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


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.

Sonoma in the crucible


Had a call yesterday from Oded Shakked, the proprietor of Longboard Vineyards, inviting me up to his place for a tasting of nine vintages of the Cabernet Sauvignon he’s made since 1999 from grapes grown in the Rochioli Vineyard.

I met Oded around 2001 when I was writing my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, in which he figures prominantly–and he even has his own photo (taken by moi). I not only was interested in Oded’s fascinating story (how he went from being an Israeli fighting soldier to a Russian River Valley winemaker), but because he had some interesting insights into a strange area of central Sonoma County that falls inbetween some far more famous appellations.

This would be the region around Healdsburg that isn’t really Russian River Valley, Alexander Valley or Chalk Hill, but falls near the nexus of them all. When I was writing “Journey,” I was in the process of articulating my understanding of what grape varieties or families of varieties grow best in Sonoma’s various AVAs. With Russian River Valley a cool area, it was obvious the answer was Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (with a nod to Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Sauvignon Blanc and a few others). With Chalk Hill and Alexander Valley–warmer regions–it was clear the stars were Bordeaux varieties (and, of course, Alexander’s exquisite Chardonnays and Zins). But what of that funny area around Healdsburg?

I already had written the part of Journey where I called the Russian River’s crazy loops around Healdsburg–loops that result eventually in its drastic turn westward to the sea, the only major California river to do so–“crucial.” Thus, when I asked Oded his views on that area, and he replied by calling it “The Crucible,” I was stunned. “Crucial” and “crucible” both trace their etymological roots to some very old terms: the Latin word for “cross”, and with connotations of a melting furnace.

I concluded then (and Oded already had arrived at the same conclusion independently) that this no-man’s land was (and is) probably good for Syrah, being neither too cool nor too warm. But now I need to pick up the story of Oded’s Rochioli Cabernet Sauvignon.

Why exactly the Rochiolis planted Cabernet in their famous vineyard on Westside Road always has eluded me. I’m sure I asked Tom Rochioli at some point, and have forgotten what he said. Probably they just wanted to see what it would do, so they put in a small patch. The Rochiolis themselves weren’t interested in vinifying it; they didn’t seem to think very much about it. Anyhow, they had a relationship with Oded, and so he got the grapes and made the wine. But it always was a curiosity to have a Cabernet Sauvignon with a Rochioli Vineyard designation.

At any rate, Oded told me yesterday (I don’t think I’d known, or, if I had, I’d forgotten) that the Rocholis finally budded over the Cabernet portion of their vineyard to, predictably, Pinot Noir, in 2007. So the ‘07 was the last vintage Oded, or anyone else, will ever make a Cabernet from the Rochioli Vineyard. It seems likely to Oded, and I agree, that there may be virtually no more Cabernet Sauvignon growing in the Russian River Valley. (I’m sure someone will set me straight on this.)

Then Oded added that he’s thinking of finding a new source of Cabernet, and he’s looking–you guessed it–somewhere in The Crucible. He added that he’d thought of planting it in his own little vineyard, which also is on Westside Road but further north, and thus warmer, than Rochioli (and where he also grows his Syrah and Merlot). But he still worries the area might not be suitable for Cabernet Sauvignon.

It always was hard to figure out why Longboard’s Rochioli Vineyard Cabernet was so good. I never rated it less than 90 points. In theory, Rochioli Vineyard is too chilly to ripen Cabernet. Yet somehow it worked. Maybe it was because the Cabernet vines were planted (in 1974) on the north side of Westside Road, in a warmer region of the large vineyard than down by the Russian River, where Rochioli’s classic Pinot Noir blocks (West, East, Riverblock, Three Corner) were situated. Maybe it was Joe, Jr.’s impeccable viticulture. Probably a combination of both, with Oded’s skill and a little mystery thrown in.

All this reverts back to an issue that appears with some regularity here at; namely, the relationship between wine type, AVA, consumer and critical perception, scores, pricing and marketability. In other words, everything. Oded may find a fine Cabernet Sauvignon source somewhere in The Crucible; he may make a fine wine from it, and offer it at a decent price; but will it sell? We all have become a little too dependent on associating varieties with appellations, instead of letting the wine speak for itself. That’s not a healthy development, as it inhibits innovation. I’ll miss Oded’s Rochioli Cabernet, but I’m looking forward to whenever he starts making one again, no matter where it comes from.

In praise of the Sonoma County Wine Library


I had a number of hours of downtime yesterday in Sonoma County between my noon lunch in Graton (which lasted about 2 hours) and my 8 p.m. dinner at John Ash & Co., in Santa Rosa, so, at the suggestion (via Facebook) of my old friend Rusty Eddy, I drove up to Healdsburg to hang out at the Sonoma County Wine Library.

I know the Library and its director, Bo Simons, fairly well, having given some author’s talks and done some signings for A Wine Journey along the Russian River and New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff. I had done a ton of research there as well, especially for Wine Journey. When I arrived, Bo was as the counter, working. The first thing he asked was if I’m working on a new book.

“No,” I said, and in answer to his puzzled expression, I explained, “Too much work, not enough money. Besides,” I added, “most of my extra creative writing (beyond my day job, I meant) is online, on my blog.”

Now, Bo is a print person. I suppose you have to be if you work in a library. He mentioned certain 18th century Englishmen as his ideal writers to read (thereby in his own, discrete fashion letting me know what he thinks of blogging), and then he said, with a sheepish smile, “I’m a book guy.” And here, he held up a hand and rubbed his thumb against his index finger, and he didn’t have to explain the symbolism. Bo likes the feel of good paper, of a properly bound cloth cover, and, unless I miss my guess, he also likes the smell of new printer’s ink and the sharp look of Caslon on a page.

At lunch that day I’d run into Laurence Sterling, from Iron Horse, who told me one of his daughters (or nieces? the fragility of memory) has a degree in magazine journalism and is living in New York putting a career together — a little print, a little online. I told Laurence I’d love to meet the young lady, to find out how she views the future of print versus, or vis-a-vis, online. Where you stand, as they say, depends on where you sit, and a young Millennial living in the heart of the world’s media capital must have some interesting thoughts.

Anyway, back in the Wine Library, I saw shelves of back issues of every print periodical you can name: Decanter, California Farmer, Le Bulletin de L’OIV, Charlie Olken’s Connoisseur’s Guide, Wine Enthusiast and dozens, maybe scores of others. Behind locked glass cabinets are rarities: “Grape Culture” (1867), “Mead’s American Grape Culture & Wine Making” (also 1867), “Wines of the Ancients” (1775), “The Vine and its Fruit in Relation to Wine” (1875), “Clarets and Sauternes” (1846). Who wouldn’t want to tear into those? (Maybe “tear” isn’t the most appropriate verb to use concerning those fragile antiquities.)

Not behind glass are thousands of volumes on wine, on every conceivable subject. The business of wine, the art of drinking, the world’s wine regions, viticulture and enology, wine poetry, even wine-inspired mystery novels (“Death by the Glass,” “No Murder Before its Time”), and, yes, my own books. The Library contains drawersful of maps, of charts and statistics and oral histories. It is a cornucopia of wine information and knowledge.

And yet, like libraries across our country, it’s hurting financially. “Funding could be better,” Bo sighed. Grower and producer underwriting, upon which the Library largely depends, is stagnant. (Memo to growers and producers: go here for a subscription form or call the Library at 707-433-3772. And you don’t have to be a Sonoma winery to help.) The public also can assist, by joining as a Wine Library Associate ($20 a year). As Bo says, “Every little bit in these bleak times helps.”

Why should anyone care about the Sonoma County Wine Library? Because there are few libraries like it in California, or in this country. Because it’s important to keep knowledge alive, and handed down over the generations. Because “There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the Free Public Library, this republic of letters, where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration.” (Andrew Carnegie). And from The Tempest:

Knowing that I loved my books, he furnished me,
From mine own library with volumes that
I prize above my dukedom.

That new conjunctive labeling law in Sonoma


Back in December, 2009, I blogged on “the Sonoma County label war,” a proposal by the Sonoma County Vintners by which every bottle of wine produced in the county would have to bear the words “Sonoma County” on the label. That meant, if the wine came from Russian River Valley, it would have to say “Russian River Valley – Sonoma County.” Ditto for all of Sonoma’s other 12 AVAs.

I expressed some doubt at the time whether this was really the best thing the county could do to promote itself. It seemed like a too little, too late approach to make up for the diluted Sonoma County reputation the county caused by creating so many appellations in the 1980s.

Over the weekend, the California Legislature unanimously approved a bill that essentially enacts the Sonoma County Vintners concept, dubbed “conjunctive labeling,” into law. Since there’s no reason to think Gov. Schwarzenegger won’t sign it, the new law will likely go into effect, although not for another three years.

Three other California wine regions have conjunctive labeling laws: Napa Valley, Lodi and Paso Robles.

I asked my Facebook friends, many of whom are California winemakers, what they think of this law, and the response was pretty negative. I can’t explain that; I simply report. A few examples:

“Capture winery is totally opposed.” — Tara Sharp

“My label is Dane Cellars and I oppose it also.” — Bart Hansen

“Horrible law.” — David Grega

“Dumb, dumb and dumber. I have withdrawn from the Vintners in protest and won’t participate in any of their marketing efforts.” — John M. Kelly

“…we are also considering withdrawing.  Most upsetting: we’ve voiced our concerns to the Sonoma County Vintners in a detailed, thoughtful way and they’ve completely ignored our points.” — Tara Sharp

“F’n ridiculous, moronic, and other words not fit to type.” — Hardy Wallace

“It’s a bad idea, and it sets a bad precedent for other large geographical AVAs to ram the same sort of requirement through their state legislatures.” — Randy Hall

“it’s silly” — Mark Clarin

Although to be fair, there were a few defenders:

“I think its great personally, strength via solidarity, and seems plenty of industry concurred; just b/c SVVGA didn’t follow your concerns doesn’t mean they weren’t listening.” — William Allen

“Is the Napa law ridiculous too? What about Paso Robles? How about Lodi? The one thing Sonoma County (wineries) ALWAYS gets criticized for is that they can’t come together for a common good… and a lot of the comments above illustrate that point exactly.” — Kelly Keagy

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