Coast); $44
96 Lynmar 2010 Susanna’s Vineyard Chardonnay (Russian River Valley); $50
96 Roar 2010 Sierra Mar Vineyard (Snta Lucia Highlands); $45
94 Sandhi 2010 Rita’s Crown Chardonnay (Sta. Rita HIlls); $55
94 Matanzas Creek 2010 Journey Chardonnay (Sonoma County); $75

Commonalities:
1. Geographically diverse, so no common origin
2. alcohol levels diverse, ranging from Sandhi (13.0%) to Matanzas Creek (14.6%)
3. all show well-integrated oak
4 quality factors: all made in the popular style: oaky, creamy, rich, flashy fruit, spicy, good balancing acidity

General discussion:

In Cabernet Sauvignon the address remains Napa Valley, most often the hills but not necessarily. And you get what you pay for. Also, great Cabernet can come from any vintage, regardless of its challenges.

In Pinot Noir, quality is considerably less tied to price: put another way, there are more bargains and also more overpriced ripoffs. Nor is geography as simple as with Cabernet: any of the coastal appellations can shine.

In Chardonnay, the same is true: great Chardonnay comes from the same areas as great Pinot Noir, with the single exception of Napa Valley, where very little reliably good Pinot Noir is produced. But then, I can remember a time when Napa Valley did produce interesting Pinot Noirs. The vines have all since been ripped out or budded over, victims of a critical mindset that determined Napa Valley cannot produce good Pinot Noir.


Sonoma to everybody else: We’re here, and we’re not Napa!

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It’s an old saw by now: Sonoma County winemakers lament that when they’re on the road, promoting their wines, people ask them, “Where in Napa Valley is Sonoma?”

It would be funny, if it weren’t so sad. Readers of this blog obviously know all about Sonoma County, and how it has 11 different American Viticultural Areas. But my readers are a special breed. The fact is that the majority of wine drinkers in America and abroad don’t know enough about our geography. That’s not their fault, of course. Why should they? Instead, it’s the responsibility of the Sonomans to engage in an educational campaign to let people know that Sonoma is not in Napa Valley and has nothing to do with Napa Valley (except that the two areas are next door to each other).

Now, it turns out that the Sonoma County Vintners is doing just that. The Santa Rosa Press Democract wrote yesterday that a coalition of some 50 “local wine industry leaders” from Sonoma worked together last year to come up with a plan. I’m not privy to the details, but the article says the committee “selected three words to define the wine region’s character: genuine, independent and adventurous.”

Educational campaigns of the sort the Sonomans are attempting are very difficult. You have to un-do the incorrect perceptions people have, which experience teaches us is extraordinarily hard, and then replace them with correct perceptions. You have to communicate to millions of people, which in a huge country like the U.S. is almost impossible and also terribly expensive, so fractured are our communities and media. And if you roll in foreign markets, the job’s even more challenging. It can be made a little easier by narrowing your focus, so instead of trying to talk to everyone, you zoom in on a select audience; call it the “cable TV approach.” It sounds like the Sonomans are doing just that: they will target “’experience seekers’ who enjoy traveling and dining out,” in other words, people with money in their pocket to pay premium Sonoma prices.

I wonder about that “genuine, independent and adventurous” thing. It sounds to me like it came out of a committee. Yet the devil’s in the details. “Genuine” is good: it implies that Sonoma wine comes from a real place that’s ideal for fine wine production, and made by real, passionate people, all of which is true. “Independent” is a little murky. Independent of what–big corporations? That’s not strictly true; Sonoma is no more “independent” than anyplace else, as far as I can tell. “Independent” is a nice word, but what is the message the Sonomans hope to communicate? Then there’s “adventurous.” I can practically hear the discussion that led up to that: “Let’s be the maverick to Napa Valley’s mainstream.” Since they can’t be Napa Valley, they can be the scrappy alternative, the choice of wine lovers who don’t want to go the predictable route. This is a little risky, since there’s always a downside involved in adventures. After all, some adventures go horribly awry. But in general, “adventurous” works in advertising, especially with a younger demographic that’s into taking chances and exploring new things.

I hope the new marketing approach works. Sonoma County has had this identity problem for years, compounded by a certain tension between the sub-appellations (Dry Creek Valley, Russian River Valley, Alexander Valley, etc.),  individual wineries and the Mothership. It’s been hard for all the parties to work together in harmony; in this, Sonoma’s been a little behind some of the other wine counties in California. It will take time, but I do believe the Sonomans can make it work. It’s hard selling a phony message, but in this case, the message is true: Sonoma really does produce some of the greatest wine in California. And it’s not in Napa Valley.


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