Striding through the Seascape Vineyard, Mike Sullivan shoves his hands into his pockets. It’s already spring, but the wind is howling across this rolling headland off Bodega Bay, bringing with it a skin-stinging spray of mist. In the nearby Sonoma and Napa valleys, pink plum tree blossoms and yellow mustard flowers have been in cheerful bloom for weeks. But here, at one of Hartford Court Winery’s vineyards, just a mile from the ocean, it still feels like winter.
It hasn’t been long since experts insisted that it was impossible to ripen grapes in such a cold, windy place. It was a while before anyone even tried. But a handful of pioneers, including Sullivan, the winemaker at Hartford Court Winery, are challenging the skeptics. They’ve come to gamble on the latest red-hot American Viticultural Area (AVA)—the Sonoma Coast—and they’re putting most of their chips on that heartbreak grape, Pinot Noir. Giants such as Gallo, Kendall-Jackson, Joseph Phelps and Caymus, as well as such boutique faves as Peter Michael and Pahlmeyer, are staking their claims on what they say could be the best Pinot Noir in the country. It’s too early to say that categorically, but one thing is for sure: If you enjoy fine wine, you’re going to be hearing more about the Sonoma Coast—and if you want its wines, you’d better be prepared to dig deeply into your pockets.
The term “Sonoma Coast,” is misleading in its simplicity. There are, arguably, really three Sonoma Coasts. One is the official AVA, which, at 750 square miles, is the largest in Sonoma County and the sixth largest in the state. (It is also the second largest AVA entirely within one county, after Paso Robles.) The second Sonoma Coast has been known to generations of tourists as a getaway destination, a place to spend a few days communing with nature along 40 miles of wave-pounded beaches, accented by dramatic bluffs and the isolated coastal hamlets of Bodega Bay, Fort Ross and Jenner. The third Sonoma Coast is the one its ardent believers call the “true” Sonoma Coast: a narrow chain of mountaintop ridges, comprising perhaps ten percent of the official AVA, and running parallel and immediately adjacent to the coast (see map). It is this Sonoma Coast that is grabbing the wine world’s attention.
Before the 1970s, there was little or nothing to say about the area’s wine-growing history. Although the warmer inland sections of Sonoma County (including the Russian River Valley) had been heavily planted with grapes for a century, grape growers and most farmers thought that the coastal region was a lost cause. Not only is it cold, but it’s also a difficult place to live. The average annual rainfall is 80 inches—four times that of San Francisco. Wet years can be real drenchers, recalls vintner David Hirsch. “In spring 1998, it rained 150 inches,” says Hirsch. “The sun didn’t shine until June.”
“Too Cold” for Grapes?
For more than a century, the Bohans have lived on the family spread east of Fort Ross, running sheep on spectacularly beautiful, rolling land at 1,400 feet in altitude. This was not exactly the place for a genteel wine industry to develop. But in 1973, the Bohan family planted grapes. “In the early seventies, the sheep industry was not doing well, and we needed a new gig,” recalls George Bohan, 39, a big, friendly man. His dad, Michael, knew little about wine, but one day a friend suggested he stick some Zinfandel cuttings in the ground and see what happened. “Everyone told us we were crazy to plant grapes out here,” George Bohan laughs. “They said it was too cold.”
But it wasn’t. The Zin did well enough for outside wineries to buy the grapes, thus establishing a pattern, which held until recently, in which the Sonoma Coast was a grape-growing and exporting region rather than a wine-producing one. Within a few years, the Bohans were selling their Zinfandel, as well as more recently planted Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling, to several wineries. When young Hirsch arrived in the area in 1978, only the Bohans and one or two other families, including the Charles family, were growing grapes around Fort Ross.
Hirsch, now 56, had made some money and was looking for some “elbow room” to live in. He decided on the Sonoma Coast “because it was unsettled. I wanted to buy a big piece of land, and it was cheap.” Hirsch knew nothing about grapes, but he was friends with the owner of the old, Santa Cruz-based Felton-Empire winery. (Felton-Empire’s Late Harvest Rieslings were famous in their day.) One day, the owner Jim Beauregard, came to visit Hirsch. Hirsch recalls, “[He] comes up here to this place with no electricity and very suspect roads, and he walks around, looks at me, and says, ‘Plant Pinot Noir here, and this will be a very famous vineyard.’ And so,” Hirsch smiles, “the very next day, I did.”
Beauregard was prescient. Hirsch planted his first grapes in 1980; today, he follows the Sonoma Coast pattern: He makes no wine of his own, but sells grapes to wineries including Kistler, Williams-Selyem, Littorai and Siduri, who bottle his Pinot Noirs with the Hirsch Vineyard designation. Hirsch recently applied to Sonoma County for a use permit and hopes to build a winery in his vineyard, which is within view of the Bohans’. Hirsch’s is one of many new wineries now being planned or already under construction along the Sonoma Coast, which has prompted some locals to complain about the area’s lightning-fast development.
The Middle of Nowhere
|Another of the true Sonoma Coast pioneers is Daniel Schoenfeld, who could speak for many of his compadres when he says, “I’m an old hippie. I moved here to get out of the city, and I figured I could live on what I could grow off the land.” He bought his property, near Fort Ross, in a region so remote that it could be on the moon. It’s the kind of place whose directions read, “Turn right on the dirt road and go for a few miles, cross the cattle guard, on up the hill, then look for a dirt driveway near some trees.” There’s no outside electricity; solar and hydro are the sole sources of power. Even Schoenfeld, who’s a youthful 50, says, “Our official address is ‘Middle of Nowhere.’ “|
It took Schoenfeld only six months to realize that living off the land was harder than it sounded, but one good thing happened as a result: In 1981, he planted some grapes. Today, his Wild Hog Vineyard is a cult favorite, and one of only a handful of bonded wineries along the coast, although the actual winery building itself would make a Napan giggle: The utilitarian wood structure is handmade—and looks it
The Naming Game
The Sonoma Coast AVA was approved by the government in 1987. Its biological father, if there can be such a thing, is Brice Cutrer Jones, the 60-year-old president of Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards, who was the prime mover in applying for the appellation. Jones says he felt the people in western Sonoma County needed an identity of their own, beyond “Sonoma County,” because they were denied existing appellations such as Russian River Valley, Carneros and Green Valley.
“So I put the word out that there was an opportunity here, and if they were interested, we could get together and get this application.” In Jones’s view, the term “Sonoma Coast” is an “honest” one that suggests a cool, maritime influence, as opposed to the warmer inland parts of Sonoma County (such as the Alexander, Sonoma and Dry Creek valleys) that are more suited to Cabernet Sauvignon.
But because the Sonoma Coast AVA is so big—it’s 60 percent the size of Rhode Island—recent movements to get new subappellations approved have arisen. “There truly should be some kind of distinctive AVA for the coastal region,” says Don Hartford, the founder of Hartford Court, and the son-in-law of Kendall-Jackson founder Jess Jackson. The hotbed of this search for a new AVA is around Fort Ross, which, with 400 acres of vineyards, is the most heavily planted area. A group including the Bohans, Hirsch, Schoenfeld, Peter Michael, Jason Pahlmeyer, Walt and Joan Flowers, Bill Smith (the former owner of La Jota) and others has been meeting regularly, but has run into a political roadblock: They can’t agree on a name.
Steep hills and narrow valleys, like these seen here at Camp Meeting Ridge, characterize the Sonoma Coast.
“‘Sonoma Coast’ would be perfect, but Brice [Jones] already took it,” says Walt Flowers, adding, “I wish he wouldn’t have, because we are the true Sonoma Coast. So obviously, for our own appellation, we’re going to go for a subappellation.” The leading candidates for names that the working group is considering are Fort Ross, Fort Ross Ridges, Seaview (named after a tiny town in the area) and Seaview Ridges.
Whatever name eventually emerges will relate to one of three ridge-top areas that are the main centers of vineyard activity. The other two, which also have no official names as yet, are referred to after towns close to them: Annapolis, to the north, and Occidental to the south, with Fort Ross in the middle. Although there are minor differences between them, the three regions form a continuum, as a glance at the map shows. All are within a few miles of the Pacific, with grapes planted between the first and second coastal ridges. Vineyards generally face southwest-to-southeast, and are above 800 feet in altitude, which enables them to bathe in summer sun while lower slopes and valleys are shrouded in fog.
It’s too soon to begin to characterize the various Pinot Noirs that come from the three areas, much less to compare them with, say, Russian River Valley or Carneros Pinot Noirs, except to say that crisp acidity and angular tannins are common themes, thanks to the weather. (This applies to Chardonnay, too.) Bob Cabral, the winemaker for Williams & Selyem Winery, produces vineyard-designated Pinot Noirs from the Hirsch, Precious Mountain and Coastlands vineyards. He says that characterizing the wines is harder than you’d think “because it [also] depends on what block you get” from each vineyard.
Even these cool-climate ridges can suffer from intense heat spells during the summers, but daytime high temperatures average only in the mid 70s or low 80s, too low for Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordeaux varieties to ripen dependably, but perfect for Pinot Noir, which is an early ripener. The region is so temperature-sensitive that Zinfandel will ripen in some vineyards, like Wild Hog, but not in slightly cooler ones, such as the Flowers’ Camp Meeting Ridge, even though the two vineyards are within sight of each other.
Pahlmeyer’s property, Wayfarer Farm, near Camp Meeting Ridge, is now being developed on a massive scale. Pahlmeyer calls the region “the Côte d’Or of California” (that is, when he’s not complaining about its remoteness). Known for his Napa Valley wines, Pahlmeyer was inspired to make Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir and Chardonnay after tasting some wines that his former consulting winemaker, Helen Turley, had made from her Marcassin vineyard, also in the Fort Ross area. “I was stunned by their concentration,” Pahlmeyer says.
So were others, which is why real estate prices are now reaching ridiculous heights. It seems like there’s a land rush going on, but that’s often how it is when a new vineyard area, pioneered by little-known folks, is suddenly “discovered” by wineries as large as Joseph Phelps. Last year, Phelps planted a vineyard in Freestone, near Occidental. “We really wanted to further augment our commitment to quality regional wines, and I felt this area matches the quality, at least, of Carneros, for Pinot Noir,” explains Phelps winemaker Craig Williams.
Another relative newcomer to the Sonoma Coast is Gallo. “We’ve been moving toward cooler and cooler sections of Sonoma, and there was excitement [on the coast] in that you have a number of small producers out there doing great things,” notes spokesperson Pat Dodd.
And still the rush continues. Almost every day, says Walt Flowers, “There are airplanes and helicopters flying over, looking for vineyards.” Much, it should be added, to the chagrin of some locals. On one day of my visit, Flowers ran into a woodcutter who said that things are getting so crowded around Fort Ross that he was planning on moving to Alaska.
But what the locals may forget is that with the crowds comes cash. Michael Bohan says that the coast’s new found popularity is “a good thing, as far as I’m concerned.” We’re standing at the highest point of his vineyard, a promontory with a 360-degree view that takes in the vineyards of his neighbors—Marcassin, Wild Hog, Hirsch, Flowers and the others. Surveying the land that’s been his life, this soft-spoken ex-rancher turned grape grower, is proud when he says, “We’re makin’ money, and there’s a lot more to be made out here on the coast.”
|WHILE YOU’RE THERE|