The West Sonoma Coast Vintners have just concluded another successful West of West Festival, an annual chance for consumers to taste a wide diversity of the wines of this region, a not-yet-legal subset of the vast Sonoma Coast and Russian River Valley appellations they like to call, “California’s Côte d’Or.”
Everything about the West Sonoma Coast ties back to the Pacific Ocean and the maritime climate it provides: Cool daytime temperatures and warm nighttime temperatures, relatively speaking. Wind, fog and humidity are balanced here, and when we’re not in a drought, rainfall tends to be above the norm. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay dominate, but there are smaller plantings of Syrah, too.
This coolness allows the grapes to ripen longer on the vine and accumulate sugars more slowly. The resulting wines tend to have delicate aromatics and crisp acidity, with an attendant brightness to the fruit.
The northernmost section of the West Sonoma Coast is Annapolis—a high-elevation outpost less than 10 miles from the ocean, where vineyards enjoy a cool inversion layer above the ocean—are oft surrounded by redwood trees and rooted in Goldridge soils, like most of the Russian River Valley. The Pinots are marked by tart red and black fruit, earth, Asian spice, tea and forest floor. Peay Vineyards is among the well-known growers here.
In Occidental, closer to the town of Sebastopol, vineyards are typically at or below the fog line but farther from the coast than Freestone or Sebastopol Hills, so fog tends to break earlier in the day. Extreme temperatures are rare. The Pinots are often quite herbal and more black cherry than red. Small Vines and Charles Heintz are among the growers here.
In Freestone, closer to the coast, filtered sunlight contributes subtle tannins and high acidity and what’s known as Freestone spice, a tangy complexity akin to clove or cardamom, the Pinot accented by pomegranate and pine needles. This is where Joseph Phelps Freestone Winery is located.
Green Valley fog and Goldridge soils combine for a taste of bright cherry and cranberry compote and again, that cool-climate spice, as well as an earthiness, soft tannins and layers of black tea. Green Valley is already its own AVA. Bondi Home Ranch, Keefer Ranch and Iron Horse Vineyards’ estate are all based in Green Valley.
In the Sebastopol Hills, inland slightly from Freestone, there is lower rainfall than Occidental, plenty of Goldridge loam and vineyards largely within or below the marine layer. The epicenter of Gravenstein apple growing, the Pinot here is characterized by floral aromatics, including lavender, and crisp pomegranate and cranberry. Littorai, Balletto, Merry Edwards and Martinelli all have vineyards in this area.
Five to Try:
Couloir 2013 Campbell Ranch Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($58)
From the extreme wilds near Annapolis, this vineyard-designate is rapaciously earthy in all the right ways, a taste of its environs, sauvage and demanding. Dark cherry and blueberry exude on the nose and follow through on the palate, in between jolts of baking spice and dried herb. Medium bodied, the wine is on the money right now, but should also do well in the bottle for years to come.
Failla 2013 Whistler Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($52)
From an Annapolis-based vineyard. Subtle aromatics of earthy rose petal surround this silky, light wine, steeped in acidity and a damp-forested quality. Spicy throughout in cinnamon, cardamom and grated nutmeg, the wine picks up a girth of thickness on the finish, a knot of tannin that gives it a swath of complexity and cellaring possibilities, through 2018.
Patz & Hall 2013 Jenkins Ranch Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($60)
This Pinot Noir is from a vineyard planted in the early 2000s in the Sebastopol Hills by Charlie Chenoweth for the Jenkins family, a country music trio consisting of Nancy Jenkins and her two daughters. It is exceptionally good, inviting and seductive in black cherry and baking spices. Tightly wound, it has nuance and a lingering afterthought of savory pepper and meat.
Saintsbury 2013 Pratt Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($54)
Lean on the entry in savory black tea and black pepper, this wine’s soft, supple tannins belie a strong core of concentrated fruit and richness on the palate, that should become ever more intriguing through 2021. From a fantastic, cooler climate site near Sebastopol, this shows a feral quality that’s entirely appealing here.
Sojourn Cellars 2013 Silver Eagle Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($59)
Meticulously farmed by Ulises Valdez in the hills north of Occidental within the Green Valley AVA, Silver Eagle is intensely spicy and pamperingly lush, offering a distinct, perfumed character on the nose. Structured and almost gamey and sanguine, it’s a complex expression of the grape that will benefit from further time in the bottle, through 2020, or from an hour or so in the decanter.