In the shadow of the rugged Sonoma Coast mountains, some of California's best winemakers are at work on what may be their greatest challenge yet: producing world-class Pinot Noir in a place where fog, high winds and steep slopes have long kept the landscape almost vine-free.
"To make great Pinot Noir, you have to push the climatic edge," says Daniel Roberts, director of winegrowing and research for Jackson Family Farms, owned by Kendall-Jackson founder Jess Jackson. Roberts and Jackson decided to plant some 160 acres of Pinot Noir in the remote, hilly wine region known as the Sonoma Coast, even though yields are likely to be low and farming costs high. (The first wines will not be released for several years.) "It's all about quality," says Roberts of his mission; he has spent years searching Northern California for what he calls "great Pinot ground." Unlike other red varieties, Pinot Noir eschews warmer climes. Cool temperatures also keep the crop small, which in turn helps to concentrate the flavors of this particularly fickle varietal.
Roberts is not alone in his belief. A small but noteworthy group of vintners and wineries is producing superb Pinots from the Sonoma Coast, which stretches 25 miles along mountain ridges from the hamlet of Occidental to the town of Annapolis. These pioneers include some of the most respected names in winemaking: Helen Turley and John Wetlaufer (Marcassin), Steve Kistler, Williams Selyem, Walt and Joan Flowers, Ted Lemon (Littorai), Jayson Pahlmeyer, Peter Michael, Joseph Phelps, Chuck Wagner (Caymus), Bill Smith, Marimar Torres and Lee Martinelli.
Twenty years ago, it was a very different story. When then clothing merchant David Hirsch purchased land for a vacation house in the region, "it was like Appalachia," he says. Vineyards weren't part of Hirsch's plan, but a prescient viticulturist friend convinced him to plant Pinot Noir. Today his coveted grapes cover 45 acres and are sold to cult wineries like Kistler and Williams Selyem.
Two other very early proponents of the Sonoma Coast were Helen Turley and her husband, John Wetlaufer. The couple consult for an impressive group of wineries in the region and also make wine there under their own label, Marcassin, the French term for young wild boar. Indeed, it was a wild boar, albeit a cooked one, that first enticed Turley and Wetlaufer to the Sonoma Coast. "We went to a wild-pig roast out here in 1983 and tasted some Pinot Noir from the Bohan and Suma vineyards," Wetlaufer says, recalling their initial visit. Impressed, the couple decided to purchase 40 acres high in the hills, planting their first vines several years later. Today only about 8 1/2 of Marcassin's acres are planted to grapes, although Turley and Wetlaufer's close ties with local growers assure a steady supply of additional fruit. Only two vintages (1996 and 1997) of Marcassin Pinot Noir have been released to date. Both are greatly sought-after wines marked by powerful, rich and complex flavors.
Napa Valley winemaker Bill Smith was so impressed by the promise of these coastal vineyards that he recently sold his renowned Napa Valley winery, La Jota, to focus on a 360-acre Sonoma Coast property he purchased five years ago. Only 11 acres are currently planted; Smith's goal is to plant 50 acres with vines. "I could have made Pinot Noir in places like Carneros or Oregon," says Smith, who bottles his Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir under the W. H. Smith label. "But I've seen such great examples from Flowers and Marcassin. I haven't tasted better Pinot from anywhere else on the West Coast."
And what, exactly, is a Sonoma Coast Pinot, as opposed to a Pinot from California's Carneros or Santa Barbara regions, Oregon's Willamette Valley or any of the other West Coast districts famous for their Pinot Noirs? Sonoma Coast wines are sleeker and less fleshy than their Santa Barbara counterparts, yet more powerful and assertive than many Pinots from Oregon. Compared with wines from Carneros, Pinot Noirs from the Sonoma Coast typically serve up more body and sit broader on the palate. There is, however, a great similarity of style between Russian River and Sonoma Coast Pinot Noirs: Both are balanced and bold, with ripe fruit flavors. It's not surprising, as the two districts are neighbors and benefit from similar growing conditions.
The Sonoma Coast is currently home to only about 30 small vineyards, although winemakers from other regions have begun to take notice; prices in the once depressed real estate market have soared from $4,000 an acre to five times as much in the last decade alone. This may not seem like a lot compared with Napa Valley, where vineyard land averages $50,000 an acre and prime locations can sell for as much as $200,000 an acre. Sonoma Coast prices, however, can be misleading. The rough-and-tumble landscape doesn't lend itself easily to farming; a 50-acre property might yield only 10 acres suitable for grape-growing. Much of the area is simply too steep for grapevines.
Walt Flowers, who has produced highly rated Sonoma Coast Pinots since 1994, says, "The secret here is being above the fog line." Flowers Vineyard & Winery is perched 1,000 feet above sea level, where summertime sunshine is constant. "We would have sold the property already if it hadn't produced great wine," Flowers asserts. His Pinot Noirs are not only considered some of the best in the Sonoma Coast, but in all of California. Elegant, supple and rich, they define the Sonoma Coast style.
Still, natural elements are only part of the picture. At least half of the success of the Sonoma Coast is due to the talent of its winemakers, the men and women who understand the importance of sound viticulture, gentle cellar practices and minimal intervention. As Wetlaufer says, "There is nothing mysterious. We're making great wines. And that's why everyone's coming out here." He's got a point. And the proof is in the bottle.
Jeff Morgan is the author of The Dean & DeLuca Book of Food and Wine, a cookbook from the California wine country, to be published by Chronicle Books in the spring of 2002.