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Summa Vineyard: A California Legacy Vineyard Continues to Please

“I simply love this vineyard and the wine it produces.
There is really nothing we have come across that tastes like it.”

Thomas Rivers Brown

Summa Vineyard was first planted in 1979 by Steve Young on a beautiful ridge-top site on Taylor Lane west of the town of Occidental and six miles inland from the Pacific coastline in the West Sonoma Coast. As a reference in time, in 1980, David Hirsch planted his first vines at Hirsch Vineyards in Cazadero located north of Summa Vineyard.

Scott and Joan Zellar acquired the vineyard in 1982 and farmed it until Thomas Rivers Brown bought the Summa Vineyard in September 2010.

The original 2 acres of vines included Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer but the latter two varieties were grafted over to Pinot Noir soon after the 1979 planting. The original Pinot Noir plantings have been a source of conjecture through the years because the Zellers either do not know or decline to disclose the plant material origins. Burt Williams, who crafted Pinot Noir from Summa Vineyard from 1988 to 1997, suspects the original vines are a Swan selection.

In 1998, an additional 3 acres of Pinot Noir were added on resistant rootstock from old vine cuttings and these plantings are referred to as Summa Young Vines. In 2000, old vine cuttings were interplanted among the old vines. In 2005 and 2009, an additional 1.5 acres of Pinot Noir was planted adjacent the Zeller’s residence using old vine cuttings and known as the Driveway Block (New Vines).

Since 2015, Thomas has removed underperforming, severely diseased, dead, and tractor damaged vines at the rate of 5 to 6 vines per year using a Calera selection.

Thomas produced his first Summa Vineyard Pinot Noir in 2002 under the Rivers-Marie label when the Zellers offered him some grapes. This would prove to be a propitious decision for in 2004, Thomas tasted the 1988 Williams Selyem Summa Vineyard Pinot Noir (the inaugural Summa Vineyard release from Williams Selyem) and remarked afterwards, “I never tasted anything like it before from California.

The first wines from Summa Vineyard were produced by the now-defunct Sea Ridge Winery in the late 1980s. Williams Selyem was unable to offer a Summa Vineyard Pinot Noir every vintage because yields could be minuscule. After the 1988 vintage, no 1989 or 1990 vintage was produced. In 1991, a total of one ton of grapes was harvested from the two acres which produced two barrels of wine. The cost of the grapes worked out to be $5,000 per ton when the farming costs for three years (two of which - 1989 and 1990 - yield no grapes) were considered.

The 1991 Williams Selyem Summa Vineyard Pinot Noir was offered to the mailing list at $100 a bottle, the first California Pinot Noir to sell for triple digits. Burt figured that if people wouldn’t buy it, he and Ed would take it home and drink it. Williams said about the wine’s price, “C-note or c-none.” The wine sold out in three days.

Williams Selyem released a Summa Vineyard Pinot Noir in 1993 (a combination with Coastlands Vineyard grapes was also bottled in this vintage), 1995 and 1997. In 1988-1990 and 1993-1995, declassified lots of Summa Vineyard grapes were sometimes a component of The Williams Selyem Sonoma Coast bottling.

The 1995 Williams Selyem Summa Vineyard Pinot Noir was priced at $125 and again sold out within days. Ed Selyem that of all the grand cru Burgundies he had tasted over the previous decade there was not one that came close to this wine.

After Williams Selyem was sold in 1997, grapes from Summa Vineyard went to Mueller Winery (1998-2000), Brogan Cellars (1998-2006) and Littorai (2002-2008 using a combination of young and old vines). Since 2010, the vineyard has been a monopole exclusive to Rivers-Marie. Thomas produces a Summa Vineyard Pinot Noir (younger vines) and an “Old Vines” Summa Vineyard Pinot Noir. Declassified lots are blended into the Rivers- Marie Sonoma Coast bottling.

The older aerial photo below shows the location of Summa Vineyard and the several other notable Pinot Noir vineyards nearby.

In the summer of 2012, I hosted a tasting of Summa Vineyard Pinot Noir wines from Rivers-Marie, Brogan Cellars, Mueller and Littorai and the results were posted in the PinotFile. Visit 1232/.

I had a conversation with Thomas recently and he filled me in on the latest on Summa Vineyard. He told me, “Our primary focus out there is improving farming every year. We made great strides beginning in 2014. We’ve found that there is more vigor out there than we first thought and that the vineyard does better when it is actually holding a decent amount of fruit. We aren’t too afraid of really opening up the canopy early which keeps mildew pressure low with only a small trade-off of increased sun damage potential. We’ve learned the vineyard has no issue being dry-farmed, even during the drought or a really hot year like 2017. Any waterings the vineyard receives reflects only us panicking. The vineyard doesn’t really need to be tilled so we have gone to a much less intrusive no-till system, even leaving weed cover under the vines to pull up excess moisture. Every vine out there is its own vineyard so each plant in each block is trained differently based on the signals it puts out as to what it can handle. In the Old Vines, for instance, some vines seem a bit anemic so they may only carry one fruiting cane while others carry four and still push six-feet-plus canopies.”

Two 2018 Rivers-Marie Summa Vineyard Pinot Noirs are reviewed here. Yields were substantial in 2018, almost 2 tons per acre for the Old Vines and just above 2.5 tons per acre for the regular vines.

Vinification: no inoculation for primary or malolactic fermentation. Wines are generally on the skins 14 to 16 days, depending on the fermentation pace. 5-day cold soak. Depending on the vintage, wines see 1-2 punch downs a day during fermentation. Once wines are negative sugar by a hydrometer, tanks are sealed and tasted every day. Wines are pressed once the structure is desirable. Free-run and press wine are combined in tank and wine goes to barrel the following day. The Summa Vineyard Pinot Noirs spend 10 months in barrel, predominantly Remond, ranging from 50% new for Summa regular to 100% new for Summa Old Vines.

2018 Rivers-Marie Summa Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

13.5% alc., 325 cases, $60. Harvest Brix 23.1º. This “Baby Summa” comes from 20-year-old vines. Thomas feels this wine becomes more like the Old Vines bottling every year. For me, it is an excellent wine but relies a little bit more on fruit impact and less on complexity than the Old Vines Summa. · Dark garnet color in the glass. Highly expressive nose, offering scents of dark pie cherries, black raspberries, plum and a hint of vanilla and toast. Mid-weight plus in concentration, offering a charge of black cherry fruit that saturates the palate and holds up in generosity through an extended finish. A little more oak shows up on the nose and palate but dissipates with swirling. Gracious tannins make for easy approachability. Still fine when sampled the following day from a previously opened bottle. Score: 93

2018 Rivers-Marie Summa Vineyard Old Vines Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

13.3% alc., 210 cases, $80. Harvest Brix 23.8º. · Moderately light garnet color in the glass. The enticing nose is a wonderland of aromas including cherry, spice, forest floor, and pine needles. The dreamy texture makes an impression immediately. Very enjoyable upon opening in a light to mid-weight style featuring a core of well-spiced redder fruits. A stellar wine with engaging freshness and gossamer tannins, finishing unusually long. There is something about this wine that is hard to put into words but you know it is special. Perhaps it is the fact that it offers complexity rather than brute sap. Most certainly, it is the forty-year-old vines speaking. In any case, this beauty has the balance to age for many years and I am sure it will bring many oohs and aah down the line. Still magnificent when tasted the following day from a previously opened bottle. Score: 95

Another Summa Vineyard oldie recently tasted:

2007 Littorai Summa Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

13.7% alc., $80. Cellared at 55º since release. I have tasted every vintage of Littorai Summa Vineyard Pinot Noir from 2002-2008 and the wines have been consistently top-shelf. The reviews are available in the PinotFile.

Note: the 2008 vintage was also sampled. That wine is still packed with fruit but is smoke tainted caused by the devastating California wildfires. One’s enjoyment will depend on one’s tolerance for smoke taint. N/R.

· Moderately dark garnet with slight bricking at the rim. Terrific nose infused with aromas of black cherry, exotic spices, dried herbs, tobacco and old cigar box. Velvety and comforting in the mouth featuring mid weight flavors of darker cherry and berry with an aged patina. Oak is not in the picture. The wine still presents heady fruit and holds up beautifully in the glass when sampled over the course of an hour. A marvelous, well-aged Pinot Noir that should be drunk now. Score: 94

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