All About the Sonoma Coast and its Great Wines

(an earlier version of this article was published by the SF Chronicle)

The Sonoma Coast is the coolest wine region in the full sense of the word. It has colder temperatures and higher rainfall than virtually any other important grape source in California. And its terroir-driven wines have developed a coveted cachet, capable of delivering power and elegance while still complementing food. Wines from this remote region’s grapes have gone from virtually unknown to sought after in less than a decade. This is the story of how one of the world’s best wine regions evolved, the winemakers committed to it and the forces that have stood – and still stand – in the way of its greatness.

Says Healdsburg winemaker Robert Mueller, who has bought fruit from the region’s famous Summa Vineyard for his eponymous label: “It’s among the coldest areas you’d want to grow grapes.” And he’s not meaning just in the Golden State. Such is the frustrating reality of producing sublime pinot noir and chardonnay – the cool-climate grapes that dominate on the coast. Those masochist winemakers who pursue this difficult quest must keep an inverse quantity/quality axis firmly in mind, even as their output shrinks to a trickle. Nowhere is this better achieved than the Sonoma Coast.

This is the Land of a Thousand Microclimates – a narrow band of rugged hills stretching north and south of the Russian River where it meets the sea at Jenner. Forget the usual rolling carpet of grapevines as far as the eye can see. In this most unlikely of wine regions, you’ll find no picnic supply stores, no gourmet restaurants, no tourist maps to the tasting rooms or even any tourists, for that matter. And it’s darn hard to locate any vineyards because they’re squirreled away in little parcels on 1,000-foot ridges, guarded by the third-growth tan oaks, Douglas fir and other trees that mutely testify to massive clear-cutting of the original-growth coastal forests that began well over a century ago.


In the middle of nowhere on the Sonoma Coast

In this sparsely populated region, gliding hawks throw moving shadows across the young vines and perhaps the most mind-boggling feature of this wine area is the Pacific – clearly visible from many vineyards, crashing against the rocky coast below. In a miraculous intersection of meteorology and geography, while beach bathers might be shivering inside their jackets at misty Jenner, California’s coastal summer fog is lapping gently below the hilltop vineyards, which stand in just enough glorious sunlight to grow these finicky grapes.

Top producers of pinot noir and chardonnay on the Sonoma Coast like Kistler, Marcassin, Williams-Selyem, Littorai, Flowers and newcomers such as Rivers Marie, Peay, Belle Glos, Radio-Coteau and others do whatever it takes to make spectacular wines on which the (unfortunately) all-important wine critics bestow stellar scores. Wines that reach these heights achieve cult status and thus can easily command prices above – sometimes well above — $60 per bottle and are usually sold direct to the consumer – at full retail – via exclusive mailing lists.

Walt Flowers – owner of Flowers Vineyards & Winery that sprawls across some 1,400-foot ridgetops well outside Cazadero — happily boasts that his Camp Meeting Ridge Vineyard, “has the longest hang time of any vineyard” in the state, meaning the combination of colder climate, exposure and elevation make for the extremely long, cool growing season in which great pinot noir and chardonnay can be made. Nevertheless, each vintage can easily be white-knuckle time as vineyardists keep cutting off more fruit in the colder years to enable what’s left to reach adequate levels of ripeness.

“With some maturity on the vines out there, it’s unstoppable,” opines friendly Bob Cabral, winemaker at the Williams-Selyem Winery on picturesque Westside Road outside Healdsburg, one of the earlier producers of killer pinot noirs from the area. “We need to educate the public about the complexity of these wines,” Cabral notes, not only spreading the word but elevating the consumer’s palate to a higher level of appreciation for such multidimensional wines. So enthusiastic is Cabral about the Sonoma Coast that he forgets to give equal billing to his majority source and the location of the winery: “You’re going to see more great wines from the Sonoma Coast than from Russian River.”


Fog laps a hilltop vineyard just a few miles from the Pacific Ocean

Mark Bixler, partner at another renowned Russian River Valley winery, Sebastopol’s Kistler Vineyards, is politically correct regarding the relative merits of the two regions. However, he’s unrestrained in his belief that, for pinot noir, the Sonoma Coast “has it all over Carneros,” which is considered Napa’s finest cool-climate spot for pinot noir and chardonnay. Bixler and taciturn partner Steve Kistler enraptured consumers with some Carneros chardonnays early in their career. Today, he calls the wines they made from this southern Napa/Sonoma region merely “OK — the wines we’re making now are light years away from those.”

Bixler explains that he and Kistler began making chardonnay and pinot noir from the Sonoma Coast in 1994 and planted a five-acre pinot vineyard on Taylor Lane outside Occidental – in the coastal highlands south of Jenner — the following year. Taylor Lane is now chockablock with new vineyards that rise above the billowing coastal fog. Kistler’s Occidental Vineyard pinot noir instantly leaped into the stratosphere based on reviews from influential wine critic Robert Parker. Besides comparing Kistler’s “Cuvee Elizabeth” Occidental Vineyard wines favorably with France’s greatest red Burgundies, he has written that it’s on the short list of the best California pinot noirs he ever tasted.

Kistler\'s renowned Occidental Vineyard on Taylor Lane

Kistler’s renowned Occidental Vineyard on Taylor Lane

Also in this heady company are the impossible-to-find pinots from the Marcassin winery, located not too far from the Flowers Winery on the northern Sonoma Coast. This teensy operation is owned by viticulturalist John Wetlaufer and his partner/wife Helen Turley, an outdoorsy, 60-something blonde whose perfectionist practices and resulting track record have made her the gold standard among consulting winemakers. Some wineries try to hire Turley just because her name alone is worth many more dollars per bottle. But she’s having none of it. Anyone she takes on must submit to her rigorous, low-volume approach, practiced as preached at her Marcassin Vineyard and at a few nearby vineyards owned by the Martinelli family (Turley is their consulting winemaker) but planted to Wetlaufer’s and Turley’s specifications.

The nine original acres of the picturesque Marcassin Vineyard were, like many of the region’s vineyards, open grazing land when Wetlaufer and Turley bought it within a larger parcel in 1985. They’ve since purchased 200 more contiguous acres, intending to plant six or so to grapes. Good news for the hordes of wine nuts who covet Marcassin wines is the fact that a few extra dribbles became available a few years ago when the Sonoma Coast plantings of Martinelli Winery came into production. Both the Marcassin and Martinelli wineries offer wines from these vineyards – Three Sisters, Blue Slide and Bondi Home Ranch in the cool Green Valley, which is a bit inland from the chilly coastlands. While not a snap to find compared to standard wine-shop offerings, the wines Turley makes for Martinelli are almost plentiful compared to those from her own winery — and the style and aromas are unmistakably similar. Plus, the Martinelli wines cost less, too.

Helen Turley and John Wetlaufer with a bottle of their Marcassin wine

In one particularly cold vintage, 1998 – “the worst year of my experience,” says Wetlaufer, so much of the less-than-perfect fruit in Marcassin Vineyard was hacked off to optimize ripening that it ended up with a grape output of a pathetic three-quarters of a ton per acre. To put this into perspective, the semi-neighboring Flowers operation averaged a bit over a slashed-back ton per acre that year. Eastward, in the Russian River Valley’s most prestigious chardonnay and pinot noir vineyards, that difficult year yielded around three to five tons per acre. Compared to warm areas (say, Napa), and easy-to-make, larger-production wines (say, cabernet), the output and winemaking expertise demanded for Sonoma Coast wines would give any accountant terminal heartburn.

Despite the challenges, his decades of scientific study and experience growing grapes leave Wetlaufer with no doubts regarding the superiority of his Sonoma Coast vineyard. “The more I learn, the more I love my vineyard,” he enthuses. “I wouldn’t trade this for La Tâche. Not for a second.”

Then, with a little grin, he adds: “I don’t care how much Jess Jackson offers me for it.”

Wetlaufer means this as a gentle jab at the Kendall-Jackson founder, with whom Wetlaufer and Turley actually have a good relationship. But his evoking the name of the former Rupert Murdoch of the wine industry (Jackson sold many of his holdings a few years ago to a huge international wine conglomerate) is a reminder of the powerful forces that already are changing the landscape, literally and figuratively, of the Sonoma Coast wine region. With Napa, virtually “planted out,” in the words of Bob Cabral, and insatiable demand among well-heeled wine freaks for the top-scoring trophy wines, the region’s excellence as a viticultural area has become a magnet for those both with and without the deep pockets that facilitate grape growing today.

The situation was quite different “out there” – as nonresidents inevitably refer to this remote region – when local sheep rancher George Charles planted a 16-acre chardonnay vineyard in 1980 on his rustic ranch in the wilds of Cazadero. “That fruit was as good as anything coming out of Burgundy, but nobody would buy it,” sniffs David Hirsch, who shucked his career in the clothing business in 1978 and bought a large parcel from Charles with the idea of growing grapes.

Charles ended up drinking the wine made from his excellent grapes during Monday Night Football, recalls Hirsch. A weathered, compact man with a laconic wit, Hirsch owns 47 acres of mostly pinot noir that has been purchased by many of the super-premium wineries that have gravitated to the Sonoma Coast, including Kistler, Williams-Selyem, Flowers, Littorai and Siduri. More recently, Hirsch has launched his own winemaking operation. Overlooking the ocean, his mature, undulating vineyards are the quintessence of this wine region’s unique beauty. When Mark Bixler does a “sampling day,” visiting all the far-flung grape parcels where Kistler buys fruit, he makes sure to end up at the Hirsch Vineyard. “It’s just an absolutely gorgeous, gorgeous place,” he reports.

The Hirsch Vineyard

When Hirsch bought his 760 acres in ’78, “it cost less than my house in San Francisco,” he says. It was 10 years before he got electricity. Besides sheep and empty vistas, what was most plentiful in his early years on the Sonoma Coast were “dirt farmers and a bunch of hippies.” In a never-to-be-repeated move, Sonoma County government officials in the ‘60s had allowed some of the vast ranches on the coast to be subdivided and sold in 40-acre parcels. According to Hirsch, some land was sold “on the streets of Berkeley for a few hundred dollars an acre.” That back-to-the-land, long-hair contingent is still much in evidence on the Sonoma Coast. As one buttoned-down corporate winery type snickers: “There’s a lot of paisley out there.”

Daniel Schoenfeld, who now sports a neatly trimmed gray beard, confirms that most of the local homesteaders in those years were hippies, “including myself,” admits the proprietor of Wild Hog Vineyard. His all-organic operation is two rickety bridges, eight jack rabbits, 20 scrapes of the oil pan and endless dusty potholes from the nearest paved road. Recalls the self-effacing Schoenfeld: “I was going to live in a dome and eat wild fern fronds. Then winter came.”

He was a nail pounder for money and a musician on the side back in those days. Having dabbled in home winemaking, he planted five acres of pinot noir on his property because he had heard it was well suited to the area. The first few years after beginning his grape operation, his wife, Marion, “would roll over at night and punch me,” he says with a laugh, asking him, “Why a winery?”

Schoenfeld doesn’t have the bucks of some of his new grape-growing neighbors. But even without a million-dollar, climate-controlled winery (he has a glorified shed), new French oak barrels (his are much-cheaper American oak) or expensive packaging (he recycles), his Wild Hog pinot noir is a lip-smacking wine with the distinctive regional aromas of sage, wild berries and forest underbrush. And it’s one of the least expensive in the area.

Longtime residents like Schoenfeld are still adjusting to the fact that their sleepy region has rapidly become a prestige address for large corporate wineries looking to expand and for gentlemen farmers with the resources to plant grapes. According to local sources, this can cost much more than $50,000 per acre for the land plus upwards of $40,000 per acre to establish a vineyard. Schoenfeld knew the years of isolation were over when private helicopters began buzzing the ridges, occupied by “men in three-piece suits who’d jump out with buckets and dig up soil samples.” And there are always rumors that more of the giants from the east (ie, Napa) are scouting the area, adding to moves made by operations like Joseph Phelps, Marimar Torres, Caymus, La Jota and others.

Daniel Schoenfeld\'s remote Wild Hog Winery

Daniel Schoenfeld’s remote, charmingly funky Wild Hog Winery

According to longtime Sonoma County realtor John Mattern, who specializes in large parcels intended as vineyards, those outside the industry have also taken notice. A regular stream of wealthy Silicon Valleyites – locals call them all “dot-commers” even if they have no involvement with the Internet –began snapping up available acreage for second homes with a little vineyard on the side in the late ‘90s before the market crash. Realtor Mattern, who goes by the nickname “Ranch Man,” reports that even Robert Redford was at one point “looking for a ranch to buy.” In one of the deals Mattern brokered, former quarterback Joe Montana was outbid for the Williams-Selyem Winery in 1998 by wealthy Easterner John Dysan, whose rich curriculum vitae includes creation of the “I love New York” advertising campaign. According to Ranch Man, Dysan paid $9.5 million in cash for Williams-Selyem, which then included no vineyards. Montana and his family moved to the Knights Valley in eastern Sonoma County and have dabbled in wine by lending his name to charity projects.

The value of property on the Sonoma Coast has much more than tripled in the last 10 years, reports Mattern, “now becoming comparable” to other hot vineyard acreage when one factors in the amount of usable land within a parcel. Mattern says “10 to 20 percent is typically plantable,” but his estimate sounds high. With land values continuing to climb along with soaring demand, speculation has begun. Mattern descibes a deal for 70 acres near Freestone, with the buyer – a wealthy fellow who dabbles in grape growing – paying $900,000 and having it re-listed the following day at $2 million.

All the wine-fueled activity on the Sonoma Coast has stirred up some of those who have long treasured living there because of the simple, natural lifestyle. Virulent environmentalists with press-savvy leaders launched a campaign to fight back against the pillage of so-called “industrial vineyards,” their buzz phrase that’s supposed to evoke desecration of the land and is applied to anyone who wants to plant grapes. But to give these outraged citizens their due, abuses have happened. The catalyst – which took place in the nearby Russian River Valley in 1998 – was when Gallo bought a picturesque, tree-studded cattle ranch and marshaled an army of earth movers to strip and re-contour the landscape for optimal grape-growing. Gallo’s strong-arm approach created instant environmentalist out of a slew of residents, and things haven’t been the same since.

Gallo’s wasn’t the only faut pas in the quest for wine greatness. The highly regarded Peter Michael Winery, Knights Valley-based producers of full-throttle chardonnays, an up-and-coming pinot and a must-have meritage blend, purchased 391 rustic acres near Flowers Winery with the dream of growing world-class pinots and chardonnays. Some early tree clearing under disputed circumstances drew fire from locals. Having learned their lesson, the Peter Michael crew quickly put on the brakes and slowed down their schedule while making amends with neighbors. Since then, they’ve been quietly maturing a fantastic new vineyard and producing knockout wines on the coast.

Another well-financed Napa winery seeking pinot noir immortality on the Sonoma Coast is Pahlmeyer, owned by the urbane, super-successful trial attorney Jason Pahlmeyer. Having observed the political firestorms accompanying some vineyard plantings, his staff wisely cultivated locals and stepped smartly in their purchase and planting of pinot on what’s now called the Wayfarer Vineyard, located a couple ridges in from the coast.

Vineyards are expanding on Taylor Lane outside OccidentalA photo showing new and older vineyards along Taylor Lane outside Occidental. Running along a gorgeous ridge top, the street includes noted vineyards like Summa, Occidental, Thieriot and Que Syrah.

Caution became the wisest strategy some years back when two anti-vineyard groups formed on the Sonoma Coast, one focused on the northern area near Cazadero and the other raising holy heck to the south around Occidental. Some of the gutsier members of the wine industry complained of outrageous, unsupported statements by environmental extremists meant to tarnish all grape growers – like charges of river contamination without a single documented case. But the anti-vineyard coalitions were able to push through the county’s first-ever ordinance limiting planting on hillsides and near rivers and streams. At this point, “we’re environmentalists” has become the new mantra of the PR-sensitive local wine industry.

Observing the furor, those winemakers who have been environmentally responsible all along feel like spectators at their own funeral. Grumbles Daniel Schoenfeld, all-organic grape farmer, environmentalist and concerned local resident, “It’s a whole different game now. I couldn’t afford to plant five acres today with the current regulations. I’m certainly in favor of farming being done in an environmentally correct way. But the picture is: it’s the little guys who get screwed.”

Dealing with the effects of rapidly increasing land prices was the first snag for those winemakers who didn’t start their wine careers with fortunes made in previous ones. Now the regulations can put vineyard plantings even further out of monetary reach, self-selecting only the well-financed “industrial vineyards” so reviled by the anti-vineyardists. This, in turn, virtually guarantees staggering prices for future wines that are made from this superb viticultural area.

Littorai and winemaker Ted Lemon

Littorai Winery and owner/winemaker Ted Lemon

For thoughtful, responsible winemakers like Ted Lemon, who owns the Sonoma Coast’s Littorai Winery – he’s the only American ever hired as a winemaker in France’s exclusive Burgundy region – “Environmental backlash is the greatest challenge, threat and handicap to growing world-class wines in this area.” He’s committed to cold-climate pinots and chardonnays, using his considerable talents to produce a miniscule quantity of elegant, complex, luscious wines from the Sonoma Coast and nearby cold areas that most intensely express the unique terroir – or distinctive local characteristics – of this special region.

Lemon solidly supports issues like erosion control, protection of riparian areas and setbacks from waterways for vineyard plantings. He worries that the extremists among concerned citizens “fail to see how much we have in common. Without agriculture, Sonoma County will lose all sense of community and become simply a commuter bedroom, overrun with more and more housing tracts.”

Fortunately for wine lovers – Littorai wines are perhaps the most elegant and complex among an all-star line up in this region – Ted Lemon has had some success in recent years against the anti-vineyard contingent. Littorai expanded into the exciting area of estate wines a few years ago, with two vintages under its belt of pinot and chardonnay from its new biodynamically farmed Sonoma Coast vineyards. These join the existing offerings from some of the region’s best purchased grapes.

Like Ted Lemon, Ehren Jordan has searched for the viticultural Garden of Eden and found it on the cool, hilly Sonoma Coast. “The climate is spectacular,” he enthuses, “And the soils that you find are, too.” Hardworking young Jordan is the winemaker at Turley Wine Cellars – where he crafts what some consider the best zinfandels on the planet – and is involved with several other wineries, including his own tiny operation named Failla Winery. This rustic parcel in the Cazadero backwoods is his greatest love, where his original five-acre vineyard was later expanded a little after purchase of an adjoining parcel. Jordan is an organic farmer and committed environmentalist who admits he’s invested “my whole life savings” in this project. Besides pinot noir and a little chardonnay, he has planted what might sound like an unlikely choice to some: syrah.

Ehren Jordan at his Failla Winery on the Sonoma CoastWinemaker Ehren Jordan in his coastal vineyard at Failla Winery

On days when his little vineyard is a green island in the fog, dwarfed by miles of untouched hills and stately Mount St. Helena in the distance, Jordan is reminded of how the land itself guards against the unchecked spread of grapevines. Only a fraction of the Sonoma Coast will ever be plantable for vineyards. His personal dream is to further open the eyes of those who now believe this region is the best place on earth for chardonnay and pinot noir. Jordan is also working on gaining the region a rep for producing world-beating syrahs that can hold their own with fine French Rhones and the best Australian shiraz. If he succeeds, the Sonoma Coast will again rewrite the definition of Wine Country from its elevated edge of the continent.

One response to “All About the Sonoma Coast and its Great Wines

  1. It’s true about the Littorai pinot noirs; they’re unbearably good, and unbearably hard to find. Try Union Square Cafe in New York City, which–as of this writing–has a small Ted Lemon section in their wine list, including wine from both new vine and old vine Summa grapes.

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