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Wild Men From West County

“One thing is already clear: Sonoma Coast West is an extraordinary location for Pinot Noir. Sonoma Coast West has the capacity - although not yet the achievement - of someday creating America’s grand cru Pinot Noirs.”

Matt Kramer, New California Wine

Growing Pinot Noir along the most western reaches of the Sonoma Coast might be regarded as pure folly to many, but the dedicated band of “wild men” who have accepted the challenge know that the fickle grape feels right at home here. This region is quickly becoming one of the epicenters of Pinot Noir in California.

The Sonoma Coast AVA (American Vineyard Appellation) is the largest of the 13 AVAs in Sonoma County at 750 square miles. This cumbersome AVA was formed in 1987 primarily to allow certain wineries to include all of their scattered major vineyards within one boundary so they could use the “estate bottled” designation on their wine labels. The Sonoma Coast AVA is defined by its coolness, with no more than 2,800 degree days of heat during the growing season. It is sandwiched between the mountains and the Pacific Ocean, and with its high winds, daily fog, and cold temperatures, is a hostile environment only Pinot Noir could love. The vineyards are positioned either above or below the fog line or in microclimates where the wind blows off the fog. There are an endless number of mesoclimates and soil types in the Sonoma Coast AVA, but the common denominator is the coolness.

The Sonoma Coast AVA extends from the Sonoma County border with Napa in Carneros to the east, to Marin County to the south, to the Pacific Ocean in the west, and to the Russian River Valley AVA boundary to the north (refer to map on page 2). It overlaps five other AVAs including the Sonoma part of Carneros, a sliver of Sonoma Valley, the western part of Chalk Hill, all of Green Valley, and most of the Russian River Valley. Because of the unwieldy immensity of the Sonoma Coast AVA, it has been unofficially subdivided into the “true” or “real” Sonoma Coast. This subdivision is roughly from Jenner in the south where the Russian River empties into the Pacific Ocean to Annapolis in the north and from the beaches to 5-6 miles inland including the first two ridges of the Coastal Range of mountains and the west slope of the third ridge. Besides Annapolis and Jenner, usually Ft Ross, Occidental and Freestone are included although all are south of Jenner. Eventually, the true Sonoma Coast will be broken into smaller AVAs. A small portion, the Ft Ross Seaview area, above 920 feet elevation, applied for its own AVA in 2003. Regardless of how it is currently outlined, the region is defined by its extreme coolness which makes ripening Pinot Noir before the Fall rains come a challenge.

The price of land has gone from $4,000 an acre to at least five times as much in the last decade. The price is misleading and in reality much more expensive than the amount suggests because the landscape does not lend itself to farming. A winegrower might have to purchase 50 acres to get just 10 acres suitable for farming grapes. Much of the area is too hostile and too steep for grapevines. Another hurdle to farming here is the local residents, who although sparse in number, are quite rabid in their opposition to development in this region.

Mike Bohan was the first to plant grapes in the true Sonoma Coast. In 1973, he developed a vineyard on Bohan Dillon Road which included Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Riesling. To this day, the Bohan Ranch sells all of its grapes.

The list of subsequent pioneers in the true Sonoma Coast region reads like a who’s who of California Pinot Noir. The names include Helen Turley and John Wetlaufer (Marcassin), Lee Martinelli (Martinelli), David Hirsch (Hirsch Vineyards), Bill Smith (W.H. Smith), Ted Lemon (Littorai), Walt and Joan Flowers (Flowers Winery), Mark Bixler and Steve Kistler (Kistler Vineyards), Ross Halleck (Halleck Vineyards), and Daniel and Marian Schoenfeld (Wild Hog). More recently, there has been considerable interest in the Sonoma Coast by several prominent Napa wineries including Caymus (Belle Glos), Pahlmeyer, Peter Michael, and Joseph Phelps (further information later in this issue on the Phelps project).

David Hirsch was a visionary whose Hirsch Vineyard is synonymous with the Sonoma Coast. His remote vineyard on a high ridge overlooking the Pacific Ocean was planted in 1978. He bought 1,100 acres of land and planted about 68 acres to Pinot Noir. At the time, it was crazy to imagine than one could make a living growing grapes in this inhospitable region. In 1994, Ted Lemon (Littorai), Burt Williams (Williams Selyem), and Steve Kistler (Kistler Vineyards) became three of the first and most important purchasers of Hirsch Vineyard fruit. Today, his vines are among the few mature plantings of French-clone Pinot Noir in California. According to Rod Smith of the Los Angeles Times, “Wines made from Hirsch Vineyard fruit show that kind of resonant acidity to a greater degree than typical Pinot Noirs from Carneros and most of the Russian River Valley. They vibrate on the palate and fix the impressions with a kind of luminosity that reminds me of the quality of light in paintings by Rembrandt and Vermeer. Individual sites along the continuum make their own unique statements.”

Crops in the true Sonoma Coast can be very small depending on the vintage. In 2005, for example, some vineyards were decimated by rain during bloom and several vineyards yielded less than 1/2 ton per acre. The main cause for this was poor set in the spring. Another difficulty is that the vines grow very slowly in the region, and it can take at least an extra year or two for a vine to advance from the initial planting to a productive phase. (five instead of three years as in other Sonoma regions). Anthony Austin, winemaker at Sonoma Coast Vineyards and resident of the Freestone area, has found it necessary to severely prune back his new estate Pinot Noir vines close to the ground, so as to achieve strong and more vigorous vine trunks in the future (at the expense of much back pain).

What is distinctive about Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir? It is always difficult to identify appellation-specific characteristics, but some generalizations can be made. The cool climate on the coast leads to very small berry size with higher juice-to-skin and -seed ratios. This leads to more concentrated flavors and amplified tannins. The long hang times produce brisk acidity. When ripe, the Pinot Noirs are earthy, bold and dense. Ted Lemon (Littorai) characterizes Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir as follows: “Muscle and sinew, grit, structure, more backbone and tannin than Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, peppery in leaner years, with sage and savory as the prominent spices.” Steve Heimoff describes the Pinot Noirs as varying “from tomatoey, rhubarb and beet unripeness through ripe fruitiness to superripe in style close to Port.” Dan Goldfield (Dutton-Goldfield) feels that what sets the Sonoma Coast apart is “the mineral element and very focused tannins compared with Russian River sweet berry fruit and floral elements.”

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