A Peek at the Pinot Noir of the New Fort
by Drew Stofflet, Time Out Wine Columnist
Friday, August 15, 2014
Ahhh, the Sonoma Coast. Foggy, windy, rainy … and sunny. This storied little stretch of dramatic steep hillsides dropping straight into the northern California swatch of cliffy hillsides is home to ethereally perfect hilltop pinot noir vineyards. Surrounded by stands of old growth redwoods above Fort Ross, and near the hamlet of Cazadora, these far-flung, remote vineyards emerged in the last decade as the new-school pinot noir utopia.
Only as recent as a decade ago, the combination of primal coastal climatic elements and a rugged, dramatic landscape inspired and drew big name pinot noir producers such as Marcasssin and Flowers. In fact, many of the top-producing wines came from wineries located further east in Sonoma’s other most famous appellation -- the Russian River Valley, and even further away, in the Napa Valley. In reality, the Sonoma Coast – though well hidden – is not that far away from the beaten path, about an hour east and north of Sonoma’s well-traveled innards.
The Sonoma Coast American Viticultural Area (AVA) – encompassing nearly 700 square miles – stretches south past the town of Sonoma all the way to the Napa County line. This is due to a phenomena called the “Petaluma wind gap.” The wind gap is a low flatlands that stretches inland from Bodega Bay and cuts between the mountains of northwestern Sonoma and those in Marin to the south. The wind gap actually follows the Petaluma River course as it winds to the northern splashes of the San Pablo Bay, a shallow northern estuary-like body of water connected to the San Francisco Bay. True to its name, the wind gap – nearly every afternoon during the growing season – funnels ocean breezes well inland along the Petaluma River, offering moderating cool temperatures and fog to an area otherwise known as quite hot and dry.
Two major boundary shifts and new demarcations have come to redefine, or sub-appellate, the vastness of the Sonoma Coast’s confines: Gallo Wine Company led a petition to add its vineyards in the Two Rock area, south of Bodega Bay, to be included in the Russian River Valley AVA. Then, further redefining the Sonoma Coast AVA was a growing brooding over what every producer and/or vineyard owner was hinting at: The Sonoma Coast AVA, with its quickly rising notoriety in the cultish pinot noir movement, was too vast and varied in its microclimates to give such a broad moniker.
So, in December of 2011, a new sub-AVA was created, called the Fort Ross-Seaview. It was a bold move to break from the acceptance of the Sonoma Coast movement, with it gaining so much momentum in the press and marketplace at the time. But to those that muck about on the mountaintops above Fort Ross it made sense: This place is special unto itself in many ways. Perfect soils, wind, fog and sun are the primary elements. The magic comes in the aforementioned drama of the landscape and the isolation of this area.
What’s going on up there? Don’t take my word for it, check out some of these wines; if you ever get a chance, make the jaunt out of San Francisco, Sonoma or Napa to get a real wine adventure on the edge. And just for fun, take the road up out of Fort Ross and then down Meyers Grade Road for one of the most awe-inspiring drops on the California Coast.
Wild Hog Vineyards is one of those boutique wineries both at the forefront of the new movement and yet highly cognizant of the history at play. Nearly 200 years after immigrants first planted grapes at these sites, Wild Hog’s Daniel Schoenfeld has become the first president of newly established Fort Ross-Seaview Winegrower’s Association. Shoenfeld led a local group of growers as early as 1999 to first petition the requisite governing bodies that this area was not like the rest of the Sonoma Coast. Twelve years later an AVA was created, and two years after that the winegrowers association came to be. In addition to estate pinot noir, Wild Hog also bottles other signature cold-climate fruit including syrah, cabernet franc and zinfandel. (Yes, it too loves cold weather, making for a refreshingly different zin.)
Fort Ross Vineyard owners Linda and Lester Schwartz met while attending university in Capetown, South Africa, in the ‘60s. She was studying to be a composer and he geology. They landed in San Francisco in the ‘70s and a decade later yearned for the countryside and purchased the vineyard in 1988. It’s no coincidence that both Capetown and Fort Ross’ climates reveal the starker, harsher side of grape-growing climates. And this is what pinot noir likes.
But herein is the great Burgundian secret to the Fort Ross-Seaview AVA: These vines sit atop the ridges and out of the fog. Cool breezes moderate and sun offers plenty of ripening possibility. A warm spot in an otherwise cool region. And the wines here, while lacking in the girth of warmer zones in the next AVA, the Russian River Valley, have the acidity to make for age-worthy potential. In addition to exquisite pinot noir, Fort Ross also offers chardonnay and pinotage – the South African stalwart.
There is so much more to this story. You really must discover for yourself through yet more touring and tasting.
Cheers! Remember, the Sonoma Coast AVA is really large, and wine reveals truth.
And, lastly, RIP to one of our favorite and most beloved wine drinkers, Robin Williams, who once quipped that he wanted to rehab in wine country so as to “keep his options open.” You will be missed the rest of my earthly life.
Drew Stofflet lives in Carbondale. Correspond with him at firstname.lastname@example.org.